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China denies academic expelled from Belgium was recruiting spies

China on Thursday condemned as “untrue” espionage accusations against a Chinese academic expelled from Belgium and banned from the EU’s passport-free travel area.

Song Xinning, the head of the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute at the VUB university in Brussels, had been denied a renewal of his Belgian visa and banned from the Schengen travel area for eight years, sources close to the probe told AFP Wednesday.

Song 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.

De Morgen also said there was reason to believe that Song recruited informants for the Chinese intelligence service among Chinese students and the business community in Belgium.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing that Beijing “firmly opposed” the action which “obstructs normal academic exchange and cooperation.”

“Recently, Belgian media has published reports falsely accusing Professor Song Xinning, saying that Song recruited spies in the local Chinese business community and academic community,” said Geng.

“This is completely untrue and motivated by bad intentions.”

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.

Geng also hit out Thursday at Western media outlets that he said “published inaccurate, distorted reports about the Confucius Institutes, including on the so-called spy issue.”

“All of these were later proved to be untrue,” Geng said.

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.