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Detecting Chinese spy campaigns in Europe


China’s espionage campaigns are an ongoing concern for Europe’s security. As China-Europe relations are set to become tense over geopolitics and trade, espionage cases are likely to rise in the future. This also presents challenges for counter-espionage. As intelligence agencies grapple with the threat posed by Russia, terrorism, cyber attacks, China’s ambitious espionage activities may go undetected. Senior officials from intelligence agencies are worried that they have not managed to keep up with the challenge from China and have fallen behind in counter-intelligence and intelligence capabilities. The challenges posed by China’s espionage efforts in political influence campaigns, industrial espionage are likely to escalate in the future. 

Political influence operations in Europe

All countries spy on one another. Yet the exposure of China’s espionage campaigns in Europe is different. According to the international intelligence sharing group, the Five Eyes, what makes China’s spying operation different is the scale of ‘theft of intellectual property.’ What is new is that some European intelligence agencies are discovering more cases targeting their political systems and are more willing to call them out.   

Recent allegations accuse China’s espionage services of targeting Europe’s politics. In April 2024, German authorities arrested multiple individuals suspected of spying for China. This included an aide to the far-right Alternative for Germany MEP, and a couple accused of smuggling sensitive military technology. In the UK, two individuals were also accused of espionage. One was a parliamentary researcher to a lawmaker in the Conservative Party. They have both been charged in breach of Britain’s Official Secrets Act. 

In May 2024, British authorities arrested three men who were accused of working with Hong Kong’s intelligence service. They were  accused of monitoring, surveillance and harassment of pro-democracy activists in the UK, something the Hong Kong diaspora has been facing harassment from. Beijing accused the UK of false accusation, stigmatization and arbitrary arrests. The accused former Royal Marine was found dead in a park a week later, with the police saying the death was treated as ‘unexplained’. 

China’s intelligence services allegedly were conducting covert operations on the UK and Germany, two of continents strongest supporters of constructing positive ties with China. Beijing has rejected the claims of espionage under plausible deniability. Instead, in a recent show of unlikely public accusation, China’s intelligence service publicly accused MI6 of recruiting two Chinese state workers as spies. They apparently worked in a “core” confidential department in a Chinese state agency and leaked information to MI6.

Xi’s ambitions to remake the world order

These covert operations are part of a large-scale and long-term security strategy, which has assisted in achieving multiple goals of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By attempting to control the narrative and the perception of China held by the nations China invested in, China is able to build a stronger foundation for economic development and opportunity domestically and internationally, forge stronger political ties with nations across the globe, and create an international manufacturing dependency, due in part to the immense man-power China has to offer. 

With Xi Jinping at the head of the CCP and therefore China’s road ahead, a major shift in the CCP’s focus has taken place in recent years. Somewhat covert, but increasingly visible, Xi’s China is a rapidly emerging self-sufficient nation. By profiting off of China’s earlier status as a predominantly manufacturing destination, China can and is utilizing its man-power and know-how to nestle itself among the world’s leading nations by responding to demand.

China’s political system sees espionage as a key means to achieve Xi’s vision for China. Whereas Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping previously prioritized economic growth, Xi instead prioritizes national security. When he came to power in 2012, Xi called for a policy of “comprehensive national security” for China’s party-state. The intelligence body of China (Ministry of State Security, MSS) received the increasingly multifaceted responsibility of gathering this intel to pursue Xi’s bold foreign policy strategies. Using this large database better enables the CCP to continue to influence China’s perception abroad, socially re-engineer the Chinese population domestically and abroad, sway public opinion on China, and compete intellectually and practically with current leading competitors. In a widely cited front-page article in the Study Times, the Communist Party school’s official newspaper, the head of the MSS suggested they should organize a ‘powerful offensive’ in response to the spying accusations in Europe and the US. 

Xi’s focus on security in part has to do with his goal of self-preservation as CCP leader. By enabling stricter control over the party members and the Chinese population in the name of national security, Xi simultaneously prevents usurpers from gaining too much traction. However, national security also aids Xi in maintaining his power and position. Xi profits from satisfied citizens as it strengthens his reputation. However, any dissatisfaction expressed on a large scale publicly is met with repercussions. 

New challenges for counter-espionage

For European intelligence agencies used to Russian intelligence tactics, China’s espionage activities present new challenges. While Russian intelligence operations are often targeted and clumsily carried out with no ‘plausible deniability’ the MSS uses a ‘whole of society’ approach. This describes a 2017 law passed in China where all organizations and citizens should ‘support and cooperate with national intelligence efforts’. That makes conventional ‘spying’ by agents difficult to spot. Such activities can lead to another tool for the MSS, building a culture of fear in society and potentially leading intelligence agencies to encroach on civil liberties by collecting data on ethnic Chinese citizens falsely accused of espionage. The US counter-espionage efforts since 2016 have led to the National Director warning against such practices in the US.

Another way in which this threat is unfolding, is that Xi’s focus on national security reaches beyond its own borders. Conferences such as the “Peaceful China” summit not only inform its (foreign) visitors on how China deals with security issues, it is also a way in which the CCP can normalize its ideological presence in the security systems of other nations. Using the vast database available to the CCP through espionage, China is able to influence local policy. 

China’s espionage activities are also difficult to detect as the MSS operations utilize a whole range of agents with loose connections to main state institutions. That makes finding an espionage operation that has been planned with the hand of the state difficult. More importantly, China’s influence is overt, through its economic power, its public investments and interactions with industry, rather than covert activity carried out by intelligence officers. They are therefore harder to point out than under the radar spying operations. 

As Xi doubles down on his relationship with Putin and becomes a major source of trade and investment in Russia’s economy, the relationship with Europe could become worse. The CCP is also paranoid of espionage within China, clamping down on sensitive information from being sent out of the country. The MSS has detained and arrested multiple pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong as the new national security law was implemented in 2024. Xi’s vision for China’s new security state and political influence operations against European countries reveal the risk of espionage to European interests and values. 

Raising awareness for the future

Europe’s intelligence agencies have revealed that Europe is increasingly being targeted in political influence and dissident campaigns from China. Espionage cases will most likely be revealed more in the future. Europe is becoming increasingly wary of China’s economic competition, espionage attempts and China’s neutrality toward Putin’s war against Ukraine. China’s espionage attempts to influence politics and views in Europe to favorable views of China will therefore likely increase in the future. 

However, China’s espionage activities are difficult to counter effectively. European intelligence agencies face threats from Russia, monitoring terrorism, and the scale of China’s espionage activities have not been recognised sufficiently. Distinguishing between overt and covert Chinese power is hard to detect. More importantly, detecting MSS espionage attempts must not be used to encroach on ethnic Chinese civil liberties. Protecting the dissidents who have found refuge from the Chinese Communist Party is highly important. 

Detecting Chinese spy campaigns in Europe
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