An unnamed foreign country has for years used Chinese social media and Internet forums to recruit spies and gather sensitive information on Chinese military development, the overseas edition of the People’s Daily said on Monday.
Since 2007, at least 40 people in 20 provinces have provided military secrets to a foreign intelligence agent identified only by an online alias, Feige, or "Flying Brother", said the Communist Party mouth piece.
The report said the foreign agent befriended internet users via online bookstores or military fan web forums, which enjoy widespread popularity among young Chinese web users, and then offer them money in exchange for gathering military intelligence.
One of these web users, identified only by his last name, Li, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing military secrets, it said.
Li had subscribed to many military publications only available in the Chinese mainland, and monitored movements at key military bases for years at the instruction of the foreign spy, the paper quoted national security officials in the southern province of Guangdong as saying.
The spy had contacted the Sichuan-native migrant worker via QQ pretending to be woman, inquiring about his private and work life. After one month of chatting, “Flying Brother” identified himself as a man and offered Li 3,000 yuan (HK$3,724.75) monthly compensation for his work.
He was found to have sent "large amounts of military base information and photos of military equipment" overseas, causing severe hazards to national military security, said the report.
Watch: fan video of testing models of the Chinese aircraft carrier and a new missile destroyer
Popular Chinese military fan forums, such as top81.cn and tiexue.net, often closely follow the development in People’s Liberation Army equipment and weaponry, and regularly provide surprising insights into the nation’s military strength.
Some analysts have argued that these forums could not exist without tacit approval by the government, because many of the advanced weapons being photographed and shared on the forums are clearly classfied.
For months, the forums have carried purported user-uploaded photos and "insider leaks" about the construction of the PLA navy’s Class 055 guided missile destroyer, which so far has not been publicly acknowledged by the Chinese government or the military.
The J-20, a state-of-the-art twin-engine stealth fighter jet not expected to be operational until a few years later, has become an open secret after fans uploaded photos of a prototype doing taxiing tests in Chengdu in late 2010.
Phillip C. Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the US National Defence University in Washington DC, said he thought the photos of the J-20 were leaked intentionally to send a message to other countries. "Some of the photos appear to have come from inside the fenced compound," he wrote in an email. "As the PLA has become stronger, it has become more willing to demonstrate its capabilities to impress (and intimidate) potential adversaries."
Last week, enthusiasts spotted a new type of electronic intelligence aircraft and shared photos on weibo. On Monday, the Chinese-language web site of the Global Times shared photos of upgrades to the Song class submarines shared by an anonymous member at a military forum.
"Military-themed blogs and websites are an important means of building support for the military," wrote Saunders. "The PLA and party are unlikely to shut them down entirely."