According to the latest WeChat post from China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS, 国家安全部), food security is a “strategic issue” [战略问题] — not for the reasons one might expect, but because of fears of foreign espionage (MSS WeChat, September 22). The post starts out with some strident criticism of the United States, before alleging that some “foreign companies and consultancy firms” have tried “every possible means” to steal China’s grain data and attempted in vain to control China’s food production, along with a litany of other crimes. The MSS’s worldview is clearly a Manichaean one in which foreign spies are lurking everywhere. The message here is that if you are a Chinese citizen, these spies could be targeting you: one WeChat post pushed last Saturday outlines how to protect your phone, email and other devices from hostile attacks (Sohu, September 16). Other posts direct everyone to be on the lookout for such spies — if you come across one, report them to the security services immediately (MSS Informant hotline). This public-facing strategy from the MSS constitutes something of a terra incognita for the Party’s most incognito of departments, but it represents a further ratcheting up of the broader ideological campaigns launched under Xi. An analysis of the WeChat account’s forty-five posts since its launch on July 31 indicates a keen sense within the Party of a need to promote national security as the prism through which everything should be refracted, and a desire to increase the people’s sense of vulnerability to hostile foreign threats.
The articles consistently emphasize the line that the political security of the Communist Party of China is the foundation for the entire national edifice. For instance, a post from August 15 reads: “The core of political security is regime and institutional security, the most fundamental of which is to safeguard the leadership and governing position of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics… national security organs have always placed the maintenance of political security at the top of their agenda, and have made political security their main focus” (China News, August 15). The account’s very first post is even titled “Counter-espionage requires the mobilization of the entire society,” and it follows up by saying that “national security is the foundation for national rejuvenation, and social stability is the prerequisite for national strength and prosperity,” before providing an expansive list of those who are obliged to “prevent and stop espionage and safeguard national security”: “all state organs and armed forces, political parties and people’s organizations, enterprises, institutions and other social organizations” (WeChat, July 31).
The MSS posts, primarily aimed at the domestic population, seek to further shape the public sphere discourse on national security, pushing a siege mentality shot through with patriotic optimism and obfuscating any difference between the regime and its subjects. In the more volatile times that lie ahead for China, emphasizing external threats are also likely an attempt to shore up regime support.
Posts Push Education, Policy, Propaganda
The posts themselves are wide-ranging. Some report on the various meetings and events that Minister of State Security Chen Yixin (陈一新) attends and speaks at, which often elaborate on the theoretical concepts underpinning China’s overarching national security concept (for instance: Global Times, August 15). Others touch on current events, such as Japan’s release into the ocean of treated nuclear wastewater (Global Times, August 16), or China’s extension of export controls on gallium germanium (CCTV, August 10). There are those which are intensely patriotic, including a propaganda video whose narrator says “we carry on the red gene…I volunteer to serve in the noble cause of national security/To obey the leadership of the Communist Party of China/I am absolutely loyal to the Party” (Xinhua, July 14). Others still look at the history of vaunted CCP spies or of American agents who have been killed (Xiong’an Government, September 4; iFeng, September 5). However, three emergent trends are worth briefly noting: the use of the channel to emphasize education; the use of the channel to promote regional examples of policy implementation, and the use of the channel to excoriate the United States.
Education is a clear aim of the WeChat channel — it itself is a vector for distributing propaganda. Some posts are straightforwardly instructional and come in the form of questions and answers. Others highlight various ways in which national security is being promoted and taught around the country. One post takes us to a school class on an aircraft carrier, where students can “participate in interactive demonstrations to understand the means of foreign espionage and intelligence agencies, and experience the sense of success from protecting national security”; or to the launch of a “National Security Education” book for primary and secondary schools, with commentary on how teachers run geography lessons on homeland security and maritime security, history lessons on cultural security, and biology lessons on ecological security and resource security (Sohu, August 30). This form of education continues at tertiary institutions, with one post describing seven Beijing-based universities’ approaches, including Tsinghua University (Beijing University of Agriculture, September 6). This post begins by playfully asking the reader, “Who can accurately identify behaviors that endanger national security in the game ‘Who is an undercover agent?’… Who opens the official MSS WeChat on time every day to be the first to know the authoritative voice of national security?” Other national security-themed activities universities have hosted so far this academic year include multimedia trainings, outdoor games, a “theft demonstration” to show the importance of protecting classified information, and a cross-country run. Perhaps the most alarming activity, which is reminiscent of Cultural Revolution-era model plays, is the Tianjin State Security Bureau directing Nankai University students and teachers in a “hidden front historical drama” (Sohu, September 1). As one student is quoted saying: “National security is not an abstract concept; it is closely related to everyone’s life” (Sohu, August 30).
Highlighting the way in which different localities are emphasizing national security is a means of indicating to those in other parts of the country what kinds of ideas are approved of and worth emulating. Chongqing comes in for high praise for passing the “Chongqing Municipal Counter-espionage Regulations” swiftly on the heels of the national-level law, and with succinct and nimble prose (“小快灵”) (CCTV, September 1); as do Fujian and Yunnan for publishing pamphlets on the topic (Sohu, September 9). This is broadly analogous to a common policymaking process in the PRC, whereby headline policies are promulgated, they are interpreted variously at the local level, and then the central government selects which interpretations it believes to be best and promotes them around the country.
The channel has also been used to expose a number of foreign agents whom the MSS claims to have caught (China News, August 11; Global Times, August 20; CCTV, September 11), as well as cyber attacks (Global Times, August 15; News.cn, September 20). These are accompanied by editorializing about the United States. For example: America is described as “selfish, hegemonic, and hypocritical [自私、霸道、虚伪]” (Sohu, August 15), and of having four kinds of anachronistic and parasitic thinking, such as “the Cold War mentality of ‘pointing the sword at China’” (Secrss, August 28). Throughout most of these articles, the intended audiences are fairly obvious: most posts, especially the education-focused ones, are aimed at a broad domestic audience; some pieces are clearly aimed at the various organs of state, to help shape the government’s approaches to national security; and we might speculate that some — especially the more laudatory (“Xi Jinping’s important thesis…Xi Jinping has provided a powerful ideological weapon…”) — are for the eyes of the Party chairman. However, one post in particular which can be read as having an American audience in mind: after providing a characterization of the Biden administration’s approach to China, the post retorts, “China will never let down its guard because of a few ‘pretty words’ from the United States…In order to truly realize ‘from Bali to San Francisco,’ the United States needs to show sufficient sincerity” (Secrss, August 28).
Why the MSS is Different
This summer, legislative bodies across the world have passed national security and counter-espionage laws. At the same time, intelligence agencies both inside and outside China have stepped further into the public realm than previously, often to promote these laws. However, the MSS’s social media postings provide a window on a very different sense of national security than readers in the United States or its allies might recognize; one which must enter deeply into people’s hearts [深入人心] from up in the heavens and deep into the earth [上天入地] (Sohu, August 9). A key difference, as pointed out in a recent interview given by the former British intelligence officer Nigel Inkster, is that China is “best thought of as an intelligence state, in much the same way as the Venetian Republic was in the sixteenth century…covert activity is baked into the fabric of the state in a way that it could not be in a liberal Democracy. [It] is integral to how the system works” (The Spectator, September 18). The MSS posts underline how all-pervasive the intelligence state seeks to be: “Dear travelers, welcome to this national security education-themed flight…” one of the posts begins (Sohu, August 9). Strap in: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.