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Feb 7, 2024, 1:25pm EST
securityEast Asia
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Beijing warns Chinese international students about foreign spies

Insights from Wang Xiangwei and Foreign Affairs

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Chinese intelligence officials on Tuesday warned overseas Chinese students to be on guard against foreign spies. The alert cited the real-life story of a Chinese student who Beijing argued “squandered his promising future” by working with foreign intelligence agents while studying abroad.

In a post on China’s Ministry of State Security WeChat account, officials said the graduate student, surnamed Zhang, had secured a place at an elite university abroad in 2006 and was allegedly convinced, by foreign spies, to leak sensitive Chinese scientific research and intelligence in exchange for money. The ministry made no indication of what country the school was located in.

Zhang later became “a puppet” to the spies, the agency wrote and was forced to steal state secrets and monitor other overseas Chinese students. He continued his espionage work when he returned to China, but was eventually caught and “severely punished” by authorities.

The announcement comes months after Beijing rolled out a new counter-espionage law that broadened the definition of spying and banned the transfer of any information “related to national security and interests.” The regulations have stoked fears among world leaders and foreign companies operating in China.

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Once a secretive spy agency, China’s Ministry of State Security wants to make its mark

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Wang Xiangwei’s Thought of the Day on China

Beijing’s Ministry of State Security unexpectedly thrust “itself into the limelight” after the counter-espionage law went into effect in July last year. The agency launched a WeChat account and began commenting on a range of domestic and international political topics, including publicly berating people and companies it said undermined China’s economic growth. “Why does China’s most secretive spy agency no longer wish to remain clandestine?” wrote Wang Xiangwei, the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, in his newsletter. The move he theorized, in part, be due to the appointment in late 2022 of China’s new spy chief Chen Yixin, a close confidant of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is eager for the agency to take on a more prominent role as Beijing moves to prioritize national security, Wang wrote. Chinese security officials have also increasingly carried out raids on U.S. consultancies and due diligence firms over fears about espionage and “this has given MSS a perfect opportunity to make its mark in the public arena,” Wang argued.

Beijing surveillance operation is labor-intensive and impossible to replicate elsewhere

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Foreign Affairs

China’s security apparatus relies on thousands of ordinary men and women — more so than artificial intelligence or any technological tools, wrote Minxin Pei, a Chinese-American political scientist, in Foreign Affairs, arguing that this is what makes China’s surveillance system “impossible to export.” Pei cited data compiled by 30 local governments, which showed that 15 million people — between 0.73% to 1.1% of China’s population — serve as informants to the government, whether in local communities, workplaces, or schools and “their participation is secured by coercion or enticement.” “Fancy tech tools notwithstanding, it is the organizational capabilities of China’s Leninist party-state that allows its surveillance to function with unrivaled potency,” he argued. Rival counties, therefore, are “unlikely to develop equivalent surveillance capabilities.”

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