Think tank chief reported to have spied for Germany before charges of passing secrets to China

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A German academic is reported to have worked as a spy for Germany for decades before being arrested this week on charges of spying for China.

German federal prosecutors accuse the owner of a think tank, identified by authorities as Klaus L, as passing confidential German government information to the Chinese secret service. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said it generally did not name suspects for privacy reasons.

Well-sourced German media reports suggest the man worked as a double agent, spying initially for the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) for 50 years. The experience allowed him to found a think tank – the Institute for Transnational Studies (ITS) – after he retired from active service.

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The man was due to appear before the State Security Senate of the Munich Higher Regional Court, where pre-trial detention arrangements were expected to be finalised.

According to a statement published on the prosecutors’ website, the man provided information to Chinese intelligence “in the run up to or after state visits or multinational conferences, as well as on certain current issues”.

The information was obtained “primarily from his numerous high-ranking political contacts who were won through the institute”.

“In return, the accused was financed to travel to the respective meetings with the Chinese intelligence staff, including a supporting programme; he also received a fee,” the statement said.

The political scientist was allegedly contacted by Chinese intelligence services on a trip to Shanghai in June 2010 and “regularly provided the Chinese secret service with information” in the period to November 2019.

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The think tank was not named by German authorities, but the academic is said to have run it since 2001.

“The accused helped this to gain international importance due to his scientific reputation and networks built up over many years,” German prosecutors said.

Charges of “secret service agent activity” were brought against him on May 20 and he was arrested on July 5.

The state-owned news portal Tagesschau reported that he led a double life through years of working for the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a think tank linked to the Christian Social Union (CSU), a political party aligned with Angela Merkel’s governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The contacts he made through years of double-agent work were of enormous value to the Chinese, Tagesschau reported.

An investigation began in 2019 when Klaus L and his wife were intercepted as they left for the airport. They were flying to Macau to meet their handlers.

The ITS website has been taken offline and calls to the listed phone number failed to connect. But an archived version of the site shows extensive project work involving China, India and Eastern Europe.

The academic was a visiting fellow at Tongji University in Shanghai, where he travelled throughout the 2010s to discuss issues such as “security challenges in South Asia” and “globalisation and structural power”.

Tagesschau reported that Klaus L had reported to the BND the initial contact with Chinese intelligence services, and they had encouraged him to “see what they want”.

The eventual aim of the Chinese handlers was to place the academic on the Uygur World Congress, an overseas body representing the interests of Uygurs, many of whom face severe persecution in the Western Chinese region of Xinjiang. It did not succeed, but the accused man reportedly collaborated with Chinese intelligence in other areas.

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It is the latest in a series of espionage scandals involving China to have rocked Germany and the wider European Union (EU).

“We know from German intelligence reports that China has been active in trying to recruit informants in the country in recent years. What we haven’t seen is a successful case brought by prosecutors that exposes the nature of this espionage. In that sense, this is an important test,” said Noah Barkin, senior visiting fellow in the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank.

Early last year, German prosecutors launched an international investigation into what was suspected to be a Chinese spy ring involving German nationals, including one senior diplomat and two lobbyists.

It subsequently emerged that authorities had been investigating Gerhard Sabathil, the EU’s former ambassador to South Korea and a career diplomat, for allegedly spying for China. After failing to substantiate allegations that he was working for Beijing, prosecutors dropped the investigation, with Sabathil vowing to take legal action.

In 2018, criminal charges were brought against a former employee of Lanxess, a German chemical company, for stealing trade secrets for the building of a Chinese chemical reactor.

In 2017, Germany’s intelligence agency uncovered social network profiles that it said were being used by Chinese intelligence agencies to gather personal information about German officials and politicians.

Officials from the EU’s External Action Service – its de facto foreign ministry – reported that there were “around 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies in the European capital” of Brussels in 2019, German newspaper WELT reported at the time.

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Germany’s former spy chief Gerhard Schindler warned in a book released last year that the threat of Chinese espionage in Europe was rising and to counter it, Berlin must reduce its “strategic dependence” on China and ban Huawei Technologies from its 5G mobile phone network. Schindler led Germany’s foreign intelligence service from 2011 to 2016.

The alleged involvement of the German academic marks the latest chapter in a dramatic period for European think tanks researching China.

Earlier this year, the Mercator Institute for China Studies was sanctioned by China, part of a batch of retaliatory measures against EU sanctions on Chinese officials for their roles in suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The think tank is one of the biggest and most prominent organisations researching China, with staff now unlikely to be able to travel to the mainland, even after pandemic-related restrictions are lifted.

German anthropologist Adrian Zenz and Swedish academic Björn Jerdén have also been sanctioned.

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