Suddenly, Chinese Spies Seem to Be Popping Up All Over Europe

One of the men, a young Briton known for his hawkish views on China, worked as an aide to a prominent member of the British Parliament. Another, a German citizen of Chinese descent, was an assistant to a member of the European Parliament representing Germany’s far right.

While from different countries and seemingly divergent backgrounds and outlooks, both men became ensnared this week in accusations of espionage on behalf of China — and a widening pushback in Europe against malign Chinese influence in politics and commerce.

In all, six people in three separate cases have been charged this week in Europe with spying for China: two in Britain and four in Germany.

The espionage cases in Britain and Germany, the first of their kind in two countries that once cultivated warm relations with Beijing, served as eye-catching exclamation points in Europe’s long, often anguished breakup with China.

Shortly after British and German officials announced that six of their citizens had been charged with espionage, the Dutch and Polish authorities on Wednesday raided the offices of a Chinese security equipment supplier as part of a crackdown by the European Union on what it sees as unfair trading practices.

It was the first time that the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, had used a new anti-foreign subsidy law to order a raid on a Chinese company.

In early April, Sweden expelled a Chinese journalist who had been a resident of the country for two decades, saying the reporter posed a threat to national security.

After years of regular tiffs over trade followed by reconciliation, Europe “has lost patience with China,” said Ivana Karaskova, a Czech researcher at the Association for International Affairs, an independent research group in Prague, who until last month served as an adviser to the European Commission on China.

China still has steadfast friends in the European Union, notably Hungary, she added, in “the multidimensional chess game” between the world’s two largest economies after the United States. But Europe, Ms. Karaskova said, has moved from a position of “total denial” in some quarters over the danger posed by Chinese espionage and influence operations to “take a less naïve view, and wants to defend European interests vis-à-vis China.”

Accusations this week that China was using spies to burrow into and influence the democratic process in Germany and Britain caused particular alarm, as they suggested a push to expand beyond already well-known, business-related subterfuge into covert political meddling, something previously seen as a largely Russian specialty.

But, according to China experts, those accusations and the flurry of charges this week indicated not so much that Beijing was ramping up espionage but that European countries had stepped up their response.

“Countries have been forced to get real,” said Martin Thorley, a British China expert and author of “All That Glistens,” a forthcoming book detailing how what London trumpeted a decade ago as a “golden era” of Sino-British friendship during the premiership of David Cameron made it easy for China to suborn politicians and businesspeople. The “golden era” has been widely mocked as a “golden error.”

Mr. Cameron, who is now Britain’s foreign secretary, has in recent months become an outspoken critic of China. “A lot of the facts changed,” he said during a visit to Washington in December, declaring that China had become “an epoch-defining challenge.”

His change of heart mirrors a wider shift across much of Europe in attitudes to a rising superpower that long counted on European countries, particularly Germany, to push back against what it denounces as “anti-China hype” emanating from Washington.

Germany’s security service has been warning publicly about the risk of trusting China since 2022, when, shortly after Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the head of its domestic intelligence agency, Thomas Haldenwang, told Parliament, “Russia is the storm, China is climate change.”

The agency, known by its German acronym, BfV, said in an unusual public warning last summer, “In recent years, China’s state and party leadership has significantly stepped up its efforts to obtain high-quality political information and to influence decision-making processes abroad.”

Germany’s political leadership, however, has until this week been far more equivocal. Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently made a state visit to China, Germany’s biggest trading partner, to discuss trade and market access.

But Germany’s interior minister this week gave a blunt assessment of China’s activities. “​​We are aware of the considerable danger posed by Chinese espionage to business, industry and science,” the minister, Nancy Faeser, said. “We are looking very closely at these risks and threats and have issued clear warnings and raised awareness so that protective measures are increased everywhere.”

China’s foreign ministry responded by dismissing the accusations as a groundless “slander and smear against China,” demanding that Germany “stop malicious hype” and “halt anti-China political dramas.”

Mareike Ohlberg, a China expert and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said that “for a long time China was spared big public warnings.” Now, she said, the German authorities are “more willing to call things out, or no longer have the patience not to call things out.”

Three of the four people arrested in Germany this week, a husband and wife and one other man, appear to have been involved in economic espionage using a company called Innovative Dragon to pass on sensitive information about German marine propulsion systems — of great value to a superpower interested in building up its navy. They also used the company to buy a high-powered, dual-use laser, which they exported to China without permission.

The fourth person, in what prosecutors called “an especially severe case,” was Jian Guo, a Chinese-German man who has been accused of working for China’s Ministry of State Security. His regular job was as an assistant to Maximilian Krah, a member of the European Parliament for the far-right party Alternative for Germany — a rising political force friendly to China and Russia — and its top candidate for elections in June.

Since then, the public prosecutor in Dresden has begun a “pre-investigation” into how much Mr. Krah knew of his employee’s ties to China. On Wednesday, his party decided to keep supporting Mr. Krah’s bid for re-election to the European Parliament but disinvited him from campaign stops.

When Mr. Xi travels to Europe next month, he will skip Germany and Britain and instead visit Hungary and Serbia, China’s last two staunch allies on the continent, and France.

Mr. Thurley, the British author, said the spying cases had sounded the alarm over Chinese activities but were only a small part of efforts by China to gain influence and information. More important than traditional espionage, he said, is China’s use of a “latent network” of people who do not work directly for the Ministry of State Security but who, for commercial and other reasons, are vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese Communist Party and its myriad offshoots.

“This has been bad for a while and has been left far too long,” he said.

The two men accused in London of espionage for China, Christopher Cash, 29, and Christopher Berry, 32, were arrested in March last year but released on bail and were not named publicly until they were charged this week.

Mr. Cash was a parliamentary researcher with links to the governing Conservative Party and a former director of the China Research Group, a body that often takes a hard-line view on China and hosts podcasts with critics of Chinese interference.

His former colleagues include Alicia Kearns, a member of the governing Conservative Party who heads Parliament’s influential Foreign Affairs Committee, and her predecessor in that role, Tom Tugendhat, who is now the security minister.

In a statement this week, London’s Metropolitan Police said Mr. Cash and Mr. Berry were charged with violating the Official Secrets Act and had provided information “intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy.” It added, “The foreign state to which the above charges relate is China.”

“It took a hell of a long time to wake up, but we finally see some movement,” said Peter Humphrey, a British citizen whom China accused of illegally obtaining personal information while doing due-diligence work for the pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline, and who spent two years in a Shanghai jail with his wife.

He was in jail suffering from cancer when Mr. Cameron visited the city in 2013 with a delegation of British businesspeople. “It was sickening,” recalled Mr. Humphrey, an external research fellow at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “Nobody in the higher levels of the British government,” he said, “wanted to hear a bad word about China because of business interests.”


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