Just over a year ago, a prominent European lawmaker urged newly elected peers to help him rid the bloc of “acrimonious competition” with China.
On the face of it, the invitation to an EU-China Friendship Group event was business-as-usual in the European Parliament. Many so-called friendship groups seek to promote cultural and economic ties between the EU and countries ranging from the United Arab Emirates to Taiwan.
“Champagne and canapés will be served,” read the lawmaker’s invitation.
But the China group showed greater potential — and ambition — than others of its kind.
Its leader, a high-profile Czech conservative named Jan Zahradil, was vice chair of the Parliament’s powerful International Trade Committee. As such, he was able to weigh in on EU trade decisions and could obtain access to sensitive negotiating documents from the European Commission.
The group’s secretary-general was Gai Lin, a Chinese national who had helped to organize more than a dozen trips to China for EU lawmakers over the past decade and a half, and was plugged into Beijing’s extensive network of soft-power institutions.
In his invitation, Zahradil hinted at the advantage conferred by his position to prospective members. He promised to use his “stronger political profile” to bolster EU-China ties, especially in the areas of “trade and environmental policy” — the latter a highly contentious area at the outset of trade talks.
A year on, Zahradil’s group has come under fierce scrutiny over concerns that it is too close to Beijing, and could be giving China an edge in ongoing trade talks with Brussels. A senior MEP who leads the Parliament’s official delegation for outreach with China, as well as other parliamentary figures and think tanks close to the U.S. foreign policy establishment, say that the group is part of a constellation of organizations, loosely or explicitly tied to China, that seek to advance Beijing’s agenda abroad.
They point out that the group has ramped up its activities at a time when Beijing has grown more assertive on foreign policy, with the EU accusing China of spreading misinformation.
Zahradil rejected claims that his position had granted him privileged access to information on the EU’s China policies. “I do not specifically cover China files,” he told POLITICO in an emailed response to questions. “I do not have access to any classified or confidential informations on the issue, apart [from] open sources or publicly accessible European Parliament materials.”
But as the EU reviews its relationship with China in the midst of a contentious trade negotiation and suspected human rights violations, Beijing’s influence inside the European Parliament has set off alarm bells.
“We all understand that there are people outside who want to subvert our democratic system and processes,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French social democrat lawmaker who chairs a new Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the EU. “It’s about threats that are inside the institutions and inside Parliament.”
Parliament officials who asked not to be named out of concern they could suffer political retaliation said the friendship group threatened EU interests because its positions reflected Beijing’s agenda, and because of its leader’s position on the trade committee.
“I quickly realized this group was not something we wanted to be associated with,” said one official who attended the event in October 2019.
Others said the group fits in with growing efforts by Beijing to strengthen its influence in Brussels — efforts that have run the gamut from financing think tanks to suspected espionage targeting EU institutions.
Last September, Belgian security services opened an investigation into a former U.K. diplomat and ex-European Commission official on suspicion he was passing sensitive information in exchange for remuneration. And earlier this year, German prosecutors launched an investigation into Gerhard Sabathil, a former EU official, accused of passing information to China, though that probe has now been dropped. There is no suggestion that Zahradil has engaged in any such activities.
14 years, 15 China trips
While Zahradil took over in 2019, the EU-China Friendship Group has roots stretching back to 2006, when it was launched by a British Conservative MEP called Nirj Deva.
It soon stood out from other groups thanks to its level of activity. There were multiple trips to China — 15 in total, all at the invitation of Chinese institutions — and the group attended major events like the Beijing 2008 Olympic opening ceremony and the 2019 opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
The group also organized “high-level political dialogue with several heads of the state and some leaders of Chinese provinces,” according to internal communication from the group seen by POLITICO.
When its members traveled abroad, hotel and travel expenses were regularly picked up by the Chinese government, according to disclosures from its former chairman and former members to the European Parliament, which were confirmed to Bloomberg. The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party also sponsored a trip last year for Yana Toom, a liberal Estonian MEP and current member of the Friendship Group, to Beijing and Shanghai for an event on China’s cooperation with Eastern European countries, according to disclosures the MEP made last year.
Last year’s relaunch event, held on the European Parliament premises in Strasbourg on October 23, 2019, was also attended by one Chinese diplomat from China’s Mission to the European Union. The mission offered to pay for drinks and snacks. “I agreed and I still don’t see any problem with it,” said Zahradil.
The Czech MEP had his mind set on another group trip to Beijing this year but had to postpone due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has also halted other group activities in past months.
Such visits, which featured meetings with high-level government and Communist Party officials in China, as well as speaking to Chinese media, have long frustrated EU lawmakers in charge of Parliament’s official China Delegation.
