Beijing nabs another ‘CIA spy’

Overseas analysts fret about anti-espionage hyper-vigilance and the emergence of a culture of fear.
By Chris Taylor for RFA and Gu Ting and Kai Di for RFA Mandarin
2023.08.22
Beijing nabs another ‘CIA spy’ The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, U.S. on August 14, 2008.
Reuters/File photo

Less than a month after the new National Security Law came into effect, China’s security ministry has announced another espionage case allegedly involving the American spy agency. 

The Ministry of State Security, or MSS, on Monday accused a government worker of spying for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the second such case this month, as Beijing ramps up an anti-espionage campaign that it says every Chinese citizen should participate in.

On Aug. 1 China’s national spy agency opened an official WeChat account with the announcement, “Counter-espionage requires the mobilization of [the] entire society.”

WeChat has more than 1.3 billion active monthly users – think of it as Twitter (now known as X), Facebook and daily banking all rolled into one. 

The latest arrest by the MSS is a 39-year-old Chinese national, identified only by his surname Hao, whom the ministry claims was recruited by the CIA while he was studying in Japan.

Some China watchers called the latest developments disturbing.

Associate Professor Chongyi Feng of the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia said that since the new National Security Law was implemented, China’s anti-espionage efforts have gone into a state of hyper-vigilance.

“This newly implemented law empowers security personnel to commit injustice. They have a strong motive to fabricate false accusations to gain merit. They can easily concoct a story and then release it to the world. It’s a mechanism of persecution that’s extremely terrifying,” Feng said.

China’s state spy agency said the latest arrest, Hao, was groomed by a U.S. embassy official in Japan while applying for a U.S. visa before introducing him to a colleague name Li Jun, who later revealed himself to be a CIA officer and asked Hao to return to China to work for a “core and critical department.”

Hao allegedly agreed, signed an espionage agreement with the U.S. and received training, the statement said.

Upon returning to China, Hao landed a job at a government ministry, and allegedly met with CIA agents multiple times to “provide intelligence and collect espionage funds,” the Chinese spy agency claimed, adding that the case is under further investigation.

Spies in the woodwork

The MSS statement comes just 10 days after the same ministry claimed it uncovered another Chinese national of spying for the CIA – a worker at an unidentified Chinese military industrial group who was allegedly recruited while studying in Italy.

Ten days ago, the MSS announced that the suspect – identified only by the surname Zeng – had secretly met with CIA personnel multiple times and provided a substantial amount of core Chinese intelligence, and received espionage funds.

The time and location of the case’s occurrence were not disclosed, leaving some to question the veracity of the case.

2012-06-18T120000Z_100977725_GM1E86I0ZW201_RTRMADP_3_CHINA-USA-ESPIONAGE.JPG
Paramilitary guards stand outside the Xinhua Gate of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, located in the center of Beijing on June 18, 2012. Credit: Reuters/File photo

Professor Yang Haiying of Shizuoka University in Japan claimed that the latest espionage case involving Hao in Japan seemed somewhat sensational, as it involved the CIA and occurred in Japan, where relations with China are tense.

“Firstly, I think this might be fake news,” the professor said. “There might not be any real individuals involved, but they can create such a narrative and tell the citizens that imperialists have undying intentions against us. It involves Americans, and the stage is set in Japan, which is very targeted.”

A Japan-based student who chose to be only identified by the surname Ma, told RFA Mandarin that given frequent announcements on how to guard against espionage and report suspicious persons, many students in Japan are now hesitant about returning to China.

“While the national security agencies are making a show of mobilizing the entire populace to catch spies and agents, their true intention isn't on the actual act of catching spies, but to stir up nationalist sentiments of xenophobia.”

Broader dragnet

While there are apparently no obvious reasons to connect what are multiple cases of China clamping down on perceived security risks, since the National Security Law came into effect clampdowns have become more frequent.

Last week, China’s spy agency accused a former Yunnan province party-school lecturer named Zi Su of “attempting to overthrow the state power.”

Zi was accused of planning to purchase weapons from abroad and recruit a “suicide squad” online for violent actions and his arrest was related to his public support for democratic constitutionalism and his publication of political commentaries, not for spying.

He Mei.jpeg
Shanghai police have detained He Mei, the founder and CEO, of the Wailian Chuguo consultancy firm, which helps people emigrate overseas. Credit: Wailian Chuguo website

 

Earlier this month, the Shanghai Public Security Bureau confirmed the arrest of the head of Wailian Chuguo, one of Shanghai’s largest China-U.S. immigration agencies, on charges of “illegal business operations.”

Reports have circulated suggesting that the authorities demanded decades of immigration data from the company, raising concerns that Chinese citizens who have emigrated overseas or have overseas connections could become targets.

Meanwhile, just a month ago, CIA director William Burns told the Aspen Security Forum that the agency had “made progress” in rebuilding its spy networks in China after being badly compromised a decade ago.

In response, Beijing said it would take “all necessary” countermeasures to safeguard national security.

Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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