A new investigation by the Süddeutsche Zeitung reveals the extent of the Chinese secret services' attempts to lobby influential figures in the German parliament using fake social media profiles.
In 2016, a German Bundestag member was contacted by a Chinese businessman going by the name of Jason Wang. Wang allegedly portrayed himself as a well-connected business figure and offered the MP €30,000 for privileged insights into his work at the Bundestag (German parliament). The member of parliament (MP), who has not been named – but who the newspaper say they have identified – accepted the offer.
Other MPs soon followed, claims Süddeutsche's report. Few realized however that 'Jason Wang' was in fact allegedly one of 500 fake social media accounts run by the Chinese state spy outfit. Investigations by German media have found that Wang's connections on work-networking platform LinkedIn were made up.
'Laeticia Chen,' for example, is listed as a manager at the China Center of International Politics and Economy (CCIPE), according to her profile. But the photo used is in fact a famous Chinese model's. Research into other profiles revealed a chain of fake accounts.
The new revelations will come as no surprise to the German secret services, the BfV, who have for some time already provided German MPs who travel to China with special covers for their electronic devices. This is meant to protect MPs from hacking, for example in hotels. Hans-Peter Uhl, a CSU MP who last travelled to China in 2016, told Süddeutsche it's all part of “a little game.”
This kind of “little game” is not, however, limited to China. Russian disinformation, fake news and political infiltration is well-documented. But in 2013 it was the Americans who were in the spotlight for similar actions, specifically for keeping taps on Chancellor Merkel's phone at the German parliament, the Bundestag, from the nearby US embassy in Berlin. Subsequent investigations revealed that Britain, Russia, China and even North Korea were also monitoring the German chancellor's phone.
READ ALSO: UK, China and Russia 'tapped Merkel's phone'
In early 2018, Martina Renner, a German MP, claimed that Germany had become a “playground for foreign intelligence services,” according a report in Zeit Online. Besides Russia and China, Iran and Turkey's secret services are also very active in Germany, according to that report.
Experts however suggest the manner and audacity of the alleged Chinese cash-for-info scheme is unprecedented. While Chinese secret services have sought to penetrate US diplomatic and political circles as well, so far it had been assumed that China's spies limit themselves to recruiting staff from MPs, not MPs themselves, Peter Mattis, a US expert on China told Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Up to 10,000 German citizens have reportedly been contacted by fake social media accounts linked to China's secret service as part of an operation that Germany's secret service labels as more dangerous than Russian infiltration.
The accusations, which China denies, had already been leveled against the world's second-largest economy in December 2017 by Germany's leading authority on the subject.
“Social networks, especially LinkedIn, are used on a large scale for absorption and source advertising,” Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) – Germany's secret service – warned at the end of last year. “It is a broad attempt to infiltrate parliaments, ministries and authorities in particular,” Maaßen told Reuters at the time.
A visit of 12 Chinese ministers to Merkel on Monday, July 9, is meant to reassure the German chancellor of a supposed promise made to her by the Chinese government on her last visit to the country – that China would cease its espionage activities in Germany. The timing of the new revelations could not be more awkward given the extensive economic partnership between China and Germany.
The German accusations against China are not as odd as some of the recent spy games between major powers. American officials were evacuated from China last month after developing a “mystery illness” following exposure to “odd sounds” in June 2018.
At least 24 US officials “were stricken with headaches, nausea, hearing loss, cognitive issues and other symptoms after saying they heard odd sounds,” in Havana in 2016 too, reports The New York Times.