Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
China is offering its citizens cash rewards of up to and above 100,000 yuan ($15,000) for tip-offs about people who endanger national security, as authorities intensify a years-long campaign to weed out what they see as growing threats from foreign espionage and “hostile forces.”
Successful informants can receive either “spiritual rewards” in certificates or “material rewards” in cash, according to regulations released by the Ministry of State Security on Monday.
The cash rewards are graded into four levels based on the value of the tip-off, ranging from less than 10,000 yuan ($1,500) to more than 100,000 yuan.
Tip-offs should be specific about the people or actions involved, and the information needs to be new to the authorities. The reports can be made in person, online, by post or through the state security hotline.
For years, Chinese authorities have encouraged the public to inform on foreign spies and their Chinese collaborators through propaganda and incentive campaigns – efforts that have gathered pace under the country’s leader Xi Jinping.
“We must ensure that national security is all for the people and all by the people, mobilizing the efforts of the whole Communist Party and whole society to bring together powerful forces to safeguard national security,” Xi told officials in 2016.
In 2017, the Beijing municipal government began offering rewards of up to half a million yuan ($75,000) for anyone who helps to expose a spy. Within a year, authorities had received nearly 5,000 reports and handed out rewards to informants ranging from scientific researchers to cab drivers, according to state-run Beijing News.
China’s propaganda machine is intensifying its ‘people’s war’ to catch American spies
The new measures aim to standardize such rewards and motivate the public, a Ministry of State Security representative told the Legal Daily, a state-run newspaper.
“The formulation of the measures helps fully mobilize the enthusiasm of the general public to support and assist in national security work, and widely rally the hearts, morale, wisdom and strength of the people,” the ministry representative was quoted as saying.
The regulations also come as Chinese officials and state media push the narrative that China is under grave, constant threat from “hostile foreign forces,” who are supposedly seeking to infiltrate and undermine the country in every possible way.
“China’s national security is confronted with a severe and complex situation. In particular, foreign intelligence agencies and hostile forces have significantly intensified their infiltration and espionage activities with more diverse means and are targeting broader areas, posing a serious threat to China’s national security,” the ministry representative said.
China’s growing suspicion toward foreign influences stems partly from its growing geopolitical rivalry with the West, especially the United States, as the country turns more authoritarian at home and assertive abroad under Xi.
Xi’s efforts to strengthen national security started a year after he came to office. In November 2013, he set up a powerful National Security Commission – which he heads – to lead the effort and better coordinate the wings of the country’s security bureaucracy.
In 2015, China passed a sweeping national security law covering a wide array of areas, including defense, politics, the economy, the environment, technology, cyberspace, outer space, culture, ideology and religion. It also set up a national hotline for citizens to report on suspected spies or espionage.
On April 15, 2016, the country marked its first annual National Security Education Day with an avalanche of propaganda, including a comic-style poster displayed across Beijing warning young female civil servants about dating handsome foreigners – lest they fall for a potential James Bond.
China targets foreign spies and ‘hostile forces’ with new anti-espionage rules
And for the country’s second National Security Education Day, an online publishing house issued books for schoolchildren to learn how to safeguard national security, containing games like “find the spy.” The Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid, said the books were part of an effort to mobilize students from primary schools to colleges as “a huge counter-spy force.”
About the same time, an unofficial notice circulated widely on social media, listing ways to spot a potential spy. Foreign correspondents, missionaries and NGO staff were among those identified as likely suspects. So too were people “with vague jobs, multiple titles and plenty of money”, those who have “studied abroad in many countries” and “people who regularly go somewhere to meet other people.”
But these campaigns have not only raised suspicion of 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 – especially given the extremely broad and vague definition of “national security.”
On social media, liberal commentators are often accused by nationalists of being traitors to their country and labeled “walking 500k” – meaning they work for foreign spies and are worth a cash reward if reported. Their accounts are frequently attacked by nationalist trolls and reported to censors – and subsequently wiped from platforms.
Foreign forces and their Chinese collaborators are increasingly blamed for a host of social issues – from substandard illustrations in primary school textbooks to mounting criticism against the country’s zero-Covid policy.
Following the release of the new regulations, some Chinese social media users joked that Chinese “traitors” have depreciated to 100,000 yuan from 500,000 yuan in 2017 because there were simply too many of them nowadays.