The delegation, formed shortly after the chamber’s first direct election in 1979, is Parliament’s official outreach group for China. But it has seen its agenda being derailed by the friendship group’s parallel contact with China’s leaders and in Chinese media — without the European Parliament’s formal consent.
“The EU-China friendship group has been an embarrassment for as long as I can recall,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a prominent German EU lawmaker and chairman of the China Delegation.
Friendship groups “are initiated by a foreign government and are supported by that foreign government in one way or another, and gather people that are sympathetic toward that government,” he said.
The German lawmaker added that Chinese media portrayed the unofficial group’s members as the “true representatives” of the European Parliament.
As recently as last month, Zahradil was quoted in Chinese media on sensitive issues such as the ongoing trade negotiations — media appearances which Bütikofer said undermined the power of Parliament’s official China Delegation and its diplomatic work in Beijing.
Zahradil acknowledged the official delegation covered a “more complex agenda,” adding that his group was careful not to contradict the Parliament’s official position on issues relating to China. The group, for example, does not take public positions on sensitive issues like the Hong Kong protests or the detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, he said, referring to parliament’s rules of procedure that barred it from causing “confusion with the official activities.”
“This is what we fully respect,” said Zahradil. “Under my Chairmanship, we plan to concentrate on a positive agenda in mutual EU-China relations.”
The other figure who has drawn the attention of EU lawmakers is Gai Lin, the first Chinese national to be employed by European Parliament, according to the friendship group’s website.
Gai started work in Deva’s office, but remained a key player in the friendship group after moving to Zahradil’s services as a part-time accredited assistant following the May 2019 European Parliament election.
As its secretary-general, he helped to form the friendship group — at one point the largest of its kind in the Parliament, according to the group’s website. Zahradil said the group currently counts 15 members from 10 EU countries and represents the whole political spectrum.
But Gai has also drawn scrutiny over his links to groups with ties to Beijing. He was affiliated with a provincial Chinese “people’s association for friendship for foreign countries,” which belongs to a network of soft-power cultural institutions linked to China’s foreign affairs establishment.
According to the Czech Atlanticist think tank Sinopsis, Gai’s membership in the group amounted to “evidence of the direct connection between the [EU-China Friendship] group and the [Chinese Communist Party]’s foreign affairs system.”
In a 42-page paper devoted to the Parliament’s friendship group, Sinopsis — which receives funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy — also underscores its ties to a vast network of other organizations including trade groups and chambers of commerce.
Asked about his membership in the provincial group, Gai wrote that his role was an “honorary title” without responsibilities that he held from June 2015 until May 2018.
He said he had not disclosed the position in a mandatory “declaration of absence of conflict of interest” when being hired by Zahradil because he believed the role fell outside of its scope.
Other records showed the European Parliament group has consistently cultivated ties with the Chinese state.
In 2010, it created an association under Belgian law that listed a number of Chinese authorities as “partners” on its website, including the Mission of the People’s Republic of China to EU, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others.
Gai, who was secretary-general of this association until it ceased functioning in 2016, said the association had hosted meetings with authorities but did not have a “legally defined partnership” with the state. Deva, the former chairman of the friendship group, did not respond to a request for comment.
Analysts argued that the Parliament group is one of many organizations that conduct diplomacy favorable to China outside of official channels.
“They’re all working towards the goals of the [Chinese Communist] Party. And some of this goes through foreign affairs and some goes through these [friendship] groups,” said Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow at the transatlantic think tank German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
A paper by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based think tank close to the U.S. defense industry, alleged that the Chinese Communist Party uses friendship associations to advance its “domestic priorities and foreign policy goals” and that it attempts to co-opt “elites drawn from Europe’s political class and business community” in order to do so. Zahradil denies that is the case with the EU-China Friendship Group.
Belgian intelligence services, which oversee most of the associations, NGOs and groups active in Brussels’ European Quarter, have also been following the activity of such groups.
Its 2017-2018 report notes that many China-friendly groups were focused on “setting up contacts with European institutions and political parties” in order to get access to information.
It found “numerous Chinese activities in Belgium” aimed at “acquiring prior knowledge about decisions, strategic plans and political statements that can have an impact on China,” the report said, without detailing the activities.
Chinese intelligence “tries, through all kinds of ways, to influence European policymakers, hoping they will take a pro-China stance,” the report notes.
A spokesperson for China’s Mission to the European Union said the group had played a “positive role” in strengthening EU-China relations. “It is a common practice for parliaments around the world to develop relations with their foreign counterparts by establishing friendship groups … Since the launch of the EU-China Friendship Group of the European Parliament, the Chinese side has supported in an open and transparent way some activities of the group such as people-to-people exchanges, cultural exhibitions and seminars.”
