German Intelligence: "Russia is a storm, China is climate change"

(To Renato Caputo)

Espionage from China continues to grow in both volume and sophistication. The People's Republic's cyber-snoops have gone beyond companies and are now trying to influence German politics, keeping an eye on dissidents and minorities.

in 2014 Xi Jinping he was in Germany, at the port of Duisburg, with the then vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. The two were impatiently awaiting the arrival of a freight train which, from Chongqing, would reach the end of the "New Silk Road" 10.300 kilometers long in Duisburg. 

Additionally, a broad plan called for telecoms giant Huawei to transform this dilapidated industrial metropolis in the Ruhr Valley into a state-of-the-art “smart city,” allowing Duisburg citizens to lead “happy and successful lives,” according to what was written in the agreement signed with the Chinese.

Duisburg has, by now, left behind the dream of becoming a smart city. In Berlin, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser is intent on drastically reducing China's involvement in German mobile networks for fear of possible sabotage. The German government increasingly sees the communist regime as a “systemic rival”. Chancellor Olaf Scholz underlined the need to reduce risks. And recently Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock even called Xi a dictator.

German intelligence agents have long since abandoned any illusions they may once have harbored given the Chinese Communist Party's thirst for power and growing hostility towards the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine may be the biggest problem Europe faces right now, but in the long term the biggest threat comes from China. “Russia is a storm” - says Thomas Haldenwang, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the German internal security agency - “China is climate change”.

An investigation now clearly shows how Chinese spies recruited European politicians. Hundreds of text messages sent by an intelligence agent from China's Ministry of State Security, a man who goes by the name Daniel Woo, show that the communist regime commissioned parliamentary initiatives in both Belgium and Germany. With success.

This is an impressive success for China's brazen activities in Europe and the country's attempt to force its way into the heart of democracy to exert its influence. This report provides a rare look behind the scenes of China's powerful intelligence apparatus.

Since Xi took power in China in 2012, he has focused intently on massively expanding an already expanding security apparatus. Additionally, the new laws have given government agencies essentially free rein when it comes to surveillance.

Millions of cameras have been installed in Chinese cities, an Orwellian nightmare called Skynet from the country's propaganda machine. Everything and everyone is filmed constantly, messages in the app WeChat widely used are analyzed and protesters are identified using facial recognition technology.

By 2049, the year that will mark the centenary of the People's Republic, Xi Jinping hopes to transform his country into a superpower, equaling, or even surpassing, the technological and military strength of the United States. Xi calls this project of returning his country to what he sees as its rightful place at the top of the global hierarchy as the “Chinese dream.”

And on the way to this goal, almost everything goes right.

Control the diaspora

The toolbox of the Chinese secret services is overflowing. According to the German Internal Security Agency, the regime's oppression of dissidents and minorities such as Uyghurs is no longer limited to their own country. Beijing critics living in Germany, the agency says, have also been targeted, sometimes putting pressure on their family members back home. The goal, German security officials say, is “the control and regulation of the diaspora.”

At the same time, the German security agency says, Chinese spies are doing everything they can to get their hands on future technologies, such as quantum technology, artificial intelligence, hypersonic technology and biotechnology. Much of these technologies also have military applications. The acquisitions of companies in Germany, the agency says, serve the overall strategic goal of giving China an advantage in the global competition for knowledge.

Meanwhile, Chinese cyberattacks are no longer limited to companies and are increasingly targeting politicians, officials say. Diplomats and agents in Chinese embassies and consulates are reportedly establishing extensive networks in an attempt to secure the services of active and former German politicians.

It sounds a lot like a broad attack on Germany. "The Chinese Communist Party," says the German sinologist Mareike Ohlberg of the Marshall Fund in Berlin, "exploits the weaknesses of democratic systems to weaken them".

Chinese spies and hackers are much less intrusive than their Russian counterparts and use less brute force. Yet, they are at least as effective. Poisoning critics in Britain or killing enemies of the state in a Berlin park, as Russian state-sponsored assassins did, are hardly strategies that Chinese intelligence agents would employ. Chinese hackers also steer clear of flashy moves such as publishing compromising emails from Western politicians in the middle of an election campaign, as Putin's digital henchmen have done on several occasions.

