Slow, and rarely surely

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is patient and powerful. But that does not make it invincible. The lesson of its activities in central and eastern Europe (CEE) is that it succeeds mainly because of western weakness, rather than because of its own genius.

A new series of reports for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) looks at CCP influence in a dozen CEE countries. At first sight, the picture is confusingly varied. Chinese influence operations target big countries (Poland and Romania) and small ones (Montenegro, Estonia, or North Macedonia). They prioritize economic means (as in Hungary and the Western Balkans, but also diplomatic or soft power (Poland). They chime with domestic political objectives (Serbia and Hungary) and cut diametrically across them (the Czech Republic and Lithuania). They are systematic (Serbia) and dilatory (Romania).

The main common factor is minimal use of effort, unless — as in Lithuania — local decision-makers violate the party’s taboos on issues such as Tibet and Taiwan. The approach is fundamentally opportunistic. Chinese agents of influence take their chances where they see them, ranging from infrastructure projects to divide-and-rule gambits. When something works, they do it again. When it fails, they lose interest.

This is disappointing for those who would like to see the CEE region as a geopolitical crossroads, the focus of sinister schemes by a totalitarian superpower. But in truth, as seen from Beijing, the CEE region is a backwater. “They would sacrifice all their interests in the region for a slightly better position in a big German federal state like North-Rhine Westphalia,” a government China-watcher told me, requesting anonymity in order to speak frankly.

Chinese expertise in the region can be deceptive. Individual diplomats can display stunning mastery of the local language: the fruits of specialization. But the CCP is baffled by local power dynamics or the economic, cultural, historical, and geographical differences in what seem impossibly small countries. Propaganda follows a generalized anti-Western line which falls flat more often than it works.

It is also easy to overstate the local reaction. Illiberal governments in the region can be equally opportunistic, using ties with China for domestic political purposes, and as a bargaining chip when haggling with Western decision-makers in Brussels. True: playing the “China card” had some success during the socially stressed era of the covid-19 pandemic. But the relationship is skin-deep. China features far more in official discourse in Belgrade and Budapest than Serbia and Hungary do in Beijing. Other places matter more.

The CCP’s showcase multilateral project, launched as the 16+1 in 2012, is a signal example of the failure. Lithuania left the framework in 2021. Estonia and Latvia have just pulled out too, underlining the CCP’s ingrained inability to practice multilateral diplomacy. Indeed, the CCP’s master plan of using infrastructure to boost political and economic ties is severely dented. Recent events in countries such as Kenya, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have highlighted flaws in the flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Far from supplanting Western-led development loans and aid, the result is overpriced projects with weak commercial rationales and shaky financing.

This is no reason for complacency. China’s successes may be flimsy, but they still reflect gaps created by Western failure. The stuttering pace of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, timidity in confronting the headstrong Hungarian leadership, failure to show solidarity with Lithuania over Taiwan, and the neglect of Chinese-language teaching in CEE universities were not the result of Chinese pressure. But they created conditions which the CCP could, and did, exploit. The Chinese leadership may be on the back foot now. But it thinks long term. And we, mostly, do not.