Sam Armstrong

Beijing’s agents tried to recruit me on LinkedIn

Naohiko Hatta - Pool/Getty Images

‘We are an international headhunter company, your profile attracted me,’ began the remarkable message I received on LinkedIn. My newfound interlocutor, ‘Mr Zha’, explained in broken English that, ‘one of our partner in China looking for a freelancer researcher, helping them write some papers they will pay 1500-3000 USD for 6-10 pages. Contact me if you are interested. I can send you the [job description].’

To many such an approach might seem inconspicuous and hardly worth mentioning. After all, isn’t this precisely the sort of engagement that LinkedIn is designed for?  But when you work for a foreign policy think tank, business offers like these are highly unusual: our work is corporate and side-contracts are rare; the pay was three times the market rate; and the poor English was atypical – to say the least – of any reputable approach.

So unusual was this message, that I immediately remarked on it to a colleague, only to hear that he too had received the same message. After further enquiries, it transpired that alongside myself, messages were received by our executive director, then-research director and – perhaps most tellingly, our Asia studies director. A curious colleague replied and was sent the job description. In it, Mr Zha promised easy work that, once completed, would be followed by what he euphemistically described ‘a long-term cooperation for years’.

He went on to clarify that ‘a face-to-face Interview in China’ would be required but not to fear as the ‘company will pay the travel fee including air tickets, hotel, meals, and other related’ costs. A fee of $3,000 and an all-expenses-paid trip to China for a couple of days’ work was beginning to sound too good to be true. And indeed it was.

It transpired Mr Zha was a state-sponsored Chinese recruiter tasked with identifying and recruiting Western academics into an exercise designed to turn, compromise, or denigrate Beijing’s critics. One

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