Renault spy affair latest to point finger at China

January 10, 2011 12:00 am

, BEIJING, Jan 10, 2011 – Reports of a Chinese bid to obtain secrets of France\’s Renault follow a long history of similar allegations widely attributed to Beijing\’s goal of closing the technology gap with the rest of the world.

China\’s bid to become a high-tech powerhouse that innovates, rather than just the world\’s workshop, have seen it accused of stealing everything from train designs to fighter jet systems to auto components.

Renault\’s number two Patrick Pelata was quoted by Le Monde on Friday saying the company was targeted by a bid to obtain information on its electric car programme.

Another French media report said the alleged buyers of the secrets were Chinese, although that has not yet been officially confirmed.

Officials at China\’s ministry of industry and information technology, and the commerce ministry declined immediate comment on the reports when contacted by AFP on Monday.

But if the allegations of Chinese involvement prove to be true, it should come as little surprise, said R.S. Vasan, a security expert at the Centre for Asia Studies in Chennai, India.

It is essentially China\’s state policy to "beg, borrow or steal whatever it needs to improve its position in the world," Vasan told AFP.

"We do know that China uses various agencies and entities to obtain certain secrets and then reverse engineer the technologies. They have gotten very good at that. For them, it is not the means that is important but the ends."

China openly requires technology transfers from many foreign firms doing business in the country, but has also frequently been the target of regular allegations of trying to obtain an edge by underhanded means.

Perhaps the most high-profile example was Internet giant Google\’s charge in early 2010 that it had faced a cyberattack believed to have originated in China that resulted in the "theft of intellectual property".

The incident led Google to reduce its presence in China. Dozens of other US companies were also reportedly targeted in similar attacks believed aimed in part at obtaining trade secrets.

In 2009, the head of French rail firm Alstom Transport said Chinese companies were exporting trains using technology provided by Western firms that was never intended to be used outside China.

Russia in 2008 reportedly threatened to sue China for copying its Sukhoi Su-27SK fighters and selling the Chinese-made jets to other countries at cut prices.

Several other alleged conspiracies to funnel secrets from top firms in the United States and elsewhere have come to light in recent years, but China systematically rejects any such allegations as groundless.

China\’s leaders have pursued a recent campaign to help Beijing catch up after decades of war, revolution and disastrous Communist policies left the country far beyond the rest of the world in technical abilities.

In the 1980s, China established the 863 programme, a bid to spur development of homegrown technologies, but the effort has faced allegations of helping fund the acquisition of foreign secrets via clandestine means.

In a 2009 report, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, established by Congress, called Chinese espionage the "single greatest threat to US technology."

It said rapid advancements in China\’s military weapons systems were likely due in part to espionage, adding that Chinese industrial spying "is providing a source of new technology without the necessity of investing time or money to perform research."

"This illicit activity both from traditional techniques and computer-based activity are possibly contributing to China\’s military modernisation and its acquisition of new technical capabilities," the report said.

Roger Faligot, an expert on Chinese espionage, said Chinese intelligence is particularly interested in the auto industry and that its major car companies work closely with the secret service.

"The major Chinese businesses have big research and development budgets, part of which is used to get information, with substantial budgets to buy people," Faligot told AFP.

Vasan said reported Chinese involvement in the Renault case would seem to fit with China\’s strategy of becoming a leader in green technology, a policy set for reasons of energy security and pollution reduction.

"Everybody knows they want these cars. This is an important sector for China, so I would not be surprised at all if these allegations were found to be true," he said.


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