Tea Leaf Nation

Are China’s Online Military Fanboys Accidentally Aiding Foreign Spies?

Chinese state media thinks so. Meet the country's legions of 'junmi.'

Getty Images
Getty Images

The posts read like a cross between an intelligence report, a video game, and a niche photo-sharing site. “I’ve got pictures of the Global Liberation Army’s littoral combat ships,” one anonymous Chinese Internet user boasts. Another shares images of F-16 fighter planes and offers to exchange them “with men who like the pomegranate sister.” This argot may mean little to most Chinese netizens — and indeed, the vast majority of Americans — but it’s catnip for the junmi, the ‘military geeks,’ who obsess over the latest technology and developments among China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other forces around the world.

According to Chinese state media, junmi chatter is also unfortunately valuable information for foreign spies. A May 9 article syndicated across multiple news sites including Xinhua, China’s official news service, warns that “online agents” for “foreign intelligence organizations” have gleaned secrets about China’s military from the many online forums which junmi inhabit. It also explains some curious terms of art popular among the cohort: “pomegranate sister,” a homophone for the Chinese word for sixteen, denoting F-16s; “Poppa 8,” for the Shenyang J-8, a Chinese-built aircraft designed to intercept other aircraft, and jiujiu, or maternal uncle, homophonic with 99, which refers to a ZTZ-99, the PLA’s main battle tank.

It’s easy to imagine analysts outside of China striving to use all publically available information to advantage, no matter how sketchy. China’s ranks of Internet users are still growing by tens of millions each year. Meanwhile, China and chief rival the United States have been trading accusations of cyber espionage for some time. In February 2013, U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a report accusing government-sponsored hackers in the Chinese city of Shanghai of stealing data from a “broad range” of organizations in the United States and elsewhere; on May 19, U.S. officials announced an indictment of five PLA officers in Shanghai on computer fraud and other charges. China responded on May 26 by accusing the United States of massive Internet surveillance of Chinese leaders and institutions.

Junmi slang, the article stresses, evolved from necessity. It’s not only a way to distinguish among experienced Chinese military geeks (“hardcore big shrimp”) and rookies (“food birds”). It also avoids breaching Article 432 of the country’s Criminal Law, which states that intentional or negligent disclosure of Chinese military secrets can lead to up to 10 years in prison for serious offenses. But the leaks, the article laments, are still happening. (The article reads like a contemporary account, but it first made the rounds on the Chinese web in May 2011, before authorities dusted it off, and altered the piece’s title to include the warning that writing in so-called “junmi jive” is like “dancing on the edge of a knife.”)

Given the size of the junmi community, that may be enough to keep Chinese military authorities nervous. Major Chinese Internet portals such as Sina, Tencent, and Netease feature military channels, and there are dozens of independent online communities including Tiexue (literally, “iron and blood”), Supercamp, and Xilu. These sites, which include articles and discussion forums covering everything from military history to popular jokes, allow enthusiasts to exchange photos and information on the latest weaponry, discuss current events, and game out imaginary conflict scenarios.

These forums occupy a curious role in China’s idiosyncratic and constantly expanding online ecosystem. Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College who focuses on China, tells Foreign Policy that junmi sites may also occasionally reveal what the government would prefer stay secret. But, he adds, the government also likely views the forums as useful to showcase Chinese military achievements, and even perhaps for leaking information when the government “wants to preserve some level of uncertainty or plausible deniability.”

Like many Chinese websites, they also provide a space for web users to vent their spleen. Perhaps not surprisingly, many junmi forums brand themselves “patriotic,” and posters regularly use derogative terms to refer to countries or groups that they assume to be hostile to China’s interests. Frequent targets include Japan, the Philippines, and most recently, Vietnam, where anti-Chinese riots broke out on May 13. (One May 23 headline on Xilu’s homepage reads: “Vietnam — We Can Fight Our Way to Beijing and Take Your Women,” although the article, posted by an anonymous user, offers no credible source for this claim.) The United States also prominently features, its army often referred to as the “GLA,” or “Global Liberation Army,” a play off the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the name for China’s military. The Xinhua article notes the term is frequently invoked among gamers, and originally referred to terrorist forces, but can now also refer to the U.S. military, which Chinese web users sometimes call the “world police.”

Patriotism — or nationalism — is popular. While traffic numbers are hard to verify, some junmi sites have become serious business ventures. For example, Tiexue founder Jiang Lei, a dropout from Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, started the site in 2001, when he was 17. By 2012 and again in 2013, Lei had made Forbes China’s “30 Under 30” list of young entrepreneurs. A May 2014 interview in a local Beijing newspaper described Jiang as a dedicated Communist Party member who sees his mission as “reviving the Chinese soul.”

Of course, these forums are far from reliable sources of intelligence. The Xinhua article complains that in addition to leaks, rumors and simple mistakes born of ignorance can confuse readers, which easily leads “foreign militaries to reach mistaken judgments about the Chinese military, negatively affecting international public opinion.” But given the opacity of the PLA — which, according to the Pentagon, does not even publish its budget for “procurement of foreign weapons and equipment” — it’s sometimes the best that foreign observers, and even many Chinese, have to go on. 

Rachel Lu contributed research.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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