Chinese spies have targeted Belgian biological warfare and vaccine experts, Belgium’s security service suspects.
They are also targeting British pharmaceutical giant and vaccine-maker GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Belgium and Belgian high-tech firms, Belgian intelligence fears.
The suspicions were detailed in confidential Belgian reports dated from 2010 to 2016, seen by EUobserver.
They were meant to alert Belgian authorities to the threat of Chinese military, scientific, and medical espionage.
But the Belgian suspicions have no direct link to the current coronavirus pandemic, which started in China in December 2019 due to natural causes, according to the scientific consensus.
And the reports, which were written by Belgium’s homeland security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), nowhere accused China of having a covert biological weapons programme.
For its part, the Chinese EU mission denied any wrongdoing in Belgium and told EUobserver that China always acted “in accordance with local laws”.
But one of the confidential Belgian reports, from 2016, said: “This area [biological warfare and vaccines]is of great interest to Chinese [intelligence]services. Both defensively, because China, due to its overpopulation, is very exposed to epidemics, as well as offensively, since it has studied Ebola as an offensive vector”.
The VSSE reports were based on multiple human informants.
And Chinese spies were not the only ones who showed “interest” in the subject, they indicated.
Jean-Luc Gala, a top Belgian bioweapons expert, used to have a “suspicious” Russian assistant, the VSSE noted.
“I was as much a target from the US, Russian, Chinese, or even African sides,” Martin Zizi, a second Belgian former bioweapons expert, also told this website.
Zizi and Gala
Bioweapons were banned by the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention, a multilateral treaty.
But many countries do military research on biological warfare, alongside medical studies on virology and epidemiology, to be on the safe side despite the treaty guarantee.
“Vaccines are the first line of defence in a [potential]biological conflict,” a Belgian security source told EUobserver.
And vaccine breakthroughs can be national and corporate goldmines in crisis situations.
The VSSE already warned about Chinese bio-espionage a decade ago.
Chinese spies had targeted Zizi, a former bioweapons inspector for the Belgian military, who was, in 2010, a science professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), the VSSE said in a report from February of that year.
Zizi was very friendly with a Chinese scientist, whom he had “introduced into the scientific and medical milieu” in Belgium, the VSSE said.
But the Chinese scientist used to be a military doctor in the Chinese army, the VSSE noted, and “she might keep too-close ties with her country in general and her former employer in particular”, it added.
“She was obviously MSS,” the Belgian security source told EUobserver, referring to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS).
China also targeted Jean-Luc Gala, another Belgian biological warfare specialist, the VSSE reports indicated.
Gala is the head of the Centre de Technologies Moléculaires Appliquées (CTMA), a Belgian military-private joint venture that does bioweapons research.
He is a retired colonel who went on an EU co-financed mission to fight Ebola in Africa six years ago.
He used mobile laboratories developed by the CTMA and spent part of his time in remote areas of Guinea testing Avigan, the VSSE said in a 2014 document, referring to a Japanese anti-viral drug, which is now being studied in the battle against coronavirus.
The CTMA itself was described as being “ahead of its time on the subject of bioterrorism”, by the Belgian spy service.
It is located on the campus of the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Louvain-la-Neuve in central Belgium.
But a few years ago, the VSSE noted that two curious Chinese entities had opened offices on a different floor of the same campus building that housed a unit of the Belgian bioweapons institute.
The first one, Beijing ZGC Science Park, folded in 2018, and had been a “non-specialised wholesale trade” company, according to its declarations in the National Bank Belgium.
The second one, Shenzhen European Office, is a branch of a Chinese regional development agency and is still operating at the same UCL address.
But one of its top people, a Chinese official, fell under suspicion because he had been “remarkably idle” in public terms for five years since arriving in Belgium, the VSSE said in a report in July 2016.
“Obviously MSS,” the Belgian security source said.
Meanwhile, if the Beijing ZGC Science Park and Shenzhen European Office were MSS Trojan horses in UCL, there might be a bigger one being built outside the university’s gate.
