Chinese Spies: Spooking Europe For Technology And Covert Political Intervention

For long western nations have complained of Chinese espionage activities in their countries. But a recent report says that this trend is on a rise and the Chinese spies have penetrated most of the western nations’ political and industrial sectors

By Shankar Kumar

Foreign Affairs
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin

China, in its goal to surpass the US – both militarily and economically, has redoubled its effort to become a superpower, it has resorted to several moves to fulfil this gargantuan objective, including intelligence gathering, a “dirty work” in which Beijing appears to have chosen Europe as a hub of its treacherous game.

A large number of arrests of Chinese spies in Germany, the UK and Estonia in the recent past speak about this fact. In fact, after Sweden recently expelled a Chinese journalist on the charge of threatening the Nordic country’s national security, Germany and the United Kingdom last week announced arresting six people on suspicion of spying for China.

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As per the Institute for Strategic Research (ISR), a Paris-based military think tank, China has a vast network of organisations, which include the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the Ministry of State Security (MSS) to carry out spying activities.

A large number of arrests of Chinese spies in Germany, the UK and Estonia in the recent past speak about the spooky activities of China in these countries

The ISR report says that China’s MPS’s intelligence branch alone employs between 80,000 and 100,000 people, while the MSS employs around 200,000 agents.  However, the exact figure of agents hired by these Chinese ministries could be very high, Paul Charon, a China specialist at the ISR was quoted by The Japan Times as saying.

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In 2020, investigations carried out by journalists Die Welt and La Stampa, based on sources from the European External Action Service (EEAS), uncovered the existence of an extensive network of Chinese intelligence agents in Brussels. At that time, there were as many as 250 Chinese intelligence officials in Brussels, making the city which hosts NATO headquarters, 300 foreign diplomatic missions and around 100 other international organisations, the capital of Chinese spies, said journalists Die Welt and La Stampa in their report for Bloomberg.

Modus Operandi

Those who have closely watched activities of China’s intelligence agents, say their key focus remains on acquiring information related to internal security, foreign and national security policymaking, scientific research, and technology. To achieve their objective and purpose, these Chinese spies, as per experts, use various methods, which include human intelligence, honey trapping – kompromat, signals intelligence and co-option of ethnic Chinese diaspora communities and associations.

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The ISR report says that China’s MPS’s intelligence branch alone employs between 80,000 and 100,000 people, while the MSS employs around 200,000 agents

Chinese spies’ modus operandi is also different in comparison to intelligence agents from the US, Britain, Israel, and others. For example, Chinese intelligence agents recruit local officials, politicians, businessmen, academics, journalists, activists, and ethnic Chinese communities to seek information, influence policies or sabotage activities that are unfavourable to China.

This could be clearly seen in the case of Germany as one of three people arrested by authorities last month for working as spies for China, belong to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party which is contesting elections for the European Parliament, scheduled for June this year. He has been identified as Jian G, a German national who, as per media reports, is working as an assistant for one of the AfD’s candidate for the European Parliament elections, Maximilian Krah.

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German prosecutors said Jian G, 43, who had dual German and Chinese citizenship, passed on information about the European Parliament to Chinese intelligence. He is believed to have passed on information about negotiations and decisions made in the European Parliament in January 2024. He is also suspected of spying on Chinese opposition leaders in Germany. Though details of his espionage activity are under the probe, the incident has rattled Germans, as they fear he could have passed on sensitive information to his handlers from China as he was working with Maximilian Karah since 2019, a BBC report said.

Objective Behind Espionage

In 2023, Germany’s security service, BfV issued an unusual warning, stating: “In recent years, China’s state and party leadership has significantly stepped-up its efforts to obtain high-quality political information and to influence decision-making processes abroad”. BfV has been warning publicly about the risk of trusting China since 2022, The New York Times said.

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Arrest of German nationals for their spying activities, has proved such warnings by BfV true. Close on the heels of Jian G’s arrest, two men and a woman were also detained in Germany on suspicion of their involvement in gaining information for military technology.

Moreover, of these three suspects, Thomas R worked as an agent for an employee of the MSS, the Chinese secret service, DW said. He allegedly obtained information about innovative technologies, which could be used for military purposes, the German news outlet said. While the two others – both married couples – were arrested by German authorities as they worked very smartly to get information on the country’s research on combat vessels.

Experts, who closely watch activities of China’s intelligence agents, say their key focus remains on acquiring information related to internal security, foreign and national security policymaking, scientific research, and technology

The couple – Herwig F and Ina F – opened a front office in a German town called Dusseldorf and through it, contacted people working in the field of science and research. This way, the couple first completed a project on the operation of high-performance marine engines for use on combat ships. At the time of their arrest, as per DW, the suspects were in negotiations on other projects that could be of use for the PLA Navy.

These arrests took place a week after Olaf Scholz visited China – his second since he became German Chancellor in 2021. In the West, Scholz’s China visit received a fair amount of criticism as it occurred when the 27-member European Union was chalking out a comprehensive and consistent long-term “China strategy”, which is all about the reduction of risks from economic dependencies on China. Germany has itself launched its China strategy in 2023.

But then experts give varied opinions on China’s hyper intelligence gathering activities across Europe. Some say China’s recent espionage activities in Germany, the UK, Netherlands, and Norway have shown that the East Asian country tries to penetrate deep into political sphere, technology companies and universities of the continent in order to manipulate its political processes through its leaders and electorate to bend them to a new world order that it has been working diligently to create.

Two British nationals, who were arrested in March 2023 and formally charged in April 2024 on charges of spying for China, included a former researcher for a prominent UK parliamentarian of the ruling Conservative Party. As per The Sunday Times, researcher Christopher Cash had access to several Conservative lawmakers.

The British newspaper report also said that the researcher had access to Security Minister Tom Tugendhat and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Alicia Kearns among others.

In March, as per Reuters, the British government summoned the Charge d’ Affairs of the Chinese embassy in London after accusing Chinese hackers of stealing data from Britain’s elections watchdog and carrying out a surveillance operation against lawmakers.

Experts also say that China engages spies in order to penetrate deep into political sphere, technology companies and universities of the continent in order to manipulate its political processes through its leaders and electorate to bend them to a new world order

China’s Usual Denial Tactics

But despite such clear-cut involvement of China in political manipulations in Britain and Germany, Beijing has denied any wrongdoing on its part. “As for the so-called Chinese spy cases, we have stressed multiple times that the so-called threat of Chinese spies is purely baseless. We firmly oppose groundless accusations and vilification against China,” Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, said.

This denial, however, cannot obfuscate the fact that Beijing has made Europe a hub of its espionage activities. On April 18, the Dutch military intelligence agency, MIVD said in its annual report that Chinese spies had targeted the Dutch semiconductor, aerospace and maritime industries. Estonia recently sentenced a woman to more than eight years, after finding her guilty of spying for China.

While the British Intelligence Chief recently maintained that in the UK alone Chinese spies had approached more than 20,000 people for providing information through networking platforms like LinkedIn. Similarly, Norway’s intelligence service earlier in this year said Chinese spies operate all over the continent in political and industrial espionage. Arrests in Germany, the UK and Estonia point to this fact.

–The writer is a senior journalist with wide experience in covering international affairs. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda