Chinese government officials are constantly wiretapping and spying on one another


(Jerome Favre/Bloomberg)

A few months after a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party named Bo Xilai fell spectacularly from the nation's top political ranks to disgrace and imprisonment, the New York Times reported that one of his crimes — perhaps his greatest — was wiretapping the president. But just as shocking as the revelation that Bo had planted electronic devices to spy on President Hu Jintao was the suggestion, of which there have since been several, that such behavior may be widespread among China's top leaders.

"To maintain control over society, leaders have embraced enhanced surveillance technology," the Times explained. "But some have turned it on one another — repeating patterns of intrigue that go back to the beginnings of Communist rule."

A sweeping story by the Chinese outlet Southern People Weekly chronicles the life and work of Qi Hong, a specialist in removing surveillance equipment who might do dozens of freelance jobs for government officials every week. That story, now translated into English by the invaluable China Digital Times (the original article has been removed), portrays Chinese officials as living in a world so rife with competition and suspicion that many have turned themselves into mini spy chiefs, running extensive espionage campaigns against fellow officials.

Chinese officials have taken to hugging one another at every meeting — not a traditional Chinese practice — to pat down one another for bugs, Qi says that a government official from Shanxi province told him. Qi tells story after story of removing tiny, high-tech, professional spying devices from the offices and cars of officials. Some of them expected it, others didn't. One speculated that the spying had been ordered by his mistress, wondering if she herself had been "planted" by a rival official. The ones who did not find spying equipment seemed to assumed it was only because the cameras or microphones were too sophisticated to be detected.

In a way, it makes sense. Chinese politics have long been viciously cut-throat, with officials stopping at little to outmaneuver one another — and with the stakes often much higher than just winning or losing a coveted promotion. Corruption is thought to be widespread in the party, but it can also be harshly punished, exposing many officials to jail time or worse. In that culture, the best defense against conniving officials might be a good offense.

Qi tells the story of a "director at a state-owned capital management office" he had worked with. The director, unlike his colleagues, had refused to accept bribes. But he felt pressured to "go along" — in part because Qi had discovered his office was bugged, underscoring the director's fears that his peers didn't trust him. When he finally did take a bribe, he was quickly thrown in jail — convinced he'd been set up by his own co-workers.

Whether the state official's suspicions were truth or fantasy, his paranoia is telling in itself, part of a larger and self-reinforcing culture where Chinese officials seem to assume that they are constantly at war with one another.

"They generally aim at people's beds and where they shower," Qi told NPR, which recently published a similar story on officials monitoring one another. "They want to know your secrets, your private life."

The culture of no-holds-barred spying that seems to have pervaded Chinese officialdom might also inform why some of those same officials have seemed so aggressive about spying on others — including foreigners. The Chinese government famously spies on its citizens in vast numbers. And it is suspected of widespread spying on foreign news organizations that cover the country, a possible campaign that may have included the recent hacking attacks on several major U.S. news organizations.

Foreign businessmen who deal with China sometimes take extraordinary security procedures, such as keeping their passwords on thumb drives so that they never have to type them out and expose them to clandestine keystroke-recording software, with the apparent belief that they are frequent espionage targets.

The China-based hacking campaign against U.S. targets, government and civilian alike, is the most extensive in the word, according to a recent national intelligence estimate. That campaign, in its sophistication, is a sign of China's growing strength, but so too is its brazenness a reminder that the country may still think of itself as something of an outsider. There are no doubt many factors that contribute to China's hacking and spying on foreigners. But it seems possible that one of those factors might be the unusual culture of espionage that appears to pervade the lives of government officials.

Frank Langfitt, the NPR reporter who talked to Qi Hong, bought his own basic, $35 bug detector (more elaborate models, he says, can go for $1,600) to try at a friend's office. "In just five minutes," he writes, "I detected bugs in a lamp, several phones and two fax machines."

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Max Fisher · February 18, 2013