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Why is the Chinese government encouraging its citizens to report foreign spies?

Patterns of thought

Suspicion of foreigners can still be felt as China works through what it means to be part of the global community. But a new program to offer cash rewards to people to report foreign agents may prove counter-productive, some experts say.

A security personnel stands guard ahead of the opening session of the National People's Congress outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China in March. The Beijing Municipal National Security Bureau on Monday announced it will offer cash rewards to people who help report and catch foreign spies and their agents.
Tyrone Siu/Reuters
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If you happen to be an expat living in Beijing, you’d better watch out.

After previous campaigns reminding the public to be aware of foreign espionage around them, the Beijing Municipal National Security Bureau now offers cash rewards to people who help report foreign spies. The strategy, which may be driven by China's concerns over foreign exploitation and a need to tighten control, is raising alarms among experts who say the practice will only add to the government's growing distrust of foreigners as, meanwhile, the world grows ever-more globally integrated.

“Its kind of an insurance policy to protect the Chinese regime and Chinese society against the dislocations that will come with greater outward-oriented reform,” Michael Swaine, an expert in Chinese security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., tells The Christian Science Monitor. “But that's putting a charitable interpretation on it.”

The measures, which went into effect in China’s capital city on Monday, reward tips exposing espionage activities with various amounts of cash, ranging from $1,450 to $7,240 in the lowest category, to more than $72,000 in the highest category, according to the Beijing Daily. The reward program features an online cartoon, which depicts a young boy wearing a Young Pioneer’s red scarf ousting a foreign spy in a bandit’s mask. 

The legislation, though new, brings into sharp focus a cultural suspicion of outsiders that has existed throughout Chinese history, Dr. Swaine says. Wary of foreigners seeking to take advantage or undermine their society, the Chinese have long perceived relationships with foreigners as both opportunities and threats to their society and culture, according to Peter Mattis, a fellow in the China Program of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C.

For instance, Britain’s opium trade with the Qing Dynasty in the 1800s, which led to millions of Chinese opium addicts and two Opium wars, was often seen by China as an exploitation of the Chinese market at a time of weakness, Swaine says. Other events under Western and Japanese imperialism, including foreign nations’ imposing extraterritoriality without reciprocity across China, have added to such sentiment. 

“You’ve always have this streak of suspicion, or xenophobia, in elements in Chinese society, which has been used and manipulated by the government at times,” Swaine says. “This regulation tends to sort of resonate with that history.”

But Mr. Mattis says a rise in the number of people allegedly committing treason in recent years – with more than 100 people, including officials, arrested for espionage in the past 15 years – also likely motivates the formation of the reward system. 

“There has been a steady emphasization of concerns in the last 15 years of managing society in general, and this is one of the pieces of that overall state security approach,” he says.

The new legislation comes at a time when the world's second-largest economy interacts with the rest of the world more frequently than ever, which has made the Chinese government eager to remind its citizens to be vigilant against foreign and domestic subversion. Long before the latest measures, informant networks, primarily those managed by the Ministry of Public Security, already existed in neighborhoods across the country, says Mattis. The government passed a sweeping national security law in July 2015 and instituted the first National Security Education Day last April. The “Dangerous Love” poster campaign launched at the same time was designed to warn female state employees against Western male spies who could profess their affection in order to gain access to state secrets. 

Such campaigns, usually aimed at children and women, are “fairly ridiculous,” says Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, N.Y.

“It is part of a broader ‘us against them’ or ‘hostile foreign forces’ narrative that has intensified during the Xi Jinping years,” she writes in an email to the Monitor. 

Although most Chinese living in large cities or farming villages alike are now used to foreigners, some see the benefits of remaining cautious.

“It’s necessary for the government to have these kinds of warnings, because some Chinese women are naïve,” a young saleswomen who only identified herself as Ms. Cheng told The New York Times when the "Dangerous Love" campaign was launched. “I don’t come into contact with foreigners at work, but if there was a foreigner making advances I would definitely ask what kind of job he did before dating him. I’d be alert.”

It's not only individual foreigners who may feel targeted in recent years. Foreign tech companies expressed concerns over the passing of a controversial cybersecurity law in November, which Beijing said will counter the growing threats of terrorism and hacking. Earlier last year, foreign non-governmental organizations protested a new law requiring them to find Chinese sponsors and register with the police

While the new rewards may send another chill through the foreign community working and living in China, Swaine says they also serve as a warning to Chinese citizens, alarming them to be cautious while underlining the larger beliefs of the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. 

“It’s probably part of this whole desire to make Chinese society more upright, more virtuous, more honest,” he says. “It wants to have citizens who will be patriotic, who will not engage in corrupted practices of all kinds.”

However, the lack of details on how the authorities will investigate the leads makes the rules vulnerable to abuse, making the question “how much investigative power are they going to put behind these tips,” Mattis says. The Beijing campaign does, however, warn readers that those who intentionally make false accusations may be prosecuted. 

Overall, the measure is self-defeating, Swaine says, and sends another worrying message to Western countries concerned that China is moving further away from reforms.

“As China moves towards a global-oriented economy … that all can produce a more insular attitude and suspicion of the outsiders, which is just not healthy for Chinese society,” he says.