The New Normal? China Urges Citizens to Spy on Each Other

China has revamped its counter-espionage laws and is enlisting the assistance of its vast populace in a campaign against espionage, prompting significant unease from the United States. The situation has escalated to such an extent that the U.S. State Department has cautioned its citizens about traveling to mainland China due to the potential risk of “wrongful detention.”

This development follows the implementation of China’s new anti-espionage law, which provides law enforcement with more authority to inspect electronic equipment and digital devices. The expansion of these counter-espionage measures has drawn criticism from several quarters, with the U.S. expressing its disquiet over China’s call to its citizens to participate in anti-espionage activities.

“The Chinese government is encouraging its citizens to spy on each other, something we find greatly concerning,” said Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State. Miller also spoke about the U.S.’s ongoing concern about the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention in China, highlighting that these issues were addressed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his recent meetings with Chinese officials.

Echoing a sentiment from a previous era, China’s recent move is reminiscent of President Obama’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign. This initiative encouraged U.S. citizens to report any suspicious activities potentially linked to terrorism. Although well-intentioned, such directives fostered a climate of distrust and apprehension, as individuals were compelled to view their fellow citizens with suspicion. It’s a negative element in society when trust becomes a rare commodity, and fear of one another begins to take hold.

Yet, China has taken this concept even further, prompting a climate of uncertainty not only among its own citizens but also among foreigners within its borders. In an atmosphere where espionage is a common suspicion, foreign nationals find themselves navigating a precarious landscape, possibly facing risk and scrutiny that can morph into a direct threat to their freedom and safety. The implementation of China’s expansive counter-espionage law sets a new precedent, turning an already complex situation into a more dangerous one, especially for those visiting or residing in the country from abroad.

These modifications to China’s anti-espionage law expand the definition of espionage. Previously limited to state secrets and intelligence, espionage now encompasses any “documents, data, materials or items related to national security and interests,” though the specific parameters are not defined. Moreover, cyberattacks targeting China’s key information infrastructure are now classified as espionage. This broadened scope has stirred worries among foreign companies, journalists, and academics, who fear increased legal risks and uncertainty in their work.

China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), which handles intelligence and counterintelligence domestically and abroad, has taken the unusual step of establishing a public account on the popular social messaging app, WeChat. Through this channel, it has called upon “all members of society” to join in the fight against espionage. It is offering rewards and protection for those who provide pertinent information, suggesting a normalization of civilian participation in counter-espionage work.

China’s initiative to engage its citizenry in counter-espionage efforts is not new, but it has accelerated under President Xi Jinping, who prioritizes state security. The narrative that China is under constant threat from “hostile foreign forces” attempting to undermine the country is consistently promoted by officials and state media. This message has gained momentum as relations with Western nations have soured.

The implementation of China’s revised law has already seen consequences for some foreign entities. Before the law was enacted, Chinese authorities closed the Beijing office of the American corporate due diligence firm, Mintz Group, and detained five of its local employees. U.S. consultancy Bain & Company reported in April that Chinese police had questioned its Shanghai office staff. Moreover, Japan is currently seeking the release of a Japanese employee of Astellas Pharma, detained in Beijing on suspicion of espionage.

Notably, China has used various strategies to enlist its public in looking out for potential spies. One such example is a 16-panel comic book-style poster distributed in Beijing that narrates a tale of a young female civil servant lured into espionage by a foreigner posing as a visiting scholar. The narrative serves as a reminder of the threats that foreign spies pose and encourages vigilance among citizens.

Meanwhile, Western nations are reporting increased Chinese spy activity on their own soil. U.S. officials claimed in July that state-backed Chinese hackers had compromised the email accounts of multiple U.S. agencies dealing with China. Additionally, a recent report from the UK Parliament’s intelligence watchdog raised concerns over Chinese spying efforts, concluding that Beijing had propagated disinformation during the Covid pandemic, thereby sowing doubt about the origins of the virus.

The expanded definition of espionage, along with the Chinese government’s call for its citizens to play an active role in these efforts, underscores China’s paranoid commitment to national security and also raises international concerns about personal privacy, freedom of expression, and global cooperation. ACZ staff will not be visiting there soon.