By Dr. Jianli Yang & Dr. Deyu Wang
The Europe India Chamber of Commerce (EICC), Brussels on October 05, 2020 pointed out the strategic and intelligence related challenges posed by China to the European Union . In the ongoing pandemic, China not only allowed a regional outbreak of COVID-19 but also increased production of international medical protective gear and controlled supply chains. Besides the cover ups of virus borne epidemic, China in recent months, was noticed worldwide for dismantling Hong Kong’s civil liberties, oppressing ethnic minorities including Uyghurs and Tibetans, increasing military buildup not only in the neighborhood but also in many parts of the world and engaging in fatal skirmishes to grab land. Against this background, the reports of espionage activities by Chinese Secret Service have the potential of posing dangers to the people, media, political institutions and governance at large in Europe. The core values of democracy and human freedom are being challenged and threatened by the Chinese espionage activities in Europe.
The aim of the Chinese espionage is to weaken EU’s freedom, its constitutional responsibilities, democracy, clarity in the member states and exploit the existing transparency in the system. The suspicious activities of China are evident from the prudent and cautious steps that a number of countries like UK, USA, India and Germany are being compelled to take to protect their strategic interests. China is engaged in stealing trade secrets, bargaining strategies, manufacturing capabilities, security information pertaining to personal and corporate data, material development techniques, consumer market data, security code, software etc., Reputed cyber experts are of the opinion that China is the most active country in cyber espionage arming itself with formidable capabilities to stage economic sabotage. In recent times, China’s covert activities have been noticed by many countries in the world. It is in this context that EICC has expressed concern over the EU ignoring the implications of such Chinese espionage operations in Europe. As a soft power China is engaged in employing more covert influence operations which include Confucius Institutes, friendship societies, student organizations, media campaigns and think tanks.
Earlier this year, the France-Tibet Occitanie & Association Initiative jointly submitted a petition on May 18, 2020 to Francoise Bayrou, Mayor of Pau, France calling for closure of the Confucius Institute (CI). Not just in Europe, in Australia, in 2013, a planned lecture by Dalai Lama at the University of Sydney was cancelled after the head of Confucius Institute at the instance of China entered into discussions with the university. The organisers were pressured to roll back the event after a concerted campaign with the condition that event was to be held off the campus. In 2018, the campaign called on NSW Department of Education, Australia to shut down its Confucius Institute leading to an end to the Chinese government funded controlled language program across 13 schools.
Chinese espionage activities having become a worldwide phenomenon, many countries have begun to notice the interlinkages of CCP with business giants and major Chinese companies. On January 08 2019, Poland authorities arrested a Chinese Huawei employee Weijing W with many other pseudo names over espionage allegations. He is a graduate of the Peking University of Foreign Studies which is considered a breeding ground for Chinese diplomacy and its intelligence service.
He worked as Huawei’s Sales Director in Poland. Previously, he was an attaché at the consulate of China in the port city of Gdansk, Poland. EU officials given the potential threat of cyber security and the past concerns related to Huwaei did a thorough investigation. Even a Polish national Pioter D who was in contact with Weijing and was arrested in connection with the case. He was a former high-ranking officer of the Internal Security Agency until 2011 and was the deputy head of the Department of Teleinformatic Security. He had access to key information including the functioning of SLR, the Polish Government Communication Network which allows secret transmission of information to high ranking state officials. After his departure from the agency, he was employed in IT security at the Military University of Technology and the Office of Electronic Communications and Orange.
In the more recent past, on July 06, 2020 The National Cyber Security Agency of France stated that French telecom operators using Huawei’s services would be subject to restrictions and would be given operating permission only for a maximum period of eight years. Meanwhile, UK’s National Cyber Security Centre in its recent report has concluded that the US’s decision that requires foreign manufacturers using US chip making equipment to obtain license before being able to sell to Huawei – will force Huawei to use `untrusted technology, making security risks impossible to control’. Trump administration maintains that Huawei poses a national security risk and has been applying pressure on other countries to block the company from their 5G network. Australia has already blocked the company and others like UK are reviewing the matter.
As is known, China is actively associated with think tanks through membership, financing, sponsoring and providing technical assistance. Shockingly, these think tanks are the soft targets as they receive EU funding and many retired EU officials are at the decision making process in think tanks. They have access to EU’s internal information. In the guise of promoting BRI, China has developed around 40 think tanks in Europe of which agreements with 20 think tanks have been signed by the Chinese Economic Information Service. The Silk Road Think Tank Network actively coordinates and funds research / conferences to mobilise support for BRI. This effectively shows China’s initiative and capabilities in shaping research agendas and shockingly it seems Fraser Cameron, Director of EU-Asia Centre, Brussels who was an EU official and a member of UK Secret Intelligence Service MI6. He is under investigation recently for allegedly selling sensitive state secrets to to two Brussels based Chinese media representatives for monetary gains. Brussels, the city of EU home and NATO is the hub of Chinese espionage activities.
In fact, in October 2019 Belgium denied a residence permit to a Chinese national Xinning Song, Director, Confucius Institute to return to Brussels on the charges of espionage. He was as a consequence, banned from entering any of the European Schengen countries. The development spurred anti-Chinese sentiment and skepticism at universities and workplaces across Europe where Chinese scholars and professionals were positioned.
According to an estimate, more than 250 Chinese secret agents are operating in Brussels. Many of them are attached to Chinese Missions and many others are Chinese journalists accredited to EU. However, they are the members of Chinese Communist Party and are trained spies. China is also engaged in weaving covert informant networks in Europe’s leading universities. China also uses these networks for monitoring the ethnic Chinese community including Uyghurs and Tibetans to protect its core interests. China is also consistently making efforts to use European research and technology as a cover for its espionage activities. Chinese intelligence is using societal, academic, diplomatic and journalistic approach to steal EU data, research and technological advancements. In this regard, it is time the EU members begin to to scrutinize the student or research visas issued to students sponsored by China.
While all of the above is being stated, it is important to note that EU members law enforcement agencies face the challenge of sheer size of Chinese student population in European universities. They are struggling to strike a balance between protecting open academic environment and mitigating the risk to national security. The steady increase in Chinese students coming to Europe every year is a pointer to the enormous security challenge EU is encountering. Clearly, China is exploiting the openness of European countries academia and the scientific community at large. In this situation, it is time the EU members realize that China uses its foreign students for gaining access to sensitive military and civilian research. As has already been told, Chinese journalists are the eyes and ears of Chinese Communist Party. Every Chinese state media in EU is actually obliged to send media coverage to Beijing. Ironically, while China has consistently refused to uphold its international commitments to freedom of expression, media independence and respect for safety of journalists, EU has continued accreditation to Chinese journalists without any rigorous scrutiny of credentials.
Taking this media interface further, China has been investing in European media outlets to sway European public discourse in its favour and actively pre-empt criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese media outlets are increasing its presence in Europe for improving its international image. China invests about Euro 1.3 Bn annually in Europe for disseminating its narratives. During the decade ending 2018, China invested around Euro 2.8 Bn for acquiring shares in European media firms. China also resorts to mergers and acquisitions of media firms, commercial cooperation through paid supplements, hiring PR companies, cooperation between Chinese news agencies and foreign news agencies, increased sponsorship of journalists to visit China, establishing pro-China think tank networks etc., to propagate Chinese narratives. Major investments made in Czech, Portugal and Spain by China have heavily impacted their neutral and critical reporting on the country.
Today, countries around the world are struggling against the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. But China is relentlessly and mercilessly engaged in aggressive postures in South China Sea, Taiwan Straits and Indian border, oppressing the democratic rights of Hong Kongers, subjugating ethnic minorities, coercive diplomacy, debt trap policy with poor countries and trade war with US. It almost looks like China is at war with the rest of the world. In the realm of espionage too, China is relentlessly engaged in stealing secrets of other countries through technology, cybercrime, students, researchers, media houses, think tanks, Confucius Institutes, friendship societies etc., It is time Europe remains alert to win this war of espionage being waged by China to save its principles of democracy and freedom and retain its position being the flag bearer of human rights.
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