Beijing claims an American citizen jailed for life in China earlier this year is a decorated spy who had worked for US intelligence for more than three decades, as it ramps up a campaign warning citizens to guard against foreign espionage.
John Shing-Wan Leung, a 78-year-old US citizen who also holds permanent residency in Hong Kong, was sentenced to life in prison by a Chinese court in May on espionage charges.
At the time, authorities provided no details about his case, except that he was detained by state security officers in April 2021.
Months after the sentencing, the Ministry of State Security, China’s main civilian spy agency, claimed in a social media post Monday that Leung had been recruited by US intelligence agencies in 1989 and received what it termed a “merit medal” for the large amount of intelligence he allegedly collected.
The ministry accused Leung of spying on Chinese diplomats and Chinese officials visiting the US – including by luring the officials into bugged hotels and using so-called “honey traps” to blackmail them.
Authorities provided minimal details on Leung when it announced he had been jailed for life in May. According to a court statement at the time he had been arrested by state security authorities in April 2021.
CNN cannot independently verify the allegations against Leung and the ministry did not provide further evidence to support its claims. Cases involving espionage – a broad and vaguely defined charge – are usually handled behind closed doors in China, where the judicial system has a conviction rate above 99.9%.
In a previous statement on Leung, the US State Department said it was “aware of the sentencing of a US citizen in the PRC (China) on charges of espionage.”
“When a US citizen is detained overseas, the department works to provide all appropriate assistance, including relevant consular access,” a spokesperson added.
Beijing and Washington have escalated espionage accusations against each other, after the controversy over an alleged Chinese spy balloon shot down by the US further inflamed tensions earlier this year.
In recent months, Beijing has also hardened efforts to counter perceived foreign threats and ramped up calls for ordinary citizens to assist in efforts to uncover spies.
In August, the Ministry of State Security took the unprecedented step of launching a public account on WeChat, China’s hugely popular social messaging app that boasts more than 1 billion users. In the weeks since, the ministry has used the platform to repeatedly urge the public to stay vigilant and report suspicious activity to authorities.
In an apparent attempt to show these threats are real, the ministry publicized two recent cases where Chinese nationals were accused of spying for the CIA after being recruited while living overseas.
The apparent propaganda blitz comes just weeks after CIA Director William Burns said his agency had “made progress” in rebuilding its spy network in China after suffering major setbacks a decade ago.
Bugged hotels and ‘honey traps’
CNN has previously revealed that Leung was a veteran leader of several pro-Beijing groups in the Houston area, who had rubbed shoulders for years with senior Chinese officials. In China, he was extolled by state media as an “outstanding representative” of “patriotic” overseas Chinese for promoting exchanges between the US and China.
In its WeChat post, China’s spy agency claimed Leung’s patriotic Chinese persona was a means of gaining access to Chinese intelligence.
It claimed the US provided funding for Leung to take up leadership roles in multiple overseas Chinese associations to boost his profile, and to travel to China to hold charity events to burnish his image as a “patriotic philanthropist.”
‘With the help of these disguises, Leung was instructed by US intelligence agencies to carry out espionage activities against our country on a large scale,” the ministry said.
The post alleged Leung worked as a US informant for more than three decades, beginning in 1989. The post went on to detail the methods Leung allegedly used to gather intelligence during that time, including getting close to Chinese diplomats through meals, festive events and activities at overseas Chinese associations.
The ministry also claimed Leung had closely monitored visits by Chinese officials to the US and reported them to his handlers.
“Following plans laid out by the US side, [Leung] would bring them to restaurants or hotels where the US intelligence agencies have installed monitoring equipment in advance to obtain intelligence,” the post claimed.
“He even set up honey traps in an attempt to coerce our personnel and incite defection,” it added.
The latest allegations against Leung from China come the same week an alleged Chinese spying scandal has rocked the heart of British politics.
Two men were arrested under Britain’s Official Secrets Act, amid reports that a parliamentary researcher with alleged links to senior Conservative Party politicians, including security minister Tom Tugendhat, was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.
On Sunday, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he raised “very strong concerns” to China’s premier over potential Chinese influence in British democracy after a parliament employee was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing.
The Chinese embassy in London dismissed the spying accusation as “completely fabricated.”