A Chinese spy story with a reverse twist surfaced in Beijing last week, providing further evidence that China's rulers are having trouble maintaining their tight control over the Internet.
Maj. Gen. Jin Yinan of the People's Liberation Army, in what he apparently thought was an internal briefing, revealed half a dozen cases of Chinese officials who had spied for Britain, the United States and other countries. Somehow, the video of his sensational disclosures leaked out. Clips of his hours-long talk appeared on at least two Chinese websites, Youku.com and Tudou.com, but were quickly removed by government censors.
It was too late. The extraordinary video is on YouTube and can be viewed the world over, although not in China, where YouTube is blocked.
The video is the latest example of how in a wired world, China's government is beginning to lose its grip over the Internet and news events. When two high-speed trains crashed in July, sending four cars plunging off a viaduct, killing 40 people and injuring about 200, millions of microbloggers in China responded through the popular website Sina Weibo. Many vigorously protested the government's handling of the disaster.
In his talk, Jin, head of a department at the National Defense University, revealed details, many previously classified, of the espionage cases. The most prominent official he identified as a spy was Kang Rixin, the former head of China's nuclear power program and a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, who was sentenced to life in prison last year for taking bribes.
But the general said the real story was that Kang sold secrets about the power industry to an unnamed foreign country. The details were too embarrassing to be made public, Jin said, because "the damage he has done by selling secrets was a lot more devastating than economic losses."
According to Jin, Lu Jianhua, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, passed information to five foreign governments, including the U.S., Japan and Taiwan. He was sentenced to 20 years.
But it was when Jin talked about Li Bin, China's former ambassador to South Korea, that his voice shook with indignation. Li was detained in 2007 but only "lightly sentenced" to seven or eight years on economic charges. "We could only talk about his involvement in economic problems in public," Jin said, "because the case was much too humiliating and damaging to make public. Have you ever heard of an ambassador spying for a foreign country?"
According to the general, the information Li gave to South Korea had compromised China's negotiating position in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons. The data, he said, "seriously compromised" China's national security.
On the list of spies, Jin included Col. Xu Junping, who defected in New York in 2000 while traveling with a Chinese military delegation. Xu had been a visiting scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; he had also spent a year at Bath University in Britain and spoke near-perfect English. At the time he defected, Xu was director of the Chinese Defense Ministry's liaison office for the U.S. According to Jin, he would have been able to provide valuable information about the thinking of China's senior military leaders, their personalities "and their habits in making decisions." He was the highest-ranking defector from the PLA.
Another spy identified by Jin was Cai Xiaohong, who had been a senior official in Beijing's liaison office with Hong Kong before Britain handed over the territory to China in 1997. Cai was sentenced to 15 years in 2004 for passing state secrets to British intelligence well before the hand-over.
Jin also referred to Tong Daning, a Chinese social security official, who was convicted of spying for Taiwan and executed in 2006. Tong was a senior official in the multibillion-dollar pension fund. Chinese civil servants were reportedly required to watch videos of his trial to deter others from engaging in espionage.
In his videotaped talk, the general deplored what he described as a moral decline, the result of economic reforms and the opening up of China's institutions. He warned that the government would have to be on alert to detect and prevent more espionage cases.
When Jin gave his talk, and exactly how it leaked out to the Internet, was not made clear. Although China has often charged bureaucrats with corruption and fired several after the 2008 tainted-milk scandal and the recent high-speed train wreck, it has rarely identified its officials as foreign spies.
That in turn raises an interesting question. Although it has been widely assumed that Jin's talk got out by mistake, it is at least possible that the leak was deliberate, an effort by the PLA to embarrass China's political leadership and to remind it of the military's power. Or it may have been a ploy by the PLA, which has its own intelligence service, to rattle the MSS, the Ministry of State Security, the intelligence service responsible for catching spies. The spies, it is true, were caught, but only after they had done their damage.
The back story — just how the videotape got out — remains uncertain. But given the Chinese government's obsession with secrecy, a more likely scenario is that someone deep inside the bureaucracy decided that despite the risk of being caught, the spy story deserved to be shared on the Internet.
By David Wise, the author, most recently, of Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China.