The honey trap—using a sexually attractive person to snare a target—features prominently in popular literature, from James Bond books and movies to the novels of Adam Brookes, Alan Furst and David Cornwell (John le Carré), the current television series The Americans, and a recent Chinese anti-spy campaign (illustration above).[1]  But how much of an issue is it for visitors to China?

In short, it’s a problem, though the Chinese side denies it.

A Brief History of the Honey Trap in China

The honey trap, or “beautiful person plan” (美人, meiren ji) is an ancient tactic, number 31 among the “36 Stratagems” from The Art of War.[2]  As one prominent author points out, “sexual entrapment was terrifyingly effective” during the Chinese revolution.[3]

Then came the puritanical communist government of Mao Zedong.  After 1949, People’s Republic of China (PRC) security agencies were formally forbidden to use the honey trap, at least in China, partly because the new regime placed an emphasis on eradicating prostitution—plus the tactic was ill-suited for use by communist police cadres who were naïve about city life.  Chinese intelligence and security officials allegedly were repulsed by their KGB comrades’ enthusiastic advocacy of the honey trap.  In the 1960s and 70s, restrictions expanded to ban any and all use of female agents by male officers, to avoid even the mildest temptation.[4]

However, things loosened up as Chinese cadres became more sophisticated and the PRC opened up to the outside world.  In a case made famous by the play and film M. Butterfly and the book Liaison, [5] the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) exploited a forbidden sexual relationship to blackmail the French diplomat Bernard Boursicot in Beijing.

Coincidentally, while Boursicot was courting the object of his affections, Minister of Public Security Xie Fuzhi briefed Premier Zhou Enlai on 3 September 1964 about current operations—at that time, his ministry had responsibility for all counterespionage operations on Chinese soil.  The details of the meeting remain secret, but a public record says that Zhou reacted to one of Minister Xie’s briefings by insisting, “When carrying out investigations, we must resolutely oppose the use of the “honey trap.”[6]  It was a tantalizing reference that might indicate Beijing Public Security was on to Boursicot’s then developing romance with the Beijing opera star Shi Peipu (时佩璞; thanks to Anonymous for correcting the name), and was preparing to take advantage of it, even if they had not created an entrapment scenario.

The Honey Trap in China Today

China’s opening to the outside world in the 1980s completely changed the picture.

By the 1990s, prostitution was commonplace and rumored to enjoy the protection of local officials.  Overseas, the controversial Parlor Maid case [7] of the 1990s featured alleged sexual persuasion targeting FBI agents, and other cases arose in Japan in 2006.  The honey trap appears also to be employed against China by their opponents on Taiwan, just as the Taiwan services have used it against their American ally.[8]

In recent years, foreigners in China regularly report heterosexual and homosexual approaches that appear to carry the risk of blackmail.[9]  Diplomats and other officials are routinely targeted,[10] and US companies, including at least one major technology firm, have not been spared.[11]

More Specifics

A former security official in Tianjin, Hao Fengjun, told Taiwanese press that Chinese intelligence services periodically sweep brothels and karaoke parlors to trap foreign officials and businessmen.[12]  A notable example: a Japanese communications clerk in Shanghai committed suicide in May 2004 after being blackmailed by Chinese intelligence, probably the Shanghai State Security Bureau, because of his relationship with a prostitute.[13]

Train Your Travelers

Chinese sources routinely deny these claims [14] and hint at the prohibitions of yesteryear—all the more reason to emphasize in training for business travelers, expats and others visiting China that the honey trap problem remains persistent.

Thanks to Peter Mattis and others for their reviews and comments on this piece.

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[1] Did Kirsten Tatlow, “China’s Dangerous Love Campaign, Warning of Spies, is Met with Shrugs, nytimes.com, 22 April 2016.
[2] John Barkai, “The 36 Chinese Strategies Applied to Negotiation” in Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, No. 403, 2008.
[3]Michael Schoenhals, Spying for the People, Mao’s Secret Agents, 1949-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 101-109.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Joyce Wadler, Liaison: the real story of the affair that inspired M. Butterfly (New York: Penguin Books, 1994).  The play and film: Hwang, David Henry, M Butterfly (New York: Penguin, 1989). M Butterfly. Dir. David Cronenburg. Perfs: Jeremy Irons, John Lone, and Ian Richardson. Geffen Pictures and Warner Brothers, 1993.
[6] Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi, ed., Zhou Enlai nianpu, 1949-1976, zhong [The Annals of Zhou Enlai, 1949-1976, vol. 2] (Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe, 1997), p. 666, and Schoenhals, p. 109.  Joyce Wadler, “Shi Beipu, Singer, dies at 70” in The New York Times, July 2, 2009)
[7] PBS Frontline, “The Parlor Maid Case,” at pbs.org
[8] Julian Ryall, “Chinese hostesses catch Japanese high-tech executives in honey trap,” (http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1336808/chinese-hostesses-catch-japanese-hi-tech-executives-honey-trap) 22 October 2013.  Lee Ferran, “Chinese official caught in foreign spy’s honeytrap?” (http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/chinese-official-caught-foreign-spys-honeytrap/story?id=13925539June 25, 2011), and  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/8599565/Chinese-minister-was-caught-in-a-Honeytrap.html.  As an internet search will show, these citations only scratch the surface.  See also US Department of Justice, “Ex-State Department Official Sentenced in Classified Info Case,” in US Department of State Archive, 22 January 2007, at 2001-2009.state.gov
[9] Interviews, September 2016; Daniel Baldino, Democratic Oversight of Intelligence Systems (Federation Press, 2010), pp. 162, 178-80.
[10] Hiroto Nakata, “China slammed over cryptographer honey trap suicide,” in The Japan Times, April 1, 2006, at japantimes.co.jp   Andrew Porter, “Downing Street aide in Chinese “honeytrap” sting” in The Telegraph, 20 July 2008, at telegraph.co.ukand mirror.co.uk,1 November 2015.
[11] Interview, September 2016.
[12] Peter Mattis, “Five Ways China Spies,” The National Interest, March 6, 2014.
[13] Justin McCurry, “Japan Says Diplomat’s Suicide Followed Blackmail,” The Guardian, December 29, 2005. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/dec/29/japan.china>
[15] Jason Subler, “China rejects report on Brown aide “honeytrap” at http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-china-britain-honeytrap-idUKPEK26704420080721