Professional social media profiles and foreign students are fertile recruiting opportunities for Chinese spies, a former head of counter-intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency says.
Platforms such as LinkedIn, where people provide detailed accounts of their professional histories, allow easy identification of targets who have access to research and advanced technologies wanted by China.
James Olson, who spent 30 years working for the CIA and is now a professor at Texas A&M University, told The Australian Financial Review Chinese intelligence services were "aggressively" using social media.
“They are mining it, looking for people in the West who have access that might facilitate their efforts to gain access to our research or technology or innovations," he said, citing several high-profile arrests in the US.
Professor Olson, who has written a book on counterintelligence, said many professionals were "babes in the woods" and described China's approach to information gathering as being like "a tidal wave".
"They come from a culture where it is valued to share information, to collaborate with others, to talk about their research," he said.
"They tend to overlook the fact there are people out there up to no good and who would have an interest in their backgrounds and their expertise."
Zhenhua talks of waging "hybrid warfare" and manipulating reality via social media, and views its mission as using big data for the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".
The Australian segment of the list was heavy with high-profile figures from politics, law and the military, but also includes lesser known technology entrepreneurs, academics, business people and religious leaders.
"They announce in their resumes they worked in the government or they worked in a high-tech company with access to technology the Chinese would be interested in, and they see all that," Professor Olson said.
Potential targets are then "wined and dined", offered invitations to conferences in China, consulting relationships and casual employment.
"They elicit as much information as they can, they size them up to being susceptible to that kind of approach and they begin to press the point.
"Before long they're sharing a lot more information. And the urge is to ingratiate themselves with someone who might be a future employer or partner in any way. It's classic."
Foreign students are also fertile targets, both Chinese students looking to study overseas and students looking to study in China.
Professor Olson said China was leading the pack in developing "futures" – students who could be guided into useful jobs over a long period of time.
He used the example of Glenn Duffie Shriver, a US student who studied in Shanghai and was paid $US70,000 ($96,000) by an affiliate of the Chinese government in exchange for applying for US government jobs.
After three failed attempts Mr Shriver was arrested by the FBI in 2010 and sentenced to four years in prison.
Professor Olson said it was now common practice for key US personnel travelling to China to be given FBI defensive briefings before their departure.
He said governments needed to actively engage with universities and businesses about the risks to which they may be exposed.