Live and Let Lie

A tale of sex, fraud and a bogus spy

Live and Let Lie

Tang Wei: her character in Lust Caution inspired Miss Zhang

If it were ever made into a movie it would have to be called The Spy Who Tricked Me. In keeping with the Bond connection, the theme song could be Nobody Fooled Me Better.

The “spy” in question is Cheng Chaojun, and while he doesn’t drive a Lotus Esprit or an Aston Martin, he did have a way with the ladies.

Indeed, the salacious exposure of his recent exploits – in which Cheng pretended to be a high ranking spy – has given China’s media something of a field day.

The unwitting victim was a pretty 20-something television reporter with CCTV, the national broadcaster. They met in late 2007, and Cheng persuaded her that he was the Secretary of the National Intelligence Agency. With his gift of the gab and a careful hint of subterfuge, Cheng convinced the lady in question that he was a high ranking member of China’s espionage community.

Zhang – her full name has not been released – became enmeshed by Cheng’s wiles through a mix of naivety and self-interest. Thinking him a powerful figure – albeit working covertly – she asked him to help her get a Beijing residency certificate.

In China every citizen is saddled with a residency card – called a hukou – which connects them to their birthplace. The hukou gives workers a whole range of special rights – from free education for their children at local public schools to retirement insurance. But those rights can only be enjoyed by people who work in the city that their hukou designates. If you worked in Beijing without a Beijing hukou, for example, you would not receive the same benefits as a worker who does have one.

Cheng told Zhang he could arrange to have her hukou transferred – giving her Beijing residency – and charged her Rmb20,000 ($2,920) for the service.

It could have ended there as a simple case of fraud, but Cheng sensed further opportunity.

He revealed to Zhang that he was editing a special, confidential publication relating to national intelligence. He recruited her as a part-time editor, i.e. as one of his agents. She wrote a letter guaranteeing that she would put “the national interest above all else” and agreed that “when necessary” that would include what was termed “ physical dedication in the national interest”.

Cheng explained that he would have to test her “physical dedication” himself. In a hotel room.

Zhang later told police that she found the whole idea of being “an agent” very exciting. She had seen the Ang Lee movie, Lust Caution, in which the female protagonist Wang Chia-chih put her country before her chastity (see WiC2) – in that case a honeytrap is used to entrap a bureaucrat who was collaborating with the Japanese during the 1940s.

And according to the Ta Kung Pao newspaper, Zhang closely identified with Wang’s “physical dedication”. She even wondered if she could trap corrupt officials in her hometown and expose them for the benefit of society.

Of course, it turned out that Cheng was no spymaster. He actually worked as an editor on an internal newsletter published by the National Development and Reform Commission; although he was fired from the role last year.

Unemployed but by now accomplished in his fictional role, Cheng was finally arrested when he tried to recruit more agents from university campuses. As the police went through his items they came across a copy of Zhang’s identity card, and the incident was exposed.

Let no one doubt the seriousness of trying to impersonate an espionage kingpin in China. Cheng was sentenced to 10 years of jail time for his transgression. Zhang meanwhile has received a mixed reception. The Guangzhou Daily was shocked by her attempts to secure the Beijing residency improperly. Others disparage her gullibility.

But in a curious coincidence, a new statue was unveiled in Shanghai this week. It commemorates Zheng Pingru – the real life spy on whom the character of Lust Caution’s heroine Wang was partly based.

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