Home » Mystery in Alps: A Chinese Family, a Swiss Inn, world’s most expensive weapon

Mystery in Alps: A Chinese Family, a Swiss Inn, world’s most expensive weapon

Mystery in Alps: A Chinese Family, a Swiss Inn, world’s most expensive weapon

But it is the view from the back that caught the attention of American intelligence agencies. About 100 yards from the rear of the rustic, wood-paneled inn, just past a child’s swing set, cuts the runway where the Swiss military had agreed to base several F-35s, the world’s most advanced jet fighter. The airstrip, only partly fenced, is so accessible to passersby that farmers sometimes lead cows across it, bells clanging from their necks.

Until recently, the hotel’s most pressing complaint came from elderly neighbors disappointed that its Chinese owners, the Wang family, had closed its restaurant after buying it in 2018. Though Wang Jin’s wife, Lin Jing, spoke only Mandarin, and communicated using hand gestures, he smoothed things over by introducing himself in decent German to residents who were flattered—“very Swiss,” one said.

On a crisp summer morning last year, Swiss federal police raided the Rössli, taking the Wangs and their 27-year-old son Dawei in for questioning. Somebody left a note on the door reading: “The hotel is closed.”

For months, U.S. and British national security officials had been claiming that its quaint 1903 facade offered Beijing’s intelligence services an ideal watchpost on the front edge of an escalating spy war between America and China. Xi Jinping’s intelligence agencies, U.S. officials warned, were going to enormous lengths to acquire information about the supersonic jet, built to penetrate enemy airspace undetected.

The Wangs, now in China, have emphatically denied that their lodge served anybody other than visitors to the hamlet of Unterbach (pop. 478), offering hiking trails and rides on a nearby funicular. Switzerland, a historically neutral country eager to appease both superpowers, took more than a year to weigh the American allegations against the hotel.

In the end, the U.S. laid down a condition: If Switzerland wanted the F-35, the area had to be secure. That meant the Wangs had to go.

The truth of whether the Wangs were small-time innkeepers or a secret weapon in Beijing’s decadelong effort to capture one of America’s most closely protected military secrets may never be known. The case boils down to whether the family was interested in the view from the hotel’s front, or its back.

What’s for sure is a global contest between Beijing and Washington over military secrets is spilling into new and far-flung places.

China’s foreign ministry said in faxed responses that China is a victim of espionage and has always firmly opposed espionage, adding that “relevant parties” should stop smearing China without any basis.

A spokesman at Beijing’s Washington embassy, while unfamiliar with the allegations concerning the remote hotel in Switzerland, suggested it is part of a pattern. “The United States has frequently hyped up ‘Chinese espionage activities’ in order to discredit and suppress China,” he wrote in an email.

‘Like a kind of movie’

For months since the raid in Unterbach, residents have puzzled over the mystery of whether America’s counterintelligence machinery was correct in zeroing in on the quiet hoteliers next door. Why, of all the antique hotels in Switzerland, would a Chinese buyer choose a tumbledown lodge butted against a military airstrip? The first F-35s weren’t meant to arrive until around 2028, and had only ever landed on the airfield once or twice. Is China’s campaign to decode the superjet so extensive that it would send an ordinary-seeming family to purchase a hotel nearly 10 years before its arrival?

“We were very surprised. It sounded like a kind of movie,” said Juck Egli, chief administrator of the nearby town of Meiringen, which houses a museum and a statue of the world’s most celebrated detective, with his trademark pipe and deerstalker hat. “We’re famous for Sherlock Holmes, but this is like the new mystery of Meiringen.”

To piece together the riddle of the Wangs’ picturesque hotel, reporters from The Wall Street Journal traveled by train across Switzerland, pulling land registry and police documents, residency records, and speaking with Swiss, Chinese, U.S. and European officials. Reporters met villagers, neighbors and former employees of the Rössli. Many, though not all, of them see the disappearance of the Wangs as more a tale of American overreach than Chinese spies.

