“Equal with the Russians”: the rise of Chinese espionage worries Europe

It was like an episode of the TV spy thriller Office. A senior French intelligence officer known as Henri M is assigned to Beijing, where he falls in love with the ambassador’s interpreter and begins passing secret information to the enemy.

Shortly after, he was recalled to France and, in a trial in 2020, sentenced to eight years in prison for passing on “prejudicial information” to a foreign power – even though the offense was committed two decades before. . A fellow agent known as Pierre-Marie H, who continued to spy for China until his arrest in 2017, was sentenced to 12 years in prison at the same trial.

The harsh sentences imposed on the agents and France’s decision to highlight their activities by holding a trial reflect growing concern among Europeans that China’s spying operations are growing and posing a greater threat. important than those of Russia, the West’s traditional adversary.

“Chinese intelligence agents are on an equal footing with the Russians,” said a former CIA Europe station chief, the US intelligence agency. “China’s best operations are now as good as Russia’s best,” confirmed a current Western intelligence official. Some of them are “exquisite. . . in their patience,” added a second.

China is already well known for its advanced cyberattacks, such as the 2021 Microsoft hack, which compromised 30,000 organizations worldwide and which the US, EU and UK say were carried out by criminal groups working at the behest of Beijing. China has denied the allegations, calling them “baseless and irresponsible”.

But his skills in human intelligence, or HUMINT, have taken on a level of sophistication typically associated with Russian espionage, according to eight current and former Western intelligence officials, adding to the sense of alarm in the West.

Christine Lee was singled out by MI5 this year when it issued a public warning that she was an ‘agent of influence’ for China © British Chinese Project /Eyepress/Reuters

“The Russians have been spying since the time of the Tsar [before the Soviet Union], they love it,” said Alex Younger, former head of MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence service. “Traditionally, the Chinese have a significantly lower HUMINT, but they’ve gone through a steep learning curve.”

The rise in covert activity by China’s ruling Communist Party was described as a “game-changing” challenge by Ken McCallum, head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5, and FBI chief Christopher Wray, his American counterpart, during of a joint conference in London last month. .

“We’re not crying wolf,” McCallum said, his warning all the more stern as he came amid Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Europe’s biggest security threat. for a generation.

Since China’s espionage techniques are also very different from Russia’s, Western agencies need to reconfigure their approach to counterintelligence.

Christine Lee, a lawyer and British national, was singled out by MI5 this year when it took the unusual step of issuing a public warning that she was an “agent of influence” for China, even though her alleged pro-Beijing transgressions were not criminal. .

“Chinese espionage is not even a variant of Russian espionage [approach]said the second intelligence official. “Just agreeing what constitutes a Chinese agent can be difficult.”

Officials said Russia’s foreign operations still generally relied on a tradition of elite officers, trained in espionage techniques such as coded communications, to achieve a specific security objective. China, however, has broader goals, ranging from political influence to obtaining trade or technological secrets.

“Russian espionage tends to be narrowly targeted, while China uses a ‘whole of society’ approach,” said a third intelligence official. They referred to China’s 2017 Intelligence Law requiring “all organizations and citizens” to “support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts”.

Russian espionage also tends to be high-risk, even “rogue,” said a fourth official, citing the attempted poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in England in 2018.

“Russians can be clumsy, quite arrogant and sometimes seem to possess a ‘catch me if you can’ mentality” but “the Chinese prefer to avoid any kind of spy scandal because they want to preserve good bilateral relations”, added the former CIA. officer.

The difference between the styles of the two countries is captured by an adage oft-quoted by Western officials, who imagines grains of sand as targets for intelligence.

While Russian agents would surface a submarine at night and send a small party to the beach to bring back a bucket of sand, the Chinese would send thousands of bathers in broad daylight to bring back the biggest spoils of a single grain each. .

The result, according to Nicholas Eftimiades, a China expert and former CIA officer, is “a new paradigm for how intelligence business is conducted.”

Such tactics can lead to ineffective and uncoordinated espionage, Western officials said, with multiple Chinese officers sometimes approaching the same target. Even so, it is often effective.

A US estimate has suggested that Chinese commercial espionage has stolen up to $600 billion of US intellectual property each year. China has denied these allegations. The EU has estimated that the total theft of intellectual property costs it €50 billion in sales each year, with the loss of 671,000 jobs.

“Efficiency is more important to China’s security services than efficiency,” said Nigel Inkster, former director of operations at MI6 and now a senior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

An additional challenge, officials said, is identifying exactly who a Chinese spy is without resorting to racial profiling of potential suspects.

Here again, the difference with Russia is striking. European capitals have expelled more than 600 suspected Russian diplomats and spies since Moscow launched an invasion of Ukraine this year.

But “a similar situation with Beijing would be more difficult,” Inkster said, because the relationship between the Chinese state and its actors can be tenuous and fluid.

Some counterintelligence officials also believe the “grains of sand” analogy is misleading because it obscures China’s more recent and sophisticated work.

Regardless of the approach, Western agencies are struggling to keep up with the volume of cases. The FBI said it was opening a new investigation into Chinese espionage every 12 hours, while MI5’s caseload had increased sevenfold since 2018, he said.

Wray, the head of the FBI, said, “The scale of China’s effort is breathtaking.”