BEIJING – Call it a 21st century version of Mad Magazine's Spy Vs. Spy.
Three weeks after the FBI rolled out an odd, ripped-from-the-headlines microfilm about an American college student who was recruited to spy for Beijing, China has now released its own, very similar tales of young Chinese students being lured into espionage activities by foreign agents.
The student spying stories come as the U.S. is trying to encourage more Americans to study in China, and as China has become the biggest source of foreign students in U.S. colleges and universities.
The unusual FBI video effort, called “Game of Pawns: The Glenn Duffie Shriver Story,” was unveiled on its website in mid-April. Actors are used to re-create the tale of Shriver, a Michigan native who studied Mandarin in Shanghai in 2002-03 and was later approached by a woman, who went by the name of Amanda, who asked him to write some academic papers and paid him $120.
In the following months, Shriver later admitted, he learned that Amanda was working on behalf of the Chinese government. Shriver took some $70,000 from the woman and her associates over time, and eventually sought a U.S. government job with the aim of accessing classified information. Shriver pleaded guilty in 2010 and was released from federal prison at the end of 2013, a federal prison database indicates.
Shriver, who also appears in a prison interview at the end of the dramatized video, did not return calls seeking comments about the video.
This week, China’s state-run CCTV and the Global Times newspaper carried reports of what seemed to be mirror-image incidents of the Shriver case.
The Global Times said it had confirmed “over a dozen cases” in which Chinese students in China – including high school and college students -- were being recruited by foreign intelligence agencies.
The outlets carried the most detail – including a jailhouse interview – about the case of a man surnamed Li who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, according to security officials in Guangdong province.
According to CCTV, Li was contacted over the social networking service QQ by someone purporting to be a woman around age 30. The two struck up an online friendship. But later, the woman revealed herself to be a man by the name of “Fei Ge,” who asked Li to order some journals from the national library.
Li was later asked to take pictures of military installations, earning $500 a month for his photos of ports and shipyards. He was convicted of passing at least 26 classified files and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In another case detailed by the Global Times that bears an even closer resemblance to Duffie’s story, a student by the name of Song Fei from Zhejiang province in 2012 received an email from a “market researcher” named Li Hua who claimed to be working for company collecting information for a foreign firm interested in investing in China.
Song was asked to write papers about China’s government and was offered about $325. Over time, he wrote some 10 papers on various government topics.
In Jan 2013, Song Fei decided to apply for a job as a civil servant, the paper said, a move “fully supported” by Li Hua. In echoes of the Duffie case, Li allegedly offered to pay song $500 a month so he could prepare full-time for the civil servant job, suggesting that Song “not just apply for grass-roots level” job but a post at a “provincial government or think tank or research department” that would be more useful to the client. The paper did not detail what, if any, legal action was taken against Song.
During the 2012-13 academic year, more than 235,000 Chinese students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities -- up 21.4% over the previous academic year, according to the 2013 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Chinese students made up nearly 29% of all foreign students in the U.S.
Far fewer Americans are studying in China. In 2011-12, more than 283,000 American students studied abroad, but only 5% went to China.
Five years ago, President Obama announced the “100,000 Strong” initiative, an effort to dramatically increase the number of American students studying in China. The effort now has evolved into its own foundation and aims to send 100,000 American students to China over a four-year period.
While the cases detailed by the FBI and China seem to involve remarkably unsophisticated efforts to use students to obtain state secrets, a report out of Australia in recent weeks detailed another type of spying that has some academics highly concerned.
According to a story in the Sydney Morning Herald by former China correspondent John Garnaut, Chinese intelligence officials are building networks in Australian universities – where some 90,000 mainland Chinese students study -- to monitor the ethnic Chinese community to protect Beijing's "core interests."
The paper interviewed lecturers and Chinese-born students who said they had suffered repercussions because of comments they made in Australian classrooms that were reported through Chinese intelligence channels.
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this reportCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times