China's Ministry of State Security claims discovery of espionage devices by domestic fishermen

A bulletin of marine spying devices allegedly found in Chinese waters
A bulletin of marine spying devices allegedly found in Chinese waters | Photo courtesy of China Central Television
4 Min

China's Ministry of State Security is once again circulating claims it has discovered foreign espionage devices in its domestic waters.

In a note on its Wechat channel, the state security ministry said foreign intelligence agencies have been “using different methods to strengthen their monitoring of China's maritime areas, carrying out a series of intelligence gathering and technical espionage activities.” It has paid Chinese fishermen handsome rewards for their discovery of what they claimed were multiple spying devices caught in fishing nets inside of China’s exclusive economic zone.

China’s claims of finding smaller, automated underwater devices, equipped with the ability to self-destruct, date back to at least 2020. Earlier this year, Chinese state media said the country’s government had uncovered evidence foreign spies had installed monitoring devices in aquaculture data-monitoring equipment. China Central Television’s Legal Channel 9 reported a sea cucumber farmer in Eastern China contacted police after he grew suspicious about hardware installed by a foreign equipment supplier in 2019.

The equipment is designed to collect geographical, meteorological, biological, and other sensitive data for foreign governments, according to the Ministry of State Security message. The ministry’s WeChat account also recently warned nationals working overseas for Chinese firms to be wary of foreign intelligence operatives seeking to steal secrets.

Over the past two years, the Chinese government has put a renewed emphasis on national security by updating a national security law and launching publicity campaigns about the alleged threat of foreign spies and collaborators in China, including foreign academics and NGOs working on projects in China. A revision of the country’s espionage laws in the summer of 2023 widened the scope of what qualifies as a state secret and, thus, what information can be shared with overseas entities.

Meanwhile, China’s own espionage efforts abroad have become publicized topics of interest in the U.S., U.K., and Australia. The U.S. government said a spy balloon was able to transmit data back to China before it was shot down in U.S. territory in February 2023. More recently, the Australian TV program Four Corners broadcast an interview with a Chinese man who fled to Australia in 2023 and claimed to have worked as an informant for China’s Ministry of Public Security to track targets overseas, including in Australia, Canada, and Thailand. In early May 2024, U.K. police announced charges against three men they allege were caught working for Chinese intelligence services to surveil Hong Kong activists in the U.K. In April of thie year, three people were arrested in Germany and accused of spying for China.

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