“If secret services were at work, this property purchase would probably be a very clumsy method of obtaining espionage results,” said Kaspar Kohler, the Rössli’s prior owner.

From China, the son, Dawei, told Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger that the hotel’s only problem is a permitting issue and they planned to come back. A graduate of Beijing New Talent Academy, where tuition tops out at $35,800, he later studied at the Swiss Hotel Management School in Montreux, Switzerland.

A former classmate remembers him frequently driving a rented car on weekends with other Chinese students to Italy. His parents, after paying almost $1 million for the hotel, complained about the cost of Swiss labor, the price of fixing its coffee machine and the cold they escaped by spending long stretches home in China.

When the Journal dialed Swiss phone numbers for Dawei and his mother, an older lady speaking in Mandarin picked up, then quickly ended the call. Subsequent calls weren’t answered.

The Swiss Federal Intelligence Services declined to comment in detail, instead sending a section from “Switzerland’s Security,” an annual report. It claims China makes more use of spies embedded as civilians in Switzerland than even Russia: “Their personnel mainly work under cover as scientists, journalists or business people.” The U.S. Embassy said it learned that the hotel had been closed “at the same time as the public.”

The family provided Swiss police a forwarding address in Dragon Villas, a gated community of American-style brick suburban houses on Beijing’s northern fringe, home to newfound millionaires from China’s boom years, as well as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam—until he was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.

The Wangs have since disappeared without a trace. The tables at the Rössli are still set for breakfast service: jars of muesli, dried fruit and downturned coffee cups atop saucers. An elderly neighbor keeps the heating on to stop the pipes from freezing.

Almost the only visitors recently were a traditional dancing troupe, parading through the town ringing bells during a local festival. Their route, which passed the forlorn inn, had a tongue- in-cheek title: “the spy loop.”

The flying supercomputer

The villagers at Unterbach had never heard anything so loud.

For years, sonic booms had echoed across the bucolic village of wood-paneled chalets, whenever European jet fighters took off from the nearby airstrip. The mostly elderly residents had grown accustomed to watching the jets from behind their windows, which the Swiss military soundproofed. Plane spotters often congregated on a nearby balcony, filming videos of the Gripen, the F-5E/F Freedom Fighter and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

But the afterburning, turbofan engine of the F-35 thundered with such force that residents of Unterbach complained it shook their internal organs. Neither the reinforced glass nor their protests were of any use.

Graffiti on a village wall—“NEIN!”—stands near a poster: “We don’t need the F-35.”

At a total cost of $1.7 trillion, the most expensive weapons program in history was designed to make a statement, a flying supercomputer that would give America “total dominance” in any air war. Two decades in the making, it could slip into enemy airspace, evade even the most advanced defenses, pinpoint airstrikes then blast out at supersonic speeds. Pilots nicknamed it “Panther,” because the plane could identify and kill any target before being seen.

Almost as soon as it hit the skies, the Pentagon sounded the alarm to the White House: China was intent on learning its secrets. The National Security Agency documents Edward Snowden leaked in 2015 showed Chinese hackers had stolen terabytes of data on the jet.

Xi had begun enacting reforms that would hugely expand China’s spying structures. In 2017, China passed its sweeping National Intelligence Law, obligating Chinese nationals to aid their government’s spy agencies: “All organizations and citizens shall support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts,” it read.

The following year, Kaspar Kohler finally found a buyer for the Rössli.

The aging innkeeper had tried for years to find someone who would carry on the traditions of the eight-room hotel until the Wang family stepped forward. In a village without any other proper restaurant, his life’s work was the gathering space for elderly residents sharing early suppers, skiers stopping by for Swiss coffee and schnitzel and pilots or technicians at its diner, whose promotional literature read: “Here the boss still cooks himself!”

The Wangs registered their new property in their son Dawei’s name, and took up a mountain-view suite. Cleaners and receptionists could keep their jobs, the father reassured them in mannerly German.

Kohler wanted to show them around the kitchen on one of their first mornings, to teach them his Swiss recipes. Instead they came down and sat in the breakfast area, waiting to be served.

“They were not even able to crack open an egg,” one worker said. After a few weeks, Kohler left the Rössli, deflated, without a proper goodbye, and handed the keys to the Wangs—who, to villagers’ dismay, promptly closed its restaurant.

Mr. Wang smoothed it over by introducing himself to the village, undertaking modest upgrades such as painting the window shutters and furnishing a modest breakfast counter, offering bread and cereal. Visitors were arriving in a trickle, not a flood, often leaving complimentary reviews: “Kind family.” “Very friendly host!”

Villagers noticed the family would travel back to Beijing for long periods, including over Christmas holidays, the most lucrative time of year. Asked where he picked up German, Wang Jin told his new neighbors that he had grown up the son of a diplomat serving in Germany and Switzerland.

Of the four diplomats named Wang who served in Switzerland during Wang Jin’s childhood, two were military attachés, according to local archives. Of the two who served in West Germany, one left abruptly after five months, citing medical leave. The second arrived in 1969 as a reporter for the Chinese state news agency before working his way up to ambassador.

Many Chinese diplomats in Bern in the 1950s and 1960s were spies, who made the city a hub for espionage operations of the new Communist Chinese government in Europe, said Ariane Knüsel, a Swiss scholar and author of the book “China’s European Headquarters: Switzerland and China during the Cold War.”

For China, neutral Switzerland was the most important diplomatic destination in Europe during the years after China’s 1949 revolution, Party and state press say. When the People’s Republic of China’s first ambassador to Switzerland, Feng Xuan, returned home, he became deputy director of what is now the Ministry of State Security, according to Party-run media accounts.

By the time the Wangs were running the Rössli half a century later, Swiss security officials were reporting that the ministry had dramatically boosted its operations in the country. Several Chinese citizens deemed to be spies by Swiss authorities have been caught in recent years, most asked to quietly leave, Swiss intelligence experts say. They include one referred to in files as “Mr. T”—a student at Zurich’s elite science university, ETH—who was paid in cash by the Chinese embassy in Bern.

As the years ticked by, the Rössli’s longtime employees left, frustrated with the inn’s decline and annoyed at being asked to cook meals for the owners, using Chinese ingredients whose instructions were in Chinese. By 2020, new workers were arriving from China, and some didn’t have residence permits. Outgoing employees learned that, apart from the son, the Wangs lacked residency, and came and went on tourist visas.

Swiss diners, punctilious about their local preferences, were complaining: The bread at breakfast came from the supermarket, not the bakery. When one neighbor stopped in for a coffee, he was shocked that the son, after graduating from an elite hospitality school, didn’t prepare café au lait in the Swiss fashion.

“He put cold milk into a normal coffee instead of heating the milk first,” the neighbor said. “It is a pity.”

A far more serious complaint was being examined inside America’s embassy to Switzerland.

A country that hadn’t been dragged into a foreign war since Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo didn’t seem to appreciate the gravity of the espionage threat U.S. intelligence and defense officials saw in the tumbledown hotel.

In 2018, the U.S. and Switzerland had begun discussing the labyrinthine terms of a deal that would put the F-35 on the airfields of a neutral country. Swiss voters had rejected buying relatively affordable Swedish jet fighters in a 2014 referendum; the money would be better spent on education, campaign organizers said. Aircraft retirements in the years that followed, plus three planes that crashed into Swiss mountains or in France, left the country with few ready jet fighters with full-time pilots. Their navigation equipment was so rudimentary, in some cases lacking even GPS, that in July 2019, an entire Swiss air patrol team accidentally flew over a yodeling competition, interrupting the festivities and causing a scandal in the local press.

That same summer, the U.S. descended on Unterbach to show off a better plane.

