In the age of open-source intelligence, one main way for Western experts to keep tabs on China’s military is by analyzing photos of new People’s Liberation Army equipment posted online by amateur enthusiasts.
Posting photos of military ships or aircraft captured from outside PLA installations or from commercial flights near sensitive areas has become a common sight in recent years as China rapidly modernized its forces. And “military fans” have spread the word to the larger population on social media sites like Weibo, with hundreds of millions of active users.
But not anymore.
In a WeChat post Saturday titled: “This is a cool hobby, but you must be very careful,” the Ministry of State Security said: “Some individual military enthusiasts severely endanger national military security by illegally obtaining information regarding national defense and disseminating them on the internet.”
“With a focus on military airports, ports, national defense and military industrial units, they drove to or took ferries or planes that pass by designated routes, and clandestinely photographed with telephoto lenses or drones,” said the post from the highly secretive civilian spy agency.
Repeat violators could be imprisoned for up to seven years, although “first-time or occasional offenders” may only receive a warning, according to the agency, which oversees intelligence and counterintelligence both within China and overseas.
The warning comes as Chinese leaders have becoming increasingly focused on ensuring national security across a range of sectors, especially as tensions rise with the United States.
For example, the agency only earlier this year launched its social media account – dedicated to warning citizens about the risks of exposing China’s secrets to the outside world and calling on them to join its fight against espionage.
The case of the carrier
According to the spy agency’s post Saturday, images posted online can show the progress of construction on warships or aircraft while also disclosing operational and technical details of Chinese military hardware. The post specifically mentioned aircraft carriers as one area where security could be compromised.
China’s newest aircraft carrier, the Fujian, has been a frequent target of amateur spotters as it is fitted out at a Shanghai shipyard. The Jiangnan shipyard where the work is being done is close to flight paths of Pudong Shanghai International Airport.
In November, Paris-based defense news site Naval News reported that the Fujian had begun testing its advanced electromagnetic catapult system, based on videos posted on Weibo apparently taken from a passenger plane out of Pudong.
“Related imagery taken from passenger planes has become a common source to follow the progress of several major (PLA Navy) programs,” Naval News reported.
The Fujian is certainly a marquee program for the PLA Navy. The 80,000-ton warship, the largest military vessel ever made in China, is considered a rival to the newest US Navy carriers in the Gerald R Ford-class, one of the few other carriers to use electromagnetic catapults to launch aircraft.
The photos of the suspected catapult test gave Western analysts an idea of how the PLA Navy is progressing in getting the carrier ready for commissioning and active service.
And that imagery isn’t the first of the Fujian to find its way online.
In April 2023, state broadcaster CCTV disclosed in a news report that in November 2021, Mr. Luo, a “fairly renowned” military enthusiast, was sentenced to one year in prison following his arrest by the Shanghai national security bureau for photographing the Fujian carrier.
Luo had used a drone capable of filming long-range high-resolution photos, the report said.
How the US handles images
It’s not just China that’s wary of what amateur military spotters might do that could reveal sensitive information.
US law says the President can designate certain military installations and equipment as off-limits to image makers.
“It shall be unlawful to make any photograph, sketch, picture, drawing, map, or graphical representation of such vital military and naval installations or equipment,” unless proper permission is obtained beforehand, the US Code states. Violators could face up to a year in prison.
Of course, militaries can sometimes use open-source intelligence to their advantage, said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.