China’s chief intelligence agency published a comic strip on Sunday that appeared to warn of a “threat” to its rare earth reserves from “overseas organisations”.
The comic, published on Sunday on the Ministry of State Security’s (MSS) official WeChat account, featured foreign-looking characters secretly extracting rare earths in the fictional Xishan Mining Area — described as an area rich in critical and scarce mineral deposits that could bring breakthroughs in super-semiconductor technology.
The story depicted two security officers that were sent to the area undercover as lost hikers to gather information. It showed the two officers uncovering “suspicious” exploration and mapping activities by a group of people supposedly doing survey work for real estate development.
“As technology grows in leaps and bounds, some primary minerals have become rare strategic resources,” one police character said.
“China boasts rich resources of these minerals. Overseas organisations have already had their eyes on them.”
The comic was described as just the first episode of the ‘storyline’.
No foreign governments or agencies were named in the comic strip. The ministry also did not specify any measures to counter foreign “interest” in China’s rare earths.
Even so, the comic comes at a time when global firms are worried about rare earth supply chains flowing from China — the world’s largest producer of rare earths.
‘Infiltration, bribery, and espionage’
Rare earths, used widely in lasers, military equipment and consumer electronics, have emerged as the latest point of conflict in the ongoing tech war between China and the United States.
China accounts for nearly 90% of global refined output of rare earths, that have grown in demand amid the rapid development of new energy vehicles, wind power and inverter air conditioners.
The country has, since August last year, blocked the exports of two key chipmaking metals — germanium and gallium. The move was largely seen as retaliation against US curbs on export of advanced chips and chipmaking tools to China.
In December, Beijing further banned the export of technology to make rare earth magnets, in addition a ban on technology to extract and separate rare earths.
State-controlled Global Times described Sunday’s comic as underscoring the importance of safeguarding key mineral resources as part of “national security”.
The newspaper said the United States, Japan and the European Union, among others, have for a long time “coveted China’s rare earth mineral resources”.
“They have even resorted to infiltration, bribery, and espionage to achieve their goals,” Global Times said, quoting Li Baiyang, an associate professor of intelligence studies at Nanjing University.
China’s espionage crusade
The comic, dubbed The Secret Special Investigation Division (SPD), is the latest attempt by the authoritarian Xi Jinping government to ‘inspire people’ to join anti-espionage efforts in the world’s second-largest economy.
In August last year, the MSS called on all citizens to become spies for the Communist Party.
That was a month after China out in effect a vague but strict anti-espionage law, which, the US says, threatens to target even regular activities of foreign businesses.
As part of the effort to eliminate national security risks from major industries, the Xi Administration has also been on an anti-corruption crusade, which has led to disappearance and detention of a range of officials ranging from the former Bank of China chairman to foreign minister Qin Gang and defence minister Li Shangfu.
State media Global Times previously described the SPD comic as an adaption of “real cases of counter-espionage operations.”
In its first instalment, released on January 7 and also set in the Xishan Mining Area, the comic depicted intelligence officers interrogating a blonde-haired man after capturing him for violating the anti-espionage law.
- Reuters, with additional reporting by Vishakha Saxena