Chinese bearing gifts
The China Belgium Technology Centre (CBTC) is a Chinese-funded “smart valley” in Louvain-la-Neuve.
It already houses 23 Chinese and Belgian firms in the life sciences, IT, and high-tech manufacturing sectors, according to l’Awex, the development agency of Wallonia, a Belgian region.
It is to house up to 800 Chinese high-tech specialists and entrepreneurs when it is completed in late 2021, although construction has paused for now, due to the Belgian coronavirus lockdown.
It is the first project of its kind in the EU and is symbolically located in “the heart of Europe”, CBTC’s website says, with Belgium so called because it houses the main EU institutions
The CBTC is situated next to UCL, the home of the CTMA, and an incubator of several other Belgian high-tech start-ups.
And the Chinese science park is located next to two GSK facilities doing vaccine research: GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals in Waver (a Belgian district) and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals in Rixensart (a neighbouring district), prompting VSSE alarm.
The CBTC was agreed, with some fanfare, when Chinese president Xi Jinping came to Belgium in 2014.
It is worth over €700m in total investments and almost 800 jobs to Wallonia, l’Awex said.
But Xi’s gift “involves a very significant danger of economic espionage to the detriment of the university [UCL] … as well as against the numerous technological companies which surround it,” the VSSE said in a January 2014 report.
And even if the CBTC itself was not a front for Chinese intelligence, it could be used by the MSS as a back door in future, the VSSE warned.
CBTC was “a future vector for intelligence agents tasked with spying on the numerous high-tech companies based near the UCL or on the university itself,” the VSSE said in a February 2014 document.
Building the CBTC in what was “one of the most developed areas of Wallonia threatens to pose economic espionage problems in the future,” the VSSE warned again in a September 2016 report.
“There’s no way of security-vetting the hundreds of Chinese nationals that will be coming and going through there,” the Belgian security source said.
GSK was not named in the VSSE papers seen by EUobserver.
But the Belgian intelligence service has been in contact with GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals in Belgium since at least 2010, according to email correspondence between a senior IT risk officer at GSK and the VSSE from that year, seen by this website.
GSK corporate chiefs have also come in from London to Belgium for VSSE security briefings on the Chinese threat in more recent times, EUobserver has learned.
And in another sign of MSS interest in GSK, a Chinese biochemist is currently on trial in the US for spying on the UK firm’s facilities in Switzerland.
“GSK is a major target [for China],” the Belgian security source told this website.
“Its new collaboration with Sanofi makes it even more valuable,” the source added, referring to a recent GSK venture with a French pharmaceutical company, aimed at creating a coronavirus vaccine.
Belgium, in October 2019, also declared a Chinese international relations professor, Xinning Song, persona non grata.
Xinning was the director, in Brussels, of the Confucius Institute, an offshoot of the Chinese education ministry.
He had worked at the VUB and lived in Belgium for 10 years, building wide social circles among Belgium’s academic elite, while spying for China, the VSSE believed.
And the confidential documents seen by EUobserver also painted a picture of a thriving MSS community in “the heart” of the EU.
The Chinese scientist suspected, back in 2010, of targeting Zizi still lives in Belgium, according to her Linkedin.com profile, and now works for a pharmaceutical firm.
Her husband, also Chinese, worked for the Association of Chinese Professionals, a business club in Louvain-la-Neuve.
The Chinese official suspected of targeting Gala and the CTMA still works for the Shenzhen European Office in UCL, according to his Linkedin.com page.
He studied at a top UK university and used to travel between Belgium and Denmark, where he had a side-job for a Chinese bio-tech company, the VSSE said.
Another Chinese man named as a potential threat by the VSSE also still lives in Belgium, Linkedin.com indicated. He works for a regional development agency and owns a PR firm in Louvain-la-Neuve.
And a fourth Chinese man who was “well-known … to our service”, the VSSE said in a September 2016 report, used to work in a Chinese business consultancy on the outskirts of Brussels.
For its part, the Chinese EU mission denied any wrongdoing.
