Spies in the City: Shanghai’s 1974 Crackdown on Secret Agents

Hey, foreigner, put that newspaper down!

The Municipal Foreign Affairs Group and the Public Security Bureau were on high alert in February 1974. Spies were running rampant in Shanghai, they claimed, and something needed to be done.

The two departments followed marching orders from China’s Central Government. The Foreign Ministry had recently deported the First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy and four other Russian staff in Beijing for “carrying out espionage activities in our country [China].” Paranoia of, and vigilance against, foreign secret agents in China’s capital descended southward. It was embraced by Shanghai’s security and foreign services.

It did not matter that Shanghai did not have a permanent Soviet mission in the city limits (the consulate closed in 1962, along with all other Soviet consulates in China). “Personnel from the embassy of the Soviet revisionists in Beijing as well as long-term resident journalists come to Shanghai often,” the two departments explained. These individuals had infiltrated every inch of the city, from street corners, to alleyways, to small shops and restaurants. In these seemingly innocuous settings, the spies managed to collect valuable “political, military, and economic intelligence.” The allies of the Soviet revisionists, as well as representatives of capitalist countries, were up to no good as well. Shanghai was crawling with moles, plants, and infiltrators.

Wary of these illicit activities, the Foreign Affairs Group and Public Security Bureau called on the entire city to become mobilized against foreign spies, “especially those belonging to the Soviet revisionists.” The two departments were ready, pending approval from above, to distribute how-to guides for smashing the espionage activities of foreign agents to cadres at all levels of the city’s party and government regimes.

The literature they had prepared would teach official personnel to “thoroughly expose the reactionary face and the despicable tricks of the Soviet revisionists/socialist imperialists.” At the same time, city staff would learn how to “excite the masses to enthusiastically struggle against the Soviet revisionist spies.”

Efforts also needed to be taken to educate government and party workers on what they could do to help protect China’s national secrets. The Foreign Affairs Group and the PSB proposed routine inspections of any office or organization dealing with foreigners or foreign matters. Publishing houses and post offices were furthermore instructed to be careful not to release publications to foreigners or, worse, to allow them to be sent broad. They were told to “prevent foreigners and foreign Chinese from buying” magazines, newspapers, and books. (Imagine if this was still in effect today.)

The two Shanghai offices were confident that the crackdown on spies in the city would be a success. But there was one problem: what if surging anti-Soviet sentiment and paranoia of spies in Shanghai disrupted the “normal activities” that “personnel of friendly nations” carried out in China?

Blind xenophobia was apparently unacceptable. The foreign and security services concluded that Shanghai’s people must be taught how to distinguish the imperialists, revisionists, and anti-China spies from China’s true friends and allies. Otherwise, the country’s foreign relations could be harmed.

The Communist Party’s committee in Shanghai concurred. “[We] agree,” at least “in principle,” they wrote.

The above information is derived from Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA) B123-8-1009, 7-8.

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