China Is Spying on Western Europe. Here’s How to Fight It

China’s President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 10, 2018. (Fred Dufour/Reuters)

As Washington’s allies struggle to resist Beijing’s worldwide espionage and influence offensive, the U.S. can set an example.

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As Washington’s allies struggle to resist Beijing’s worldwide espionage and influence offensive, the U.S. can set an example.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hen the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, many in the nation remained resistant. But in the words of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party had three “magic weapons” (法宝, fǎbǎo): a well-organized military, party building, and its United Front apparatus, now known as the United Front Work Department (UFWD). In part by stressing consensus and mischaracterizing their long-term plans, United Front cadres convinced influential figures to support the new government. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mopped up remnant Nationalist units, invaded Xinjiang and Tibet, and intervened in Korea.

The chairman avoided publicly praising a fourth magic weapon: his espionage apparatus, then called the CCP Social Affairs Department (社会部, Shèhuì bù, SHB). From 1946 to 1949, SHB spy rings thoroughly infiltrated the Nationalist Party, army, and government. As Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek later reportedly said, “there was no space that they did not enter” (无孔不入, wú kǒng bùrù).

During the first decades of the People’s Republic, the United Front and the CCP’s intelligence organs remained important, albeit highly secret, overseen at the highest level of the party by figures including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Zhen, and the infamous Kang Sheng. SHB, with roots in the early revolution, was reorganized thrice: in 1949, 1955, and 1983. Its modern successor is the Ministry of State Security (MSS).

After purging and reorganizing the UFWD’s corrupt leadership in December 2014, the CCP’s leader, Xi Jinping, demanded that they place greater emphasis on overseas influence and intelligence work, according to a 2020 report by Alex Joske, formerly of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

A year later, Xi initiated additional reform and reorganization in the military and intelligence organs, resulting in a greater emphasis by MSS on spying abroad, exemplified by “increasingly aggressive cyber espionage” against German and other European targets and by thefts of U.S. jet-engine technology by State Security officer Xu Yanjun. In April 2018, after taking one operational risk too many, Xu was arrested in Belgium and extradited to the U.S., where he was convicted of economic espionage.

However, such successes are few in comparison with other glaring problems, say experts interviewed this summer in Western Europe. Xi Jinping’s reorganizations and purges of his espionage and influence apparatus seem to be bearing fruit.

Brussels, which houses the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, appears to be a priority target of Beijing and Moscow. Hundreds of agents from those two countries operate around the headquarters of NATO and the EU in that city’s “EU District.” Of the European powers, Britain probably has the most robust counterespionage and foreign-intelligence efforts concerning China and Russia, but money from those nations finds a way into British society, particularly through real estate. And Beijing’s influence on corporate titans seeking access to the China market has been just as effective in Britain as anywhere else.

A report released in 2020 with contributions by the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, indicate that China’s objectives in the U.K. include using the 5G network there to gain entry into European markets, setting up a strong presence of pro-Chinese influence, and undermining London’s alliance with the U.S. In other statements, British officials say that China is one of four major threats to the U.K. in terms of both influence and espionage, warning U.K. corporations to take the issue more seriously. Chinese firms have also offered lucrative sinecures to retired senior officials with contacts high in the British government, hoping to use them to push Beijing’s agenda.

In Paris there is no shortage of determination to resist Beijing’s European espionage program. But the details, such as France’s role in uncovering the MSS campaign to recruit German officials on LinkedIn, are kept close to the chest, too sensitive to publicize in the style of Washington’s more overt counterespionage campaign.

An exception arose in July 2020, when a special court in Paris sentenced “Pierre-Marie H” (Hyvernat) and “Henri M” (Magnac) to twelve and eight years in prison, respectively, for spying on behalf of China. Their activities went back more than a decade, ending with arrests in 2017. The saga began in 1998 when Henri, a Sinologist and graduate in Asian languages, became involved with the embassy’s Chinese interpreter while he was the DGSE (General Directorate for External Security) station chief in Beijing. Sent home by his ambassador on a hastily arranged vol bleu (“blue flight”), Henri was forced to retire but, after leaving his spouse in France, returned to China to reunite with his sweetheart.

It may seem unsurprising that Henri was recruited by MSS in 2006 and sent back to France, where in turn he recruited Pierre-Marie, an expert on terrorist organizations in the Middle East who had been demoted to the DGSE archives because of a drinking problem. For ten years, Pierre-Marie clandestinely acted as a Mitrokhin-like figure, passing classified material to Beijing via Henri. Their 2017 trial was the first of its kind since the conviction in 1986 of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Peipu, fictionalized on stage and in film and documented in the book by Joyce Wadler.

