A student from a hotel school in Leysin suspected of being a Chinese spy – rts.ch

David W* hastily left Switzerland in 2023. This student from a hotel school in Leysin is suspected of being a Chinese spy. He bought a hotel next to the military airport in Meiringen (BE). The show Mise au Point carried out the investigation.

The Rössli Hotel in Unterbach, in the canton of Bern, was the scene of a police operation on July 26. Plainclothes officers searched the establishment and made arrests. The German-speaking newspaper “Tages-Anzeiger” revealed the police operation and the suspicions of espionage. The owner of the hotel is said to be an agent of the Chinese intelligence services. His name is David W*. This young man runs the Rössli Hotel with his parents. All three are Chinese, originally from Beijing.

The Rössli hotel, purchased by David in 2018, is without charm, aging and off the tourist circuit. This hotel is located right on the edge of Meiringen military airport. An ideal place for a spy operation because the rooms have a direct view of the takeoff runway. Military planes pass within 50 meters of the establishment.

The Meiringen military air base, which is adjacent to the Rössli hotel. [RTS]

In 2018, the futuristic American F35 aircraft made several test flights in Meiringen. The airport will definitely welcome these combat jets in 2027. In fact, the Swiss army has ordered 36 examples. This plane is a Source of concern for China, the United States’ great rival.

Two people arrested by police

Takeoff of a fighter plane seen near the Rössli Hotel

China is therefore seeking by all means to obtain information on the F35. In recent years, several Chinese espionage attempts have been detected in the United States. American media report more than a hundred intrusions by Chinese citizens into military airports. Very often, they pose as tourists or businessmen, sometimes equipped with drones.

At Meiringen airport, the police do not provide details on the Swiss case: “We can confirm that an intervention by the Bernese cantonal police took place on July 26, 2023. During the intervention, one person was provisionally arrested. A second person was also taken to a police station for further investigations. Both were released following investigations.

A simple penal order

The Rössli Hotel in Meiringen, in which the young Chinese owner is accused of espionage.jpg
The Rössli Hotel in Meiringen, in which the young Chinese owner is accused of espionage

There is no mention of espionage. Officially, the case ended with a simple criminal order. David and his parents received suspended fines and a fine of several thousand francs. They were convicted of illegal stay in Switzerland, operating a hotel-restaurant without a license and lack of a work permit.

Since the affair broke out, the military has taken things very seriously. In Meiringen, they monitor the establishment and do not let curious people approach the hotel. A Focus team had to leave the scene at the request of a military police patrol. The establishment is closed. The owner, David, is a mysterious man. His social media presence was scrubbed, photos deleted and his friends almost all deleted.

Rare photo of David in a Yearbook

In Meiringen, no neighbor seems to have ever known him. However, David bought the hotel in 2018 for 800,000 francs. By telephone, the former owner explains that the young man signed the deed of purchase, his parents of Chinese nationality accompanied him. They spoke German very well. They were the ones who managed the hotel on a daily basis for five years.

David was one of my study friends. He’s a nice person, a little discreet, but not shy.

Rodrigo Navarro, former study friend of David*

The Mise au Point investigation makes it possible to trace David’s modus operandi. He was able to reside in Switzerland thanks to his registration at a hotel school. He first settled in Leysin as a student at the Swiss Hotel Management school. SHMS is a school attended by students from wealthy families, mainly from Asian countries.

In the 2018 SHMS School Yearbook is one of the rare photos of David. He is in a suit and tie, slicked back haircut. This young Chinese born in 1996 spent more than 140,000 francs to enroll in three years of Bachelor training. One of his friends in Switzerland, Rodrigo Navarro, remembers: “David* was one of my study friends. He is a nice person, a little discreet, but not shy. (…) He told me that his parents lived in China and certainly not that they spoke German”, he testifies in Mise à focus.

No more news from David

David also kept the purchase of the Rössli hotel a secret during his studies. “That doesn’t make sense to me. We were in the same class, we had the same friends. I should definitely have known that. He never spoke to me about the hotel, or about Meiringen.” Since the police operation, Rodrigo Navarro has not heard from David. The alleged spy no longer answers the phone. Mise au Point was also unable to contact him to get him to react to this article.

In Switzerland, you can come very close to military airports, there are even roads that cross the takeoff runways (…) This has obviously not escaped the Chinese government

Ralph Weber, professor at the University of Basel

According to the control of the residents of Meiringen, David left the municipality in the summer of 2023 for an unknown destination. Before that, he traveled back and forth officially between Leysin, Meiringen and China. His parents were never registered with the residents of Meiringen. Yet it was they who managed the Rössli hotel night and day.

A military plane on the runway at Meiringen airport. [RTS]
A military plane on the runway at Meiringen airport. [RTS]

For Ralph Weber, professor at the University of Basel, this affair is not surprising. This professor, a specialist in China and its networks of influence, explains: “In Switzerland, you can come very close to military airports, there are even roads that cross the takeoff runways. That has nothing to do with it. with the United States and other Western countries where military airports are very protected and inaccessible to the public. This has obviously not escaped the Chinese government.

Ordinary Chinese citizens

The professor remains cautious about the matter. “There are many clues, disturbing elements, doubts. In espionage cases, the authorities never confirm.” When contacted, the Federal Intelligence Service (SRC) did not wish to respond to this matter. As for the Chinese authorities, letters from RTS to the embassy remained unanswered.

Espionage cases are often carried out by ordinary Chinese citizens. They are rarely professionals

Ariane Knüsel, historian specializing in relations between China and Western countries

When it comes to espionage, Ariane Knüsel is one of the best European experts in the field. This Swiss historian worked on secret Swiss archives concerning China. “In the archives, we see that espionage cases are often carried out by ordinary Chinese citizens. They are rarely professionals. The Chinese government asks them for a helping hand, a favor.”

The F35 has already carried out tests in Switzerland, it will be permanently stationed at the Meiringen base from 2027. “China uses all means to obtain information from its citizens. To convince them to spy, money is often offered , but also the threat to the families remaining in the country.

1000 francs each month

The historian Ariane Knüsel gives the example of Monsieur T*. Without revealing his real name, the researcher explains to us: “In the federal archives, this student at the ETHZ was caught for spying for China. He mainly had to provide information on Chinese students and dissidents.” She adds some surprising details.

“Mr. T received almost every month 1000 francs which he collected at the Chinese embassy in Bern. The Chinese government paid him for the train and once even an entry to the circus.”

The man was finally expelled from Switzerland discreetly. Subsequently, he had an academic career in Holland and founded a company. He has worked with the largest Western oil companies.

Discretion of the Confederation

Mise au Point was able to identify Mr. T and contact him. He responded by mail: “The events you are referring to date back decades. The matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. I do not wish to respond to you. I consider this a nuisance and a violation of my private sphere,” he wrote.

In this case, as in the Meiringen affair, the Swiss authorities remained very discreet. Officially, the affair of the Rössli Hotel and David W has nothing to do with espionage.

*names known to the editorial staff

François Ruchti

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