Retired party school professor plotted 'violent attack,' security ministry now claims

The accusation is the latest example of a propaganda drive to track down spies.
By Kai Di for RFA Mandarin, Yitong Wu and Chingman for RFA Cantonese
Retired party school professor plotted 'violent attack,' security ministry now claims China’s Ministry of State Security has accused former Communist Party school professor Zi Su of contact with "hostile organizations" overseas, planning to buy weapons and of recruiting people to carry out a suicide attack. Credit: Courtesy of Zi Su/Twitter
Credit: Zi Su/Twitter

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is making a political example of a retired party school professor who called on President Xi Jinping to resign, accusing him of contacting ‘hostile’ overseas groups, buying weapons and recruiting members of a "suicide squad."

It’s the latest example of a government propaganda drive to track down alleged spies and foreign agents, with the idea that everyone’s help is needed to locate them. 

Anyone who doesn’t go along with the campaign could be viewed as disloyal.

Zi Su, a former former Communist Party school professor, was taken away from his home in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu on Apr. 28, 2017, after he posted an open letter online calling on Xi to step down as head of the party in favor of Hu Deping, son of late ousted Premier Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the student-led Tiananmen Square protests.

He was initially held on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," but the charge was changed to the more serious "subversion of state power," for which he has already served jail time.

Zi Su was initially detained in 2017 after calling for Chinese President Xi Jinping to step down as head of the party in favor of Hu Deping, seen in this 2013 photo, son of late ousted Premier Hu Yaobang. Credit: Gillian Wong/AP

He was released from prison in 2021, taking into account time served in pretrial detention, according to rights activists.

Now, the ministry of state security is accusing Zi of being in contact with "hostile organizations" overseas, planning to buy weapons and of recruiting people to carry out a suicide attack similar to a 2013 attack in the Libyan city of Benghazi, according to an official document warning people about the dangers of foreign-linked agents in their midst.

Anti-espionage campaign

The warning comes amid a political "anti-espionage" campaign that the ministry for state security, which heads the country's state security police, says will need the whole of society to mobilize.

"[Zi Su] took the initiative to contact key members of overseas hostile organizations, planned to purchase weapons from abroad, recruited a so-called suicide squad in China and conspired to carry out violent actions, naming the operation the ‘China's Benghazi Project’ in an attempt to subvert state power," the ministry said in an Aug. 15 statement.

"Political security is directly related to the security of the regime and the survival of the system," it said. 

"It is the most fundamental need of a country and the basis for its survival and development. Without political security, there is no point in talking about national security," it said, repeating Beijing's claim that waves of mass popular protests in Hong Kong in recent years were the work of "some Western countries" trying to instigate a revolution in the city.

"For a long time, various hostile forces have been trying to foment a 'color revolution' in our country in an attempt to subvert the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and our country's socialist system," the statement said, calling for a "protracted battle" against such conspiracies.

Elastic definition

The allegations against Zi also come after the National People's Congress passed amendments to the Counter-Espionage Law in April, broadening the scope of material that can be used to back up allegations of spying.

The Chinese authorities have typically employed a highly elastic definition of what constitutes a state secret, and national security charges are frequently leveled at journalists, rights lawyers and activists, often based on material they posted online.

People march through the Causeway Bay district during a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on Jan. 1, 2020. Beijing has claimed that mass popular protests in Hong Kong were the work of "some Western countries" trying to instigate a "color revolution." Credit: Philip Fong/AFP

Zhou Fengsuo, executive director of the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, said via his X – formerly Twitter – account that the main reason Zi – who was honored with a China Human Rights and Freedom Award in 2020 – is being targeted is that he called for Xi Jinping's resignation.

New York-based lawyer Gao Guangjun said the public denunciation of Zi and the warnings of "color revolution" are intended to send a "very clear message."

"China wants to govern the country using espionage and intelligence," Gao said. "On the one hand, it will deploy large numbers of spies and intelligence agencies, and their powers will continue to broaden."

"On the other, they will be arresting 'spies' on a huge scale and people will be expected to find 'spies,' as if counterespionage were the responsibility of the whole population," he said.

The state security document appeared to back this up, saying the general public are "the fundamental starting point and foothold for national security work."

"Everything depends on the people," it said.

Gao said espionage claims are now more likely to be used to target peaceful critics of the regime like Zi.

"They will use it as a pretext to suppress them – this may be what's happening to Zi Su," he said.

‘Sense of insecurity’

Independent Chinese PEN prison writers' coordinator Zhang Yu, said the government has used allegations of spying, or collusion with "hostile foreign forces," against several dissidents in recent years, citing the cases of Taiwanese publisher Li Yanhe and former Guangming Daily editor Dong Yuyu.

"They have always sought to project any conflict outwards, claiming it is the work of those conspiring with 'hostile foreign forces,'" Zhang said. "They use 'endangering national security' to target critics with any overseas ties or connection with foreign media."

Taiwan publisher Li Yanhe was detained while visiting relatives in China. Credit: Li Yanhe Facebook

Wang Tiancheng, who heads the New York-based Institute for China's Democratic Transition, said the denunciation of peaceful critics shows how insecure the government feels.

"It's clear that the Chinese Communist Party has a strong sense of insecurity," Wang said. "Looked at more broadly, China is merely treading a path taken by many authoritarian countries."

But he said the current economic slump paradoxically makes a democratic transition "more likely than ever."

Current affairs commentator Cai Shenkun said via his X account that the allegations against Zi meant the government is trying to distract people from the state of the economy and the flooding in northern China.

"Ever since the Chinese Communist Party was set up, it has sought out various types of 'enemies' to intimidate the people, whenever it is facing political, economic or international pressure and challenges," Cai wrote.

"[Zi Su] is just an ordinary party member who openly supports democratic constitutionalism," he said.

Since his release, Zi has been subject to close surveillance and controls by the Chengdu police department's "stability maintenance" operations, Cai said.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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