Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 15 December 2023


Chinese spies recruited European politician in operation to divide west

Covert officer paid and directed far-right Belgian politician for more than three years
Frank Creyelman, a former Belgian senator © FT montage/Dirk Vertommen

Chinese spies ran a far-right Belgian politician as an intelligence asset for more than three years in a case that shows how Beijing has conducted influence operations in an effort to shape politics in its favour.

Daniel Woo, an officer in China’s Ministry of State Security spy agency, pushed Frank Creyelman, a former Belgian senator, to influence discussions in Europe on issues ranging from China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong to its persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was about to visit China in late 2022, Woo asked Creyelman to convince two rightwing members of the European parliament to say publicly that the US and UK were undermining European energy security.

“Our purpose is to divide the US-European relationship,” Woo wrote in a text message to Creyelman.

The relationship between the Chinese case officer and his Belgian agent is documented in text messages from 2019 to late 2022 that were obtained from a western security source in a joint investigation by the Financial Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde.

Creyelman did not respond to efforts to reach him by text, phone and email.

The exchanges reveal in explicit detail how Chinese intelligence tries to manipulate political discussion around the world in Beijing’s favour — a concern increasingly flagged by western security agencies.

While most big countries engage in spying, the MSS operation in Europe highlights one of the defining features of Chinese espionage: widespread influence operations aimed at shaping political debate that span Ottawa, London and Canberra. Washington has also repeatedly warned of covert efforts by Beijing to interfere with elections.

“The MSS has spent decades trying to shape politics and global discourse on China. Recruiting and manipulating academics, policymakers, business leaders and, as this case shows, even politicians is part of that,” said Alex Joske, a consultant at McGrathNicol and the author of Spies and Lies, a book about the MSS.

Woo operates from the Zhejiang branch of the MSS, according to intelligence officials from four western countries. Western intelligence has also tracked him operating in Poland and Romania.

In one exchange in 2021, Woo told Creyelman he had been tasked with “attacking Adrian Zenz”, a researcher who helped reveal how China detained hundreds of thousands of the mainly Muslim Uyghur minority in its far-western region of Xinjiang.

Text messages between Frank Creyelman and Daniel Woo

Woo also asked Creyelman to help disrupt a conference on Taiwan, and the pair discussed paying an intermediary to influence a Catholic cardinal to warn against politicising Covid-19 as China came under pressure over the virus that emerged from Wuhan.

Former US intelligence officials with expertise on the MSS who were briefed on the exchanges said the messages bore the hallmarks of a classic political influence operation by the agency.

“They reflect the MSS obsession with the US having been the ‘black hand’ behind the Hong Kong protest movement, the desire to constantly look for opportunities to disrupt pro-Taiwan conferences and events in third countries, and its mission to discredit those reporting on human rights abuses in Xinjiang,” said Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst now at Georgetown University.

Peter Mattis, a former CIA counter-intelligence analyst, said it also illustrated a feature of Chinese intelligence: how the MSS gives autonomy to its regional branches. “This case shows that Beijing and the MSS provide direction, but intelligence officers and the sources work together on how to achieve their objectives,” said Mattis, head of the Jamestown Foundation think-tank.

Text messages between Frank Creyelman and Daniel Woo

One former CIA operative with experience in Europe said MSS case officers tended to focus on recruiting or co-opting lower-ranking politicians in the continent “who are sympathetic to China’s cause or who benefit from China’s largesse”.

“These lower-ranking politicians have established access to senior officials, regularly discuss with them sensitive topics and then, wittingly or unwittingly, share with the MSS what they have gleaned,” said the former CIA officer.

One exchange between Woo and Creyelman starkly revealed that strategy. The Chinese officer made reference to past efforts to target Martin Selmayr, a former secretary-general of the European Commission who was once among the most powerful officials in Brussels.

There is no evidence that China was successful in the endeavour. Selmayr, currently the head of the EU representation in Austria, vehemently denied any knowledge of the situation, adding that it was not his responsibility “to explain rather dubious conversations between people of an obviously dubious nature”.

Text messages between Frank Creyelman and Daniel Woo

It is unclear how or when Creyelman was recruited. His relationship with Woo seems to have been conducted remotely, with the exception of a trip to Sanya, a beach resort city in Hainan Island, in 2019 to meet his intelligence handler.

A veteran of Belgium’s far-right Flemish nationalist movement since 1977, Creyelman served in the federal Senate from 1999 to 2007 and is now an honorary member of the Flemish parliament. Until Friday he was the leader of the Vlaams Belang party in his local city, Mechelen.

Tom Van Grieken, leader of Vlaams Belang, on Friday said Creyelman’s actions “go against the purpose and essence, even the name, of our party” and announced he was being expelled from the party with immediate effect.

Nigel Inkster, former head of operations at MI6 and an expert on Chinese intelligence, said the MSS conducted most of its espionage through provincial departments and Zhejiang had “primacy” for operations in Europe.

One western intelligence source said the division of MSS in Zhejiang, an eastern province of China, had an estimated 5,000 intelligence officers and commonly met assets at Sanya.

“China has a significant human and electronic collection capability in Brussels, which is seen as a target-rich environment due to the concentration of international organisations, including the European Commission and Nato,” said Inkster, who now works for consultancy Enodo Economics.

The former CIA operative said the MSS also tended to take more risks in Europe because it viewed the consequences of being caught as being less severe than in the US. One former senior western intelligence officer said Brussels was a particular focus because its security services did not have sufficient resources.

“Belgium has become a major centre for intelligence operations by a variety of hostile states due to the ease of operation there,” said the former senior officer.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo was asked about the news as he arrived at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Friday. “I find that very problematic,” he said.

“That would actually mean that some people are sabotaging our prosperity, our security, our democracy from within, from a party that sits in our country’s parliament, in the senate . . . A senator from Vlaams Belang being on the front page of the Financial Times — the whole world has seen that.”

De Croo said he had known about the revelations for a couple of weeks and was “shocked”. He said this showed that “the extreme right can be a danger for our society”.

Woo discussed money several times in the exchanges, including amounts he would pay Creyelman or others for their help. At one point, Woo taught Creyelman how to use an app to transfer cryptocurrency.

Creyelman appears to have had little success in fulfilling the tasks assigned by Woo in the texts. In June 2021, for example, he admitted that he “tried to oppose . . . without success” a resolution in the Belgian parliament that declared Uyghurs at risk of genocide.

In 2019, Woo asked Creyelman to arrange the publication of an article pushing back against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Creyelman said he could pay a freelance journalist who would charge at least €2,000.

The Brussels-based journalist, James Wilson, said he had been approached by Creyelman for “work on China” but “politely declined” and that writing stories for payment was “against my principles”.

In the final message of the texts obtained, Woo said he was relying on Creyelman to convince two Vlaams Belang members of the European parliament — Tom Vandendriessche and Filip De Man — to issue statements before Scholz’s visit.

“I’ve had some problems working on other channels, so for now I’m counting on your MEPs to bring good news. [Lol][Lol].”

But no statements followed. Vandendriessche said he held no discussions with Creyelman on the issue. De Man declined to comment on whether he had discussed the issue with Creyelman.

Woo could not be reached at multiple phone numbers and email addresses he has used. The Chinese embassy in Brussels said it was unaware of the events.

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