Exiled dissident author Ma Jian may have awoken to some confusion on Friday after several media outlets used images of him in their stories about a jailed Chinese spy chief with the same name.

Spymaster Ma Jian. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

His namesake received a life sentence from a court in Liaoning over corruption on Thursday. Ma Jian – the ex-deputy head of China’s ministry of state security – pleaded guilty after he was put under investigation in 2015 and ousted from the Communist Party: “Ma Jian’s behaviour constituted the crime of accepting bribes, forcing others to trade and insider trading,” the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court said.

However, outlets such as the Gulf Times and Times of India used a stock image of the UK-based author instead of the Chinese official, prompting bemusement from the writer: “Not content with sharing my name, the corrupt spy chief Ma Jian, who was vice minister of the agency responsible for banning me from China, has now stolen my face as well,” he wrote on Twitter.

“This is a strange China Dream. Am I a banned novelist dreaming that I’m a corrupt spy chief, or am I a corrupt spy chief dreaming that I’m a banned novelist?”

See also: ‘I can’t find any of them now’: Dissident writer Ma Jian remembers the freedom fighters of pre-Handover Hong Kong

After discovering a third story which included an image of him, Ma tweeted: “My children are puzzled to learn that I am not the author of China Dream, who has just made them seaweed dumplings for supper, but am instead a former spymaster who has just been jailed for life for accepting ‘extremely large bribes’.”

Jerome Taylor, the bureau chief of Agence France-Presse in Hong Kong, weighed in with some advice for picture editors: “[P]lease note: @majian53 is NOT the same Ma Jian who was China’s former spy chief and got jailed yesterday. Many people in China share the same name, just like with western names. Do a quick Google and you’ll save yourself some embarrassment.”

Ma Jian. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Ma Jian – the author – hit the headline himself last month after Hong Kong art space Tai Kwun reversed its decision to scrap his book launch event. The English version of his dystopian satire China Dream went ahead as part of a local literary festival. 

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