Europe moves against suspected Chinese spies 


In the space of just two days, authorities across Europe have moved against six suspects accused of spying for China.

Here’s what you need to know, and why:

  1. The UK, on Monday

UK prosecutors announced charges against two men for “providing prejudicial information” to China. One has worked as a researcher in parliament and was involved in the ‘China Research Group’ founded by China-wary Tory MPs. The other works in marketing. Both UK nationals (aged 29 and 32) have lived in China.

  1. Germany, also on Monday

The same day, German police arrested (🇩🇪) three German nationals believed to have shared information on “militarily usable innovative technologies” – plus an advanced laser – with China’s lead intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The suspects allegedly used a fake company in London, financed by the MSS, to trick targets.

Also on Monday, a joint investigation by German media uncovered a massive hacking operation against Volkswagen, with China-based hackers allegedly pilfering 19,000 documents on EV, transmission, and engine tech.

  1. Germany, on Tuesday

Then yesterday (Tuesday), German authorities arrested (🇩🇪) an adviser to an EU lawmaker from Germany, after identifying the suspect as “an employee of a Chinese secret service”. He’s accused of sharing information about key EU deliberations, and spying on Beijing’s critics. 

Prosecutors say he’s a dual German-Chinese citizen who offered to spy for Germany a decade ago (the Germans feared he was a double agent); he’s also allegedly posed as a Chinese dissident to glean information from actual dissidents in exile.

So that’s a big 48 hours.

While none of the suspects have been found guilty and some are already denying the charges, it’s still a lot of bad PR for China, which has responded by accusing the West of “hyping up” the accusations to harm the People’s Republic.

The initial British details first emerged last year, and came after public warnings that China was “prolifically and aggressively” targeting the UK.

As for the new German cases, they likewise come after some pretty frank official warnings last year. But the timing is still awkward, coming just days after Chancellor Olaf Scholz paid his third visit to China in three years, flanked by CEOs and hoping that more exports to China might offer a way out of recession.

And this awkward timing highlights the bind that Germany now finds itself in: potential economic dependence on a country it’s described as a “systemic rival”.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

Germany, like others before it, has long looked at China’s vast market as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But Germany, like others before it, is now waking up to the realisation that maybe China was looking right back all along.

And Germany’s presumed decision to wait until Scholz got home before revealing this week’s charges is interesting – it suggests Scholz still holds out hope that Germany can tap that gold without giving up too much in return. But China is already displacing some of Germany’s key exports, like cars.

As for China – its scale means its approach to intelligence is typically to ‘spray and pray’, approaching vast numbers of targets; assuming only a fraction will be fruitful; and assuming some of those will be caught. It then dismisses (and uses) each accusation as evidence the West is anti-China. This is all priced in.

So the West’s response is as much about boosting resilience among Western targets as it is about deterring rival spooks. But as we’ve said before, there’s a very delicate balance between boosting resilience and undermining trust.

Also worth noting:

  • China’s lead intelligence agency, the MSS, has taken a more public profile lately and in January accused the CIA of launching an “intelligence war”. It highlighted the case of John Shing-Wan Leung, a 78-year-old US citizen jailed for life on espionage charges in China last year.
  • Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), has almost doubled in size to 4,300 personnel over the past decade.
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