The game of finger-pointing over cyberspace attacks between China and US seems to have shifted to the realm of espionage of late as Chinese state media published reports accusing an “overseas intelligence agency” of recruiting college students in the mainland as spies following blunt warnings in US of similar practices there.
“A same overseas intelligence agency” has repeatedly seduced Chinese college students into conducting espionage and into applying for posts with access to confidential information, the Global Times, a subordinate paper of ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece the People’s Daily known for its explicit nationalist tone, splashed on its Wednesday edition.
It did not name the agency or the country where it is based at any point in the lengthy report.
Interestingly, the accusations in the article bear a striking resemblance to the scenario played out in a video clip made and released by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) last month that bluntly warned US students to be wary of the recruiting efforts made by Chinese intelligence agencies.
The 28-minute video replicates a real case in which US citizen Glenn Duffie Shriver, then a college student travelling to China, was lured by Chinese intelligence agents into a spying on the US in exchange for financial support.
Shriver was later arrested in 2010 after he attempted to apply for a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) post under a Chinese intelligent agent’s directives. He was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to espionage charges.
In a peculiarly similar vein, the front page report in the Global Times laid out multiple cases where Chinese college students from different parts of the nation were hired by an unidentified body and its agents to collect confidential information regarding national security and the military.
Watch: US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warns US students of foreign espionage plots
Though Chinese media cites the authorities in reports on espionage cases that involve overseas-recruited Chinese nationals from time to time, this appears to be the first that highlights agencies targeting students as potential spies.
According to the reports, most of the students, many of whom attend aviation and naval academies, were first contacted through online forums and social media, and were often told they were to conduct research for overseas companies.
They would first be asked to subscribe to and make copies of internal military publications, compile information, or take photos and record ship movements at naval bases. In exchange, the students received hundreds or thousands of yuan for each task.
Later the agency would assign more “sophisticated and pointed assignments” to the recruits, the report said. If they declined, the agency would threaten to inform Chinese security officials of previous dealings and transactions.
In some cases, the agency would instruct students to take certain examinations and apply for government posts that involve access to confidential state information in roles such as civil servants, security official, intelligence officers or think-tank researchers.
Citing an anonymous security officer, the Global Times report said such strategies are “a common approach of overseas intelligence agencies,” and described the practice as “venturing a small fish to catch a great one”.
Investigations into some 30 espionage cases since 2012 have involved students and number is on the rise, the report added. In some cases minors became targets, it said.
The youngest person involved among the cases revealed was 16 years old. He was found transmitting and filing confidential files abroad under an agency’s instruction.
In an previous editorial, the Global Times criticised the government for down-playing foreign espionage cases discovered in China in the wake of a series of accusations made by US intelligent services.
The article urged the authorities to make public more cases involving spies recruited by foreign agencies to “counter foreign media hype on Chinese spying cases”.
Earlier in the week, the overseas edition of the People’s Daily said the same unnamed foreign country has for years used Chinese social media and internet forums to recruit spies and gather sensitive information on Chinese military developments.
One of the web users involved was sentenced to 10 years on charges of stealing military secrets.