Chinese officials have refused to deny a weekend report in The New York Times claiming that the Chinese government has systematically dismantled CIA spy operations in China since 2010, while state media lauded the unverified report as a victory for Chinese counterintelligence.
The article cited former U.S. officials as saying that, from the final weeks of 2010 through the end of 2012, China had killed at least a dozen of the CIA's sources, and still others were put in jail.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a press conference on Monday that China is indeed engaged in counterintelligence operations, with state security agencies targeting "organizations, personnel and activities" that endanger China's national security and interests.
She said the country's counterintelligence agencies were "fully performing their duties with the authorization of the law."
However, Hua declined to comment further on the report, saying she was "not apprised of the details."
Ran Bogong, former politics professor at Toledo University, appeared to think the report credible.
"Of course it is taken for granted that China and the United States have set up networks to spy on each other and collective intelligence about the other," Ran told RFA. "It seems that China's destruction of the CIA's networks has seriously impacted on U.S. intelligence operations in China."
But he said that China will expect the U.S. to simply reassemble its networks in the country as soon as it is able.
'A sweeping victory'
Meanwhile, the Global Times newspaper, which operates under the aegis of ruling Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said it was unable to verify the accuracy of The New York Times article, but appeared highly satisfied with the story, even warning against trying to rebuild CIA operations in China in future.
"If this article is telling the truth, we would like to applaud China's anti-espionage activities," the paper said in a commentary on The New York Times article.
"Not only was the CIA's spy network dismantled, but Washington had no idea what happened and which part of the spy network had gone wrong," the paper wrote. "It can be taken as a sweeping victory."
And any attempts by the U.S. to rebuild its spy network in China could meet with the same fate, the paper warned.
But it said the story of one CIA source being shot in the courtyard of a government compound was "purely fabricated ... most likely a piece of American-style imagination based on ideology."
And Xie Jiaye, head of the New York-based Chinese Association of Science and Technology, also seemed to give credence to the story in The New York Times.
"Of course both China and the U.S. spy on each other, as do all friendly nations, let alone political or military rivals," Xie said.
"U.S. spying operations were likely one of the reasons behind Chinese hacker attacks [in recent years]," he added.
The Global Times appeared to agree.
"The CIA has apparently increased its espionage activities in China, which will inevitably lead to China simultaneously strengthening its counterintelligence efforts," the paper warned. "International law will affirm that China's anti-espionage activities are just and legal, while the CIA's spying is illegitimate."
The administration of President Xi Jinping has recently identified a "pressing" need for new measures to guard against foreign spies, official media reported in April.
In a bid to comply, police in Beijing offered higher rewards in April to encourage ordinary citizens to tip them off about foreign spies, a move analysts said could put foreign journalists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers at risk.
Beijing is currently holding Taiwan NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh at an unknown location on spying charges, and draft legislation setting out anti-spying measures has been criticized for allowing too broad a definition of "state secret."
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.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.