China is promoting spying as the perfect hobby for the entire family

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Last year, China’s authorities used Mr. Bean and Batman knockoffs to publicize the importance of safeguarding state secrets, as part of its first National Security Education Day. Now, a 10-minute long cartoon directed at children between the ages of seven and 12 demonstrates how—with the help of a grandparent—you can tell if someone in your family might be working for a foreign spy.

Schools are showing the cartoon, along with a video aimed at teens, as part of a month of national security awareness organized by the Chinese Society of Education, an association affiliated with the Ministry of Education.

Counter-espionage heroes of the family.Counter-espionage heroes of the family. (Screengrab/Chinese Society of Education)

In a video with the theme “national security is a fortress forged by the crowd,” a boy shares a story with his classmates about how he learned about national security. One day, the boy’s father, an engineer working in a Chinese military factory, is preparing to email photos of nuclear warheads and aircraft carriers to a foreign magazine that contacted him after he engaged in discussions in online military forums. The boy’s grandfather, whose reliability is established by showing him reading state-run tabloid Global Times, suddenly barges in and starts asking a lot of questions.

The grandfather points an article he’s reading about a man arrested (link in Chinese) for providing over 500 photos of China’s first aircraft carrier to an overseas magazine in 2014. Initially, the engineer thinks his father is being ridiculous. But on his advice, the engineer emails saying he can’t send the photos because they contain sensitive information. The people on the other end respond with threats and inducements (“green cards for the whole family”) and warn they’ve been tracking the engineer for a while. The frightened engineer then goes to the authorities and confesses these contacts. The local national security bureau promises to protect him from repercussions, such as losing his job, and asks him to keep providing information that could help in the fight against foreign spies.

The video is part of an online education package (link in Chinese) launched by the CSE, which says on its website that it started the campaign to promote the national security views of China’s president Xi Jinping, as well as inform people about China’s revised national security law, which went into effect in 2015.

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The online education package includes 23 questions (link in Chinese) to test students’ knowledge of national security, and of China’s counter-espionage law, which went into effect in 2014. In another video for middle school students, actors and actresses demonstrate three acts that could count as espionage, such as providing official data to a friend studying overseas who claims to need the information for a thesis.

The Chinese Society of Education did not reply to email queries about the campaign’s scale, and whether it’s compulsory for schools to show the videos. Multiple local media reports showed schools were organizing the students to show students the videos in Chengdu and Shangdong provinces (links in Chinese).

China has been increasingly warning citizens about the dangers of foreign forces since Xi came to power in 2012. During this year’s National Security Education Day, Beijing announced that it would reward those turning in potential spies with a handsome fortune—as high as 500,000 yuan ($72,000). In January, China implemented a law to tighten control over overseas non-profit organizations operating in the country, while later in the year a new intelligence law went into effect, also aimed at curtailing foreign spying. Last year, authorities circulated posters depicting a government employee dating a red-haired foreign academic who turns out to be a spy.

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