This report is a part of #CCPinCEE, a series of reports published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) analyzing Chinese influence efforts and operations across the nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
Goals and objectives of CCP malign influence
Labeling Chinese influence as malign is a relatively new phenomenon in Estonia, which has experienced, studied, analyzed, and countered Kremlin-led influence operations for several decades. Unlike Russia, which Estonia regards as a security threat in part because of its proximity, China has traditionally been perceived as a remote, yet enormous international player with limited, if any, interest in Estonian affairs.
The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service recognizes the threat to the international rules-based world order posed by an alternative model advocated by the Chinese Communist Party of a community of “common destiny” that is more accommodating to authoritarian powers. This model seeks to build wedges between the European Union and the US, and among and inside member states, by building new and dismantling old alliances through propaganda, co-option, and economic and technological dependencies. 1
A good example of this phenomenon is Estonia’s participation in the 16/17+1 format. A decade after the format’s establishment, China remains an insignificant economic partner for Estonia. Nevertheless, Estonia has witnessed a rise in Chinese influence and, to an extent, the narratives in China and Estonia have harmonized. Both Chinese and Estonian media portray self-censorship as the precondition for economic success. When Estonia downgraded its participation at the 16/17+1 virtual forum to foreign-minister level in 2021, Estonian media wondered how China would punish Tallinn. The memory of the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2011, and the subsequent ban on Estonian dairy products in the Chinese market, still linger in the public discourse; in reality, however, both the sticks and carrots remain largely imaginary. 2
CCP’s methods, tools, and tactics for advancing malign influence
According to an Estonian Internal Security Service report, Chinese intelligence activities were aired in an Estonian court for the first time in March 2021, when an Estonian scientist with NATO, who had an Estonian security clearance, was prosecuted for collaborating with Chinese military intelligence. 3 Intelligence agencies’ reports make it clear that Beijing considers Estonia a target.
Manipulating public discourse and technological espionage are among the primary goals of Chinese influence efforts in Estonia. A short overview gives some additional insights into the political and economic dimensions of Chinese interests and influence activities in Estonia. 4 Several areas of particular interest can be considered playgrounds for influence activities run by Beijing.
There has been no significant presence of Chinese influence detected in media, entertainment, and social media, but foreign actors conducting influence operations can abuse the media environment. In Estonia, just one Chinese state media channel, CGTV-Russian, is broadcast in a local language. It is included in the core bundle of channels offered by STV, one of the main cable service providers. 5
Since spring 2021, all major news outlets in Estonia (i.e., DELFI, Postimees, and SL Õhtuleht) have stopped running Chinese-government-funded advertisements, 6 ending what had been a rather routine practice. Investigative journalists from the Baltic states wrote three articles about Chinese influence activities in the region, prompting heavy criticism from the Chinese Embassy in Tallinn, which said journalists should promote good relations between the nations. 7
Chinese-owned TikTok’s rising popularity in Estonia, especially among young people, makes it a potential threat, as the platform could be used to spread propaganda or censorship to Estonian audiences. In addition, the Estonian Information System Authority has banned TikTok apps from its employees’ work phones due to embedded security vulnerabilities. 8
The Chinese government traditionally uses funding of academia and education to project soft power and promote self-censorship in Estonia. The University of Tartu has signed a memorandum of understanding with Huawei on supporting studies, joint research, and the development of infrastructure. 9 In an act of self-censorship, the university’s management banned the publication of an article critical of the cooperation agreement. 10 There is a Confucius Institute at Tallinn University, which is Estonia’s biggest public university in humanities and overall third-largest university. 11 Several Estonian public schools that receive funds from the Chinese government offer Mandarin classes. 12
