Europe and Belgium are 'unresponsive' in the face of Chinese cyber-attacks, says hacked MP

Europe and Belgium are 'unresponsive' in the face of Chinese cyber-attacks, says hacked MP
Samuel Cogolati speeches at a protest action by Amnesty International at the Chinese embassy in Brussels, Friday 22 October 2021. Credit: Belga

A US investigation has confirmed that dozens of European politicians were targeted by Chinese cyber-attacks. One such target was Belgian MP Samuel Cogolati (Écolo), who is sounding the alarm about European passivity towards Chinese cyber threats.

The green politician announced that he had been the victim of an attack carried out by Beijing-affiliated group APT 31 in March 2023, news that was corroborated by the Belgian Cyber Security Centre. Now, the US Department of Justice has provided more details about the nature of the attack and has identified seven perpetrators with links to Chinese intelligence services.

"It is very strange to discover the identity of the people who attacked me in 2021 from the American justice system," Cogolati told The Brussels Times. "Another discovery is the fact that I am far from being the only victim. Many more democratically elected representatives in Europe have been affected."

These hackers targeted hundreds of pro-democracy actors including politicians, journalists and activists based in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Europe and the US.

How did it happen?

Since 2015, targets received thousands of malicious emails purporting to be sent by prominent American journalists and containing news articles of interest. Once the hyperlink was opened, the hackers were able to access the target's location, IP address and other sensitive data, which was banked for use in later attacks.

Cogolati is a vocal opponent of China's discrimination of Uyghur Muslims. He heads the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a global forum that aims to safeguard democratic rights in China. Beijing announced sanctions against the lawmaker in 2021 when he called for the Federal Parliament to pass a resolution warning of the genocide of Uyghur Muslims.

Translation: I learnt that I am one of the 10 Europeans sanctioned by China. This is chilling but it won't stop us. Our duty as parliamentarians is to defend democracy & human rights. With my colleagues, I am more united and determined than ever.

For Cogolati, the American investigation is significant because it contrasts the US' firm stance on cybersecurity with Europe's submissive approach. He also highlights the UK's firmer position, who has sanctioned APT 31 following their likely involvement in the hacking of four China-critical parliamentarians. 40 million voters in the country also recently had their data stolen by a Chinese state-backed hacker.

Regarding the attacks on hundreds of democratically elected officials, Cogolati laments the lack of official response from the European Commission and Member States. "I find this very disturbing when you consider that European parliamentarians have been directly targeted by the Chinese dictatorial regime."

The deputy is critical of Belgian leaders' failure to act decisively in the wake of the 2023 attack on him and decries a "lack of political will" to face up to the threat of cyber attacks among Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD), Foreign Affairs Minister Hadja Lahbib (MR) and Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden (CD&V).

Vlaams Belang MP Filip Dewinter. Credit: Belga

He is equally concerned about creeping Chinese influence within Belgian politics. A journalistic investigation on Monday revealed a series of documents that gave weight to claims that Vlaams Belang MP Filip Dewinter lobbied on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party for years.

This follows another former Vlaams Belang MP's exposed ties with Chinese espionage. Frank Creyelman informed Chinese intelligence and attempted to influence Belgian politics in Beijing's favour for over three years, a joint investigation of the Financial Times, Der Spiegel and Le Monde revealed in December. In the fallout, Creyelman resigned and his brother Tom (also an MP) announced that he would not run for election again.

"I denounce this corruption loud and clear," Cogolati said of the latest Dewinter development. "It is scandalous that these people are effectively sold out to foreign regimes."

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