Should we keep China away from our intelligence networks?

The US and the UK aren’t the only states with dirty intelligence secrets. China is also building its intelligence networks. I recently wrote a column on the blossoming relationship between Chinese and South African intelligence agencies, for a South African news organisation.

HONG KONG:  China and South Africa have agreed to work together on anti-crime fighting measures. There is an element of police training involved but mostly the talk has been about swapping intelligence to uncover criminals and curb cybercrime.

A nation that has failed abysmally in its attempts to fight crime – as South Africa’s shockingly high murder, rape and robbery statistics attest – presumably the country is hoping to receive more than it gives to China on the training front.  Unlike the case for commercial sectors such as banking, South Africa cannot claim to be a world leader in effective policing.

But, do we really want China to roll up its sleeves on South Africa’s crime problem?  Do we want it slipping its tentacles into African spying operations and getting its hands dirty in covert internet-based information gathering?

China has a lot to offer the world. When it comes to anti-crime advice and intelligence collaboration we should generally keep the Chinese away.

Fine line between crime-fighting and spying

Spy vs. Spy (2005 video game)

Spy vs. Spy (2005 video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China getting involved in our crime intelligence, law enforcement and punishment issues is scary for many reasons. For starters, there are stiff penalties for activities that are considered crimes in China but are regarded as basic rights elsewhere.

It seems inevitable that China will expect co-operation from South Africa at some point for help in dealing with a matter that is not, in South African eyes, a crime – like freedom of speech. An obvious area of concern is where Chinese people challenge the legitimacy of the Communist Party to rule China.

The Chinese government keeps tabs on people in and outside China and takes out its punishment on those within. Anti-communist party talk is a crime in China that gets you a hefty jail term as happened to Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

The fact that this basic democratic right is illegal in China, as are other similar rights, is underscored through protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong to remind the world about what is carefully referred to in China as the “Tiananmen event”. That was the fateful day in 1989 when Chinese soldiers killed student protestors in Beijing.

In China, internet access around these times is at best shaky as the government uses its massive arsenal of cyber tools to control mainland citizens’ access to the worldwide web, no doubt to reduce the chances of anyone there getting it into their heads to embark on similar action. Intermittent internet access has been a feature of life in China since unrest started in north Africa and spread across the Middle East.

China: What’s a crime?

There are many other pointers in China that its view of what constitutes a crime is different from how others in the world define what should be illegal and what should not.

The Chinese government has repeatedly made noises about clamping down on intellectual property transgressions in discussions with western leaders.  In reality, it has done nothing to stop the spread of what other countries consider a vicious economic crime on its turf.

In South Africa, and elsewhere, we are repeatedly reminded that to buy a pirate DVD is tantamount to stealing from the artists, and carries stiff penalties. Chinese cities are awash with sub-titled pirate copies of Hollywood movies, western television shows and pop music CDs.

These are not copies hidden under a flea market counter and furtively traded. They are on open display in well-fitted retail outlets in shopping malls, usually with signs forbidding shoppers from taking photographs and with shop assistants diligently keeping a look out for shoplifting – which would probably get you behind bars in China.

The Shanghai Fake Market, where you can buy knock-offs of clothing, personal goods and sporting equipment from any western brand imaginable, takes up extensive floor space in a central city building and is a popular shopping venue for locals and tourists. Stall holders brag about being fake goods’ merchants on their business cards and you can even expect to find a policeman patrolling in the vicinity to help them protect their wares. Beijing’s Silk Market is a similar concept.

Another area that is hazy when it comes to whether the Chinese authorities will view something as criminal is the trade in marine resources, like abalone (perlemoen) and sharkfin. Drug and perlemoen organised crime syndicates are interconnected in the Western Cape and Chinese triads have been involved in international perlemoen smuggling for many years.

China highlights perlemoen as a “must try food” in South Africa on its government China-Africa website. You’d be hard-pressed to find perlemoen in a South African restaurant and taking them out of the sea without a permit can land you in deep trouble with the authorities.

It seems implausible that China will help South Africa in any meaningful way to clamp down on Chinese nationals that get these, and other, rare delicacies to Chinese plates. It would be just as difficult to ask South Africans to give up their favourite beef snack forever and turn in biltong sellers to a foreign police agency.

Upmarket restaurants have abalone, mostly very small ones, on their menus and endangered species are a common item on restaurants everywhere. Exotic animals are de rigeur at weddings and are linked to personal pride, libidos and deep-seated cultural issues.

There are many other areas where there are huge cultural differences over what might constitute a crime, like talking to the foreign media (doing just that landed a journalist who merely repeated what was already published in China in jail for 15 years) and diamond-buying (blood diamonds are apparently no big deal for the Chinese).

Can we really work together on crime-fighting when our ideas of what are and aren’t crimes are so different? It seems unfair to the people who will unwittingly become the focus of intelligence operations.

* This is an edited version of an article first published by Contact the writer at:


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