China has passed a series of national security laws that broaden the government’s already wide remit to investigate and monitor individuals it deems a threat to stability.
Late last year China updated its counter-espionage law to widen definitions of behaviour punishable in the name of security. Foreign individuals or groups can be punished for fabricating, distorting facts, or issuing information that harm China’s national security.
“China has always attached importance to anti-espionage work”, said Wang Hongwei, vice professor at the school of public administration and policy at Renmin University in Beijing. “It will not affect foreigners in China. China is not the only country working on countering espionage. There’s no need to over interpret it,” he said.
Under the new rules, authorities can bar foreigners from entering the country or stop them from leaving China.
China’s definition of state security is also broad, according to observers. “It is a state security that is not only about internal or external security. It is also about security of the party, both within … and outside where threats lie mostly in the realm of ideas,” said Hoffman.
“The campaigns are a bit like ideological mobilisation that emphasises the responsibility of each person … to uphold the Chinese communist party of China”, she said.
The presence of foreign spies and their recruitment work in China is real. Between 2010 and 2011, at least a dozen CIA sources within China were imprisoned or killed, including one who was shot in front of his colleagues outside of a government building, according to a New York Times report.
Chinese media in 2016 reported that as many as 115,675 foreign spies, mostly from Germany, Japan, and the United States, were operating in China, a figure that continues to circulate but has never been attributed to an official source.
“With all that change, China risks creating a lot of dissatisfaction, so they have to keep people on his side. One surefire way to do that is to make sure you’ve got an ‘other’ as your ‘enemy’ — in this case, foreigners are very handy”, said Merriden Varrall, director of the at the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.