Silently penetrate critical systems

Cyber ​​spies from China silently enter the systems they target and remain there for several years, slowly and discreetly stealing sensitive information.

These long-term entries could also be used for destructive purposes, such as sabotaging critical infrastructure, the security expert warns Antonia Hmaidi in a recent study for the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), the respected think tank in Germany. Dormant Chinese malware code, he points out, has already been discovered in the US power grid.

Numerous companies listed in the stock index blue chips German DAX, at least one German semiconductor manufacturer was targeted by Chinese cyberattacks.

In a recent survey, 730 of more than 1.000 companies surveyed say they were targeted by cyberattacks last year. 42% identified at least one attack originating from China. The MERICS study finds that many of the foreign targets are consistent with the “strategic objectives of the Chinese government.” The conclusion the think tank reached: cyber attacks represent "a risk to Europe's long-term prosperity".

Already 2.500 years ago, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu knew how important spies are. "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the outcome of a hundred battles", he wrote in "The Art of War." The current Chinese ruler Xi Jinping has an army of spies at his disposal. With hundreds of thousands of full-time agents, his intelligence apparatus is "almost certainly the largest in the world", said the Intelligence and Security Committee of the British Parliament.

Add to that number the thousands upon thousands of Chinese expatriates, visiting researchers, students and businessmen who provide their services by sending information back home – or who are forced to spy by Chinese intelligence authorities.

An intelligence law that took effect in 2017 states that “any organization or citizen must support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work, according to law”. This means that the state can require any Chinese citizen or company to cooperate with the intelligence services. This is essentially a license for it unlimited espionage.

Of course, not all Chinese students are spies. Yet state security officials in Bavaria have warned against naivety. They are particularly concerned about the grants awarded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), run by the state, which sent around 5.000 undergraduate and graduate students to Germany. Participants must declare their loyalty to China and the Communist Party in writing, remain in regular contact with the embassy and follow all instructions received.

According to the head of the Bavarian state security office, Burkhard Körner, grant recipients must also submit regular reports. And these reports, explains Körner, are not limited only to information on the host universities and on the progress made in their studies. “They may also be required to provide information on the Chinese exile community, dissidents and minorities such as Uighurs”. Körner recommends that universities be careful when admitting CSC scholarship recipients: "The risk is real," he says.

In the United States, China has long been seen as a threat, with the FBI highlighting its dangers as early as 2005. These days, U.S. federal law enforcement forces maintain a website called The China Threat. Every 12 hours the FBI opens a new investigation into an espionage case.

Over the past two decades, Chinese agents have stolen large amounts of data from the United States. The Center for Strategic and International Studies lists 224 cases between 2000 and 2023, although the number of unreported cases is likely much higher. The Chinese stole information on the Space Shuttle program, data on Monsanto seeds, emails from the White House, 614 gigabytes of information on a supersonic anti-ship missile, secret corporate data on Apple's self-driving cars, sensitive data on millions of people of public employees and much more.

Thefts are increasingly happening digitally. China operates the most comprehensive hacking program of any country in the world, the FBI chief said Christopher wray during a late October appearance in Silicon Valley. It was a rather unusual occasion: for the first time ever, the heads of the secret services of all Five Eyes member states – United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand – appeared before the press at the same time. Their message: When it comes to China, the situation is more dire than ever.

Flooding the internet with fake news

Since then, the US Department of Justice has indicted a number of suspected Chinese hackers believed to be working on behalf of the state. On the FBI website it is possible to scroll through numerous "Wanted" posters with the faces of young men and women suspected of being responsible for cyber attacks against companies, government agencies and research centers carried out on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of State Security or the Chinese army, known as the People's Liberation Army. The website also contains names and photos of Chinese public officials allegedly responsible for flooding the global internet with fake news and digitally harassing dissidents in the West.

The strategy of the "naming and shaming" pursued by the United States should act as a deterrent, but so far it appears to have had little effect. On the contrary: Chinese cyber groups appear to be further developing their skills and becoming more professional.

The US cybersecurity company Mandiant believes that Chinese authorities are behind as many as 29 groups classified as Advanced Persistent Threats (APT), a designation experts give to the most dangerous malicious actors on the web. The methods have also been refined: Chinese cyber attackers have been known for simple campaigns for years Phishing, with which malware they are installed on computers as soon as the user clicks, for example, on a link sent via email. Today, however, Chinese groups have turned to more sophisticated methods, such as targeting weak points in servers, and are expending enormous energy to cover their tracks.

