Ministry of State Security Offers Big Rewards For National Security Tips

China’s Ministry of State Security is standardizing rewards for turning in spies. Would-be informants can earn up to $15,000 for a tip that has major implications for China’s national security or, in lieu of that, a “spiritual reward” in the form of a certificate. While by no means new—a 2016 campaign warned against foreign infiltration by “sea turtles” (Chinese students returning from abroad) and “dangerous loves” (foreign boyfriends)—the measures are a stark example of China’s state-inculcated culture of “reporting” (举报 jǔbào), whereby citizens are encouraged to surveil and incriminate one another. At CNN, Nectar Gan reported on the MSS effort to entice tips

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.

[…] “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,” [a Ministry of State Security representative was quoted as saying.]

[…] “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. [Source]

Increased paranoia about “infiltration by hostile foreign forces” has fueled a number of domestic scandals. A recent example saw aesthetically unappealing children’s textbook illustrations attributed to the influence of “hostile foreign forces.” China’s social media giants have recently ramped up encouragements for users to report others for “historical nihilism.” The paranoia has birthed new slang words, most notably “a walking 500K,” slang for those with heterodox ideas that might allow opportunists to turn them in for cash. Previously, the highest reward for national security tips was 500,000 yuan, significantly higher than the new rate. The slang has proliferated so widely as to be used in clickbait-style state media headlines. People’s Daily Online, the digital sister publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, published an article under the headline “What to do if you run into a ‘Walking 500K’? Bookmark this handy guide!” that walked citizens through the process of turning someone in under the new MSS scheme.

The consequences for those being reported can be severe. 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 the recording, the student can be heard mentioning “500,000,” a reference to “a walking 500K.” Li Tiantian, a Hunan elementary school teacher, 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 of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” a pocket crime that has become more ubiquitous during the Xi Jinping era.

What motivates students to turn in their teachers? At Foreign Policy, Tracy Wen Liu detailed what she terms “generation snitch,” the cohort born after 1990 who seem to hold blinkered and nationalistic, although not necessarily monolithic, views on China

In 2018, the political scientists Yuyu Chen and David Y. Yang revealed the results of an 18-month field experiment on the media in China. As a part of their study, Chen and Yang gave nearly 1,800 college students free tools to bypass the Great Firewall and gain access to the open internet. Nearly half of the participants didn’t bother to use the tools. Of the ones 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 engage in classroom discussions with relative openness. China’s Gen Zers don’t have that luxury. Nor do their teachers. Xu Zhangrun, who taught constitutional law at the prestigious Tsinghua University, was detained in 2020 after criticizing the country’s response to COVID-19. You Shengdong, an international trade and economics professor at Xiamen University, was fired after students reported him for casting doubt on a political slogan favored by Xi. Tang Yun, a professor at Chongqing Normal University, was barred from teaching after a student filed a complaint against him for “damaging the national reputation.” Hunan City University teacher Li Jian was reported by a student for praising Japan in class and relegated to administrative work. The list could go on. After all, snitches are celebrated by the CCP: Last December, the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League posted on Weibo praise for a student who reported on his own teacher.

[…] One of the key differences between my generation and China’s Gen Z is that the latter grew up relatively rich. Average incomes in China have soared from about $317 in 1990 to $10,434 in 2020, according to World Bank data. This massive surge in wealth has inevitably led to a rise in national pride and patriotism. Perhaps as a result, China’s Gen Zers are dramatically more comfortable in their current environment than my generation was. They feel no need to read a different narrative or hear an alternative voice. Seen through this prism, it should not be a 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” tasked with monitoring their professors’ ideological inclinations. Peter Hessler, a staff writer at The New Yorker also famed for his memoir about teaching English in rural Sichuan with the Peace Corps, was seemingly fired from his position at the Sichuan University–Pittsburgh Institute in Chengdu due to a student’s “report” about his politics. While a formal report was never filed and the student professes his innocence, Hessler was let go 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 ruminations on the political leanings of Chinese youth: 

One of my comments had been particularly critical of the Party. In John’s paper, he mentioned that free speech isn’t necessary because the government always informs citizens about key events in an accurate and timely manner. On the day I marked the essay—December 7, 2019—I had no idea how soon this particular issue was going to affect us all. In my comments, I referred to the sars outbreak of 2003, when the Chinese government was accused of hiding the true number of infections. That April, a doctor in Beijing told Time magazine that there were sixty cases in his hospital alone, whereas the official number of cases in the capital was only twelve. I mentioned the role of whistle-blowers and journalists, and wrote:

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

[…] When I discussed jubao culture with the law-school teacher who had been disciplined after using the Ai Weiwei documentary, he explained that the fear ran in two directions. Administrators were afraid of what students might do, and they also feared higher officials. With the parameters deliberately left undefined, outcomes 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, though, was relatively light. The teacher was suspended from that class, but he was allowed to continue with his other courses. He told me that a large scandal would have reflected poorly on everybody. “They were protecting me, but they were also protecting themselves,” he said.

[… Prominent sociologist Li Chunling] also writes that, with regard to highly educated young Chinese, “simple propaganda-style education will not be effective.” Over the course of four semesters, I couldn’t remember any student bringing up Xi Jinping in class. I recently reviewed more than 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 to the leader. I often gave an assignment that I had previously given in Fuling, asking freshmen to write about a public figure, living or dead, Chinese or foreign, whom they admired. In the old days, Mao had been the most popular choice, but my Sichuan University students were much more likely to write about scientists or entrepreneurs. Out of sixty-five students, only one selected Xi Jinping, which left the President tied with Eminem, Jim Morrison, and George Washington. The student who chose Washington wrote, “The reason why I admire him most is that he gave up his political power voluntarily.” [Source]

Hessler further expounded on his time in Sichuan in The New Yorker’s Politics and More Podcast with Evan Osnos.

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