IN-DEPTH / IN-DEPTH Renewed anti-espionage efforts to encourage public to safeguard national security, not a witch hunt against foreign entities in China: experts
Since the new Counter-Espionage Law was enacted in July, China's Ministry of State Security (MSS), whose work is usually classified and covert, is now stepping into the public limelight as the top national security authority announced a slew of detailed espionage cases over the last two months, as part of ratcheted up efforts to crack down on espionage.
Experts noted that the recent exposure of US espionage activities highlights China's dire situation with a covert battle waged against the country, as the aggressive spying activities by the US against China are closely linked to Washington's current strategy of comprehensive suppression and the containment of Beijing.
The consistent unveiling of espionage cases serves to emphasize China's capabilities and determination in defending itself against foreign infiltration and manipulation, effectively safeguarding national security.
As the 23rd National Defense Education Day was marked on Saturday, comic strip posters warning of overseas spies were displayed in subway stations. The MSS provided information on how to prevent phones, emails, and other devices from being attacked on its newly opened official WeChat account. During the first class of the new semester, schools across the nation offered a special class dedicated to equipping teachers and students to identify and increase vigilance in safeguarding national security.
China's recently intensified actions taken to combat espionage have raised concerns among certain Western media outlets, who misread it as a witch hunt that "spies are everywhere" and a "call to all members in society to apprehend spies."
Chinese security experts refute such misinterpretation, stating that China simply aims to gain more public support in counter-espionage efforts, as solely relying on national security agencies is insufficient to combat pervasive overseas espionage forces.
They stressed that the amended anti-espionage law further clarifies the boundaries of espionage activities to prevent abuse, noting that supervision systems along the anti-espionage process and communication channels through which breeches of the law can be reported are never absent.
Police officers raise cybersecurity awareness by disseminating education pamphlets among citizens in Yangzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province, on September 14, 2023. Photo: Xinhua
Seek support from the public
CIA Director William Burns acknowledged on July 20 that his agency had made progress in rebuilding its spy networks in China, following significant setbacks a decade ago.
Ten days later, China's MSS opened its official WeChat account on August 1, published a call to action, encouraging members of society to contribute to counter-espionage efforts, which analysts said marked its transition from covert to overt.
Just 21 days after Burn's provocative claim, China's MSS, on August 11, referred to the CIA's revelation while announcing the apprehension of a suspect surnamed Zeng, who was a Chinese military industrial group staffer and an important confidential employee, as conducting espionage activities after being recruited by the CIA during his study in Italy.
China unveiled the second US-led espionage case against China within half a month on August 21, indicating that the country's national security authority cracked an espionage case involving a Chinese government employee who had been enlisted by the Japan branch of the US intelligence agency while studying in Japan.
Afterward, the MSS, on September 11, released details about the case of John Shing-wan Leung, a permanent resident of China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and a US passport holder, who conducted espionage activities including serving as an informant of a US intelligence agency and was spying for the US under the guise of charity.
In addition, the state media's legal programs have gradually exposed typical early espionage cases in last two months, reminding the public to be more vigilant.
The MSS also publicly exposed and denounced the "four dangerous mindsets" hidden in the newly released US' 2023 National Intelligence Strategy on its WeChat account on August 28.
"The disclosure of these specific details can allow the general public to be clearer in identifying typical espionage activities. Currently, the actions of foreign espionage forces, led by the US, have become increasingly rampant, reaching new heights. This trend will continue or even intensify for a long time in the future. Relying solely on professional counter-espionage police is no longer sufficient to cope with the current situation. Therefore, we need to seek the support of the public and encourage them to provide more clues," Li Wei, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a leading research institution on national security, told the Global Times.
Where are attacks coming from?
The US, famous for being an empire of hackers, has persistently launched cyberattacks against China.
In recent years, the CIA has established two specific centers to hone the agency's focus on China, the "China Mission Center (CMC)" and the "Transnational and Technology Mission Center." The CMC is the only mission center established by the CIA to specifically target a single country while the "Transnational and Technical Mission Center" is responsible for assisting US spies in enhancing espionage technology, according to Li.
The CIA attaches great importance to the application of artificial intelligence technology in cyberspace, and the chief technology officer Nand Mulchandani appointed by the CIA later comes from Silicon Valley.
Li noted that the US originally had similar centers targeting Iran and North Korea, but as its tensions with China intensified, the US' redirected targeted activities against these two countries elsewhere, and a new department targeting China was established. This reflects a shift in the focus of US intelligence work.
One of the two centers primarily relies on human intelligence collection, while the other relies on technological means. This is also why the US is globally suppressing Huawei's 5G technology, as once Huawei's network becomes the mainstream internationally, it will pose a significant obstacle to US intelligence gathering, the expert noted.
