Argument

Chinese Are Masters at Blackmailing – Each Other

Chinese spies might not be Russians' equals when it comes to compromising foreigners, but they're masters at the home game.

In this picture taken on July 15, 2015, people gather in front of a Uniqlo clothes store in Beijing. Chinese Communist authorities have said the distribution of a sex tape purportedly shot in a fitting room in one of Beijing's trendiest shopping malls is "against socialist core values", after the footage went viral.  AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR        (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this picture taken on July 15, 2015, people gather in front of a Uniqlo clothes store in Beijing. Chinese Communist authorities have said the distribution of a sex tape purportedly shot in a fitting room in one of Beijing's trendiest shopping malls is "against socialist core values", after the footage went viral. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

“The Russians have sex camps where they train beautiful women to seduce people,” the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) official complained. “Why don’t we have anything like that?” It was halfway through dinner, and he was already drunk, full of self-pity about how “everyone hates us, even though we protect the country,” and incompetently hitting on the women at the table. I was there to help protect a friend’s virtue; he’d been stalking her ever since asking her to report on her employers at a foreign news service.

His envy was unsurprising, though not entirely justified. China’s MSS, which handles both internal and external security, has never enjoyed the same status and glamour as the KGB did in the Soviet Union. The country’s intelligence services were ravaged during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution due to their dangerous amount of knowledge about the world. By contrast, the KGB, and its successor, the FSB, has never had anything less than the full support of the Kremlin. The Russian art of kompromat has reached levels of sophistication, and repute, far beyond what China has ever achieved. It’s certainly difficult to imagine Beijing ever managing to successfully entrap a prospective president of the United States, whose alleged bedroom — or bathroom — habits Moscow’s spying has now reportedly made known to all of us.

But it would also be a mistake to underestimate Chinese espionage. If China has never had professional seducers, like the “swallows” of the Soviet Union, it has been keen to use amateurs. Foreign businesspeople and diplomats are regularly warned about the dangers of bugged hotel rooms and the over-enthusiastic girl at the bar. Chinese women in professional or personal relationships with foreigners in sensitive positions are often approached by the MSS and asked to provide information — with implicit threat if they don’t cooperate.

Little of this seems directed at potential blackmail, though. The bored listeners sitting through hours of tape from the Four Seasons in Beijing — a favorite with visiting U.S. dignitaries, known as “the most bugged hotel in China” — may be more interested in business discussions than sex sessions. In the stories I’ve heard of relationships being suborned, it has been pillow talk that might provide an economic or strategic edge, not blackmail, that interests the security services. When foreigners are caught with their pants down in China, the extortion is usually brief, painful, and financial. The police are quite happy to run the badger game — but largely to line their own pockets, not for the national interest.

But foreign concerns always come a distant second to domestic competition in China. The real enemy of most Chinese officials isn’t the United States; it’s the person in the next office. The grand scope of competition between superpowers means little compared with taking your rival’s job away, and even the politically focused generally care far more about internal stability than they do external competition. At a very high level, Beijing cares intensely about its tussle with the United States; even a little bit below that, the internal struggles and bitter party politics count far more. As my drunk interlocutor suggested, even the MSS has been directed against its governmental colleagues far more than foreigners. Privately, Chinese officials speak of their hatred of the security services, which are seen as corrupt and self-serving. (On the other hand, the party’s internal disciplinary body, the CCDI, is simply feared — not loathed in the same way the MSS is.)

But the official security services are only a small part of an untrusting society. The vast bulk of compromising material gathered in China is used by Chinese officials — and other power players — against each other.

It’s a habit that leaks down even into China’s nonpolitical world. In romantic relationships, Chinese exes seem to use past material against each other with particular bitterness. During my first year in China, the ex-boyfriend of my then-girlfriend hacked into her email account, took all my letters to her while she was on holiday, translated them (badly) into Chinese, and sent them to her parents. Fortunately, her mother was a novelist and not easily shocked.

