Humor is often the first casualty of dictatorship. The reasons for this should be obvious to all: humor is subversive. Communist totalitarians and right-wing despots alike are hostile toward jokes that may undermine their regimes (take, for example, this classic from the Soviet era: “what’s 100 meters long and eats cabbage?” “the line at the butcher shop”).
Of all types of humor, irony is usually the most lost on totalitarians. This is apparent in China’s recent and unintentionally comical campaign to alert its citizens to the apparent threat from foreign spies posing as visiting scholars who romance local girls for state secrets. In fact, it is a comic: a 16-panel strip that tells the sad tale of Xiao Li (“Little Li”) who falls in love with a foreign scholar who is “researching issues about China.”
The man is a Caucasian with a big nose and red hair (a pretty classical Asian depiction of a white man) who goes by the name of David. David woos Little Li with flowers and fancy dinners. When she mentions that she works for the government, David coerces her into giving him some sensitive internal policy documents, for “research purposes.” Of course, it turns out that he is actually a spy and they are both arrested.
Call me honey …
The lesson, of course, which was timed to mark China’s National Security Education Day, is to be aware of foreigners who may be befriending you, for they may have ulterior, sinister motives. The irony here is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, for few countries more than China have used sexual entrapment – so-called honey traps or honey pots – as a means of espionage.
According to book, Chinese Industrial Espionage, authored by William Hannas, James Mulvenon, and Anna Puglisi, the Chinese communists have long made “deft use” of honey traps. One of the earliest known cases involved a Chinese transvestite and opera singer by the name of Shi Peipu, who seduced a French diplomat (who believed that Shi was actually a woman); this affair was later adapted into a play, M. Butterfly.
Hannas and his coauthors also write of the story of a Japanese cypher clerk who committed suicide after it was discovered he was having an affair with a Chinese bar girl, and of an aide to then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who had his smartphone stolen after he went off with a Chinese woman he met at a Shanghai disco.
One of the best-known cases involving the US intelligence services was that of Katrina Leung, a Chinese citizen who emigrated to America in the 1970s. Leung eventually became a US citizen and a spy for the FBI, but it turned out that she was actually a double agent, working at the same time for the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS). During her period as a spy, she seduced her FBI handler, who then allegedly supplied her with US classified material that she then gave to the MSS. This went on for years.
China’s use of honey traps is so pervasive that the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, colloquially known as MI6) actually recently released a memo warning British civil servants and businessmen that Chinese intelligence agencies are “becoming increasingly proactive and aggressive.” Other reports are that “the Chinese spy network has hundreds of beautiful women who tempt lonely men into bed, offer them great sex [and] then engage in pillow talk.” If that does not work, they then resort to blackmail.
So when China warns its own citizens to beware of foreigners professing love, it is both ludicrous and sadly pathetic. At the same time, however, there is a sinister, subtle undercurrent to these kinds of campaigns. More than a counter-espionage drive, the message that Chinese citizens would probably be better off if they simply avoided foreigners altogether. In other words, don’t take chances, do not associate with non-Chinese, just separate yourself from their company.
Sealing the chamber
This message ties in neatly with China’s increasingly aggressive efforts to seal off the country from what their leaders see as foreign cultural pollution. These include limits on foreign films, Internet censorship and firewalls, instructions to colleges and universities to shun textbooks that “promote” western values (and presumably foreign scholars like David), and making sure that students who study abroad do not forget their “core socialist values.” This effort has sometimes descended into the absurd: a Chinese military newspaper recently criticized the Disney movie, “Zootopia,” for reversing the roles of predator and prey, calling it “invisible propaganda” intended to advance American values (presumably values that closely approximate the idea of a socialist brotherhood of man).
The whole thing would be ironically ludicrous if the stakes were not so serious. At the Asian Security Summit (also known as Shangri-la Dialogue) held in Singapore last week, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warned that China was building a “Great Wall of self-isolation.” This was a reference not only to China’s expansionist efforts and aggressive military actions in the South China Sea, but also to Beijing’s increasing truculence and refusal to understand how counter-productive its actions are. Warning people off foreigners as likely spies is just a small, pathetic piece of this overall unfolding narrative.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.