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China’s ‘military fans’ could run afoul of national security laws

Members of a Chinese military honor guard. (Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, USAF/Released)
March 28, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s Ministry of State Security has warned the country’s social media influencers, particularly military enthusiasts and former state employees with access to confidential information, that they are at risk of breaching national security laws in their bid to attract fans.

“With the rise of self-media, a casual video or comment can attract a lot of attention online, and anyone can become an online celebrity,” the ministry said in a post on Tuesday to its official WeChat account.

“Knowledge-sharing and outdoor check-in accounts are very popular … but they need to improve their awareness of national security,” the post warned.

The growth of amateur military enthusiasts has come amid a rise in popularity for nationalistic commentators who like to brag about China’s military might online, particularly with regard to a potential invasion of democratic Taiwan.

“Military fan” content has proliferated behind the Great Firewall of internet censorship in recent years, as it is often produced by “little pink” creators of nationalistic content, which drives large amounts of traffic on Chinese social media.

Some like to report on the latest high-tech weaponry and equipment being deployed by the People’s Liberation Army, analyze the strengths of its command regions and theaters, or engage in military plane-spotting, including aircraft identifying marks, according to state media reports.

Meanwhile, on YouTube, short videos have also appeared in large numbers on channels like China Defense and Military Tube and CCTV’s China Military, using official state media footage and sometimes an AI voice-over and subtitles in English that appear aimed at an overseas audience.

But official warnings are growing that some influencers appear to be going too far, amid a nationwide crackdown on the flow of information under ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

The latest Ministry of State Security post follows a warning from the Ministry in December that any military fans reporting details of construction projects, technical specifications or the deployment of new military equipment could be prosecuted, with prison sentences of 3-7 years for the most serious offenders.

In January, a People’s Liberation Army-affiliated media organization Jun Zhengping Studio complained publicly after a blogger shared tips on how to sneak into a restricted military zone on the Xiaohongshu social media platform.

The post was illustrated with a photo of a young woman scaling a chain-link fence at a restricted facility near the central city of Wuhan, close to a big red sign that reads “No Entry. Restricted Military Area.”

The Ministry’s post on Tuesday said former civil servants, defense officials and scientific researchers have used their insider knowledge to drive traffic to their accounts, taking advantage of public curiosity about secret matters, even before the statute of limitations on that knowledge has expired.

“Anyone striving to become an internet celebrity must always pay attention to their words and deeds, and never leak national secrets or endanger national security,” the account warned, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

It singled out “outdoor enthusiasts” who like to check in at restricted areas “as a gimmick to attract attention,” and who take photos around military restricted zones regardless of warning notices.

“Illegal actions like breaking into military restricted areas in order to attract fans seriously disrupts the orderly management of important military areas, and may even provide an opportunity for overseas spies and intelligence agencies to spy on and analyze our military deployment, endangering national security,” the report said, citing the ministry.

“Areas under military management and classified sensitive areas are not tourist attractions,” it said, calling on social media platforms to weed out content of this kind.

Under Chinese law, the country’s citizens are obliged to protect military facilities, the post warned.

“Any behavior that disrupts the orderly management of military restricted areas or threatens safety at military facilities will be severely punished by law,” the Ministry warned.