But among the powerful, the vast majority of this isn’t sexual material but economic and political — two areas taken much more seriously by Chinese officials than bedroom peccadilloes. Plenty of this is penny-ante stuff; take the dossier listing one leading professor’s fulsome praise of former leader Bo Xilai in various outlets, which was circulated to all his colleagues and superiors within a few weeks of Bo’s detention and fall. Or the reporter who lost a cushy job after his subordinate discovered he’d translated online commentary favorable to Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo into German when on an exchange program, translated it back into Chinese, and sent it to his magazine’s bosses.

A failed project, a hidden bank account, or a business pal who fled to Canada with millions of dollars stuffed in his suitcases — in China, all of that makes for a much juicier way to threaten someone, or to destroy their career, than a sex tape. When Luo Shaojie, a Beijing official, had his subordinate murder his mistress in 2011, it was because she’d threatened to expose his corruption, not his affairs.

Some of the material used is sexual. But it’s not wielded with the threat of public exposure. “When I was a young reporter in Guangdong, we used to get people coming to the paper because their husbands had cheated on them — or because they were mistresses and they’d been dumped,” Liang, an older Chinese reporter who asked to use a pseudonym, told me. “Often they had photos. But, of course, we could never run any of this without getting ourselves in trouble. It didn’t matter if the guy himself wasn’t that powerful; we didn’t know who his friends might be.”

The internet once created brief chances for leaks of any compromising material, including of a sexual nature, about China’s elite, as in the case of Lei Zhengfu, a Chongqing official whose puffy features graced the web in 2012 when a tape of him and an 18-year-old sex worker was uploaded to a corruption watchdog site. But those windows have been slammed shut by the massive increase in online controls — and the harsh new legal punishments for online “rumor” spreaders are enough to deter most potential leakers.

But the anti-corruption campaign initiated by President Xi Jinping has created new chances to use photos or videos as real evidence to bring somebody down. “Everyone’s terrified of being seen at places they used to go every Friday night,” one official’s daughter told me. That’s not because of genuinely strict sexual morality, although a certain streak of Marxist puritanism is newly in evidence. It’s because being captured now with a $1000-a-night call girl or at a champagne-and-cocaine-studded nightclub indicates something much more serious than decadence: an inability to follow the party’s directive. Getting caught is a failure of discipline, not morality.

As Tiantian Zheng brilliantly documents in her book Red Lights, that’s not a new idea. Public interactions around sex for men in modern China have always focused on control. Sleeping with sex workers was deemed a normal, healthy, almost compulsory activity; the danger was in losing control — of your own feelings or of the sex worker involved.

Take a standard blackmail letter I was shown in 2009. “Dear Older Brother,” it read, “Do you remember me? My name is [Little Apple] and I used to work at the [Happy Heart] Massage Parlour. We were very good friends. Now I am in serious trouble, Older Brother, and I need your help. If I don’t get it, I might have to come to your workplace and make a fuss.” Con artists sent the letter out en masse to officials, swapping in appropriate local names. But the point wasn’t to menace them with exposure. After all, most of the people at their office would have been at the brothel with them. Instead, “make a fuss” threatened to show a loss of control, an inability to keep things in their place.

It was the same problem that helped bring down another state-owned enterprise boss I knew. When his wife came into the office and screamed at him for two hours that she knew his “goddamn whore” worked there, the problem wasn’t that he had a mistress. Everyone had a mistress. It was that he’d failed to keep control. It didn’t help that his name turned up in WikiLeaks — in an entirely innocuous conversation with a U.S. diplomat that was still enough to undermine and embarrass him.

But these rules aren’t a thousand miles away from the world in which we’re now operating in the West. If the purported “golden showers” tape merely contained video of Donald Trump frolicking with bored blondes in Moscow, would anybody believe that was enough to blackmail him? If anything, it would confirm the alpha male status his followers see as a virtue, not a flaw. But the “pee-pee” tape — or the story of the pee-pee tape — strikes directly at his masculinity, not his morality. And that’s a tale the Chinese can understand — and use — just as well as the Russians.

Photo Credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

James Palmer is a senior editor at Foreign Policy@BeijingPalmer

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