Chinese spies recruited far-right Belgian politician as intelligence asset
Chinese spies ran a far-right Belgian politician as an intelligence asset for more than three years, in a case that shows how Beijing has used influence operations to shape politics in its favour, the Financial Times reported on Friday.
China's ministry of State Security (MSS) spy agency officer Daniel Woo urged Frank Creyelman, a former Belgian senator, to influence discussions in Europe on issues such as China's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and its persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The relationship between the Chinese officer and Creyelman is documented in text messages from 2019 to late 2022, obtained from a Western security source in a joint investigation by the Financial Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde.
In one exchange in 2021, Woo asked Creyelman to attack researcher Adrian Zenz, who had helped expose China's detention of hundreds of thousands of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority in its far western region of Xinjiang.
He also asked Creyelman to help disrupt a conference on Taiwan, and the two discussed the idea of paying an intermediary to influence a Catholic cardinal to issue a warning against politicising Covid-19 as China came under pressure over the coronavirus.
"Our purpose is to divide the US-European relationship"
Ahead of German chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit to China last year, Creyelman was asked to persuade two right-wing MEPs to publicly say that the US and UK were undermining Europe's energy security. "Our purpose is to divide the US-European relationship," Woo wrote in a text message to Creyelman.
With most large countries engaged in espionage, the MSS operation in Europe highlights one of the distinctive features of Chinese espionage: widespread influence operations aimed at shaping political debate.
"China has a significant human and electronic collection capability in Brussels, which is seen as a target-rich environment due to the concentration of international organisations, including the European Commission and NATO," said Nigel Inkster, a former head of operations at UK intelligence service MI6 and an expert on Chinese intelligence who now works for the consultancy Enodo Economics.
"Belgium has become a major centre for intelligence operations by a variety of hostile states due to the ease of operation there"
The MSS also appeared more willing to take risks in Europe because it perceived the consequences of being caught to be less severe than in America. A former senior Western intelligence officer said that Brussels was mainly targeted because its security services were under-resourced. "Belgium has become a major centre for intelligence operations by a variety of hostile states due to the ease of operation there," he said.
It is unclear how or when Creyelman was recruited. A veteran of Belgium's Flemish nationalist movement since 1977, he served in the federal senate from 1999 to 2007 and is now an honorary member of the Flemish parliament. He is the leader of the far-right Vlaams Belang party in his home city of Mechelen.
A Belgian government spokesperson said the relevant authorities knew of the Creyelman case but declined to comment further. Woo could not be reached, while the Chinese embassy in Brussels said it had no knowledge of the case.
Vlaams Belang's executive committee decided to expel Creyelman from the party "with immediate effect", party leader Tom Van Grieken announced on X, the former Twitter. "His actions go against the purpose and essence, even the name, of our party. The only loyalty for nationalists can only be to their own nation."
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