Tiktok in Court; Spy Games on LinkedIn; Wolf Warrior Watch

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.

In This Issue: Chinese tech comes under fire, the EU is divided over Southeast Asia, and a new wolf warrior winner

TECH TIDE TURNS

For years, tech products have been among the Beijing authorities’ most effective vectors of influence. Admittedly, they are cheap, convenient, and often fun. But they are also intrusive — and dangerous.

Take this lawsuit against TikTok, for example. The former British Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield is suing the popular social video app on behalf of 3.5 million under-13s. She argues that it “takes children's personal information, including phone numbers, videos, exact location, and biometric data,” without gaining consent or explaining what it is doing. That breaches the EU’s GDPR data-protection rules (which have been incorporated into UK law post-Brexit).

Longfield calls the app “a data collection service that is thinly veiled as a social network”. Tiktok, owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, says it will “vigorously defend” the case.

Western tech giants collect data to make money (and they attract lawsuits too). But why should the Chinese Communist Party be interested in vacuuming up huge quantities of foreigners’ private information? One reason is to keep track of the diaspora. This extraordinary report outlines how a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver installed more than 60 surveillance cameras, with recordings sent back to China for what the manager incautiously called “secret” purposes. We hope he finds another job soon.

China’s also interested in what everyone else is doing — a global data-collection program outlined in this report by ASPI’s Sam Hoffman. More research on this will be published in the coming weeks: we’ll keep you posted.

A related furor is raging in the Netherlands, where the Volkskrant newspaper has unearthed a report by the CapGemini consultancy claiming that Huawei had “unlimited access” to calls made on KPN, one of the leading Dutch phone networks. The Chinese telecoms giant denies that. But its woes are mounting: Romania, one of the biggest markets in eastern Europe, is the latest country to ban from the 5G network.

China’s expert in other forms of espionage too, of course. The cyber-security firm FireEye reports that hackers with suspected ties to China have exploited a popular VPN (typically used to access corporate networks from outside the office) to break into government agencies, defense companies, and financial institutions in the US and Europe.

Finally, think twice about that charming (or potentially lucrative) new business contact. Britain’s counter-intelligence service warns that more than 10,000 UK nationals have been targeted in the past five years by hostile states using LinkedIn and similar networking sites. Fears of Chinese influence operations are prompting Britain to introduce mandatory registration for anyone working on behalf of a foreign government.

WOLF WARRIOR WATCH

The winner this week of our prize for counterproductive bullying is whoever masterminds China’s policy towards Iceland.

Jónas Haraldsson is a retired lawyer who writes snarky newspaper articles about the derelict former Chinese embassy building in Reykjavik, rude Chinese tourists, and other (by Icelandic standards) hot-button issues. That brought him modest fame among readers of Morgunblaðið (pronounced MOR-gen-blathith). Now he’s got the embassy working on his PR too: it says that he “seriously harms China’s sovereignty and interests by maliciously spreading lies and disinformation.” The asset freeze and visa ban don’t bother Haraldsson (he’s got no China-related plans or investments). But he’s proud to be the only Icelander blacklisted by Beijing. What’s the Chinese for “Streisand effect?”

Second prize goes to the embassy in Tallinn. The advertorial placed in the Õhtuleht newspaper praised China’s rule in Xinjiang in such hyperbolic terms that Estonians were outraged. Õhtuleht promptly apologized and said it wouldn’t run such pieces in the future. Great work, comrades.

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NEWS IN BRIEF

The EU launched its Indo-Pacific strategy – quite toughly worded. Lots of talk about “certain partners” for which read “Taiwan”. Why not say so? Several months too late, the EU’s also started sending vaccines to the Western Balkans, where Chinese and Russian jabs have been highlighting those countries’ influence, and the West’s weakness.

But the EU’s not united. Germany is still trying to save the investment agreement with China, under the guise of talking about climate change, says Silke Wettach of Wirtschaftswoche. Hungary has blocked an EU statement criticizing the crackdown in Hong Kong, Reuters reports. We asked why. No answer.

The hawkish corner of European politics just got a bit more crowded, though: a cross-party grouping of lawmakers from Ireland is the latest to join the  International Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) — now comprising members from 20 countries.

Montenegro is struggling to repay the $1 billion it owes to China over the world’s worst highway deal. The EU’s said it won’t help, but France sounds a bit more positive. Meanwhile environmental groups are hoping to stymie a Chinese-owned coal plant, supposedly being modernized.

China’s using the tiny principality of Liechtenstein to get satellite frequencies. A big investigation by the local Vaterland newspaper says that the European side of the project is a shell. Actual operations will be located in China. Apart from the security risks, it's unclear how the deal benefits Liechtenstein.

Pressure from Italian prime minister Mario Draghi has jinxed China’s attempt to buy the Iveco truck and bus business of the giant Agnelli family conglomerate. A big change in Italy, which used to be a prime China-hugger.

Turkmenistan is again eying a pipeline to India across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The gas-rich central Asian republic’s pipelines to China are already at full capacity.

Five Eyes or four? New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta sparked a row by seeming to distance her country from the China-critical stance taken by the other members of the Anglophone intelligence-sharing alliance: Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. But the prime minister Jacinda Ardern has backtracked, saying that messages about democracy and human rights can be delivered better by wider coalitions — for example including Germany.

WHAT WE ARE READING

  • Can the United States cope with simultaneous security crises in Ukraine and Taiwan? Many fear it can’t. US defense planners are worried about Russia-China military ties, says Foreign Policy, and nuclear modernization (says CNN).
  • Foreign Affairs notes that China’s sharp-edged statecraft is self-defeating, which chimes with this think tank report which says Chinese soft power in Europe has (nice pun) fallen on hard times. “Has China become less interested in growing its appeal than in exercising its influence?” it asks. One explanation is that China now reckons the West is in irreversible decline: in which case, why bother to play nice.
  • China Observers has this useful roundup on the 17+1 and another piece on how far Czech ties with China have chilled in just five years (exemplified by a prominent Prague-based think tank demonstratively opening a Taiwan office).
  • CodaStory’s Isobel Cockerell has this revealing tale about “cottagecore” videos, which show Chinese rural life in a way that just happens to suit the authorities’ messaging.

Many thanks to Makuna Berkatsashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Oleksandr Ignatenko, Masho Lomashvili, Mariia Pankova, and Katia Patin of Coda Story, and to Michael Newton at CEPA.

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

Best regards
Edward

April 22, 2021