By Oiwan Lam
On the anniversary of the passage of a counter-espionage law in China, the National Security Bureau of the northeast province Jilin launched a national hotline — 12339 — for ordinary people to report those suspected of endangering national security.
Local hotlines have been set up in other provinces since the the counter-espionage law was approved on November 1, 2014, but the establishment of a national hotline could imply the central government’s endorsement of a countrywide witch hunt for “spies”.
Yet, according to news reports, the national hotline was set up by a provincial national security bureau rather than directly by central authorities. It raises a few questions. If the decision was not made by Beijing, why was the news of the national hotline promoted on major news portals which are all under Chinese Communist Party’s control? Does the provincial national security bureau have the power to run a hotline without the approval of central authorities?
Chinese netizens, for their part, looked beyond the technical aspects of the politics involved. They wondered, can ordinary people really identify a spy?
‘Big brother watching you in the streets’
The majority didn’t seem to think so. Others theorized that the hotline is simply a mechanism to sow the seeds of distrust among people or even encourage people to attack each other, like what happened during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, when Chairman Mao led a violent campaign to rid society of those deemed anti-communist. In a news thread within the headlines section of popular Chinese social media site Weibo, some referred to the situation as “white terror”, a tactic to instigate fear and keep people in silence:
Some offered up satirical remarks:
‘What really harms this country is corruption’
However, some people expressed their support for the reporting system. A post on “How to identify spy around you”, published by an Internet analyst with the anonymous screen name “Between coming and going”, went viral on major social media platforms, including Weibo and WeChat:
1. Nature of their work isn’t clear; has several job titles and is resourceful.
2. Those who like to put forward controversial issues and observe others’ response in gatherings. They would then make contact according to an individual’s stance and solicit him or her for anti-government activities.
3. Overseas correspondents and reporters, or journalists with overseas connection; members of family churches; some NGO organizers.
4. The person has a proper job on their name card, but their working hours are irregular. The company on their name card is a shell or a newly registered company or has other suspicious traits.
5. Those who studied overseas several times, or his or her age does not match his overseas educational background.
6. Those who pay attention to sensitive topics, including but not limited to politics, military affairs, public opinion or business.
7. Those who travel to meet certain people and exchange packages or documents with them.
8. Those who attend academic conferences and business meetings regularly, talk about anti-government issues and exaggerate the advantages of foreign countries.
Yang Hengjun, a prominent current affairs commentator and a former Chinese government official who has migrated to Australia, saw the above message online and criticized it as encouraging a witch hunt:
Wang pointed out that he actually fits the profile and invited others to report him: