Belgium’s Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne raised concerns over Chinese espionage in connection to Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s logistics center under construction in Belgium’s Liège Airport.
Liège Airport is the seventh-largest airport in Europe. It is situated at the heart of the Amsterdam-Paris-Frankfurt golden triangle, a very dense area of production in Europe.
Alibaba Group and the Belgium government signed an agreement in December 2018 to open Alibaba’s first Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP) in Europe. The logistics arm of Alibaba Group and Liège Airport also signed a contract to lease a 220,000-square-meter area to build a logistics hub at the airport, which became a subject of concern.
On May 6, Minister Van Quickenborne told Members of the Parliament that “Chinese intelligence agents could have access to sensitive and secure areas of the airport.”
Van Quickenborne referred to a 2017 Chinese law that forces all private companies to cooperate with state intelligence. “Alibaba also has to obey the Chinese security apparatus in the event that the latter wishes to have access to potentially sensitive commercial and personal data held by Alibaba in the context of its activities in Liège,” Van Quickenborne added.
Furthermore, Van Quickenborne stated that “this interest is not limited to intelligence and security purposes but can be viewed within a broader political and economic framework.”
Alibaba Group’s Electronic World Trade Platform
To achieve global dominance in e-commerce, Alibaba plans to establish a platform that “will promote public-private cooperation to improve the business environment and incubate future rules for cross border eTrade in some key areas, including simplification of regulations and standards, and harmonization of taxation,” according to its eWTP website.
Back in mid-2018, it announced the plan to open five logistics hubs in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East to enhance its global logistics capabilities. The hub in Liège was the first one.
According to a report by the Chinese state-run media Xinhua, as part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, the eWTP project in Liège has brought tremendous economic advancements to the region. Direct cargo flight and train routes had been scheduled between Liège Airport and at least eight major Chinese cities. The report also stated that the Liège hub will create 900 direct jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs in the region.
However, Watching Alibaba, a local group opposing the Liège hub, states on their website that “the number of jobs created is highly uncertain, and they would be low-grade jobs (precarious, highly controlled night jobs and the like) and would destroy other jobs, in other economic sectors.”
The group opposes the very form of e-commerce Alibaba is building because it is “bad for the regional economy, as it sets local retailers in direct competition with products imported over long distances, sold cheaper, at times counterfeit, often of lesser quality and produced in dubious conditions. For each job created in the field of e-commerce, two or three are destroyed in traditional commerce.”
Moreover, Watching Alibaba is not pleased with the decision to build the hub in Liège Airport because it was made “without any information to and with citizens or any independent and comprehensive impact assessment.”
In their pursuit of global expansion, China’s retail and tech giants are facing challenges from their own employees. Some of the challenges are caused by labor law disputes and some by the “996” work culture. The “996” culture, promoted by Alibaba and JD.com, makes working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, the norm.
A 22-year-old employee of e-commerce platform Pinduoduo died in December 2020. His death was widely attributed to the “996” work culture. A former delivery driver for a partner of an Alibaba subsidiary set himself on fire in January following a pay dispute.
Moreover, the European Union Commission suspended the EU-China trade deal (Comprehensive Agreement on Investment) in May, which was signed in December after seven years of negotiation. This came after the two sides exchanged sanctions due to growing tensions over human rights issues in Xinjiang.
In response to the Belgium government’s espionage concerns, the Chinese government played hardball and softball simultaneously.
One day after the Belgian minister voiced his concern of potential Chinese espionage, the Chinese Embassy in Belgium issued a statement on its website saying the concerns were “baseless,” and that “We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to this practice of slandering Chinese companies on conjured up charges.”
The Chinese Ambassador to Belgium met with the head of the Globalization Office of Alibaba Group. Alibaba presented a progress report to the Chinese ambassador on eWTP and the Liège hub project.
The ambassador asked Alibaba Group to “take the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Belgium as an opportunity to steadily advance cooperation projects, deepen China-EU business cooperation in the e-commerce industry, and promote China-Belgium cooperation to a higher level.”
Alibaba’s Liège Airport hub is scheduled to be in full operation by late 2021. The Epoch Times has reached out to Alibaba Group for comments.