Foreign interference
A look behind the scenes of Chinese espionage in the European Parliament

Michael Krah

A look behind the scenes of Chinese espionage in the European Parliament - the case of J. Guo

Since the arrest of J. Guo on charges of spying for China's authoritarian security apparatus on April 23, 2024, it seems to have become clear what many would hardly have thought possible: for years, a suspected Chinese spy had unhindered access to the parliamentary heart of the European institutions - and only because MEP Maximilian Krah, EU lead candidate of the AfD, made it possible.

What sounds like the plot of a spy movie now seems to have become a reality: Chinese intelligence operators have successfully infiltrated the European Parliament (EP) - via right-wing populist politics. This comes at a time when extremist forces are visibly expanding their political influence in Europe and striving to undermine the EU's fundamental principles of freedom and democracy.

Despite the charges against his long-time employee and Accredited Parliamentary Assistant, Krah, the AfD's number one for Europe, has already declared that he is unaware of any "personal misconduct" and has rejected responsibility[1](as of 25.04.24). There seems to be no trace of accountability – which might make sense considering that the Dresden Public Prosecutor General's Office has already initiated two preliminary investigations into alleged Chinese and Russian payments against Krah.

In the EP, Krah is a member of a large number of committees that deal with the EU's international actions on the world stage and global issues. For example, he is a member of the Committee on International Trade (INTA), the Subcommittees on Human Rights (DROI) and Security and Defense (SEDE) and the Committee on Foreign Affairs(AFET). Krah has been represented in these committees since 2019. Most of the time, these committees meet in public. However, some meetings are held "in camera" (confidential procedure) when discussing susceptible topics. Confidential and particularly sensitive information is shared with MEPs at these meetings. Krah's team in Brussels is small, as is the case with many MEPs, and with only three staff members on-site to support parliamentary work in Brussels, contact and the exchange of information within the team are usually close. It seems highly likely that Guo, who stands accused of espionage, was able to gather such sensitive information. The idea that a suspected Chinese spy had unhindered access to (sometimes secret) information from these committees for an entire parliamentary term would be nothing less than a security risk for Europe.

While various topics from different geographical regions of the world are on the agenda at every committee meeting, the committees in which Krah represents the AfD in Europe regularly deal with China's influence and the actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). His term of office in the 9th parliamentary term included debates and votes on international trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the EU and China (CAI), which was put on hold in 2021 and is of central importance to China's economic relations with the EU.

There were also regular plenary votes on the Chinese regime's atrocious human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, which were regularly condemned by the majority of MEPs. With regard to the crimes against humanity committed against the Uyghur minority, Krah openly spoke of "horror stories about Xinjiang", which he had "always considered questionable" and disparaged as "anti-China propaganda without valid facts". In addition to human rights issues, reports on the security and defence implications of China's influence on critical infrastructure in the EU were discussed and voted on during the legislative period. Additionally, political relations and cooperation between the EU and Taiwan were recurring topics on the agenda. All of these topics could obviously be of great interest to a regime that routinely uses espionage to acquire knowledge and pursue its economic and military objectives. This could have allowed Guo to siphon off targeted information and possibly even influence voting behaviour in China's favour.

But it is not only the information from committee meetings that Guo had access to because, as an employee of an MEP, Guo was able to move freely around the EP and would also have been able to gather precise information about the "inner workings" of the European institution and the parliamentary group for his alleged employer, the Chinese secret service. Krah's loyal companion has already been charged with "acting as an agent of a Chinese secret service in a particularly serious case" and stands accused of not only having "passed on information about negotiations and decisions in the European Parliament to his intelligence service client", but also of having "spied on Chinese opposition members in Germany for the intelligence service." In light of Guo's employment for Krah since 2019 and the fact that the two have known each other for at least a decade, it seems unlikely that the cases from January 2024 mentioned in the indictment are isolated incidents. This is also supported by the fact that it has not been only since this year that there have been indications that Guo and Krah are involved in dubious connections with the Chinese regime.

Europe's political extremes - cosying up to global autocracies

The AfD has also been under scrutiny for alleged links to Chinese and Russian operatives, and not just since the Guo case. There are accusations of corruption against Krah and MP Petr Bystron, number 2 on the AfD's European list. While the AfD has been blatantly repeating Russian propaganda since the beginning of Russia's illegal war of aggression in Ukraine, Bystron and Krah are accused of having received money from people connected to the Russian leadership.

Targeted inference and disinformation campaigns are not only used by Chinese actors but also by Russia to instrumentalize European politicians, as the recent scandal about Russian influence in Brussels revealed. Ultimately, Krah's "China-friendliness“, in particular, has been known for years, and even references to Guo are not entirely new. In some cases, Krah tried to change the AfD party line in favour of the authoritarian regime in Beijing, for example, when it came to the participation of the Chinese company Huawei in the 5-G network expansion in Germany, which Krah (unsuccessfully) lobbied for in the party. Although Krah was ultimately unsuccessful in the case of Huawei's involvement, it has often become clear that the AfD does not necessarily consider the Chinese regime to be problematic but rather people who courageously oppose Beijing's repressive state apparatus. A particularly alarming example of this from 2021 was shown in a Kleine Anfrage by the AfD parliamentary group in the Bundestag, in which the AfD adopted the narrative of the Chinese leadership towards exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists living in Germany, such as Ray Wong. Especially in light of the new information that Krah's employee Gou allegedly spied on Chinese opposition members in Germany, such AfD inquiries could be an indication of how the Chinese government is trying to extend its repression to Germany, explains Ray Wong: "The AfD's Kleine Anfrage and the involvement of Jian G. in spying on CCP dissidents abroad paints a dire picture: China is moving closer and collaborating with anti-democratic forces in Germany to undermine German democracy and threaten the safety of those who dare to speak out against China's totalitarian regime - as China's transnational repression of dissidents overseas has worryingly intensified in recent years. The more dependent Germany is on China, the more audacious China becomes."

