Poland's spy trial highlights fears of China's growing reach in Europe

Hungary alarms some EU allies with rapid expansion of Chinese and Huawei ties

Chinese citizen and former director at Huawei in Poland, Weijing Wang, at the opening of his trial on charges of spying for China at a court in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Monika Scislowska/AP

Chinese citizen and former director at Huawei in Poland, Weijing Wang, at the opening of his trial on charges of spying for China at a court in Warsaw, Poland. Photograph: Monika Scislowska/AP

 

A Polish cybersecurity expert and a former employee of Chinese technology giant Huawei have gone on trial in Warsaw for espionage, in a case that highlights growing concern in much of Europe over Beijing’s political, financial and technological reach.

Piotr Durbajlo, who worked for Polish government and security agencies, is accused of spying for Beijing in collaboration with Wang Weijing, an alleged Chinese intelligence officer who was employed as a sales director in Poland for Huawei. Both men have denied the claims since their arrest in 2019.

Mr Wang allegedly sought ways to give Huawei influence over Poland’s government and technology infrastructure, while Mr Durbajlo is suspected of passing secrets to Mr Wang about a communications monitoring system designed to block unauthorised access to classified information.

The United States has urged European allies such as Poland to exclude Huawei and other Chinese equipment from their online infrastructure, because it could allegedly be used by Beijing to compromise their security.

Huawei denies the accusations and says the US is trying to besmirch its reputation and exclude its advanced 5G technology from lucrative western markets.

The UK and Sweden have banned the purchase of new Huawei 5G equipment on security grounds and are stripping it from existing systems, while several central European states are examining similar de facto bans on the firm’s 5G products.

A notable exception to the spreading suspicion of Huawei is Hungary, where the populist government of Viktor Orban welcomes large-scale co-operation with the company as part of his push for closer economic and cultural ties with Beijing.

Vaccine facility

Hungary hosts Huawei’s biggest supply centre outside China and is borrowing some €2 billion from Beijing to upgrade a railway line to Serbia, under a contract that pro-Orban deputies last month voted to classify as secret.

Hungary is the only EU country to use China’s Sinopharm shot against coronavirus, and announced plans this week to package and later produce the vaccine at a new facility.

Mr Orban’s critics are also furious over Hungary’s agreement to host China’s first university in the EU, with a campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan university slated to open beside the Danube river in 2024 – six years after government pressure prompted the liberal Central European University to leave Budapest for Vienna.

The project is being funded by another Chinese loan, of $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion), which opponents say will put Hungary deeper in hock to Beijing and under more pressure to do political favours for China; just last month, German foreign minister Heiko Maas denounced Hungary’s “absolutely incomprehensible” decision to block an EU statement on Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney held talks in China over the weekend, at the same time as separate visits by counterparts from Hungary, Poland and Serbia.

“China hopes the Irish side will . . . provide an open, transparent and non-discriminatory business environment for Chinese companies investing and operating in Ireland, ” foreign minister Wang Yi told Mr Coveney, according to a statement.

Mr Wang told Hungarian counterpart Peter Szijjarto that Beijing-Budapest co-operation was “never about dividing Europe” but instead aimed to “boost mutual understanding and tolerance . . . and to stand against conspiracies that divide the world”.