Belgian politicians are beginning to worry a massive Chinese project at Liège airport in the south of the country is more about spycraft than aircraft.
Members of the country’s parliament are debating whether China is looking to give its spies a firmer foothold in Europe through a landmark logistics hub being built by the e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Alibaba’s €100 million investment has long been welcomed in Belgium as a way to help revive the struggling economy of the French-speaking region of Wallonia. The freight and parcels hub, on 220,000 square meters leased at the airport, is expected to become operational this year.
The mood on China is souring in the EU, however, amid tit-for-tat sanctions and boycotts against European products by Chinese consumers.
“We should realize that Alibaba is not just a simple private operator, but an agent of the Chinese Communist Party, under the orders of the regime, for instance in the repression of the Uyghur minority through its facial recognition software,” said Samuel Cogolati, a member of the Green Ecolo party in the Belgian parliament, who is leading the charge on the file.
“We must reappropriate … control over these digital giants and screen these Chinese investments, without naivety. We must open our eyes, guarantee our security, basic freedoms and protect the personal data of Belgian citizens,” he told POLITICO.
At a meeting of the parliamentary justice committee last week, Cogolati pressed Belgium’s Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne on the issue. And the minister sounded pretty worried too.
“Chinese intelligence officers could have access to sensitive and secure areas of the airport … The future economic importance of Liège airport to China can’t be underestimated,” the Flemish liberal said, according to Belgian press reports of the meeting. “Alibaba will also have to obey the Chinese security apparatus in the event that it wishes to have access to the potentially sensitive commercial and personal data held by Alibaba in connection with its activities in Liège.”
Neither Van Quickenborne nor Alibaba responded to requests for comment from POLITICO.
The Chinese embassy in Belgium firmly rejected the accusations.
“Some Belgian parliamentarians, institutions and the media … baselessly suspected that Alibaba’s Liège Airport logistics project cooperates with the Chinese government’s espionage activities and poses a threat to citizens’ privacy and national security,” it said in a statement. Requirements under China’s national intelligence law, it added, “respect and protect human rights.”
Beijing and Brussels now seem to be trying to smooth over relations at the ministerial level. Earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi talked to his Belgian counterpart, Sophie Wilmès, and called on Belgium to “play a constructive role in the EU” and “promote the long-term and steady development of China-EU relations.”
“Belgium is the heart of Europe, and has long been a bridge for China-Europe exchanges,” Wang added, according to the Chinese readout.
And Wallonia knows full well the value of that bridge because Liège has already benefited enormously from Alibaba’s presence. According to a spokesman for the city’s airport, freight soared from 9 million parcels in 2018 to 362 million parcels in 2019, and 548 million last year mainly thanks to Alibaba and its subsidiary Cainiao Smart Logistics Network.
Laurens Cerulus contributed reporting.
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