China warns its women: Watch out for sweet-talking foreign men

When Yu Hongna, a 24-year-old graduate student in English language and literature, told her mom she was dating a British guy, her mother was wary. “She warned me not to be deceived by a foreigner’s honey tongue, and they can be bad guys,” said Yu.

But it’s not just parental approval that Yu has to worry about. The Chinese government itself is cautioning young women to think twice before taking up with boyfriends from overseas.

Handsome gents from abroad, authorities say, are on the prowl for ladies with access to state secrets. To mark China’s first annual National Security Education Day earlier this month, propaganda officials plastered certain neighborhoods of the capital with a poster campaign called “Dangerous Love” warning of devious Don Juans lurking in their midst.


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The 16-panel cartoon depicts a red-haired, bespectacled, pointy-nosed foreigner named David who claims to be a “visiting scholar” and strikes up a romance with a pretty civil servant named Little Li, whose job is to write reports for central Communist Party decision-makers.

After plying Little Li with walks in the park, flowers and dinner dates, and flattering her – “you’re pretty, sweet and exceptional,” he coos – he asks her to share her reports to help him write his academic articles. Soon after she does so, David stops calling.

A woman and her daughter look at a "Dangerous Love" cartoon in Beijing that warns women not to date foreign men.

A woman and her daughter look at a “Dangerous Love” cartoon in Beijing that warns women not to date foreign men.

(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

As Little Li nurses her broken heart, cops show up and inform her that David was a spy looking to “steal political and military information.” Little Li ends up in handcuffs, with an officer berating her for showing a “very shallow understanding of secrecy for a state employee.”

The campaign has drawn widespread attention among expatriates in Beijing and across China, spreading quickly on social media channels including WeChat. While many have ridiculed the posters as silly and anachronistic, others worry they will only foster deeper distrust between Chinese and foreigners at a time of growing tension between China and countries such as the United States.

“The government is trying to tell its people, ‘be suspicious of foreign people,’” said Deelam Davis, an American studying for a master’s in economics at Peking University. “It’s not helpful.”

Contact between Chinese and foreigners is at an all-time high. The country had 848,500 foreign residents in 2013, up from 507,000 in 2000, according to a study issued last year by the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank. And more than 300,000 Chinese students were studying in the U.S. alone during the 2014-2015 school year, a record number.

Although that explosion of foreign exchange has many benefits, it also has made Communist Party authorities nervous. China still has powerful memories of what leaders call the “century of national humiliation” from the 1830s to the 1940s, a long stretch of conflicts with imperialist powers ranging from Britain to Japan, and remains highly sensitive about any sign of foreign intervention.

In addition to increased vulnerability for espionage, officials are worried about ideological infiltration. The national security awareness posters come amid a wider campaign against “Western values” and Western influence in a variety of arenas, including universities and the court system.

For example, Zhou Qiang, chief justice of China’s supreme court, told judges last year to stand firmly against Western concepts such as judicial independence and division of powers. “Resolutely resist the influence of erroneous Western thought,” he said.

The Communist Party tabloid Global Times, meanwhile, has warned that Western values may appear “beautiful on the surface” but are a “ticket to hell” that “can only bring disaster to the Chinese nation.”

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Codewijk Vriens, 23, a Dutch Singaporean studying international relations at Peking University, said he saw last week’s poster campaign as part of wider efforts under President Xi Jinping to emphasize nation-building, national strength and security.

“This is the kind of trend of the Xi Jinping government — increasingly nationalistic,” he said. Still, he called the cartoon “really funny. It sounds like an April Fool’s joke.”

Guo Qi, a 20-year-old Chinese citizen studying finance at Beijing Language & Culture University, deemed the poster campaign “stupid.”

“It’s your freedom to date whoever you want, no matter where they are from,” he said. But he added that he had been admonished by a professor not to make “irresponsible remarks to foreigners” because they could be spies.

Yu complained that the poster campaign was sexist. “It’s reinforcing the stereotype of Chinese women that can be easily manipulated,” she said. “It’s very insulting.”

While the Chinese poster campaign may sound odd, the U.S. government itself has produced anti-espionage warnings aimed at Americans studying in China.

In 2014, for example, the FBI released an online video called “Game of Pawns,” which dramatized the real case of an American studying in Shanghai. Glenn Shriver was recruited by Chinese agents and paid to try to get jobs with the State Department and CIA. He eventually was convicted of conspiracy to spy for China.

And the United States has prosecuted employees with security clearances for having secret relationships with Chinese citizens. In 2009, a Houston engineer was sentenced to six months in prison for hiding his affair with a Chinese woman while working on construction of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Tom Stanley, Yu Hongna’s 27-year-old British boyfriend, said he’s been accused of being a spy on multiple occasions.

“When I speak Chinese, people sometimes get a little suspicious. People joke about it, but they were not 100% joking,” said Stanley, a graduate student studying finance at Peking University. “Chinese people like spy hunting.”

But Yu says it’s Stanley — not her — who would be more likely to have Chinese secrets.

“I’m not that kind of person, interested in state secrets or military forces,” she said. “We were joking yesterday that [he] knew more about China’s military than I did.”

Yingzhi Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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