China sees foreign threats ‘everywhere’ as powerful spy agency takes center stage

In a slick video marking the National Security Education Day, China’s top spy agency has a stern message for Chinese people: foreign spies are everywhere.

As ominous music plays, a broad-faced, beady-eyed man disguises himself as a street fashion photographer, a lab technician, a businessman and a food delivery driver – he even sets up an online honey trap – to glean sensitive state secrets in various places and industries.

“In the sea of people, you may have never noticed him. His identity is changeable and his whereabouts are hard to find,” a narrator says. “They are everywhere, cunning… and sneaky, and they may be right here in our lives.”

Eventually, Chinese police catch the spy in a dramatic ambush after state security authorities receive multiple tip-offs from the public.

“They can disguise as anyone. But among the crowds you and I together are protecting national security,” the narrator concludes. “We 1.4 billion people are 1.4 billion lines of defense.”

The three-minute video is the latest propaganda push by China’s powerful civilian spy agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), to mentally arm the Chinese public against what it sees as the growing threat of foreign espionage.

Under Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader in decades, the country’s notoriously secretive spy agency has drastically raised its public profile and broadened its remit.

From a shadowy organization without any discernable public face, the MSS has been transformed into a highly visible presence in public life.

In Chinese cities, posters and slogans promoting national security are now a common sight on sidewalks, subway trains, campuses and billboards. On social media, the ministry commands a massive following with near-daily commentaries, short videos or even comic strips sounding the alarm about supposedly ubiquitous threats to the country.

According to the MSS, foreign spies are omnipresent and infiltrating everything – from mapping apps to weather stations. The ministry has also posted details of what it claims are espionage activities carried out by American and British spy agencies, and detailed how Chinese nationals studying or working abroad have allegedly been recruited by the CIA.

Last week, as part of a documentary to mark National Security Education Day, the MSS revealed that a Chinese scientist convicted of selling state secrets to a foreign intelligence agency was executed in 2016. The documentary did not explicitly mention which country, but its images show an American flag and the US Capitol building.

The MSS’ transformation is part of Xi’s sweeping pivot to ramp up national security in the face of heightened geopolitical tensions and mounting domestic challenges.

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