G7 and the da Vinci Code; Lisbon Snooping; History Wars

China Influence Monitor
China Influence Monitor

Hello, and welcome to China Influence Monitor, a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story and edited by me, Edward Lucas. We track the westward footprint of China’s influence operations, and their effects on politics, economies, societies and alliances across Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and Europe.

TANGLED LINES

The party-state was in sharp focus at this week’s G7 and NATO summits, with a barrage of criticism on human rights, secrecy over the covid-19 outbreak, bullying of Taiwan and much else. The Western countries agreed on new initiatives to boost resilience; NATO is shifting its focus somewhat to boost deterrence in the Pacific region.

The reaction from Beijing was splenetic. But the problem for Chinese cheerleaders is that the propaganda lines are contradictory. Either the West is in irrevocable decline and worthy of mockery, or it is a menacing hegemon determined to destroy China. But it can’t be both.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian took the first approach. “The U.S. is sick, and it’s very sick. The G-7 should check America’s pulse and prescribe drugs for it,” he said.

But Global Times highlighted an elaborate allegorical cartoon, modeled on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which has gone viral on social media. It depicts the G7 summit participants as animals sitting around a table over a China-shaped cake. At the center is the US: a bald eagle, printing money with toilet paper. Australia is a money-grubbing kangaroo, Canada a dope-loving beaver, France a rooster, Germany a hawk, India an elephant (tastefully attached to a hospital drip), Italy a wolf, Japan a dog (serving radio-active water to the guests) and the UK a lion.

Global Times G7 Cartoon

Taiwan appears as a frog under the table.

That’s not very biblical. But the bigger problem is the other contradictions. Who’s Judas? And if the US is playing Jesus’s role, then that implies a glorious triumph over death later in the week.

You just can’t get a good symbologist these days.

The combination of diligence and cultural clumsiness means that the artist, who goes by the name Bantonglaoatang, wins this week’s Wolf Warrior prize hands down.

Elsewhere on the propaganda front, the Times investigates how CGTN hires British students as “influencers”. They get cash prizes and the promise of jobs in exchange for extolling China’s human rights record and decrying Western criticism.

DIPLOMATIC NEWS

  • Lisbon city hall is in trouble for sharing the personal details of demonstrators with the authoritarian regimes they were protesting against, such as China and Russia. A one-off bureaucratic glitch, said the Portuguese capital’s bureaucrats. Then they admitted that it was standard practice — for a decade. Tibetans and others are furious.
  • The Czech Senate has urged politicians to boycott the Beijing Olympics. The lawmakers in Prague, and their counterparts in Belgium, both voted through motions saying that China was perpetrating genocide against Uyghurs.
  • Romania’s president signed into law a bill banning Huawei and other Chinese companies from the country’s 5G networks. China complained. But once-mighty Huawei is in retreat all over Europe.

German industrialists renewed their criticism of China’s human rights record. Again, something that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

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CENTRAL ASIAN NEWS

Turkmenistan says it has paid back its pipeline debt to China. But the central Asian autocracy’s finances are so impenetrable that it’s hard to tell what that means, notes EurasiaNet.

It’s a similarly murky story in Kyrgyzstan, where the Zhongda oil refinery, one of China’s largest investments, brings badly needed jobs at a horrible environmental cost. It stopped work when Covid hit. Nobody knows why.

Debt-sodden Tajikistan is accused of deporting Uyghur dissidents to China. Lawyers are investigating that, and a similar story in Cambodia.

And anti-China protests rumble on in Kazakhstan, with predictable accusations of “sinophobia”. Given how the party-state treats ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, it’s surprising that Kazakhs in Kazakhstan don’t kick up more of a fuss.

BUSINESS NEWS

The Berlin-based Merics think-tank has a deep dive on China’s slumping investment in Europe, which hit a 13-year low in 2020. Poland, surprisingly, is the second-most popular destination. More than half still goes to just three west European countries: the UK, Germany and France.

Another counter-intuitive study says that China’s coal investments around the world are slowing too. Since 2017 four and a half times more of these climate-killing projects have been canceled than commissioned, says the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

China’s Three Gorges energy and infrastructure giant wants to invest in Spain’s power grid. Just the sort of deal that would have gone through without comment a few years ago. Now a hubbub is brewing.

What we’re reading 

  • China’s Africa strategy: an NBR study argues that despite denials in Beijing and the skepticism of many Western observers, the party-state is preparing to export its model to Africa — and beyond
  • How Xi is rewriting CCP history. A long Wall St Journal investigation into China’s tortured historiography. Features egg-fried rice and a military disaster involving Mao’s son.
  • Charm offensive: Xi has realized China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” backfired. He’s telling his propagandists to put on sheep’s clothing” argue Bradley Thayer and Lianchao Han.
  • International organizations: the party-state’s long march through the institutions of international diplomacy is highlighted by a new report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons

What we’re watching (and wish we hadn’t)

The ghastly “CCP makes China Great” ditty has been recorded in English, complete with winsome hand gestures and other kitsch.

That’s it for this week — we will be back in your inboxes next Thursday.

Many thanks to Isobel Cockerell, Mariam Kiparoidze and Makuna Berkatsashvili at Coda Story, and to Michael Newton at CEPA.

Best regards,
Edward

June 17, 2021