Comrade ‘Chris Petersen’ Was Big in China and Albania; ‘Project Mongol’ Tell-All

The Wall Street Journal
December 3, 2004

In From the Cold: He Was a Communist for Dutch Intelligence

By ANDREW HIGGINS
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
December 3, 2004; Page A1

ZANDVOORT, Netherlands – As secretary-general of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands, Chris Petersen traveled the globe during the Cold War, wowing Communist leaders with his revolutionary zeal and anti-capitalist diatribes.

“I could make speeches for hours and you would think that Mao Tse-tung himself had been my teacher,” recalls the now-retired party chief.

The Chinese Communist Party was so impressed, it regularly gave the ranting Dutchman the full red-carpet treatment in Beijing: banquets in the Great Hall of the People, an audience with Mao, envelopes stuffed with cash and tributes in the People’s Daily. Albania’s Communists were also big fans.

Now, with communism all but dead, the Dutchman has decided to come clean: Both he and his party were a sham.

He says he was never a Maoist but an opera-loving math teacher moonlighting for Dutch intelligence. His name, his politics and his party, he says, all were concocted in a plot to penetrate militant Marxist subculture.

“Nothing was real,” says the ex-Mr. Petersen, who now lives under his real name, Pieter Boevé, here in Zandvoort, a seaside resort town west of Amsterdam. The only genuine part of a revolutionary career that lasted decades, he says, was a fondness for Chinese food: The Chinese Communist Party, Mr. Boevé recalls, had excellent cooks.

The Central Intelligence Agency, which got regular updates on the mock Maoist movement, dubbed it “Operation Red Herring,” according to Dutch intelligence. (The CIA won’t comment.) The Dutch called it “Project Mongol.”

The unmasking comes at an uncomfortable time for Dutch security services, now under fire for post-Communist bungling. Having infiltrated Maoist groups with gusto, they lost track of an Islamic radical blamed for the murder last month of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

Mr. Boevé, who appeared on television in a recent documentary about the Dutch secret service while wearing a fake beard and Groucho Marx plastic nose and glasses, says his past exploits provide tips that could help con Islamist extremists, but he doesn’t envy anyone who might try: “It’s very dangerous,” he says.

In a country where erstwhile Maoists and other radicals have become pillars of the establishment, the exposure of the phony Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands, or MLPN, has caused dismay and embarrassment. Frits Hoekstra, a former high-ranking security official, shocked former colleagues in September by publishing a book that described Project Mongol and other escapades. The interior minister ordered an investigation into whether state secrets were divulged. Former Maoists are aghast.

“I totally wasted 12 years of my life,” says Paul Wartena, an ex-MLPN member who was so dedicated to the cause he used to donate 20% of his salary to the fake party. He says he “had some doubts now and then” about the MLPN but stayed loyal because “I was very naive and Mr. Boevé was such a good actor.” Now a researcher at a university in Utrecht, Mr. Wartena wants Dutch intelligence to pay him back for all his donations.

Mr. Boevé, now 74, scoffs at his acolyte: “He was an idiot.”

Mr. Boevé says he, too, is upset that his caper leaked but that Mr. Hoekstra’s book forced him in from the cold.

Conning so many people, says Mr. Boevé, was “not the most beautiful thing,” but it was a great adventure. He visited China about 25 times, made frequent trips to Albania and duped radical leaders in the West. After each journey, he went to a safe house in Amsterdam to pass on tidbits of information.

Set up and run by spooks in 1969, his party, the MLPN, had its own newspaper, De Kommunist, written and edited by the secret service. As well as Mr. Boevé playing Chris Petersen, the secretary-general, it had a chairman (another fraud) and a Central Committee stacked with secret agents. To add authenticity, the party let Mr. Wartena and a handful of other true believers join its otherwise nonexistent ranks, telling them that they were part of a network of underground cells.

Mr. Boevé first started working as an informant for the Dutch secret service, then known as the BVD, in the late 1950s and started using a fake name. Invited to Moscow for a youth festival in 1957, he attended a reception hosted by Nikita Khrushchev and briefed Dutch intelligence.

Mr. Hoekstra, a former head of counterintelligence against Soviet-bloc countries and author of the recent book, says Mr. Boevé’s recruitment wasn’t at first seen as a big deal, but, rather, as part of routine tracking of local Communists.

Shortly after the Moscow festival, however, Mr. Boevé got an invitation to China, then still aligned with the Soviet Union. While in China, he kept hearing Chinese officials curse Moscow, which had just cut funding to Beijing. The move marked the start of the Sino-Soviet split – and of Mr. Boevé’s role as an unlikely prize agent.

Desperate for allies against Moscow, China searched out Communists in Europe and elsewhere. Mr. Boevé, encouraged by the BVD, offered his services. He visited China in the early 1960s for a six-week course on Mao Tse-tung Thought. He says he got good at mimicking Chinese propaganda. The main difficulty, he says, was keeping up with the wild zigzags of Chinese politics: his hosts kept getting purged.

Chinese diplomats in Holland invited the man they knew as Chris Petersen to their mission in The Hague and gave money to help finance a Maoist newspaper secretly edited by the BVD. The result was De Kommunist. Mr. Hoekstra, the former spy and now a business consultant, says he once wrote a screed against the Dutch government. “As a civil servant, it was very satisfying,” he says.

After a year, De Kommunist announced with fanfare in 1969 the foundation of the Marxist-Leninist Party of the Netherlands. “In order to limit as far as possible the danger of penetration by enemy elements,” it explained, “the MLPN organization shall be based largely on the cell system, obliging all members to the greatest possible secrecy.”

For the next decade, the fake party helped the Dutch secret police divide Holland’s legitimate Communist movement, keep tabs on Maoist groups and gain access to China’s elite. “Petersen” issued regular communiques – all drafted by the BVD – denouncing real Communists as sellouts and urging voters to reject them.

Mr. Hoekstra, the former intelligence officer, said the facade of Maoist fervor did sometimes wobble. On one occasion, he says, “Petersen” started talking in public about how to take advantage of tax deductions, not something a Maoist is supposed to worry about. He says there was concern the Chinese might smell a rat, but that faded. The Dutch, he says, had the Chinese embassy bugged and heard diplomats singing “Petersen’s” praises. “We could hear everything,” says Mr. Hoekstra.

By the 1980s, purges and ideological U-turns had exhausted most Maoists in Europe, and the BVD began to lose interest in the ruse. China was no longer an enemy but a big trading partner. De Kommunist shut down. The MLPN fizzled.

Mr. Boevé, though, kept going. In 1989, when troops shot dead hundreds of protesters around Tiananmen Square, he issued a statement praising the resolve of the Communist Party in restoring order. Shortly afterward, he was back in Beijing, hailing the party and its leaders.

In a small apartment crowded with an electric organ and piles of books, Mr. Boevé rustles through plastic shopping bags full of yellowing MLPN tracts and other mementos. One is a copy of a photograph of himself meeting Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Communist dictator from 1944 until his death in 1985.

Advancing age has finally slowed Mr. Boevé down. He walks with a cane and can’t climb stairs. His involvement with China is limited to visits to a local Chinese restaurant. He draws giggles by humming the “East is Red,” a Maoist anthem. “It’s a very nice tune,” he says.

His political horizons have shrunk to Zandvoort. He sits on the local council and lobbies for better housing for the elderly. He has even set up yet another party: It represents old people. It doesn’t have many members, but, says Mr. Boevé, “This time they are all real.”

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