Sergio Restelli

Europe: An epidemic of Chinese interference

Two recent incidents highlight the intensity of Chinese espionage activities in Europe. The first became evident in reports of the Czech Republic government initiating an investigation into an incident concerning a Chinese embassy staff member who is allegedly accused of tailing Taiwan’s Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim in the Czech capital, Prague, during her March 2024 visit. In April 2024, Swedish authorities ordered the expulsion of a Chinese journalist, claiming that she could pose a serious threat to national security. The 57-year-old Chinese woman had lived in Sweden for almost 20 years and denied all the accusations. Whatever the outcome of investigations in both cases, prima facie it appears that Chinese espionage is alive and kicking. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as there would be many more such cases that are under investigation.

The Taiwanese MOFA said in a statement that “The Czech side made the remarks after Taiwan asked its representative office in Prague to contact Czech Republic authorities in the wake of a report by the Prague-based news site Seznam Zpravy alleging a Chinese diplomat was stopped by police while following Hsiao’s motorcade in Prague last month.”  The statement added that “Hsiao visited the Central European country from March 17-19 at the invitation of the Prague-based think tank, Sinopsis, to speak at a seminar”. Meanwhile, Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) said the Chinese journalist, an unnamed, 57-year-old woman, was arrested by the Swedish security service in October 2023 and expelled by the government in Stockholm last week, Swedish broadcaster SVT reported. She is banned from returning. “On April 4, the government decided to reject an appeal against a decision on deportation under the law on the special control of certain foreigners,” Justice Minister Gunnar Strommer told Reuters (9 April 2024).

The Czech Republic Tailing incident

The tailing of Taiwan’s Vice President-elect in Prague, according to Focus Taiwan, emerged on a social media post on 5 April by Jakub Janda, the head of the Czech-based think tank European Values Centre for Security Policy, who referenced a report by Seznam Zpravy. This indicated that Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-khim’s motorcade from Prague airport to the city centre had a vehicle tailing her. Janda tweeted “When her motorcade went from Prague airport to city center, a car was tailing her. This suspicious car ran a red light at an intersection, almost causing a car crash. Czech Police Protective Service stopped this car and found our it was driven by „a Chinese diplomat from the military section of the Chinese Embassy in Prague“. This Chinese governmental surveillance „continued to her hotel in Prague.”

The Czech Foreign Ministry summoned Chinese Ambassador Feng Biao after the incident. Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky expressed dissatisfaction with Feng’s explanation adding that and his Ministry “does not consider this issue to be closed.” In the same report, Czech Senator Pavel Fischer, Chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence, & Security Committee, said the Chinese diplomat’s alleged behaviour was ‘like that of a gangster’. Citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Senator asserted that the Chinese diplomat should be expelled.

The domestic ripples of the tailing incident were felt in Taiwan, as lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), of which Hsiao is a member, condemned China for the incident. They described it as another instance of ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ directed towards Taiwan. DPP legislative caucus Secretary General Wu Szu-yao urged China to immediately halt its coercive diplomatic approach, while calling on democratic allies worldwide to jointly condemn China over the latest incident. According to MOFA, aside from the Czech Republic, Hsiao also visited Poland, Lithuania, and the European Parliament last month, where she met with Taiwan-friendly European parliamentarians.

Sweden expels Chinese Journalist

Shifting attention to Sweden and to the March 2024, expulsion of a Chinese journalist, Reuters, (9 April 2024) quoted lawyer Leutrim Kadriu who represents the journalist as saying he could not go into details as the charges concerned national security and were officially confidential. “The security police have argued that it can be assumed that my client may pose a serious security threat. This assessment has been agreed by the Migration Agency, the Migration Court, and the Government,” the lawyer said. Public broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT) did not give details of the charges but claimed that the woman had received payments linked to the reporting from the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm. She had also hosted Chinese authorities and business delegations on visits to Sweden and sought to arrange meetings with Swedish officials, SVT said.

A Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Stockholm said its government always requests Chinese citizens to comply with the laws of their country of residence and expects Sweden to guarantee that the rights and interests of Chinese citizens are not violated. The journalist against whom charges of spying had been framed has a residency permit and is married to a Swedish man, having arrived in the country two decades ago. According to SVT,  the woman has contacts with the Chinese Embassy and with people in Sweden connected to the government in Chins.  She also reported from Norway and other Nordic countries, including Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, reported NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. This is not the first time that Sweden and China have traded charges of espionage. In 2018, a Swedish court sentenced a man to 22 months in jail for spying for China on resident Tibetans. Dorjee Gyantsan, a Tibetan who worked for a pro-Tibetan radio station, was found guilty of “gross illegal intelligence activity”.

Two years later, a court in eastern China sentenced Chinese-born Swedish national Gui Minhai to ten years in prison for selling books criticising the Communist Party of China. He was charged with “illegally providing intelligence overseas”. Sweden has continually called for Gui’s release with China showing no remorse over the illegal charges against Gui. He had first disappeared in 2015, believed to have been abducted by Chinese security agents from his seaside home in Thailand. The case led to an investigation of Sweden’s ambassador to China over a meeting she arranged between Gui’s daughter and two Chinese businessmen whom the daughter said threatened her father. The Ambassador, Anna Lindstedt, was eventually cleared. Thus, if one peels away the veneer of China-Europe relations, there is below the surface the strong undercurrent of distrust. The need to carry out espionage and influence operations is a felt need for China.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
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