China's spy hunting tactics

China offers cash bounties to citizens to identify spies in their midst

beijing alley
Credit: Mitch Altman

China’s counterintelligence capabilities continue to evolve. The newest arrow in their quiver to detect those who are breaking trust with Mother China is the “bounty” for identification of “suspicious foreigners.”  The bounty can go as high as 500,000 Yuan to the private citizen who hits the jackpot and identifies a bona fide spy.

On the second anniversary of China’s National Security Day, China’s counterintelligence apparatus launched their bounty program. An effort to crowd-source all 1.39 billion citizens, of which 21.5 million reside in Beijing the epicenter of foreign espionage in China, into the cadre of counterespionage sleuths.

According to Sina, a Chinese media outlet, the People's Republic of China observed the day nationwide with "eye-catching street banners, community publicity events, vivid videos and graphs shared online." Sina continued, how students from primary and middle schools were given counterespionage readers. The readers contained cartoons and games designed to spread the knowledge of national security.. 

The Beijing State Security Bureau (BSSB and a part of the national Ministry of State Security) published, via the Beijing City Government website, their plea to the citizens to assist in the identification of “illegal activities which endanger national security.”

Should a citizen stumble upon a suspicious situation, they are encouraged to report it to their local security organizations. Within Beijing, that would be the BSSB.  The three ways are:

  1. Call the BSSB informant hotline
  2. Mail the information to the BSSB’s mail drop.
  3. Or present themselves at the BSSB offices

The BSSB announcement explains to the populace, to those informants whose information checks out, a cash award of up to 500,000 Yuan (~US$72,500) awaits.

Do western businessmen and businesswomen need be concerned? With the xenophobic bounty program in place, every foreign national has the potential to fall under the over-zealous scrutiny of the Chinese citizen. This citizen, with little or no counterintelligence acumen, may interpret an innocent request as nefarious. Indeed, one can expect a healthy dose of false-positives to occur with this very broad brushed campaign.

Advice from a seasoned traveler. Keep one’s activities above reproach. Institute the buddy system, and attend meetings, dinners and other activities with others. Acquaintances may evolve to friendships, but understand that the friendship may draw the attention of the counterespionage authorities.

Evolution of China’s Counterintelligence Awareness Program

In November 2014, China put into place a new Counterespionage Law. A law which provided the government with broad technical and physical surveillance authorities. Chapter III sets forward the obligations and rights of citizens and organizations. Thus setting the stage for the National Security Awareness initiatives which have followed. The 2016 education surge (see below) and the bounty program.

In the 2017 BSSB bounty statement, espionage is rather broadly defined:

(1) Activities that endanger the state security of the People's Republic of China that are carried out, prompted, or subsidized by a spy organization and its agents, or carried out by agencies, organs, individuals, or their collaborators domestically or outside the PRC borders;

(2) participating in an espionage organization or being tasked as an espionage organizations' agent;

(3) Activities carried out, instigated or subsidized by extra-territorial institutions, organizations and individuals other than espionage organizations and their representatives; or in which domestic institutions, organizations or individuals collude to steal, pry into, purchase or illegally provide state secrets or intelligence; or in which state employees are incited, enticed or bought over to turn traitor.

(4) indicating targets for enemies;

(5) conducting other espionage activities.

On April 15, 2016 China observed the first National Security Education Day. This occasion was marked by the release of a 16-frame cartoon, “Dangerous Love,” highlighting the foreign espionage threat present in China. Specifically, featuring Da Wei (David) the wily foreigner and Xiao Li the unassuming Chinese government employee. David is in China conducting academic research. The entire series has been translated by China Law Translate. Suffice it to say the path to the compromise of Xiao Li, by Da Wei is predictable.

The two become close friends, Da Wei asks for help in his research, she provides non-public information, he takes the information and disappears, leaving Xiao Li holding the proverbial bag. The lesson, one should not be too quick to trust the foreigner.

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