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China’s feared spy agency steps out of the shadows

The slick ad from China’s feared spy agency, the Ministry of State Security, opens with the shadow of an agent walking through a dark tunnel, a scene reminiscent of the cover of a John le Carré novel.

“Who am I?” asks a mysterious voice. “I am this silhouette by your side . . . I face the ever-changing world and the surging tide of darkness.”

The dramatic ad, which references natural disasters, urban unrest and a pandemic, was released to mark National Police Day this month and is the latest sign of China’s premier intelligence agency emerging from the shadows to tout its role fighting “subversion, separatism, terrorism and espionage”.

This month, the agency, which has increasingly publicised its investigations, accused Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, of instructing a foreign consultant to spy on China. Last year, it claimed to have arrested a Chinese national working for US intelligence services.

Analysts say the growing public profile of the MSS is part of President Xi Jinping’s increasing focus on security, as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong seeks to tighten his hold on the country.

Aside from geopolitical tensions with the US and its allies, Xi’s China faces risks from slowing economic growth and an escalating trade rivalry with the EU. Within this fraught environment, analysts say, the MSS has enjoyed growing political stature and strength.

“This greater publicity reflects an increase in the MSS’s political status — not just its comfort with speaking publicly but actually the political backing to make statements on behalf of the government,” said Alex Joske, a consultant at McGrathNicol and the author of Spies and Lies, a book about the MSS.

Founded in 1983 during a shake-up of earlier agencies, the MSS is a civilian secret police service that the US has described as a combination of the FBI and the CIA. Its reach extends throughout Chinese society, from a central ministry to provincial and municipal branches.

The agency, which US counterparts say is responsible for counter-intelligence as well as political security for the Communist regime, has been accused of widespread espionage abroad, including recruiting a far-right Belgian politician as an asset to conduct influence operations in Europe.

Inside China, the MSS has broken with its more low-profile past approach as Xi’s government has stepped up warnings to the public about the dangers of espionage.

In 2021, the agency released details of its recruiting process through the civil service exam and last year it launched an official account on WeChat, the country’s most popular social media platform, where it has begun providing daily updates.

The posts range from recounting the story of the first death of a CIA agent in the line of duty, who was killed in 1950 in Tibet, to informing citizens about counter-espionage work against Taiwan’s “separatists”.

“In the past, we saw other things taking precedence over national security,” said Adam Ni, publisher of newsletter China Neican.

Ni said during the “reform and opening up” period that followed Mao’s rule, China’s emphasis was on economic growth and maintaining good relationships with trading partners. “But now, increasingly we are seeing more focus and resources diverted to national security.”

He pointed to amendments to anti-espionage law that expanded China’s definition of spying, as well as new legislation on data and raids on foreign consultancies last year.

“The MSS has a bigger role . . . because of the shift to putting more focus on national security and the need to convince the public there is a genuine risk,” said Ni.

The security publicity campaign had also sought to persuade citizens that espionage was a real and pressing concern, Ni said, often through the use of social media.

In 2016, Beijing marked the first annual “National Security Education Day” with a cartoon titled Dangerous Love that warned hapless young women to be wary of foreigners, who could be spies. In 2021, China followed up with “National Police Day” to celebrate law enforcement.

Minister of state security Chen Yixin, left, and his predecessor Chen Wenqing have been elevated in the Chinese Communist party © FT montage: Public Domain/Getty Images

The MSS’s leadership has also been accorded higher political status, reflecting its increased public role, Joske said. Chen Yixin, the current minister of state security, and his predecessor Chen Wenqing, have been elevated to more important Communist party positions than past intelligence chiefs.

Chen Wenqing, for example, was the first former MSS minister to be appointed to the party’s 24-member politburo and its central secretariat. In the past, factional politics prevented leaders from elevating MSS heads to such senior positions, Joske said.

The agency’s wider remit comes as the CCP adopts a broader view of security that encompasses data, technology, the environment and other issues.

“A lot more things are being interpreted or viewed within parts of the Chinese Communist party as state security,” Joske said, a shift that would not “bode well for China’s co-operation and engagement with the rest of the world”.

Others experts said China’s economic slump could be feeding into the strengthening of the state’s security services, as authorities fear financial risks, including high debt among local governments and enterprises, could spread into social unrest.

“The Chinese economy is in pretty bad shape,” said Xu Chenggang, senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on China’s Economy and Institutions. “The Chinese Communist party realises this danger and realises that if a financial crisis occurred, it could be catastrophic.”

The MSS has occasionally commented on the economy on social media as it courts popular support. On Sunday, it published online a comic about the need to protect critical mineral resources from covetous foreign powers.

Since 2022, the agency has also been collaborating with a Shanghai production house on a recreation of a 1980s Chinese cartoon, Black Cat Detective, releasing one episode a year on National Police Day.

In this year’s episode, Black Cat, in his retro police uniform with oversized epaulettes and white gloves, defeats data thieves, including archvillain One Ear the mouse, keeping the town of Forest safe and underlining the agency’s increased focus on online security.

“Without data security, there is no Forest security,” Black Cat Detective’s boss declares.

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