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China’s Covert Operations in Europe

Written by Britt Verregghen - March 2024


Despite decades of espionage activities by China’s Ministry of State Security (the foreign and domestic intelligence service of the People’s Republic of China), recent cases in Europe show that China’s espionage remains a key concern for European businesses and society. Reports of China’s sophisticated efforts to gather foreign intelligence and influence political opinion in Europe through covert operations have increased. This is due to Europe’s strategic importance for China, with China’s aim to separate it from the influence of the United States and improve its economic ties and improve China’s image in the continent. Intensifying covert operations makes it vital for governments, companies, and individuals to remain proactive in defending against these threats. 





Covert Operations in Europe 

There are three main ways in which China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) conducts its espionage activities and more closely observes threat actors.  The first is to take sensitive or confidential information from assessed targets and use it to benefit the PRC’s interests. This could be done through traditional human intelligence operations, cyber intrusions and hacking, or economic/business espionage and exploitation. The second is attempting to influence debates such as on EU policies through infiltrating parliaments and other strategically important institutions, such as universities or policy institutions (influence operations). The third, particularly used by the MSS, is targeting dissidents abroad and trying to repress them. The following cases are examples of these methods. 


On the 6th of February 2024, the Dutch Military Intelligence Service (MIVD) revealed that signs of espionage operations were found within their computer networks last year. Officials from the MIVD explained that a state-actor from China used malware to maintain access to Fortinet systems, an organization that provides worldwide cybersecurity. Although it is a sensitive issue, the MIVD still chose to discuss the matter publicly to create awareness around this subject for other Dutch organizations. The Chinese embassy in the Netherlands responded the following day, saying that they are ‘always firmly opposed to cyber attacks in all forms in accordance with the law.’ Still, the MIVD’s disclosure of the Chinese modus operandi is an indication of the level of certainty about China’s motive and liability.  Despite the sensitivity surrounding the breach, the MIVD deemed it necessary to warn all Dutch companies and organizations to improve their systems and infrastructure. 


China has also performed attacks against other European countries, Belgium for example. In December 2023, a Chinese spy used a far-right Belgian Politician to gather intelligence for over three years and bribed him into making anti-European decisions. The politician was at the end of his career, which made him an appealing target. He had a broad network of contacts, but was no longer a high-threat individual in the eyes of the Belgian Parliament. That way he could intervene in discussions in favor of decisions that would ultimately benefit Chinese interests. A similar event came to surface in the UK House of Commons, where a British parliamentary researcher was arrested on grounds of spying for China in March 2023. In this case, the person concerned was never granted a security clearance, yet he worked closely with several prominent Conservative Members of Parliament who handled sensitive matters and information. He also publicly advocated for the Chinese community in the UK, but his covert goal was to infiltrate British political networks critical to Beijing. 


The MSS also targets Chinese dissidents abroad, especially within Europe. For example, China has been placing police stations with their own officers in foreign countries to actively monitor Chinese dissidents living abroad. According to the PRC, their goal is to help overseas Chinese with administrative matters, like getting their driver's license. However, these stations do not appear to be registered with the government of the host country. The police officers monitor a variety of groups, including multiple ethnic and religious minorities, political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, and former insiders accused of corruption. In some cases they track down the individuals and suppress them. In other cases they use social media accounts to harass these dissidents


China’s Espionage Strategy 

China’s espionage activities are not a new phenomenon. Yet the intensity and sophistication of China’s clandestine operations against European countries has picked up in recent years. This departs from previous Chinese foreign policy which sought to maintain good trading relationships with many countries to improve trade links and promote economic growth. Why does the CCP use covert operations against European targets? 


President Xi Jinping's increasing focus on covert operations is a part of his emphasis on security. The ‘comprehensive national security’ concept describes a policy where all aspects of China’s society and relations with the outside world are considered issues of national security. This is reflected in the growing importance of the MSS in China’s political system. The MSS collects foreign intelligence, counterintelligence and is responsible for the perceived threats to the CCP. Without this supply of information gathered through espionage operations, the PRC can’t promote its interests in Europe. 


The MSS is targeting European businesses and governments as part of its geopolitical strategy. Europe is a target for a number of reasons. Access to European critical technologies in artificial intelligence and quantum computing is a key target as China attempts to build its own advanced technologies. Another objective is to influence investment and trading relationships with different EU countries, especially given the confrontational trading relationship from the Biden Administration in the US. Gaining further information about EU geopolitical intentions would allow China to update its own strategy toward the continent. The MSS focus on influencing European parliamentarians, targeting Chinese dissidents abroad, and exploiting existing divisions in European societies demonstrate the strategy used to secure China’s foreign policy goals in Europe.


Conclusion

China’s increasing espionage operations and political interference pose a threat to European businesses and civil society, as well as political institutions. This is likely to intensify as EU-China relations remain tense. China’s tacit support of Russia in its war against Ukraine, the clampdown on information in China, and the EU’s possible restrictions on China’s electric vehicles may lead to further espionage operations to prevent negative outcomes for the PRC. European countries will have to navigate a delicate balance in their relations with China and remain vigilant against espionage threats to their operations and business activities. Given the close economic ties between Europe and China, it is important to find a balance between improving security against China’s covert operations and further  economic advantages. Businesses and organizations need to implement measures to protect themselves against Chinese espionage and stay aware of the risks present. 



 

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