However, support for the Chinese and Russian regimes comes not only from German politicians from the right-wing spectrum but also frequently from political figures from Sarah Wagenknecht‘s new party BSW. At the European level, ultra-left MEPs such as Ireland's Mick Wallace and Clare Daly are also only too happy to show solidarity with China's leadership, adopting Chinese narratives in their rhetoric and thus spreading Chinese state propaganda in Europe.

The sympathy of European parties and political personalities from the left, but also especially the right, with autocracies, may seem surprising at first. Still, there are not only content overlaps, such as open anti-Americanism and anti-NATO rhetoric. They also often receive something from Russia and China that they would otherwise find difficult to obtain: international recognition to the extent that is otherwise rarely granted to them, as their contributions and speeches are widely disseminated and they are invited as welcome guests.

Super election year 2024 - Foreign influence, disinformation, and espionage ahead of the EU elections

Electoral interference and influence peddling in the EU by non-European actors, particularly Russia and China, is a risk that is particularly worrying and dangerous in this super-election year. As the cornerstone of liberal democracies, the European elections in June are a direct target for autocratic interference attempts. Just like the methods of manipulation, how influence is exerted is diverse and constantly evolving, partly due to technological progress. The methods can range from financial support and targeted disinformation and propaganda campaigns to economic pressure and cyber-attacks. This variety and dynamism make it particularly challenging to tackle the problem effectively, not least because it is often difficult to assign responsibility and publicly name the "perpetrators". The aim of foreign interference and influence is, among other things, to gain information, sow mistrust among the European population and drive polarization, instability and division within society.

At present, Russian tactics of influence seem to be more advanced and aimed at dividing democratic societies and undermining trust in democratic processes. On the other hand, Beijing's leadership likes to present an emphatically positive image of its own authoritarian state to gain influence and sway public opinion in other countries. According to current analyses, however, the Chinese regime's tactics pose a potentially growing and long-term threat.

The issue of foreign interference in the EP and other European institutions is of utmost importance, and not just in the context of the super-election year 2024. While AfD politicians such as Krah voted against an EP resolution on foreign interference in democratic processes in the EU just last year[2], the Liberals in the EP have played a central role in recent years in drawing attention not only to the problem of espionage but also to the danger that can potentially emanate from authoritarian regimes. This is an essential measure, as China and Russia, in particular, have been treated with naivety for too long, and the problem has ultimately been underestimated too often. However, since this legislative period, the EP has become increasingly concerned with China. The sanctions imposed by the Chinese regime on five democratic MEPs and the entire DROI Human Rights Committee in Brussels in 2021 marked a turning point in EU-China policy, ultimately leading to freezing the CAI investment agreement.

In the same year, the liberal Renew Europe group published a paper calling for a more realistic approach to the CCP. Be it the French liberal Natalie Loiseau or VVD's Bart Groothuis, European liberals took essential steps in the EP to clarify and assess the extent of the threats of foreign influence in democratic processes in the EU. At the same time, Moritz Körner (FDP) was at the forefront of investigating foreign espionage scandals as Vice-Chairman of the PEGA Committeeof Inquiry, which dealt with the use of Pegasus and similar spyware. For years, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has also been regularly addressing the issue through various formats, thus making an important contribution to bringing the topic closer to the public and decision-makers and keeping it on the political agenda.

The current scandal surrounding the AfD's top EU candidate, Krah, once again underlines not only the concerns surrounding the rise of right-wing extremism and populism in Europe but also the urgent need for robust measures to protect democracy and freedom. Targeted information campaigns that expose disinformation and manipulation, as well as cooperation with fact-checking organizations, in conjunction with European legislation such as the Digital Services Act, can contribute to the fight against disinformation and foreign influence. The same applies to coordinated international cooperation with democratic partners such as Taiwan, which has long been confronted with the problem of authoritarian influence and attempted infiltration.

To this end, the EU and Germany must strengthen their capacities to detect and combat foreign influence. Liberal democracy's resilience is highly dependent on people being able to make informed decisions. Voters have a right to know whether candidates or sitting MEPs are genuinely committed to their values or to the interests of autocrats so that they can make an informed choice.

The Guo case has once again shown that parties such as the AfD can be a national and European security risk, not only because of their exclusionary world view, which divides societies and turns people against each other, but also because they willingly extend their hand to dictators such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, contrary to their self-proclaimed "Heimatliebe."

While the danger of a global alliance of autocracies is increasing, authoritarian forces are deliberately trying to destabilize Europe, and extremist parties are enjoying electoral success, it is more essential than ever to expose populist propaganda. In June 2024, the people of the EU will not only elect their representatives in the EP but will also determine the general political balance and priorities at the EU level for the next five years. Only with effective strategies and robust commitment to resilience and transparency at the EU and national level can the EU remain a place where democracy and the rule of law are upheld.

Katharina Osthoff works for the FNF in Brussels as Human Rights & EU Liaison Manager. Previously, Ms. Osthoff worked as a political advisor for foreign affairs in the European Parliament in Brussels and the German Bundestag in Berlin, focusing on Asia and China.


[1] Of course, without a court conviction of J. Guo or Maximilian Krah, it is impossible to say whether or in what form either of the defendants allowed themselves to be instrumentalized by foreign influences. However, as the two have come into conflict with the law and have been accused of severe crimes, they serve here as an example of the increasing influence and interference of foreign authoritarian forces in the EU.

[2] In its final plenary session of the mandate this week, the EP has now once again adopted a resolution on the suspicion of foreign interference by Russia. This was once again rejected or abstained on by the majority of the ID Group, to which the AfD belongs.