Ministry matters

Department of State Security Offers Big Rewards for National Security Advice

China’s Ministry of State Security normalizes rewards for reporting spies. Potential informants can earn up to $15,000 for a tip which has major implications for China’s national security or, instead, a “spiritual reward” in the form of a certificate. Although by no means a novelty, a 2016 campaign warned against foreign infiltration by “sea turtles” (Chinese students returning from abroad) and “dangerous loves” (foreign boyfriends) – these measures are a vivid example of the culture of “rapport” instilled by the Chinese state (举报 jǔbào), whereby citizens are encouraged to police and incriminate one another. On CNN, Nectar Gan reported the MSS effort to attract tips:

Denunciations must be specific about the people or actions involved, and the information must be new to the authorities. Reports can be made in person, online, by mail, or through the state security hotline.

[…] “The formulation of the measures helps to fully mobilize the enthusiasm of the general public to support and assist the national security work, and to broadly rally the hearts, morale, wisdom and strength of the people,” [a Ministry of State Security representative was quoted as saying.]

[…] “China’s national security is facing a serious and complex situation. In particular, foreign intelligence agencies and hostile forces have greatly intensified their infiltration and espionage activities with more diversified means and are targeting wider areas, posing a serious threat to China’s national security.” , said the representative of the ministry. [Source]

Growing paranoia about “infiltration by hostile foreign forces” has fueled a number of national scandals. A recent example saw aesthetically unattractive children’s textbook illustrations attributed to the radiation of “hostile foreign forces.” Chinese social media giants have recently stepped up the encouragement users to report others for “historical nihilism”. Paranoia has given rise to new slang words, including “a 500K walkslang for those with heterodox ideas that could allow opportunists to trade them for cash. Previously, the highest national security tip reward was 500,000 yuan, significantly higher than the new rate. The slang proliferated so much that it was used in clickbait-style state media headlines. People’s Daily Online, the sister digital publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, published an article under the title ‘What to do if you encounter a ‘Walking 500K’? Bookmark this handy guide! which walked citizens through the process of reporting someone under the new MSS scheme.

The consequences for those reported can be serious. Shanghai University instructor Song Gengyi was fired after a student recorded a lecture in which Song questioned the official death toll of the Nanjing Massacre. In recording, the student can be heard mentioning “500,000”, a reference to “a walking 500K”. Li Tiantian, a primary school teacher in Hunan, was forcibly committed to a mental institution after defending Song. Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer who tried to visit Li in the psychiatric ward, was himself detained on suspicion to “seek quarrels and cause trouble”, a pocket crime which became more ubiquitous during the Xi Jinping era.

What motivates students to denounce their teachers? At Foreign Policy, Tracy Wen Liu detailed what she calls the “snitch generation,” the cohort born after 1990 who seem to have narrow-minded and nationalistic, though not necessarily monolithic, views on China:

In 2018, political scientists Yuyu Chen and David Y. Yang revealed the results of an 18-month investigation Field experience on the media in China. As part of their study, Chen and Yang gave nearly 1,800 college students free tools to bypass the Great Firewall and access the open Internet. Almost half of the participants did not bother to use the tools. Of those who did, almost none attempted to browse politically sensitive information.

[…] My generation of Chinese millennials knew that while public spaces were risky when it came to free speech, we could participate in classroom discussions with relative openness. Chinese Gen Zers don’t have that luxury. Neither did their teachers. Xu Zhangrunwho taught constitutional law at the prestigious Tsinghua University, was arrested in 2020 after criticizing the country’s response to COVID-19. You Shengdongprofessor of international business and economics at Xiamen University, was fired after students reported him for questioning a political slogan favored by Xi. Tang Yun, a professor at Chongqing Normal University, was banned from teaching after a student filed a complaint against him for “damaging the national reputation”. Teacher of Hunan City University Li Jian was reported by a student for praising Japan in class and being relegated to administrative work. The list could go on even longer. After all, snitches are celebrated by the CCP: last December, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League job on Weibo praise for a student who reported on his own teacher.

[…] One of the main differences between my generation and Chinese Gen Z is that the latter grew up relatively wealthy. Average incomes in China have skyrockets from about $317 in 1990 to $10,434 in 2020, according to World Bank data. This massive increase in wealth inevitably led to a rise in national pride and patriotism. Perhaps that’s why Gen Z Chinese are significantly more comfortable in their current environment than my generation was. They don’t feel the need to read a different story or hear a different voice. Seen through this prism, it should come as no surprise that many young Chinese attribute their country’s economic achievements to Beijing’s authoritarian form of government. [Source]

Many universities have introduced “student information officers” responsible for monitoring the ideological leanings of their teachers. Peter Hessler, a New Yorker writer also famous for his memoirs of teaching English in rural Sichuan with the Peace Corps, was apparently fired from his post at the University of Sichuan-Pittsburgh Institute in Chengdu due to of a student’s “report” on his politics. While a formal report was never filed and the student maintains his innocence, Hessler was released after screenshots of a Weibo post accusing him of undermining China’s sovereignty went viral. HEssler detailed the experience in The New Yorker and offered some thoughts on Chinese youth political tendencies:

One of my comments was particularly critical of the Party. In John’s article, he mentioned that free speech is not necessary because the government always informs citizens about key events in an accurate and timely manner. The day I scored the essay – December 7, 2019 – I had no idea how quickly this particular issue was going to affect us all. In my comments, I referenced the 2003 Sars outbreak, when the Chinese government was accused of hiding the true number of infections. In April, a doctor in Beijing told Time magazine that there were 60 cases in his hospital alone, while the official number of cases in the capital was just 12. I mentioned the role of whistleblowers and journalists, and wrote:

One of the functions of the media everywhere is to report things that the government might want to hide. We have seen time and time again, in countless countries, that official information is not always timely or accurate.

[…] When I discussed jubao culture with the law professor who was sanctioned after using the Ai Weiwei documentary, he explained that the fear went in two directions. The administrators were afraid of what the students might do, and they were also afraid of the high officials. Since the parameters were deliberately left undefined, the results were also uncertain. After the incident with the documentary, the head of the department quickly reassured superiors that he would discipline the teacher. The punishment, however, was relatively light. The teacher was suspended from that class, but was allowed to continue with his other classes. He told me that a big scandal would have had a bad effect on everyone. “They were protecting me, but they were also protecting themselves,” he said.

[… Prominent sociologist Li Chunling] also writes that as far as highly educated young Chinese are concerned, “mere propaganda-type education will not be effective”. Over four semesters, I couldn’t remember a single student who brought up Xi Jinping in class. I recently reviewed over five hundred student papers and found the president mentioned only twenty-two times, usually in passing. Undoubtedly, fear played a role. But there also seemed to be a genuine lack of connection with the leader. I would often give an assignment I had previously given to Fuling, asking freshmen to write about a public figure, living or dead, Chinese or foreign, whom they admired. It used to be that Mao was the most popular choice, but my students at Sichuan University were much more likely to write about scientists or entrepreneurs. Out of sixty-five students, only one chose Xi Jinping, which left the president tied with Eminem, Jim Morrison and George Washington. The student who chose Washington wrote, “The reason I admire him most is that he willingly gave up his political power. [Source]

Hessler explained his stay in Sichuan in more detail in The New Yorker’s Politics podcast and more with Evan Osnos.