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April 18, 2018

Government Cartoon Portrays ‘Foreign NGOs’ as National Security Concern

As part of the third annual “National Security Education Day” on April 15, several Chinese government institutions released a cartoon warning citizens to be on alert for attempts at foreign political infiltration. The cartoon, produced jointly by the Ministry of State Security, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Cooperation, shows a foreign NGO employee meeting with a Chinese workers’ organization, paying for worker trainings abroad, organizing protests, and providing extra money to his contact at the Chinese organization. Following the cartoon panels is an article describing how foreign spies—often dressed as travelers, diplomats, journalists, or researchers—will try to casually strike up a conversation as a means of initial contact, and then use other means to develop relationships with individuals they discover have access to key government agencies.

Awkward government warnings to citizens about foreign spying are certainly not unique to China. In 2014, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation released a video warning students abroad about foreign intelligence agents approaching them. The video, based on one student’s experiences in China, was frequently described in terms such as “unintentionally hilarious . . . updated version of the schlocky anti-Soviet films the government used to pump out during the Cold War.”

In this case, the relevant feature of the cartoon is its use of a foreign NGO employee as the threat vector. Though one of the cartoon’s titles is “Be on Alert for ‘Friends’ Who Wear Masks,” nowhere in the actual cartoon is it stated that the foreign NGO employee is actually an undercover spy. Several of the foreign NGO employee’s activities in the cartoon in fact show normal non-profit advocacy work that could occur in any country: promoting and holding trainings, providing funding for local organizations to help organize trainings, or explaining to workers how to advocate for their rights. Without any of the ensuing text, one could easily read the cartoon as saying that foreign non-profits supporting advocacy work are themselves a threat to national security and merit being reported to the hotline. It also implies that worker protests are likely to be organized by foreign forces.

It is not clear whether the intention of the cartoon is to show how foreign spies use other professions as cover to secretly conduct destabilizing activities—and in this case, the “other profession” just happens to be a foreign NGO employee—or whether the intention is to raise concern about foreign NGOs themselves. In either case, the choice of a foreign NGO employee as the subject of the cartoon does underscore the notion of foreign NGOs as a national security, rather than a charity or civil society, issue.

Below is ChinaFile’s English translation of the original Chinese-language cartoon.

Be on Alert for “Friends” Who Wear Masks

“Citizens Guarding against Political Infiltration” Cartoon

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