Thursday, July 10, 2008

Spy Scare (I)

A carefully worded but revealing story appeared in today's New York Times, detailing yet another espionage case involving agents from or for the PRC. The accused were again a trio similar to those in other cases in recent years: a corrupted American senior citizen, a seemingly benign American-Chinese middle man and a young woman from China, with love (according to another web source).

I have neither the credentials nor the knowledge of the intelligence world thus am in no position commenting on the accuracy of the article. But the story does refresh the memories of a few "encounters" I had concerning the issue of espionage.

Back in the mid 80s when I was in high school in the city of Tianjin, rumor had that each year some government officials from Beijing would descend to our school and "invite" a couple of graduating students to attend a college in the Capital that was known for training the nation's intelligence forces. Since the invitation usually meant guaranteed college admission and more importantly, the likelihood of going abroad after graduation, I can safely say that quite a number of our students were vying to be picked out.

However, those slots were not meant to be vied for but given and much of the selection process was done behind scenes. As I entered the last year of high school, a new rumor began to circulate, saying that the officials might skip our school this time because one of the students they picked from previous years had ruined the credibility of his alma mater by performing poorly in college. Although the logic behind the rumor was absurd, in those days, we all believed in it.

But the rumor was only partially correct. The former alumnus of ours was indeed an "unruly" character in college. He had to take a job within the school system when he graduated but eventually managed to leave when he became a major pop singer in China in later years.

The incorrect part of the rumor was that the officials did show up after all. About two months before the national College Entrance Exams, two middle-aged men from Beijing paid a visit to our school. But unlike in previous years, this time they came to invite a couple of students to attend a newly created foreign language program at another college. The program was paid for by a number of government agencies and the students would then be assigned to work for those agencies when they graduated. It also involved of two years of studying abroad - which in the eyes of many of my peers was extremely enticing, but there was a catch: those entering the program would not be learning one of the major foreign tongues but a "small language," i.e. Arabic, Korean or Bengali and etc.. Their two years of studying abroad would take place in the country where the language they were learning was spoken. The prospects of studying and possibly working in the Middle East and Bangladesh might have scared off a lot of wannabes and as far as I could remember, the response from my peers was unenthusiastic.

But the school was obliged to present a list of candidates to the men from Beijing and somehow my name was on it. I brought the news to my parents who, as usual, didn't have much an opinion. But a relative of mine got the wind of it and strongly suggested that I decline the offer in case I was interviewed. He believed that I wasn't made for this kind of "program."

Yet the interview never took place. I could only guess that my family background must have failed the preliminary screening test. Two of my classmates were chosen to enter the program. One was assigned to learn Turkish; the other, Danish. The specialist in Turkish went on to become a reporter; the one in Danish, a diplomat.

Over the years I occasionally heard rumors or news about those two, but I don't remember I've ever heard from them directly. During one of the recent trips to China, I got hold of the number of the specialist in Turkish who was thought to be in Beijing at the time. I called him but learned that he has already left for Turkey again. I didn't try to track down the other one as I knew he had perished in the early 1990s. He didn't die of any sort of violence, but of AIDS, in Denmark. In fact, he was the first Chinese diplomat who died of this disease and his death, though remains unpublicized, has caused quite a stir in the Chinese foreign service world.

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