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China spy agency widens remit as well as reach with WeChat social media account

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Chen, a long time protégé of President Xi Jinping, has a track record of using social media as a propaganda tool to promote Beijing’s positions and policies.

Observers noted that the MSS has been prolific on WeChat, publishing almost 50 articles and commentaries in September – sometimes on Sundays – as well as three video clips on the platform.

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According to observers, its output reflects a bigger political role for the agency under Xi, who has made national security a priority of recent years.

The ministry has not revealed how many followers its WeChat account has attracted, but 36 of the articles posted each garnered 100,000 reads – a tally ceiling set by the instant messaging and blogging platform.

Two counter-intelligence videos published in early August were also popular, with each viewed more than a million times.

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, associate professor and director of the Asia Policy Programme at the University of Texas in Austin, said the increased use of social media by the ministry had followed two developments.

These were the approval by the Central National Security Commission in May of a document on strengthening national security education, and the revisions to the anti-espionage law to include new provisions on cyber-spying and related punishments.

“The new WeChat account may be responding to these two developments and might be intended largely for domestic audiences,” she said, adding that it would also have an impact on international audiences for the MSS to weigh in on foreign policy issues and China-US relations.

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According to Xie Maosong, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Strategic Studies at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, the MSS social media drive carries many of Chen’s “signature traits”.

Chen is known to have spearheaded a similar campaign during his time as secretary general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the ruling Communist Party’s top law enforcement and security apparatus.

“Chen is social media savvy. The MSS commentaries are very similar to those published on Chang An Jian,” Xie said, referring to the social media account operated by the commission during Chen’s tenure, from March 2018 to October 2022.

“Unlike the US intelligence agencies who use the internet and social media for functional purposes, like recruitment, the MSS WeChat account is predominantly a propaganda channel.”

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Its purpose is to promote Xi’s “total security concept and his political doctrines, as well as public awareness of counter-intelligence”, Xie said.

“The MSS used to work in secrecy because it gave them a free hand … But if you stay low key, you may also risk losing control of the official narrative, as we are now in the age of information warfare, and this is especially true in China’s struggle with the US.”

Unsurprisingly, US espionage activity directed at China has been a major topic for the MSS WeChat account, with nearly 30 per cent of its posts relating to current and past American intelligence operations in the country.

An article on the account was China’s first official acknowledgement that the US National Security Agency hacked telecoms giant Huawei, as revealed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

12:14

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The MSS also published details of the case against Hong Kong permanent resident and American citizen John Shing-wan Leung, who was jailed for life in May. The ministry said Leung posed as a philanthropist while spying on China for decades for the US.

In a further example, the MSS also used its WeChat account to announce the arrest of a Chinese official, surnamed Hao, who is accused of being recruited by the CIA while studying in Japan.

Another article published on the MSS WeChat account related how Douglas Mackiernan became the first CIA officer to be killed in the line of duty. He was shot with two others on April 29, 1950 as they were making their way out of China via Tibet.

The ministry also does not hesitate to comment on modern US hostilities against China. Earlier this month, it published a commentary criticising Washington’s new strategy of “managed competition”, describing it as no different from its old tactics of “engagement and containment”.

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A few days earlier, the MSS used its WeChat account to lash out at the US for its “Cold War mindset, promoting a zero-sum, hegemonic mentality”. All of the commentaries were published under the pseudonym Anping – a homophone abbreviation of “MSS Commentary” in Chinese.

Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor of Study Times, the Central Party School’s official newspaper, said the MSS commentaries did not herald a significant change in China’s foreign policy priorities, since Xi remains the ultimate decision maker.

“The MSS rhetoric reflects its efforts to have a bigger voice within China. They might want to play the role of wolf warriors too … but generally speaking, Xi still has the final say on US-related affairs,” he said.

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Deng pointed out that China’s leader makes his decisions “based on information and reports … from intelligence agencies like the MSS, the diplomatic channels, and advice from his top diplomatic and security advisers”.

“We should bear in mind that the MSS has always been part of China’s major diplomatic decision making process,” he said.

Greitens, from the University of Texas, said the MSS had taken on “an increasingly prominent role in China’s political system under Xi, and especially since the Communist Party Congress in autumn 2022”.

Since then, the party has emphasised wanting to “integrate” development and security, she noted, adding that the crackdown on foreign businesses in China highlights “the areas where these two goals may be incompatible”.

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Beijing raids offices of consulting firm Capvision in widening crackdown over national security

Beijing raids offices of consulting firm Capvision in widening crackdown over national security

The Beijing office of US due diligence firm Mintz Group was raided in March by Chinese authorities, who detained five of its staff. And in April, local police questioned staff at US consulting giant Bain & Company’s Shanghai office.

The concerns of overseas firms operating in China were compounded the following month, when Chinese state media said multiple offices belonging to US international consultancy Capvision had also been raided.

According to a senior partner in charge of the Chinese market for a New York-based consultancy, the industry only began to have a better sense of what activities would get them into trouble a few months after the raids and searches began.

The partner, who asked not to be named, said some of those affected might have been involved in “sanctions due diligence”, as required by the US Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act.

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Others might have helped US chip makers to justify sanctions on their counterparts in China, he said, adding that Chinese authorities recently sounded out foreign businesses on areas they should avoid when conducting corporate investigations.

“The people’s war on foreign spies is just a publicity stunt. What’s really going to hurt us is the ambiguous anti-espionage law, especially the regulation restricting the outbound flow of data,” the consultancy partner said.

“Strictly speaking, my China team would not be able to send emails with research data to the US if we were to follow this [law] 100 per cent, and that’s insane.”

The US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre warned in July that China’s laws could compel companies’ locally employed Chinese nationals to assist in the country’s intelligence efforts.

US companies and individuals in China could also face penalties for traditional business activities that Beijing has deemed to be acts of espionage, as well as actions regarded as assisting foreign sanctions.

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