A new propaganda campaign is sweeping through China. The campaign is designed to prevent Chinese citizens from spying for foreign governments.
Like most propaganda, the Chinese campaign is decidedly over-the-top.
Posters in a Beijing subway are specifically designed to inform citizens of potential warning signs, in an effort to prevent them from being tricked into spying against China. The posters identify redheaded academics, tourists, English teachers, and NGO workers as just some of the suspicious individuals who might tempt Chinese citizens into a life of espionage.
This type of propaganda has become increasingly common in China in recent years. It is all part of an effort to breed distrust of foreign entities, while allowing Chinese officials to create a tighter grip on their citizens. Historically, China has always been concerned about hostile foreign governments. In recent years, multiple attempts have been made to engage citizens in active counter-espionage efforts through cash rewards, classes, and an annual national security awareness day.
In April, on National Security Awareness Day, Chinese authorities launched a website in English and Chinese. The site was specifically designed so that citizens could report suspected espionage, warning individuals to “be on alert for friends who wear masks.” Even the country's ministry of education demanded that national security be a part of the national education curriculum.
“These laws target civil society groups as a threat to national security and attempt to create a cloud of suspicion around cooperation between NGOs and individuals inside and outside of China,” said Frances Eve, a researcher for the advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Last year, China broadened its legal definitions of espionage. Now, foreign individuals or organizations can be punished for any behavior deemed to include distorting facts or issuing information that might harm national security.
“The campaigns are centred around the idea that ‘everyone is responsible’ for participating in China’s state security. Participation is aimed at preventing, stopping and punishing behaviour that could compromise state security. It is a state security that is not only about internal or external security. It is also about security of the party, both within … and outside where threats lie mostly in the realm of ideas,” said Samantha Hoffman, an analyst focusing on Chinese state security.
All of this is not to say that China is completely paranoid. Spies do exist within China. According to the New York Times, between 2010-2011 more than a dozen CIA sources were identified within China. These individuals were imprisoned or killed. Those deaths marked one of the worst US intelligence breaches in decades and effectively crippled US espionage efforts in China.
The Chinese government has claimed that as many as 115,675 foreign spies were working in China in 2016. Allegedly, the spies were mostly from Germany, Japan and the United States. This has been widely circulated, but never been attributed or proven. The constant barrage of propaganda about espionage is likely a smokescreen designed to distract citizens from the government's practice of tightening control over media, academia and society overall.