Technological investment is probably one of the most sensitive areas of Chinese influence with long-term consequences for societal and economic development in Estonia. 13 Chinese investor TouchStone Capital and state-owned construction companies have shown interest in building an undersea rail tunnel linking Helsinki and Tallinn. 14 In addition, there are a few significant, Chinese government-connected entities in internet infrastructure projects. In 2016, CITIC Telecom CPC (part of the state-owned CITIC Group, which the Rand Corporation has called “a front company” for the People’s Liberation Army) bought assets of Estonia’s Linxtelecom, including its 470-kilometer fiber optic network under the Baltic Sea and its network operations centers in Moscow and Tallinn. The acquisition also included Linx’s data center in Tallinn, which serves as Estonia’s largest internet exchange. 15 Three major telecommunication operators in Estonia (Telia, Elisa, and Tele 2) who use Huawei equipment in their 4G network must remove it by 2030, under new rules. The hardware and software used to build a 5G network in Estonia should be risk-free by 2024. 16 Chinese technology is used in several Estonian government facilities, including Hikvision cameras operated by police 17 and Nuctech surveillance equipment at the eastern border 18 and at the Tallinn airport. 19
Sources: The World Factbook 2022, (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020), https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/; World Bank, The World Bank Group, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/home; “Estonia – China Parliamentary Group”, Parliament of Estonia, Retrieved June 27, 2022, https://www.riigikogu.ee/en/parliament-of-estonia/parliamentary-groups/parliamentary-group/7f8b227d-ec18-ce25-9cf7-ec1a0a265d2c/Estonia-China%20parliamentary%20group
Reach of influence measures
In a spring 2021 survey, over three-quarters of respondents in Estonia said China’s rise represents a serious challenge to global peace and security, a 7% increase from 2020: Forty-two percent were certain that it did, while 37% believed this to some extent. 20 Intriguingly, there is a clear dividing line on this question among ethnic groups in Estonia. While 52% of Estonian-speaking Estonians agreed that China can be a threat to global peace and security, only 20% of Russian-speaking Estonians agreed. Such a remarkable difference in these perceptions suggests that the country’s Russian speakers could be more vulnerable to Chinese propaganda and influence.
Since 2014, the proportion of Estonians who see China’s rise as a threat has been growing, although it would be premature to speak about a consolidated perception about China within Estonian society, even though public awareness regarding Chinese influence activities is getting more attention among politicians, policymakers, and opinion leaders in Estonia. In an opinion poll by GLOBSEC in 2021, 21 almost 46% of Estonians had never heard of or knew nothing about Xi Jinping. 22 Only 6% named China as Estonia’s most important strategic partner. Almost 60% said the EU should stay neutral in the building confrontation between the US and China. 23 Nevertheless, 57% of Estonians said human rights and freedoms in China are being systematically violated. Such attitudes toward China are being shaped equally by relatively low awareness among the general public about China and its activities in Estonia and by global news reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s systemic human rights violations against ethnic minorities and civil activists.
Photo: “Estonia Pavilion”Credit: gavinbloys, https://wordpress.org/openverse/image/c41d8d31-513e-4cf5-9588-b69012d0edd7/
Estonian society is becoming more aware of the possible threats posed by the Chinese government’s malign influence operations, especially in sensitive industries and strategically important economic areas, as well as communication and surveillance technologies. Estonia’s media landscape bears no significant fingerprints of Beijing-directed influence, and the Estonian public generally views China with skepticism and caution. Still, given their natural interests and functional openness, some business communities and academic circles in Estonia could be vulnerable to malicious influence from the Chinese government, and therefore Estonian society needs to be more vigilant against it. Learning from foreign examples and partners’ experiences can bring Estonia more data and evidence on the long-term threats associated with Chinese influence.
Tracking Chinese Online Influence in Central and Eastern Europe
For over a decade, China has been working to build influence beyond its own borders, in particular using online information operations.
- Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, Annual Review 2020, https://www.valisluureamet.ee/doc/raport/2020-en.pdf; Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, Annual Review 2021, https://www.valisluureamet.ee/doc/raport/2021-en.pdf
- Frank Jüris, “Estonia’s Evolving Threat Perception of China,” The Prospect Foundation, April 28, 2022, https://www.pf.org.tw/en/pfen/33-8318.html
- Estonian Internal Security Service, Annual Review 2020-2021 https://kapo.ee/sites/default/files/content_page_attachments/Annual%20Review%202020-2021.pdf
- Frank Jüris, “Chinese Influence Activities in Estonia,” ICDS, September 25, 2020, https://icds.ee/en/chinas-influence-activities-in-estonia/
- Maailmakanalid (World channels), STV, https://stv.ee/est/page/340/
- “Chinese Embassy advert in Estonian paper denounces Uighur genocide claims,” ERR, April 15, 2021, https://news.err.ee/1608178030/chinese-embassy-advert-in-estonian-paper-denounces-uighur-genocide-claims
- “Chinese embassy: Media should support relations between China and Estonia,” BNS, September 8 , 2019, https://news.err.ee/978241/chinese-embassy-media-should-support-relations-between-china-and-estonia
- “Information System Authority: In essence, TikTok a security threat,” ERR, August 21, 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20210128091834/https://news.err.ee/1126180/information-system-authority-in-essence-tiktok-a-security-threat
- “University of Tartu and Huawei signed a memorandum of understanding,” University of Tartu, 27 November 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20200926115215/https://www.ut.ee/en/news/university-tartu-and-huawei-signed-memorandum-understanding
- Märt Läänemets, “Academic Co-operation with the People’s Republic of China: Dangers and Temptations,” ICDS, April 27, 2020, https://icds.ee/en/academic-co-operation-with-the-peoples-republic-of-china-dangers-and-temptations/
- “Confucius Institute,” Tallinn University, https://www.tlu.ee/en/confucius-institute
- “Estonia and China renewed their agreement on education partnership,” Estonian Ministry of Education and Research, May 15, 2017, https://www.hm.ee/en/news/estonia-and-china-renewed-their-agreement-education-partnership; Märt Läänemets, “Academic Co-operation with the People’s Republic of China: Dangers and Temptations,” ICDS, April 27, 2020, https://icds.ee/en/academic-co-operation-with-the-peoples-republic-of-china-dangers-and-temptations/
- Holger Roonemaa, Mari Eesmaa and Inese Liepiņa, “Chinese intelligence increasingly setting sights on Estonia,” Postimees, September 5, 2019, https://news.postimees.ee/6771074/chinese-intelligence-increasingly-setting-sights-on-estonia
- Frank Jüris, “The Talsinki Tunnel: Channeling Chinese Interests into the Baltic Sea,” ICDS, December 2019, https://icds.ee/en/the-talsinki-tunnel-channelling-chinese-interests-into-the-baltic-sea/
- Max Smolaks, “CITIC Telecom buys assets of Linx, expands into Europe,” April 29, 2016, https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/citic-telecom-buys-assets-of-linx-expands-into-europe/
- “Huawei plans to challenge Estonia 5G ban,” ERR, October 6, 2020, https://news.err.ee/1143507/huawei-plans-to-challenge-estonia-5g-ban
- Mikk Salu, “Eesti politsei suunas riigihanke kahtlase kuulsusega Hiina firmale,” Eesti Ekspress, March 3, 2021, https://ekspress.delfi.ee/artikkel/92718953/eesti-politsei-suunas-riigihanke-kahtlase-kuulsusega-hiina-firmale
- Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “China’s Technological Rise: Implications for Global Security and the Case of Nuctech,” ICDS, January 14, 2021, https://icds.ee/en/chinas-technological-rise-implications-for-global-security-and-the-case-of-nuctech
- Margus Hanno Murakas, “Eesti piiripunktide röntgenid osteti Hiina riigifirmalt,” Postimees, March 9, 2021, https://leht.postimees.ee/7196740/eesti-piiripunktide-rontgenid-osteti-hiina-riigifirmal
- Estonian Ministry of Defense, “Avalik arvamus riigikaitsest 2021,” May 2021, https://kaitseministeerium.ee/sites/default/files/elfinder/article_files/avalik_arvamus_ja_riigikaitse_mai_2021.pdf
- “Central and Eastern Europe One Year into the Pandemic,” GLOBSEC Trends, March 2021, https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/GLOBSEC-Trends-2021_final.pdf
- Unpublished data of the poll conducted in March 2021 on a sample of 1,000 respondents in Estonia using stratified multistage random sampling in the form of computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Collection of data was coordinated by FOCUS, s.r.o. Conducted in the framework of a project organised by GLOBSEC and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the survey formed the basis of a report published in June 2021 – GLOBSEC Trends: Central & Eastern Europe one year into the pandemic. https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/GLOBSEC-Trends-2021_final.pdf
- Globsec Trends.