Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 29 April 2024

Beijing spies turn focus to Europe with honeypots and influence operations

Vast state network deepens ties with Russia and continent’s hard right in effort to ‘undermine’ west


Brest is a rainy industrial port, pounded by the Atlantic, that is home to the French navy and its submarine nuclear deterrent. It has also witnessed a remarkable number of weddings in recent years between female Chinese students and the seamen who work at its naval bases.

“How should we evaluate such relationships?” a concerned parliamentarian asked the head of France’s nuclear submarine forces at a closed-door hearing at the National Assembly in Paris.

“Honeypots”, where an agent seeks to romantically entangle their target, are a staple of racy spy thrillers. They are also a marker of how China’s espionage operations have expanded in Europe, culminating last week in a spate of highly public arrests.

Three German citizens were detained on suspicion of trying to sell sensitive military technology to China. Police also swooped on a staffer for a German farright member of the European parliament who was accused of working covertly for China. British prosecutors, meanwhile, charged two men with allegedly spying for Beijing, one of whom was a parliamentary researcher.

While Admiral Morio de l’Isle reportedly warned French lawmakers about the Brest weddings in 2019, current and former intelligence officers said the latest incidents were more typical of China’s espionage efforts in Europe.

In particular, they were examples, as one official put it, of Beijing’s “exquisite seeding” of operations that patiently seek to cultivate political influence and shape European attitudes towards China. This has become increasingly important to Beijing as European policymakers come to see China, and its strategic relationship with Russia, as a security threat, and not simply a source of economic opportunity.

“The Chinese are doing more [espionage], and western intelligence are getting better at spotting it,” said Nigel Inkster, a former director of operations at the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, otherwise known as MI6.

“In contrast to the US, China’s intelligence agencies have [so far] been less active in Europe. But as European attitudes have begun to harden [towards China], we can expect to see more . . . influence operations.”

China’s foreign ministry last week dismissed the latest round of spying charges — which broke soon after German chancellor Olaf Scholz returned from a three-day trip to China, Germany’s biggest trade partner — as “hype”. With President Xi Jinping due to visit Europe next month, Beijing is sensitive about espionage allegations.

But in a rallying call to the country’s spy agencies, Chen Yixin, minister of state security, said yesterday China must organise a “powerful offensive”. Its agencies must carry out special “counter-espionage operations” to “resolutely dig out” and “eliminate traitors”, Chen said in Study Times, the Communist party school’s official journal.

Western intelligence agencies and security analysts said Chinese spying activities, particularly those led by its civilian espionage body, the Ministry of State Security, were real. More worryingly, there are signs they may intersect with Russian networks that have penetrated Europe’s political extremes.

“China and Russia have common goals that they jointly promote when this serves their interests. Both are seeking to undermine the position of western countries,” Finland’s Security and Intelligence Service warned last year.

Founded in 1983, China’s MSS is a civilian secret police service the US has described as a combination of the FBI and the CIA. Its reach extends throughout Chinese society, with the agency responsible for counter-intelligence as well as political security for Beijing.

It has also been accused of wide-ranging espionage and influence operations abroad, along with the theft of foreign intelligence and technology.

One central MSS agent in Europe in recent years, Daniel Woo, 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.

Woo is also said to have been the Chinese contact for other far-right politicians who have shown close sympathies with Russia.

“China and Russia are playing from the same authoritarian playbook: sow doubt about democracy and gain influence among any groups that challenge existing political divisions, through a slow drip-drip of action,” said Dan Lomas, assistant professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham.

“The aim is to create discord,” he added. “Russia and China are not creating the issues; they are self-created by democracies. Rather, the approach is to pick off the scab of these issues by fomenting support among extremist groups.”

The scale of China’s spying operations in Europe is potentially vast. In 2019, the EU’s foreign service reportedly warned there were about 250 known Chinese spies in Brussels, compared with 200 Russian agents.

The UK parliament’s intelligence and security committee warned late last year that the size of China’s state intelligence apparatus, “almost certainly the largest in the world, with hundreds of thousands of civil intelligence officers”, had created “a challenge for our agencies to cover”.

In addition, China runs sprawling cyber operations, which cross international boundaries.

Intelligence officials and analysts said one reason for Europe’s increased focus on Chinese espionage was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The shock of the invasion has led to national partners, who don’t always cooperate, actually co-operating,” said one western official.

Chinese and Russian espionage networks may be tacitly doing the same. Adam Ni, publisher of newsletter China Neican, said Europe’s far-right groups might provide fertile ground. Some may co-operate with Moscow and Beijing. “They want to emulate some aspects of the model of Russia and China,” Ni said. “There is a tendency to . . . agree with them on an increasing range of topics.”

Filip Jirouš, an intelligence analyst at the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation think-tank, pointed to figures such as Ladislav Zemánek, a farright Czech scholar and politician who is listed as a contributor to the Kremlinsponsored Valdai Club and is subject to sanctions in Ukraine.

Zemánek writes for the Budapestbased China-CEE Institute, which is run by the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of European Studies. The director of the institute and head of China-CEE is Feng Zhongping, who is a former senior figure at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think-tank western scholars believe is an MSS front.

CASS said the China-CEE Institute did not engage in political activities, pursued objective and independent academic opinions and complied with Hungarian and EU law.

CASS had no affiliation with the MSS or China’s “United Front” social influence activities, they said, and Feng left CICIR several years ago.

Zemánek told the FT: “The spirit of McCarthyism has been revived, our fundamental rights are under attack.”

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