Moreover, the US often cooperates with other anti-China foreign forces in intelligence, including separatist forces in Hong Kong, the island of Taiwan, and Xizang (Tibet) Autonomous Region as they are highly consistent with their political objectives to destabilize China. The general public should understand the complex international situation, actively learn relevant laws and regulations, enhance national security awareness, and remain vigilant at all times, warned Li.
What are popular means?
According to the MSS, cyberspace has become an important battlefield for foreign intelligence agencies to conduct cyber espionage. China has become a major victim of advanced persistent threat (APT) attacks (typically a state or state-sponsored group, which gains unauthorized access to a computer network and remains undetected for an extended period).
In recent years, China's national security agencies have discovered dozens of foreign intelligence agencies from different countries and regions conducting cyberattacks within its borders. They either establish specialized organizations, set up "cover companies," and develop professional means to directly carry out cyberattack infiltration actions, or employ "outsourcing services" or hacker groups to carry out attacks, or purchase data or lure and entice domestic institutions and personnel to sell their data, according to the MSS.
A frontline police officer engaged in cybersecurity and counter-espionage work in northern China told the Global Times on condition of anonymity that with the rapid development of modern technology, spy techniques have also evolved, making it increasingly difficult to counter. For example, it is now possible to determine the content of conversations in a room from kilometers away by sensing electromagnetic radiation, and conversations in a room can be stolen using pre-placed microwave, laser, and nano listening devices.
Cyberspace has become a breeding ground for espionage activities, and some software systems and hardware devices such as "zero-day," a vulnerability in a computer system, are increasingly being used. Furthermore, attacks are increasingly targeting research institutions, according to the police.
The case of the cyberattack on Northwestern Polytechnical University in 2022 is a typical example of cyber espionage. Foreign intelligence agencies used 41 types of specialized cyber weapons to launch thousands of attacks and steal confidential information from Northwestern Polytechnical University.
Li also underlines that foreign intelligence agencies are shifting their work toward more covert operations.
The MSS previously exposed a case in April, in which a group of suspicious foreign individuals approached a regular fish farmer in Dalian, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, under the guise of "installing free seawater quality monitoring devices." While claiming to help monitor water quality, these individuals intended to use this pretext to simultaneously monitor important sensitive data such as tides and ocean currents in non-open sea areas. This data would provide navigation assistance for foreign submarines to secretly enter the waters near our country's territorial waters.
No arbitrary application
Many foreign media outlets have exaggerated and sensationalized China's recent legitimate actions against espionage, portraying them as generalized attacks on foreign forces. Some have warned that the anti-espionage campaign could create further legal risks for and doubts among foreign companies, journalists, and academics.
"It has absolutely been distortion and misread as the media has confused counter-espionage work and normal cross-border economic and trade activities. On the contrary, China is committed to creating a healthy business environment that is not disrupted or threatened by espionage activities," Li argued.
China is not the only country that has started issuing more severe warnings regarding foreign spies. Concerns have been raised about Washington fueling a new Red Scare, exemplified by the Justice Department's abandoned China Initiative that focused on academics and some countries' ban on Huawei's 5G network and the social media platform TikTok due to so-called security concerns.
Every country has laws and actions against espionage, so why are they specifically expressing "concern" over China? Chinese netizens questions.
As early as August 4, the MSS had directly responded to concerns and smears from foreign media sources, emphasizing that safeguarding national security is a common practice for countries worldwide. The authority reiterated that the provisions of the amended Counter-Espionage Law are open, transparent, and clear.
"The task of counter-espionage efforts in China is destined to become increasingly important, and this trend cannot be changed. However, we cannot and will not close our doors for the sake of security. Our commitment to openness to the outside world will only become stronger," Hu Xijin, a Chinese media professional wrote on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo.
When the CIA established the two aforementioned centers in 2021, China put forward the "Global Development Initiative" to the world and followed it up with the "Global Security Initiative" the following year. This means that coordinating development and security is a fundamental principle for China, according to analysts.
Li stressed that the revised law refines the boundary of espionage to further prevent misuse. The new version also properly expands the scope of targets of espionage, with all documents, data, materials, and articles concerning national security and interests included for protection. It particularly warns agents against domestic overseas espionage, calling for more caution in selling data to suspicious agents.
The expert underlined that monitoring measures are available to prevent the abuse of the espionage law, refuting claims by some foreign media outlets that the espionage law is a breach of public privacy.
"For example, requests of counterintelligence officers on collecting data must be strictly applied and approved in the system while the process must be supervised by higher levels. Citizens have the right to report potential abuses and misconduct, and relevant channels are open. They can report them to the People's Court and the Procuratorate if they find that law enforcement personnel have stepped over the line and have infringed on the interests of citizens under the guise of counter-espionage laws," Li explained.
On August 7, the MSS again emphasized the supervision mechanism for counter-espionage work and announced the reporting channels on its WeChat account.
"This is not an era for everyone catching spies everywhere, but an important time for everyone to protect national security, via more scientific and legal means," said Li.