An attempt by police in Beijing to encourage ordinary citizens to tip them off about foreign spies with bigger rewards means that foreign journalists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers are at risk of detention at any time, commentators told RFA.
Beijing police recently boosted the reward for blowing the whistle on foreigners engaged in "espionage" from U.S. $1,500 to U.S. $73,000.
The move came as the ruling Chinese Communist Party confirmed it is holding Taiwan NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh at an unknown location on spying charges.
It comes amid a "pressing" need for new measures to guard against foreign spies, the official Beijing Daily newspaper said in a recent report.
"Foreign intelligence organs and other hostile forces have also seized the opportunity to sabotage our country through political infiltration, division and subversion, stealing secrets and collusion," the paper said.
The Beijing branch of the state security police now wants citizens to join in with counterintelligence efforts to stop spies working to "encourage defection" and "buy state secrets," it said.
Further rewards may be available for anyone who discovers espionage equipment, including recording and monitoring devices, the paper reported.
Last month, 42-year-old Lee Ming-cheh, a former local activist with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), became the first overseas NGO worker known to be detained in China since a draconian law gave police control over foreign nongovernmental groups at the beginning of this year.
He was detained by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's state security police on suspicion of "endangering national security" on his arrival in the southern border city of Zhuhai on March 19.
Chinese law allows police to detain those suspected of "national security" crimes and hold them under residential surveillance at a secret location for up to six months, with no access to lawyers or family visits.
Hu Ping, the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, said the tip-off system is likely aimed at creating a more hostile environment for foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and foreign journalists, who are particularly vulnerable to accusations of "endangering state security."
"This way, they will be able to detain anyone that some citizen has denounced as a foreign spy, and take them to the police station," Hu said.
"By the time they have enough information, the person will already have been put through considerable stress and inconvenience," he said. "This is a clear invitation to the lowest ranks to go around detaining people willy-nilly."
"It will have an impact on anyone who needs to be free to act independently, and may even pose a threat to them," Hu said. "Anyone could be targeted by one of these 'tip-offs' at any time."
"We have known for a long time now that the Chinese Communist Party has long been in the habit of detaining people on trumped up national security charges," he said.
Hu cited the case of history professor Shen Zhihua, who was jailed on spying charges for political reasons during the 1980s.
"The government said he was a spy, and locked him up, and he was a second-generation party official, and his dad was the deputy Beijing police chief," he said. "I think it's very clear to everyone now that he was framed."
Meanwhile, Wu Fan, editor in chief of the overseas Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, said the policy was an admission that the government hadn't succeeded in isolating its citizens from the international community.
"Western democratic nations tend to have very powerful counterintelligence operations, and they don't need to rely on regular citizens for tip-offs about who may or may not be a spy," Wu said.
"It's kind of ridiculous. Only in China, behind the iron curtain, would they take such measures," he said. "What it really shows is that the iron curtain has already been shattered."
Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, the government has arbitrarily detained and prosecuted hundreds of activists and human rights lawyers and defenders, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"It has tightened control over nongovernmental organizations, activists, media, and the internet through a slew of new laws that cast activism and peaceful criticism as state security threats," according to a description on the group's website.
China has dismissed criticism of the new laws by Western governments and last year launched a series of warnings against espionage, publicizing rare details of spy cases in state media, and highlighting how romantic relationships may be used to uncover sensitive information.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.