“The Chinese government encourages Chinese enterprises to conduct overseas business cooperation in accordance with local laws, the market principle, and international rules,” its spokesman, Liu Hui, told EUobserver.
The VSSE declined to comment on details of the confidential files referred to by this website.
But despite the China EU mission’s denial, the Belgian intelligence service bluntly accused China of “economic espionage” in a more general statement.
“As part of the ambitious ‘Made in China 2025’ project, which provides for rapid development of know-how in China itself, all available means must be used to import as much knowledge as possible into China,” the VSSE told EUobserver.
“These include formal knowledge transfer programmes, such as exchanges between researchers, joint ventures, and takeovers of companies. In some cases, China also does economic espionage,” it said.
“Our country must ensure that it retains its strategic independence from foreign players such as China,” it added.
Belgian spies were helping sensitive firms in Belgium to keep safe, the VSSE said.
“In political and economic circles, there is a growing awareness of the risks linked to espionage and Chinese interference,” it said.
“But the VSSE also runs awareness campaigns among actors who are likely to be targets of Chinese interference and spying activities,” it added.
GSK declined to comment on whether the VSSE had briefed its top executives on China.
But the British firm had “robust and established protocols regarding site and system security, which are regularly reviewed and updated,” Simon Moore, a GSK spokesman, said.
Shenzhen European Office and the CBTC declined to comment.
But staff from Shenzhen European Office, and any other unauthorised personnel, had “of course, no access to the CTMA offices, which, by the way, are spread in different buildings on the campus,” UCL’s deputy rector, Jean-Christophe Renauld, told this website.
The CBTC science park would “facilitate collaborations between Chinese companies and our university”, he said, but “protection of the intellectual property generated by our research has always been a priority,” Renauld added.
Gala did not reply to EUobserver.
But for his part, Zizi disagreed with the VSSE’s assessment of his old VUB friend, the Chinese scientist and suspected MSS spy.
“I never introduced [her]in the medical milieu … This is not correct. She was a PhD student in my lab,” Zizi told EUobserver from California, where he is now CEO of a biometrics firm called Aerendir.
She “did not hide” the fact she had worked for the Chinese military and “there was nothing suspicious in her behaviour ever,” Zizi said.
“Bioweaponry and biodefence are not activities that one does in a lab at a university with plain students. It is sliced to between [different]places and people,” anyway, he added.
The Belgian security source told EUobserver that “only China is doing this kind of highly specialised espionage [bioweapons and vaccines]” in Belgium.
But Zizi also disagreed with that.
Bio-espionage was “not limited to China”, he said, adding: “I was as much a target from the US, Russian, Chinese, or even African sides”.
Gala, the head of the CTMA, also used to have a dubious Russian “assistant” at UCL, prior to going on his anti-Ebola and Avigan-testing mission in Africa, the VSSE noted.
“The profile of this person [Gala’s assistant] is suspicious in terms of collaboration with the intelligence services of her country [Russia],” the VSSE said in a November 2014 document.
And she is also still at UCL, her Linkedin.com profile says.
Zizi gave an insight into what it was like to work in the world’s most dangerous scientific domain.
His biological warfare research had given him “unique knowledge”, he said.
But having that knowledge meant “there were countries where I could not, nor would not, go,” he added, mentioning Russia as an example.
“I suppose that if I were to cross this invisible line and go where I should not go, I may have some unfortunate accident, as some would rather have me dead than working for bad actors,” Zizi said.
The Belgian warnings on Chinese scientific and economic espionage come amid wider EU fears.
The European Commission, for instance, is drafting guidelines on how to help European universities stop Chinese “interference” of a “coercive, covert, deceptive, [and]corrupting” nature.
“Such activities have been observed in the EU,” an EU source recently told this website.
But for Zizi, no matter how you do it, scientific cooperation with geopolitical rivals will always bear risk.
“You have to understand that everything in biology and molecular technologies is dual-use … This means that the same materials can be used to make diagnostics for a hospital, or can be included in a weapons programme,” Zizi said.