World News

China Denies Using LinkedIn to Recruit German Informants

Posted December 11, 2017 8:27 p.m. EST

BEIJING — German’s domestic intelligence agency has accused China of using LinkedIn and other social media sites to infiltrate the German government, a charge the Chinese government promptly denied.

In a scathing investigation released Sunday, the intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, accused Beijing of using social media to target more than 10,000 citizens, including lawmakers and other government employees. To win their trust, the agency said, Chinese agents posed as leaders of think tanks and headhunters, and offered all-expenses-paid trips to China and meetings with influential clients.

In Beijing on Monday, Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the investigation “complete hearsay and groundless.” He urged German officials to “speak and act more responsibly.”

The German investigation added to anxieties in Western countries about Chinese efforts to infiltrate foreign governments and businesses, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage, especially on economic and foreign policy issues. The United States has accused China of rampant economic espionage. Australia is debating tougher laws to guard against foreign interference, amid reports that China is meddling in Australian universities and elections.

German officials said Chinese agents had created fake profiles in hopes of “gleaning information and recruiting sources” in Germany. Chinese agents approached targets by saying they were interested in exchanging information or offering to establish contact for them with an expert on China, German officials said.

Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the German intelligence agency, called the efforts “a broad attempt to infiltrate Parliaments, ministries and administrations.”

Adam M. Segal, an expert on cybersecurity and China at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the German investigation was likely to add “more fuel to the fire of skepticism and suspicion about Chinese actions” in the West.

He said China would probably continue to expand its digital espionage efforts despite criticism. “Given how sensitive the regime and Xi Jinping seems to be to any challenge domestically, they also want to try to control as much as they can internationally,” Segal said.

LinkedIn said Monday that it would deactivate the accounts of users that German officials had identified as spies, though it would not say how many. The company said it was conducting its own investigation.

“The safety and security of our platform is always a top priority,” Billy Huang, a spokesman, said in a statement.

LinkedIn is one of few foreign social media companies operating in China, in part because it adheres closely to Chinese regulations and has a relatively warm relationship with the government.

Under the scheme described by German intelligence, Chinese agents used aliases like Eva Han on LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media platforms. Some used photographs from fashion magazines as their profile pictures. Several listed fake company names.

Once they established contact with German citizens, Chinese agents intensified the attempted exchange, asking for a résumé and offering compensation for work on a project, according to the German inquiry. They invited Germans to China for conferences or meetings with “important clients” who never materialized. They pressed the targets for sensitive information in exchange for money, the investigation found.

The German government has repeatedly warned in recent months that China is increasing its efforts to steal trade secrets and other sensitive information from European targets.

In July, the government said Chinese agents were seeking information about foreign and economic policy. It said China had targeted lawmakers and employees of the European and German parliaments, lobbyists, members of the military, and representatives of foundations and think tanks.