PRC influence is also a serious problem in Portugal, according to a former senior Portuguese official. “Beijing has organized a big political lobby in Portugal,” he said, with financial interests in the main political parties; in Lisbon’s real estate market; in Fidelidade, the country’s largest insurer; in EDG, a major utility; and in a well-known hospital. In addition, the Macau government, now subordinate to Beijing, funds Lisbon’s Macau Cultural Centre and the Jorge Álvares Foundation.

The official added that the Portuguese intelligence community believes that the Chinese army’s intelligence bureau (once known as 2PLA) is active in the “new Chinese community” of immigrants who moved to Portugal after 1999. The Portuguese press occasionally carries stories about Chinese and Russian cyber espionage, and there are official counterespionage advisories aimed at the public.

In 2019, a year after Italy slipped into a recession, the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte announced that it was signing up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). That made Italy the first major world economy and the first G7 member to do so. It hoped for increased trade that would pull it out of its recession. Rome was also concerned that, in China’s “new Silk Road” supply chain, it would be eclipsed by COSCO Shipping’s purchase of a controlling share of the Greek port of Piraeus in 2016. The European Union criticized Rome for teaming up with “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” a concern amplified in 2020–21 when Beijing suppressed the Hong Kong democracy movement and began to increase military pressure on Taiwan. The inconsistent follow-through by Beijing made BRI less attractive during this period and led Italian politicians to cool on China and seek a return to their “historical anchors” in the Western alliance.

Holland is not immune to such efforts. As far back as 2010, the Dutch intelligence agency AIVD publicly warned that China’s intelligence agents were active in the Netherlands. In 2019, CCP intelligence activities targeted the export-controlled technology of ASML, maker of the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment. That same year, the Dutch government formulated a new China strategy to resist espionage and technology theft. Meanwhile, AIVD has substantially beefed up its China team.

Key to that strategy is improving “China competency,” said Ingrid d’Hooghe, a former Dutch diplomat based in China and now a senior research associate and China-strategy adviser at Clingendael, the Dutch think tank. “But more action will be needed if we want to successfully navigate the complicated relationship” with Beijing, she recently wrote on Twitter. D’Hooghe co-authored a 2020 study showing that increased cooperation between China and Holland in education and science had led to unwanted knowledge transfer, financial dependence on the PRC, self-censorship in academia, increased espionage risk, and political influence by Beijing on Dutch society.

Meanwhile, America faces its own problems with Beijing’s espionage efforts, as described in articles including Zach Dorman’s 2018 report on espionage in Silicon Valley. The FBI opens a case related to China every twelve hours — but the Bureau does not publicly differentiate between classic espionage targeting national-security information, intellectual-property theft that may or may not be run by professional intelligence officers, and zany attempts by individuals to gain access to restricted areas such as Mar-a-Lago.

The situation calls for more China competency in government, academia, law enforcement, and industry. As Jordan Schneider, host of the podcast China Talk, points out, there is a much bigger supply than demand for people trained in the Chinese language and relevant area studies. While the U.S. intelligence community generates significant demand for these skills, the long clearance process is a roadblock, notes Stanford professor Amy Zegart (Intelligence Matters, 27:05).

To counter these threats without wearing down our civil liberties and falling into the trap of xenophobia, we must better familiarize ourselves with China, the Chinese Communist Party, and its various moving parts. The U.S. military and the Foreign Service have long provided excellent opportunities, in language and area-studies training, that help solve this problem. However, in the rest of government, law enforcement, and the business world, it remains unusual for people with China-related responsibilities to have such training. The FBI, for example, typically does not train in the Chinese language agents who are expected to spot, assess, and recruit Chinese informants. Instead, they rely on contract linguists and language analysts, one step removed from the critical face-to-face encounters of counterespionage work.

Meanwhile, for the American business community, China competency has typically meant hiring someone with “connections” to the CCP, to facilitate business. Xi Jinping’s continuing crackdown on corruption and foreign connections, and his emphasis on confronting Washington, Tokyo, and Taipei, make that model seem increasingly outdated, if it was any good to begin with: My experience as a corporate investigator has shown me the troublesome side effects of doing business in a corrupt environment by making endless and vague informal arrangements.

While the U.S. could expand efforts, such as the Critical Language Scholarship and the Title VI Language and Area Studies programs, increased supply is useful only if there is heightened demand. The U.S. government, academia, law enforcement, and industry should provide a better example for our allies by building better China literacy among those who study and interact with the world’s other superpower.

Matthew Brazil is a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a contributing editor of SpyTalk, and the co-author, with Peter Mattis, of Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.
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