Last week, noted Estonian marine scientist and researcher at the Tallin Technical University Tarmo Kõuts was sentenced to prison for spying for a Chinese intelligence service. He had access to Estonian and NATO classified information for quite some time, and during the last three years he received 17,000 euros for handing this information over to China.
If you ask me, it’s a laughable amount of money to betray your motherland and end up behind bars. At the same time, I’m quite certain that our own compatriots would be willing to double-cross our country for an even lower price.
Kõuts was also assisted by a woman – a formerly well-known golf player and owner of a consulting firm. She had been travelling quite a lot in recent years, including to China. It is possible that it was during one of her trips to Hong Kong that she was recruited by Chinese intelligence officers.
It should be noted that trips to China is the most common way Latvians get recruited to work for Chinese intelligence services. This is usually done according to the same pattern Soviet chekists used to recruit naïve Western travelers – the local Beijing embassy carefully selects the potential “tourists” and offers them to go on a trip to the “misunderstood” and exotic Celestial Empire. These “tourists” are most often asked to participate in an international event, a forum or conference, where Chinese intelligence services then select the most suitable agents of influence from around the world.
These “tourists” are most likely to be members of a specific profession – journalists, politicians and scientists. In order to maintain secrecy, Beijing may offer the trip to China not to the person it is interested in, but instead to one of their relatives, be it their spouse, children or parents.
Upon returning to their home country, the Chinese embassy asks the “tourists” to repay the generous trip with loyalty. Initially, it may be a simple social media entry that portrays China in a positive light. Then, perhaps an interview with a local media outlet to talk about the prosperity witnessed in China. In special cases, you may have to repay the favor by betraying your country. The latter fate was experienced by the naïve Estonian scientist Kõuts.
This is how China is able to recruit loyal agents of influence that can later be used to carry out influence operations.
Local journalists are asked to publish articles that favor China or maintain blogs and social media pages that propagate cooperation with Beijing. In some cases, the propaganda articles are prepared with the help of the embassy or the news agency Xinhua, and all the recruited journalist is required to do is to “lend” the Chinese his name and status. The keenest of readers will have already noticed that pro-China articles have appeared in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze and Diena, and occasionally in some pro-Kremlin media outlets as well.
Recruited politicians are also required to prove their loyalty. This is usually done by voting on issues that benefit Beijing, or sometimes by reporting on domestic processes and intrigues taking place in the government halls. Those of you who follow politics know that in recent years several Latvian politicians from different parties have visited China, only to then propagate cooperation with China by praising the progress and the remarkable order they witnessed there. I won’t name any names, but the parties they represent include the usual suspects, i.e. Concord, Union of Greens and Farmers and Latvian Russian Union, as well as the pseudo-patriotic National Alliance. I’ve also personally witnessed that among these preachers of national values there are also people who after their “trip” to the magnificent China are willing to praise Communism’s superiority over the “liberal” values of Europe.
And lastly, long-term cooperation with Chinese intelligence services is also offered to scientists, and this usually entails sharing sensitive information. This is called “scientific espionage”.
Kõuts case is the first of its kinds in Estonia, and maybe even all the Baltic states, when a person has been caught spying not for Moscow, but Beijing. Perhaps this is the first high-profile case in the Baltics involving China’s influence out of the many that are inevitably to come.
I already have a candidate for facing a similar fate to Kõuts – instead of revealing the person’s name, I will just say that excellent knowledge of geography doesn’t guarantee that a person has a good moral compass.