Chinese security spies often placed in newsrooms around the world
Posted by Author on September 14, 2011
BEIJING— China routinely places state security agents in Xinhua news bureaus around the world, according to a senior Chinese journalist.
Foreign correspondent jobs are appointed by the Ministry of State Security for set periods, and while they may write the occasional story, their job is intelligence gathering, he said on condition of anonymity.
The rare acknowledgement of the practice comes as debate continues in Ottawa about the relationship between Mississauga MP Bob Dechert and Xinhua News Agency’s Toronto bureau chief, Shi Rong.
Dechert, is parliamentary secretary to Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, with a security clearance giving him access to sensitive information.
His relationship with Shi appeared to blossom after Dechert turned up on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first trip to China in December 2009.
By April 2010, Dechert’s emails — apparently made public by Shi’s angry spouse — gush with the kind of affection that seems well beyond what Dechert has publicly declared a “friendship.”
“You are so beautiful,” he wrote. “That look is so cute. I love it when you do that.” And later, “I miss you. Love, Bob.”
Both Dechert and Shi are married.
No one has yet accused Shi of being an intelligence agent — and part of what analysts call “a honey trap.”
Baird insists such concerns are “ridiculous.”
But intelligence specialists have expressed concerns about that possibility and are calling for an investigation.
“I think (Baird’s) comments are premature, and he should wait until an investigation, either by CSIS or the RCMP, has been conducted,” former CSIS analyst J. Michael Cole said in an email Tuesday, noting China has “a long history of using espionage.”
And it’s not as if Ottawa doesn’t know.
Cole said “nearly half of CSIS’ counterintelligence resources are focused on China.”
This week, the experienced Chinese journalist who spoke to the Star said that at his media outlet a number of “foreign correspondents sent abroad had no previous connection to journalism.
“Those sent from our unit weren’t actually from our unit, but from the Ministry of State Security,” the contact said.
He made clear that these “correspondents” weren’t just “approved” by the Ministry.
“They were appointed by the Ministry,” the contact said.
The media outlet’s editors had no say in the matter.
“Were they actually reporters?” the Star asked.
“Of course not,” the journalist replied.
While they did file journalistic stories back home, the contact said, their training was aimed at intelligence gathering.
Typically, the aspiring correspondents attended the University of International Relations in Beijing or another similar university in Nanjing, “where they learned to master a foreign language and how to do intelligence work,” the journalist said.
They would then work abroad for a set number of years, “and then disappear,” he said. “You wouldn’t see them again.”
How many agents the State Security Ministry actually appoints depends on the rank and importance of the media outlet. There are several major media outlets that maintain correspondents abroad.
“With a powerful, high ranking media outlet, the Ministry of State Security might say, ‘You have 20 positions? Maybe we can send five.’ ”
The Xinhua News Agency reportedly has 120 correspondents abroad.
“But how many are actually doing that kind of work is highly confidential,” the contact said. “I don’t know.”
He said he didn’t think the agents would need to engage in “illegal methods” to gather information.
“As a reporter you get access to all kinds of people anyway, so it’s not like you’d really have to engage in illegal activity,” he said.
In one of Dechert’s self-proclaimed “flirtatious” emails in April last year, for example, he notes that Shi interviewed officials at the Royal Bank of Canada.
It’s not clear whether Dechert acted as a go-between to help Shi organize the interviews, but he asks helpfully, “Did you get enough information for your articles?”
About three weeks later Xinhua promoted Shi’s article on how the Royal Bank weathered the 2008 financial crisis to emerge stronger, as an “exclusive” based on access to two top senior executives.
Shi graduated from Peking University. In a 2005 article she wrote that she has worked for Xinhua since 1998. Once a “visiting scholar” in the U.K., she had an internship at Reuters, where she developed an interest in the oil industry.
But Xinhua reporters’ responsibilities — and influence — can go well beyond simply reporting news to the public.
At home and abroad they are asked to write special reports that are called “internal reference,” some of which can be read by the public. Others can be read only by Communist Party officials or, for the most important, only very senior leaders. These reports normally run 70 to 80 pages per day.
But what might attract a Xinhua reporter in Canada to Dechert?
CSIS analyst Cole notes that there’s much to recommend Dechert as a target for espionage.
“A mid-level, middle-aged government official with access to information. He’s married, which creates another entry point for blackmail,” he says. “What’s key is not so much the position or rank, but rather his access.”
“His lack of judgment, using his government email . . . points to weaknesses that would have been identified by a professional intelligence agency,” says Cole. “The Chinese are past masters at this game.”
The fact that Dechert isn’t actually on the Asia-Pacific desk doesn’t matter, says Cole. Dechert actually works on North American matters for the Foreign Minister.
And there’s a lot in that portfolio that the Chinese would like to learn, he notes.
– The Star (Canada)
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