China views European spying allegations as a 'serious problem'

Beijing summons the German ambassador, calls British allegations 'a political farce.'
By Yitong Wu and Kwong Wing for RFA Cantonese
2024.04.29
China views European spying allegations as a 'serious problem' The flags of Germany and China are seen in Berlin, Germany, June 19, 2023. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
Photo: RFA

China's responses to allegations of spying in Germany and the United Kingdom suggest that the ruling Communist Party has plenty to lose from closer public scrutiny of its overseas influence operations, analysts told Radio Free Asia in recent interviews.

The arrests highlighted concerns over Beijing's attempts to infiltrate democracies and extend its political influence far beyond its borders.

Beijing on Friday summoned Germany's Ambassador Patricia Flor to protest the arrests of four people for allegedly spying for China.

"I was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today," Flor said via her X account on Friday. "A quite telling move – but, after all, a good opportunity to explain a few things."

The summons came after German prosecutors on April 22 accused three people of providing information to Chinese intelligence that could have a military purpose, and accused Guo Jian, a parliamentary aide to far-right MEP Maximilian Krah, of spying on the parliament and on overseas dissidents for China.

Flor, who was last summoned in September 2023 after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock referred to Communist Party leader Xi Jinping as a "dictator," added: "We do not tolerate espionage in Germany, regardless of which country it comes from.” 

She noted that it is for the courts to decide whether the accusations against the four defendants are true or not.

Six accused of spying

Flor's summoning came after German police arrested four people on suspicion of spying for China, and as police in the United Kingdom charged two people with spying for China.

Christopher Cash, 29, a former researcher for a prominent British lawmaker in the governing Conservative Party, and Christopher Berry, 32, appeared in a London court on April 26 after being charged with providing prejudicial information to China in breach of the Official Secrets Act. 

Neither defendant entered a plea, and only confirmed their names and addresses at a brief hearing at Westminster Magistrates' Court.

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German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attends the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2024.(Liesa Johannssen/Reuters)

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in London said the claims of spying for China were "completely fabricated and nothing but malicious slander." 

"We ... urge the U.K. side to stop anti-China political manipulation and stop putting on such self-staged political farce," the spokesperson said in comments posted to the embassy website on April 22.

Chen Yonglin, a former political attache at the Chinese Consulate General in Sydney, said diplomatic summonses are usually only used in response to a major incident, and that Beijing's response shows a deep level of concern over spying allegations.

"They will summon the ambassador [only] when they run into a very serious problem," Chen said. 

"The Chinese government is going to be very concerned, now that its overseas espionage activities are being cracked down on."

Interference

Chen said the summons actually constituted "interference in the internal affairs" of Germany, an accusation frequently leveled by Chinese officials at any criticism of its rights record.

"The Western political system must protect and maintain itself and its values, because it is being affected by infiltration by the Chinese Communist Party on a large scale," he said.

Germany-based legal scholar Qian Yuejun said the incident revealed Beijing's lack of understanding of the separation of powers in a democratic system.

"As an employee of the German Foreign Ministry, the German ambassador to China has no power to influence the progress of the Chinese espionage case through the German judicial system," Qian said.

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German Ambassador to China Patricia Flor, July 25, 2022. (German Embassy in China)

He said Flor's response was also revealing.

"Stealing information from the European Parliament isn't a simple act of theft," he said of the as-yet-unproven allegations. "It undermines Europe's liberal democratic system."

"The ultimate goal is to infiltrate, and even subvert, [that] system."

He said the summoning of Flor hadn't apparently worked in Beijing's favor, however.

"It unleashed another wave of media frenzy in Germany, bumping the issue of Chinese Communist Party espionage up to a higher priority in the German press," Qian said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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