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Belgium kicks out Chinese academic in 'spy' row


AFP Brussels
Belgium has denied a Chinese academic a visa and banned him from the EU's passport-free travel area for eight years after identifying him as a potential threat to national security, sources close to the probe told AFP Wednesday.
Song Xinning, the head of the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute at the VUB university in Brussels, came to the attention of Belgium's VSSE intelligence agency for "damaging national security", the sources said.
The De Morgen and De Standaard newspapers said Song, a politics researcher who had visited Belgium for over a decade, was suspected of "espionage" for the Chinese state without giving precise details of the accusations against him.
The Belgian national Immigration Office said Song was refused a visa renewal in early September "for reasons of public order" after regularly visiting the country since 2007 without ever taking up permanent residence.
Other sources told AFP that the "public order" terminology also covers matters of spying and interference monitored by the VSSE.
The suspicions over Song were such that he was banned from entering Europe's 26-country Schengen passport-free travel area for eight years -- a rare step, according to AFP's sources.
VUB spokesman Sicco Wittermans confirmed to AFP that Song's contract had been terminated.
"The Confucius Institute will have a new director, nominated by China -- and clear agreements will be drawn up," Wittermans said.
The Chinese government has expanded its global network of Confucius Institutes, a soft power tool that provides partner universities around the world with funds and faculty to teach Chinese language and culture -- similar to France's Alliance Francaise or Spain's Cervantes Institute.
There are more than 500 institutes in some 150 countries and regions.
But they have come under scrutiny in some countries, with lawmakers in the United States warning that Beijing can use them to spread propaganda and influence US universities.
Chinese state-run media has accused Washington of being on a "witch hunt" against the Confucius Institutes.
But there have also been concerns about their activities in Australia, where universities have resisted calls to register the institutes under new foreign interference laws.
The expulsion of Song comes amid growing concerns about Beijing's clandestine activities in Europe, with debate raging about the role of Chinese tech firm Huawei in future 5G telecoms infrastructure.

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First Published: Oct 30 2019 | 9:25 PM IST

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