Screeching through mountains, a gunmetal gray F-35 rolled to a stop next to the Rössli, then took off again, with a roar that shook every window in the village. Spectators by the dozens trampled overgrown grass, thronged a nearby roof, or climbed a step ladder to catch a glimpse.

They weren’t the only ones intrigued. As the Swiss interest in the F-35 grew, U.S. intelligence officials and diplomats based in Switzerland began repeatedly warning that Chinese intelligence personnel, based under diplomatic cover in the lakeside city of Geneva, were attempting to gain information on U.S. jets, a senior U.S. official serving at the time said. Reports reached the ambassador that the Swiss weren’t taking those concerns seriously: The Swiss Federal Intelligence Service has only about five people dedicated to China, said Ralph Weber, a China expert and Mandarin speaker at the University of Basel. “The Swiss-China politics is just about not angering China in any way,” he said.

In 2020, Swiss voters approved a new referendum to budget the money needed to purchase F-35s—by just 9,000 votes. As the Swiss began ticking through requirements to buy the warplanes, a third referendum to stop it nearly went ahead, then was scrapped. Finally, in 2022, Switzerland agreed to spend 6 billion Swiss francs, or $6.65 billion, for three dozen F-35s, scheduled to arrive in 2028, the largest military procurement in the country’s history.

There was still an important requirement U.S. officials felt the Swiss weren’t taking seriously: security around the airfield.

U.S. officials responsible for aircraft sales traveled to Unterbach and made requests, including that screens be built around the runway. On the airport’s roof, hobbyist plane spotters would often show up, told by friends in the Swiss Air Force when combat planes were scheduled to fly. That was also a risk.

In America, air bases generally prohibit photographing jet engines, for fear that an adversary could reverse-engineer them. Even seemingly ordinary aspects of the F-35 were classified “top secret,” including the helmet, which processed data collected by the aircraft. But Switzerland, a member of neither the European Union nor NATO, didn’t have the same classification system as the U.S.

More pressingly, the Rössli needed new ownership; a Swiss family had been, at one point, trying to buy it, “but they didn’t get the loan from the bank,” said Simon Zumbrunn, a local egg farmer who sits on the village’s Unterbach Aerodrome Commission. He believes the Chinese family was innocent.

U.S. meetings with sympathetic counterparts in Swiss intelligence came and went without commitments. The British followed up with their own meetings, discussing the Rössli and growing frustrated that Swiss national security officials seemed reluctant to broach the subject with their political leadership. U.S. officials argued that under China’s 2017 national security law, the Wangs, should Beijing ask, would be required to help gather information on the jet.

Swiss officials said they took the concerns seriously—but had to raise them to a political leadership perplexed by America’s campaign, now focusing on the forlorn hotel. The U.S. had no hard proof that the Rössli was a spying operation, a senior Swiss official said—only that it could be. “You’re never going to know,” he said.

In 2023, the frustrated U.S. ambassador sharpened his warnings. If the F-35 was meant to be based in Unterbach, then Unterbach had to be secure.

Months passed without action. Finally, late last summer, as backpack-clad hikers thronged the trails, a group of civilian policemen arrived midmorning at the Rössli. There were no cordons and no commotion. The cantonal police arrived shortly after and began searching the property. The elder Wangs were taken away in handcuffs, then fined $5,400 for mostly minor violations of Switzerland’s Hospitality Industry Act, among them: “mopping the floors and tables, and watering the garden in the Rössli without having the proper work permit.”

Wang Jin later came back to apologize to neighbors: They were sorry for any inconvenience and would be heading back to China for a while. He left the keys with a neighbor, and a request—“keep the pipes warm”—a villager said.

Not long after, an online ad circulated listing the hotel for sale for $1.8 million. In January, the Unterbach Aerodrome Commission received word that a buyer had emerged: the Swiss military.

Terms were undisclosed.

Eva Hirschi contributed to this article

Write to Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com, Drew Hinshaw at drew.hinshaw@wsj.com and Liza Lin at liza.lin@wsj.com