Belgian intelligence puts Huawei on its watchlist

Belgian intelligence puts Huawei on its watchlist

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Belgium’s intelligence service is scrutinizing the operations of technology giant Huawei as fears of Chinese espionage grow around the EU and NATO headquarters in Brussels, according to confidential documents seen by POLITICO and three people familiar with the matter.

In recent months, Belgium’s State Security Service (VSSE) has requested interviews with former employees of the company’s lobbying operation in the heart of Brussels’ European district. The intelligence gathering is part of security officials’ activities to scrutinize how China may be using non-state actors — including senior lobbyists in Huawei’s Brussels office — to advance the interests of the Chinese state and its Communist party in Europe, said the people, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The scrutiny of Huawei’s EU activities comes as Western security agencies are sounding the alarm over companies with links to China. British, Dutch, Belgian, Czech and Nordic officials — as well as EU functionaries — have all been told to stay off TikTok on work phones over concerns similar to those surrounding Huawei, namely that Chinese security legislation forces Chinese tech firms to hand over data.

The scrutiny also comes amid growing evidence of foreign states’ influence on EU decision-making — a phenomenon starkly exposed by the recent Qatargate scandal, where the Gulf state sought to influence Brussels through bribes and gifts via intermediary organizations. The Belgian security services are tasked with overseeing operations led by foreign actors around the EU institutions.

The State Security Service declined to comment when asked about the intelligence gathering.

A Huawei spokesperson said the company was unaware of the company’s Brussels office staff being questioned by the intelligence service.

China link

Belgian intelligence officers want to determine if there are any direct ties between the Chinese state and Huawei’s Brussels office, the people said. Of particular interest, they added, are Huawei representatives who may have previously held posts in Brussels institutions with access to a network of EU contacts.

At the core of Western concerns surrounding Huawei — which is headquartered in Shenzhen, China — is whether the firm can be instrumentalized, pressured or infiltrated by the Chinese government to gain access to critical data in Western countries.

Huawei’s EU lobbying offices — one located in between the European Parliament and European Commission and Council buildings and the other a “cybersecurity transparency center” close to the U.S. embassy — have been a major lobbying power in EU policymaking over the past decade. The most recent corporate declarations put the firm among the top 30 companies spending most on EU lobbying in Brussels, with a declared maximum spending of €2.25 million per year. In 2018 — right at the start of the geopolitical storm that struck the firm — it entered the top 10 of lobbying spenders in Brussels.

The company’s Shenzhen headquarters has also strengthened its control over its Brussels office activities over the past decade. In 2019 it replaced its then-head of the EU office Tony Graziano — who had a long track record of lobbying the EU and had led Huawei’s Brussels office since 2011 — with Abraham Liu, a company loyalist who had risen up the ranks of its international operations. Liu was later replaced with Tony Jin Yong, currently the main representative of Huawei with the EU. It has also consistently brought in Chinese staff to support its public affairs activities.

The Chinese telecoms giant last year started ramping down its EU presence, folding its activities across Europe into its regional headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, POLITICO reported in November. Part of that shake-up was to let go of some of the firm’s Western strategists, who had worked to push back on bans and blocks of its equipment in the past years.

The scrutiny of Huawei’s EU activities comes as Western security agencies are sounding the alarm over companies with links to China | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

Huawei has continuously stressed it is independent from the Chinese state. “Huawei is a commercial operation,” a spokesperson said. Asked whether the company had a policy to check which of its staff are members of the Chinese Communist Party, the spokesperson said: “We don’t ask about or interfere with employees’ political or religious beliefs. We treat every employee the same regardless of their race, gender, social status, disability, religion or anything else.”

One key concern brought up by Western security authorities in past years is that Huawei as a China-headquartered company is subject to Beijing’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which requires companies to “support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts” as well as “protect national intelligence work secrets they are aware of.”

Asked how it handles legal requests from the Chinese government to hand over data, the spokesperson referred to the company’s frequently asked questions page on the matter, which states: “Huawei has never received such a request and we would categorically refuse to comply if we did. Huawei is an independent company that works only to serve its customers. We would never compromise or harm any country, organization, or individual, especially when it comes to cybersecurity and user privacy protection. 

Eye on EU

Huawei has faced pushback from Belgian security services in past years. The country’s National Security Council in 2020 imposed restrictions on its use in critical parts of 5G networks.

Belgium — while being a small market — is considered strategically important for Western allies because of the presence of the EU institutions and the headquarters of the transatlantic NATO defense alliance.

The Belgian State Security Service’s interest in Huawei follows an increasing interest in China’s operations in the EU capital. In 2022, the service released an intelligence report laying out its findings on the operations of Chinese-backed lobbyists in Brussels. In it, the VSSE hit out at the Chinese state for operating in “a grey zone between lobbying, interference, political influence, espionage, economic blackmail and disinformation campaigns.”

In response to the study, the Chinese embassy in Belgium said the intelligence services “slandered the legitimate and lawful business operation of Chinese companies in Belgium, seriously affecting their reputation and causing potential harm to their normal production and operation.”

It’s not just China. “Undue interference perpetrated by other powers also continues to be a red flag for the VSSE,” the intelligence service said in its report. “The recent interference scandal in the European Parliament is a case in point.”

As far as that case goes, the Belgian authorities have so far charged several individuals in the ongoing criminal investigation into allegations of bribery between Qatar and EU representatives, with police raids yielding €1.5 million in cash.

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