China's spy service is coming out of the shadows

With dramatic commercials, comics and social media posts, China's intelligence agency is building a public profile and taking a more active political role

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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

A striking ad for China's Ministry of State Security, the fear-inducing intelligence agency, opens with the shadow of an agent walking through a dark tunnel, a scene reminiscent of the title page of a John le Carré novel. "Who am I?" a mysterious voice asks. "I am this silhouette beside you... I face the ever-changing world and the coming wave of darkness".

The dramatic ad, which alludes to natural disasters, social unrest and pandemics, was released this month to mark National Police Day and is the latest sign that China's top intelligence agency is stepping out of the shadows to highlight its role in fighting "subversion, separatism, terrorism and espionage." ".

This month, the agency, which has been increasingly publicizing its investigations, accused Britain's secret intelligence service, known as MI6, of training a foreign consultant to spy on China. Last year, it claimed to have arrested a Chinese national who was working for US intelligence.

Established in 1983 during the reform of earlier agencies, the MSS is a civilian secret police described by the US as a combination of the FBI and the CIA.

Analysts say the increasing public profile of the MSS is part of President Xi Jinping's growing focus on security, as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong tries to tighten his grip on the country. In addition to geopolitical tensions with the US and its allies, Xi faces the risk of slowing economic growth and escalating trade rivalry with the EU. In such a fragile environment, analysts claim that the MSS enjoys increasing political status and strength.

You are Jinping
photo: REUTERS

"The increased publicity reflects the increasing political status of the MSS, which not only does not shy away from public appearances, but also has the political support to issue statements on behalf of the government," said Alex Joske, consultant at McGrathNicol and author of "Spies and Lies." on the MSS.

Established in 1983 during the reform of earlier agencies, the MSS is a civilian secret police described by the US as a combination of the FBI and the CIA. Its reach extends throughout Chinese society, from the central ministry to provincial and municipal branches.

The agency, which its US counterparts say is responsible for counterintelligence activities as well as the political security of the communist regime, has been accused of widespread espionage abroad, including the recruitment of a far-right Belgian politician to carry out influence operations in Europe.

Inside China, the MSS has diverged from the secretive approach of the past as Xi's government has stepped up warnings to the public about the dangers of espionage. In 2021, the agency released details about the recruitment process, and last year it opened an official account on WeChat, the most popular social network, where it publishes information on a daily basis.

The posts range from recounting the story of the first on-duty death of a CIA agent, who was killed in 1950 in Tibet, to informing citizens about counterintelligence activities against Taiwanese "separatists."

"In the past, we saw that other things took precedence over national security," said Adam Ni, publisher of the China Neican newspaper.

Ni said that during the period of "reforms and opening up" that followed the rule of Mao Zedong, China's emphasis was on economic growth and maintaining good relations with trade partners. "But now we see that the focus is increasingly on national security".

He pointed to changes in the anti-espionage law that expanded China's definition of espionage, as well as a new law on data and searches of foreign consulting companies that was introduced last year.

"The MSS has a greater role... due to the shift in focus to national security and the need to convince the public that there is a real risk," said Ni, adding that the authorities are increasingly using social networks.

In 2016, Beijing marked the first annual "National Security Education Day" with a comic book titled "Dangerous Love" that warns women to be wary of strangers, who may be spies. China also introduced "National Police Day" in 2021.

The leadership of the MSS also gained a greater political status, which reflects their increasing role in the public, Joske said. Chen Yixin, Minister of State Security, and his predecessor Chen Wenqing were promoted to more important positions within the Communist Party than the previous intelligence chiefs.

Chen Wenqing, for example, is the first former minister of the MSS to be appointed to the party's 24-member politburo and central secretariat. In the past, factional politics prevented leaders from promoting MSS executives to such high positions, Joske said.

The expansion of the agency's powers comes as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopts a broader view of security that encompasses data, technology, the environment and other issues.

"Many things are now interpreted or viewed within parts of the Chinese Communist Party as state security," Joske said, which "doesn't bode well for China's cooperation and engagement with the rest of the world."

Other experts said China's economic slowdown may be prompting a strengthening of state security services, while authorities fear financial risks, including heavy indebtedness by local governments and businesses, could spark social unrest.

"The Chinese economy is in pretty bad shape," said Su Chengang of the Center for Chinese Economics and Institutions at Stanford University. "The Chinese Communist Party is aware of this danger and realizes that if a financial crisis breaks out, the consequences could be catastrophic."

MSS occasionally comments on the economy on social media in an effort to gain public support. Last Sunday, he published an online comic about the need to protect critical mineral resources from greedy Western powers.

Starting in 2022, the agency is also collaborating with a Shanghai-based production company to remake the 1980s Chinese cartoon, “Black Cat Detective,” showing one episode a year on National Police Day. In this year's episode, Black Cat, in his retro police uniform with oversized epaulettes and white gloves, defeats data thieves and the main villain, One-Ear Mouse, and saves the city of Forest, highlighting the agency's increased focus on online security.

"Without data security, there is no security in the Forest," said the head of the Black Cat.

Translation: N. Bogetić

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