China’s communist government has arrested a man in southern China who was charged with being a spy for a foreign intelligence service for providing military secrets through the Internet, Chinese state media revealed on Monday.
The resident of the southern coastal city of Shantou, north of Hong Kong, was jailed for 10 years for what the official Xinhua news agency said was the crime of disclosing military secrets to foreign intelligence agencies.
The case is unusual as China rarely discloses foreign spy cases. It also highlights the modern-day spying technique of using the Internet in China to break through what in the past has been rigid Chinese military secrecy.
Chinese military secrets disclosed on the Internet in recent months have included the images of the new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, a new medium-range missile called the DF-25, a new airborne warning and control aircraft, numerous Chinese unmanned aircraft, new warships, new intelligence-gathering aircraft, new submarines, and new torpedo.
The suspect, identified only as 41-year old “Li,” was said to be a snack bar owner in Shantou who disclosed a total of 23 classified military documents.
Guangdong province state security officials briefed Chinese reporters Monday on the case.
The case was described as a foreign intelligence operation to steal military secrets through websites.
Li was caught providing 13 “confidential” documents and 10 “secret” documents.
A native of Dazhou in southern Sichuan province, Li was recruited by a female “cyber friend” in May 2011 who befriended him on the social media site QQ. The woman expressed interest in Li’s daily life and work and a month later revealed he was actually a man named Fei Ge, or “Flying Brother.”
Fei then paid Li 3,000 yuan a month, about $480, to take pictures of Chinese military equipment.
For the past several years, China’s Internet, especially so-called military enthusiast websites, published details of new weapons systems.
Li was also tasked with purchasing military publications that were supplied to the foreign spy service, which was not identified.
“At the instruction of Fei Ge in the overseas, Li became a tool for the overseas spy agency to steal secrets by subscribing and providing for Fei Ge military journals published inside China over a long period of time, and observing important military bases in China at fixed times and fixed locations for a long time,” Xinhua’s Asia-Pacific News Service, the official government mouthpiece for Chinese overseas, stated.
“A large amount of information about developments and conditions of military bases and pictures of military equipment had gone abroad, constituting a serious threat to the nation’s military security.”
According to the Xinhua report, Fei since 2007 has been gathering Chinese military secrets from online bookstores, military fan clubs, and other websites. He also recruited 12 “counterspies” in Guangdong province and 40 in more than 20 provinces and cities throughout China.
“The state security agency will resolutely crack down without mercy on any individual or organization that dares to endanger China’s state security and steal Chinese state secrets,” the Xinhua Asia-Pacific services said.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA both conduct large-scale collection of Chinese military writings, which are then translated and circulated to intelligence analysts and policymakers.
Taiwan’s intelligence services also are known to gather military writings and other online intelligence on the Chinese military. Japan’s spy agencies also collect military data on the rapidly expanding Chinese military.
The most popular military web sites in China, which are controlled by the government, include top81.cn and tiexue.net. The websites frequently boast of Chinese military advancements as part of the growing nationalist trend in China.
According to the South China Morning Post, recent military leaks online have included news of China’s new Type 055 guided missile destroyer.
Photos of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter were first posted online in 2010.
Global Times, the Party-controlled jingoistic newspaper, on Monday posted photographs of the newest version of China’s Song-class submarine.
Last month, Sina.com published a photo of what is thought to be the DF-41 ICBM, or possibly the intermediate-range DF-25.
Richard Fisher, a military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the Li case is partly a problem of Beijing’s own creation.
“As part of its broad campaign to promote virulent nationalism to cover the many failings of its one-party dictatorship, China promotes worship of its People's Liberation Army on scores of state-sanctioned military-issue websites and via other media,” Fisher said.
“It is often overlooked but in China, this kind of military worship, which also includes scores of sanctioned print publications and multiple daily state-run military issue television programs, is almost as popular as a major league sport.”
The distribution of military information and photos have pressed the limits of heavily-censored news media in China but for outside observers, including intelligence services, the Chinese “Internet-hothouse often provides the first indications of a new Chinese weapons system,” Fisher said.
“It is not surprising that some intelligence services have figured out that some Chinese military fans can be manipulated to provide even more privileged data.”
Chinese military disclosures does not compare with the openness of militaries in the West, he added.
“In general, unlike in the West, you cannot access detailed data about People’s Liberation Army current military budgets, future modernization programs or future strategic objectives,” Fisher said.
The disclosure of some military secrets online also is useful for the ruling Communist Party.
“China is likely happy to accept some leakage of military information in order to successfully direct so much national enthusiasm toward military worship rather than attacking the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party,” Fisher said.