Beijing’s propaganda apparatus is now intensifying a years-long campaign, following CIA director William Burns’ October 7 announcement the China Mission Center would counter what he called “the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century.”
“What should we do when the CIA is blatantly recruiting Chinese-speaking agents?” asked Junzhengping, a Weibo account run by the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the Chinese military’s mouthpiece.
“But no cunning fox can beat a good hunter. To safeguard national security, we can only trust the people, rely on the people,” it added.
Last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry railed at the CIA’s move, which it called “a typical symptom of the Cold War mentality.”
The propaganda push on the week-old news — and the misinformation around it — has seen Beijing repeat its familiar narrative that China’s national security is under grave, constant threat from the United States, and that American spies are a bigger danger to the lives of ordinary Chinese people than they might think.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has unleashed a flurry of campaigns in recent years to remind the public of the purported threat — and encourage them to act.
In 2017, the Beijing municipal government began offering rewards of up to half a million yuan ($78,000) for anyone who helps expose a spy.
About the same time, an unofficial notice circulated widely on social media, listing eight apparent “traits” of potential spies — with foreign correspondents, missionaries and NGO staff identified as likely suspects.
But the spy-catching campaigns have not stopped at planting suspicion on foreigners living in China. They have also been used to target government critics, social activists, lawyers, journalists, feminists and other outspoken members of the Chinese public.
As Xi shores up nationalism and wages a sweeping crackdown on “Western values” such as democracy, press freedom and judicial independence, liberal-leaning voices — which had once proliferated on Chinese social media following the country’s economic opening — have been mostly silenced by fervent ultra-nationalists.
The latest propaganda drive is likely to further spur such political witch hunts. Given Beijing’s extremely broad and vague definition of “national security,” anyone deemed “unpatriotic” is at risk of infringing it and being reported as a “spy.”