In centuries past, Prussian, Napoleonic, Nazi, and Allied soldiers all tramped the Strasse des 17. Juni, an east–west boulevard traversing Berlin’s leafy Tiergarten park, over which soars a winged, golden statue of the Roman goddess Victoria.
More recently, in the auditorium of the Technische Universität Berlin, which lies along the thoroughfare, a thousand patriotic voices swelled in song for a different rising power: China.
“Though I live in a foreign country, I cannot change my Chinese heart,” the mostly doctoral-level science students chorused to images of the Great Wall rolling onstage in a karaoke version of “My Chinese Heart,” a Chinese Communist Party–approved classic. “My ancestors long ago branded ‘China’ on everything in me!” they sang.
The Lunar New Year gala, in late January, was a glitzy, occasionally ear-splitting affair organized by half a dozen Chinese student associations at top universities in Berlin and Brandenburg state, which encircles it. On the program: Dance, music, kung fu, jokes about the German weather (too gray and wet), prizes (Huawei electronics and bottles of baijiu, a strong Chinese liquor)—and a message from Shi Mingde, the outgoing Chinese ambassador to Germany.
“I hope you will not disappoint the ardent expectations of Secretary-General Xi Jinping and our motherland,” Shi said. “Turn patriotic feelings into patriotic deeds … tightly tie your own ideals to the destiny of the motherland!” And in an account of the evening published by the Chinese embassy in Berlin, he continued: “Bring science and technology back home, to push forward China’s economic and social development!”
On the face of it, the event was unremarkable, a party to usher in the Year of the Pig. Yet it had deeper meaning: In addition to organizing parties and cultural events, the 80 Chinese student associations in Germany, which represent 60,000 students from the People’s Republic of China, are pieces of a Europe-wide puzzle of organizations. Perhaps numbering in the thousands, and meticulously fit together by Beijing, these associations support the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and goals—and its narrative about China—among both Chinese and Europeans, and try to ensure that its overseas citizens, and others of ethnic Chinese descent, are loyal.
Like mushroom tendrils spreading unseen for miles beneath the forest floor, this network remains largely invisible to Europeans and their leaders, who broadly lack the necessary Chinese-language skills and familiarity with Communist Party politics. It seeks not simply to shape the conversation about China in Europe, but also to bring back technology and expertise. While the effort is driven by the party, crucial to its implementation is an opaque and little-known Beijing-based agency known as the United Front Work Department.
These moves by China come amid growing concern in democratic nations around the world over Beijing’s political and economic espionage, whether that be alleged theft of intellectual property—a central issue in the American trade dispute with China—or the monitoring and pressuring of Chinese abroad. Politicians and officials in the U.S. and Australia in particular have expressed alarm over Beijing’s ability and willingness to project power in their territory, though reactions in Europe have so far been less forthright.
“China is trying to access German politics, economics, and security, and a lot of people don’t realize it,” Carlo Masala, an international-politics professor and a security expert at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, told me. “It’s not that we’re blind with regard to China, but we’re not looking very closely.”
Germany has welcomed generations of Chinese students, both before and after China’s 1949 Communist revolution. In a historical irony, the United Front partly began nearly 100 years ago as the Einheitsfront in Berlin, when the city was a center of activity for Vladimir Lenin’s Communist International, which sought to neutralize communism’s enemies by infiltrating, then co-opting and coercing, critics and the undecided.
A baseline count of groups in Germany linked to China’s United Front yields 230; the real number is almost certainly higher. These include German Chinese friendship, culture, and economic societies; Chinese chambers of commerce; professional groups for Chinese science and technology experts working in Germany; and a “public diplomacy” association that openly boasts of its influence with German and European politicians. And that’s before you add the student associations and 20 Confucius Institutes, both of which are consistent with United Front goals. (Multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment from the Chinese embassy in Berlin, and Chinese student and professional associations in Germany, went unanswered.)
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square student-led protests, China’s Communist Party began to rely on student associations in particular to monitor and shape students’ activity abroad and spread its message, according to Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. To students schooled in China’s patriotic education, Shi’s message for the Lunar New Year party in Berlin was clear: Be loyal (“patriotic feelings”); transfer technology (“patriotic deeds”); don’t assimilate (“tie your own ideals to the destiny of the motherland”).
The party’s level of control takes myriad forms, and is deliberately interlaced with helpful services. At the Freie Universität Berlin, a brochure for the Chinese student association offers 100 pages of practical information on how to navigate German bureaucracy, where to eat well, or ways to find a roommate. On page 101, though, a political message leaps out: “When we are together you can take to the streets and shout for the motherland. You can welcome Xi Dada and Peng Mama”—China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his wife, Peng Liyuan. The university did not respond to requests for comment.
The head of a student association at a university in Germany, who like others I interviewed requested anonymity to avoid retribution, said Chinese diplomats suggested she take up the position, and typically offered “several hundred euros” to pay for events. Importantly, while many students see these gatherings as primarily social, the political is woven in. One of several visits in recent years by China’s premier, Li Keqiang, to Berlin was an opportunity for a party co-organized by the embassy in Li’s honor in Tiergarten park, said another student who is a member of a Berlin student association.