The spokesperson said the Chinese government “commends the EU-China Friendship Group for its efforts to build friendship and trust,” and said, “China remains committed to working with MEPs, including members of the Friendship Group to increase public support for China-EU relations, promote the growth of the relations and deliver more benefits to our peoples.”
Belgium’s State Security service declined to comment on questions related to the group.
‘Loyal to the EU’
Despite such concerns, the European Parliament never acted decisively to curb the influence of the EU-China Friendship Group — which has gained clout under Zahradil.
As vice chair of the International Trade Committee, Zahradil can request access to sensitive trade documents to fulfil his role of scrutinizing the Commission’s negotiations with trade partners, including China. Vice chairs receive updates from Parliament’s services on texts classified as “EU-RESTRICTED” and are invited to receive copies of these documents on request, which include sensitive working texts of ongoing negotiations like the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.
Ordinary members of the trade committee can request Commission documents with lower levels of classification. The Commission also briefs MEPs in a “monitoring group” after it concludes negotiation rounds with Chinese counterparts and members of the trade committee are usually able to join such “in-camera” briefings, which are closed for the public.
“Access to information usually is on the basis of asking … The rule is it’s on a need-to-know basis,” said Iuliu Winkler, another vice chair of the committee and Parliament’s rapporteur for the ongoing negotiations over the EU-China investment deal. Winkler declined to comment on questions about Zahradil and the EU-China Friendship Group.
Zahradil said he had not sought access to sensitive information regarding EU-China trade issues. “I do not share with anyone information from ‘in-camera’ hearings and I do not submit any amendments when resolutions on China are voted,” he said.
Gai stressed that his loyalty was to the EU, and that he had never exchanged sensitive information with Chinese officials. “No matter … my Chinese citizenship, I have been loyal to the EU since I became a staff [member] of the EU institutions,” he wrote by email.
Zahradil noted that Gai’s hiring had been approved by the Parliament’s services and that he had signed declarations underscoring he had no conflicts of interest in his role and would respect confidentiality rules “which prevent him from disclosing any information outside,” the Czech lawmaker added.
“Mr Gai Lin has been living and working in Belgium for at least 14 recent years with full awareness and permission of relevant Belgian authorities, including appropriate security checks. Neither European Parliament authorities, nor Belgian authorities have ever — either formally or informally — approached me with any indications that Mr Gai Lin could pose any security risk to EU interests,” Zahradil added.
Parliament’s blind spot
For the European Parliament, friendship groups like the one headed by Zahradil fall into a regulatory blind spot.
In 2018, prominent lawmakers warned Parliament’s leadership about the malign influence of friendship groups, EU Observer wrote. And Parliament reformed its rules in January 2019 to force informal organizations including friendship groups to declare “any support, whether in cash or in kind” and to empower a select circle of MEPs to oversee these declarations and enforce the rules.
But friendship groups do not have have to declare their existence. “Unofficial groupings, including the so-called ‘friendship groups,’ are not bound by any obligation to declare their existence, nor their composition. Therefore, the Parliament does not have a list of these ‘friendship groups,'” a European Parliament spokesperson said.
Whether or not to make disclosures is entirely up to the lawmakers who lead the groups. Individual MEPs have to “make sure that their declaration of financial interests is accurate and updated,” including declaring gifts by foreign officials, the spokesperson said.
In the case of the China friendship group, because it is an “informal gathering of MEPS,” it “doesn’t own any bank account, has no own revenue sources, doesn’t prepare any annual budget,” said Zahradil. He said he had not received “any funding, donations and contributions or any other support” since the launch event in Strasbourg. Zahradil said he was “not aware” of the group’s funding prior to his chairmanship.
MEPs also rarely declare gifts: In the 16 months since 751 newly elected members took office, a total of three gifts were declared, Parliament’s records showed. Asked about the EU-China Friendship Group’s activities specifically, the European Parliament declined to comment.
“It’s difficult to enforce the existing rules,” Bütikofer acknowledged. “But the quaestors [selected members of Parliament who oversee the rules] should still perform their obligation under existing regulation to guarantee that rules are kept.”
The new Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the EU has given itself the task of rooting out foreign influence from EU institutions, including the Parliament.
“Assessing the level of penetration when it comes to individual corruption and individual links will be one of the key things of our committee,” said Glucksmann, its chair, adding that the group would request input from security services.
“One thing that really pisses me off is the capacity of Europeans to be surprised every time,” Glucksmann said about foreign interference in European politics. “I’m fed up with this … Our responsibility, from left to right [in the political spectrum] is to make sure we’re not surprised anymore.”
Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.
This story has been updated from the version that appeared in POLITICO’s print edition to include a response from China’s Mission to the EU.