Even Germany might soon have realized that China was not so harmless.

  • In the Bavarian town of Kolbermoor, in 2009, the cover of a Chinese industrial spy was blown. During a visit to a factory, she secretly filmed the innovative products of a fibre-reinforced concrete specialist with a mini-camera sticking out of her trouser pocket. The company's employees noticed what he was doing and called the police. The Chinese man was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence of one and a half years.
  • In 2011, the Munich court convicted a Chinese man for espionage activities. An intelligence officer, under the guise of a consulate employee, had recruited him to spy on the World Uyghur Congress in Munich, whose officials China sees as enemies of the state. The spy provided the desired information to his interlocutor during a series of meetings. German internal security agents managed to unmask them.
  • In 2008, the University of Duisburg-Essen hosted a guest professor from China who spent months at the institute learning cutting-edge German engineering technologies. Only 10 years later did the university discover that the man was a general in the People's Liberation Army. Back home, he runs a military laboratory for missile testing and control technology.
  • In 2021, a court convicted a German couple of espionage. She worked as a professor focusing on South Asia, while he worked for the Hanns Seidel Foundation. Later, she founded a think tank. The two were recruited in 2010 in Shanghai, where they held conferences. For nine years the couple provided information to Chinese intelligence services, before or after state visits or multinational conferences.

However, the danger of Chinese espionage continues to be perceived by public opinion as less acute than that of other powers. Many see Russia as the main threat, particularly after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Michael Brand, who focuses on human rights issues, says however: “Totalitarian and aggressive China is the greatest threat of the 21st century”.

Very few exiled Chinese, well aware that Beijing's reach extends to Germany, are willing to speak out. They fear this could worsen the repression many of them already experience.

Ma su yutong however, she is willing to speak openly. A 47-year-old journalist, Sule fled to Germany in 2010 after her critical reporting and human rights advocacy put her on the radar of Chinese government agencies. She today she writes for Radio Free Asia and has experienced virtually every form of repression offered in the Chinese playbook.

New levels of oppression

He received death threats on his cell phone and disturbing confirmations of hotel reservations in his name that he never made. Just recently, someone wrote to her on social media that she wanted to "blow her brains out" and kill her entire family. It was not possible to determine with any degree of certainty who was behind the harassment, and the Chinese embassy denied any state involvement. But experts say the scale and persistence of the persecution leaves little doubt that it is an institutionalized campaign.

Also Tenzyn Zöchbauer, head of the organization Tibet Initiative Germany, experienced a series of strange events. His family fled to Europe decades ago. A few months ago, you received a message on Telegram that apparently came from one of your contacts and contained a link. Clicking on the link would have allowed the "attackers" to access Zöchbauer's Telegram account, including all his contacts with Tibetans in exile and regime opponents.

MP Brand says such actions are part of a "broad strategy", adding that the persecution of dissidents is "spreading like a cancerous tumor". Brand calls on the German authorities to establish a central contact point for such cases, with a hotline that victims can contact. “It's time for Germany to say publicly: enough is enough.”

Problematic experiences

The World Uighur Congress, the Tibet Initiative and the human rights organization Freedom for Hong Kong would also like to see the creation of such a structure, as they told German politicians in a written report. In the document, the NGOs list ten cases in which activists or their family members in China have been pressured. German security agents, activists argue, are ill-equipped to deal with such incidents, often lacking sufficient linguistic knowledge or awareness of the approaches taken by Beijing. The title of their report is “Chinese terror in Germany”.

The network of informal overseas "police stations" operated by China in more than 50 countries around the world, including Germany, shows how far the People's Republic is willing to go. NGO reports brought the network to light in 2022.

According to the Chinese, the facilities were set up simply to assist Chinese expatriates with bureaucratic needs, but German security officials have warned that they could be used to “spying and influencing the Chinese diaspora”.

So far, Chinese "police stations" abroad have not led to any indictments in Germany. In the United States, however, the FBI arrested two men believed to have secretly gathered information on a human rights activist with Chinese origins. The "overseas police station" in that case was located in an office building on East Broadway, right in the heart of New York City.