One former head of a university student association described how, before departing for Germany, a senior province-level Communist Party official in China explicitly asked him to spy for Beijing while completing his studies. The official referenced national development and patriotism, and suggested there would be financial compensation. Though the student declined, he did agree to lead his German university’s Chinese student association. After two years of doing so, he received a certificate of leadership stamped by the Chinese embassy, which he showed me. The document would have helped his career when he returned to China, though he never did.
And as part of efforts to build China into a global science and technology leader—a push that has already raised concerns Beijing is attempting to build its technological bona fides by acquiring Western companies and through economic espionage—it also seeks to mine researchers for information. While it is almost impossible to put a figure on the cost to Germany of these various efforts, Bitkom, a digital-economy association in Berlin, estimated in 2017 that the German economy lost about 55 billion euros ($61 billion) annually in cyberespionage and data theft alone. The organization said about a fifth of the attacks came from China.
In January, the Federation of German Industries declared China not just a partner but “a systemic competitor”; months later, the European Commission said China was “an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival.” In a 2018 report, Germany’s domestic-intelligence agency wrote that China’s security agencies “intensively elicit the work area and knowledge potential of Chinese scientists in Germany.” The report suggested it was difficult for Berlin to prosecute such espionage when the border between state and individual activity was blurred, as was often the case with China. “Despite diverse indications of Chinese involvement” in a high-profile case last year, the agency wrote, those involved “could only be charged under … unfair competition laws.”
A carefully built network of study and work helps the process along. Student associations advertise well-paid jobs back home in state institutes or companies, including perks such as housing or help with children’s schooling. Some offers include annual trips back to Germany so graduates can maintain personal and professional contacts.
One program advertised on the WeChat account of the Berlin and Brandenburg Public Students Federation circulates offers from Chinese universities seeking to attract “outstanding scholars,” with all-expenses-paid trips back to China to promote academic collaboration and help them find jobs. Another, from the Wuhan University of Technology, seeks Chinese students with expertise in disciplines including new materials, oceanic engineering, traffic-management systems, artificial intelligence, and security studies. In one case, a researcher of underwater robotics at a university in northwest Germany returned to China to deliver “an in-depth, meticulous, detailed and step-by-step explanation” of the German university’s “scientific research paths” for a branch of the China Academy of Sciences, a state research institute. In addition to these efforts, according to one analysis, Germany is among the top destinations for scientists linked to China’s military seeking further study.
The research priorities run the gamut but focus on science and state-building, Gerry Groot, who studies the United Front at the University of Adelaide, told me. Students, he said, find it hard to refuse because the appeals are framed emotionally and financially, and they play on national loyalties. The latter point is particularly crucial. As William Hannas, James Mulvenon, and Anna Puglisi wrote in their book about China’s technology-transfer program, “Assimilation is apparently not an option nor an avenue to self-respect.” Groot concurred. “If Chinese students go native, so-called, they run the risk of being persecuted by fellow Chinese for wanting to be white,” he said.
According to Yishu Mao, a sociologist at Berlin’s Mercator Institute for China Studies who surveyed 267 Chinese students in German higher-education institutions, most support one-party rule back home (though many also hope civil liberties will expand) and return to China after their studies. For those who stay, a United Front–linked system ensures they can contribute to the motherland: the Federation of Chinese Professional Associations in Europe, a Frankfurt-based umbrella group of 60 Chinese science and technology organizations across the Continent.
Set up in 2001, the federation’s Chinese-language website is up-front: “There is a group of yellow-skinned, black-haired people, among whom are some of the best students and scholars in the world.” Its goal: “To build an interdisciplinary, multi-science, Chinese knowledge group and to contribute to China’s reform and construction.” With offices in Shanghai and Beijing, it offers prizes and the prospect of building professional connections in China, and organizes an annual event for Chinese scientists across Europe; this year’s will focus on artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing and is set for Dublin in October. Last year about 300 Chinese and Finnish officials, scientists, and businesspeople attended an event on building sustainable economies and smart cities in Helsinki.
Yet despite its scale and ambitions, the federation is mysterious. No one answers the bell at its registered address, a three-story home in a Frankfurt suburb. Listed on a peeling doorbell are several organizations linked to the federation’s founder, Zhou Shengzong, a computer scientist who arrived in Germany as a doctoral student in 1988 and now works at a research institute that is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In Helsinki, the United Front’s footprint is apparent: Among the organizers is the Stockholm-based Nordic Zhigong Association, which says on its website it has “long contact with the Zhigong Party of China, and holds all kinds of exchange activities with all Zhigong Party branches and associations overseas.” The party, one of eight approved non–Communist Party groupings in the United Front, is led by Wan Gang, a former minister of science and technology and a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top advisory body and itself a United Front–affiliated organization. His background once again points to the importance that Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and an industrial and technological powerhouse, holds for China: An auto engineer, Wan studied and worked here for 17 years.
If anything, as tensions between China and the U.S. deepen, the United Front is growing. Xi has ordered the organization to “strengthen and improve” in the face of “increasingly severe challenges by the West to contain China,” Pan Yue, a senior Communist Party official, said in a speech this month.
“The party injects itself, through the United Front, between Chinese people in Europe and the outside world,” says Peter Mattis, a former CIA analyst who continues to specialize in China at the Jamestown Foundation. “The political logic isn’t what we’re used to in a democratic system.”