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
Chinese malign influence activities in Lithuania have to be understood in light of two decisions the Lithuanian government made in 2021: to become the first to withdraw from the 16/17+1 initiative and to open a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius, the first in an EU capital for almost two decades, with an important twist of this actually being a “Taiwanese” as opposed to “Taipei’s” institution. 1 With these developments, the Sino-Lithuanian relationship plunged to a level rarely seen in either country’s foreign policies. At the time of this writing in mid-2022, the relationship remains de facto downgraded to the level of chargé d’affaires. Lithuania’s embassy in Beijing is empty, while the southernmost Baltic state continues to withstand China’s diplomatic, discursive and, most importantly, economic pressure.
Lithuania’s 2019 National Threat Assessment emphasized Chinese intelligence activities, which it said are driven primarily by China’s domestic policy issues. The same is true for China’s malign influence operations. Besides seeking to ensure that Lithuania would neither support the independence of Tibet and Taiwan nor raise these topics at the international level, Chinese intelligence allegedly targets Lithuania’s foreign policy, economy, and defense industry. It also seeks to influence what information is accessible to Lithuanians about foreign countries’ international cooperation projects and future plans with China, including those in EU and NATO countries. 2 Because achieving these goals depends in part on China’s general image among Lithuanian elites and the population at large, Beijing is also interested in influencing the country’s public discourse and, ultimately, public views on the issues in question and by extension its conduct in the whole international system. 3 Since mid-2019, the range of sensitive topics in the relationship has only broadened as Lithuania has become increasingly vocal about Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Chinese high-tech expansion, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since mid-2021, China has shifted its focus to trying to make Lithuania shutter the Taiwanese representative office.
CCP’s methods, tools, and tactics for advancing malign influence
A notable example of China’s malign influence occurred during the Baltic Way’s 30th anniversary. On August 23, 2019, hundreds of Lithuanians joined hands in solidarity with the protesters in Hong Kong and were confronted by a small but vocal group of pro-Beijing counter-demonstrators. 4 Since the counter group was composed of prominent members of the local Chinese community, including the heads of the Overseas Chinese Association of Lithuania, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and the local Xinhua news agency bureau, as well as high-ranking members of the Chinese diplomatic staff, 5 the incident caused a certain chill in the Sino-Lithuanian relationship that would retard its further development.
Messaging through Lithuanian media would be echoed in subsequent campaign on topics including, China’s alleged achievements in providing humanitarian aid; benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative; criticism of Lithuanian politicians and activists who publicly raised concerns about Beijing’s human rights violations and policies toward Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan; and, more recently and sharply, defense of China’s approach to and narratives about the pandemic. 6 In the last case, barely 10 weeks separated an op-ed by the then-ambassador, Shen Zhifei, published on one of Lithuania’s leading news portals, that called for mutual solidarity to deal with the COVID-19 health crisis 7 and an interview with another major news outlet in which he claimed that there was no evidence that the virus had originated in China. 8 Despite much less diplomatic engagement since the new Lithuanian cabinet was formed in late 2020, the Chinese Embassy continued these practices by ordering a series of sponsored articles 9 and initiating critical interviews 10 that collectively aimed at a review of Lithuania’s whole relationship with Beijing.
The pandemic initially gave China another way to advance its influence. To satisfy huge demand for personal protective equipment during Lithuania’s first wave, major Chinese companies that operated locally ordered several shipments. 11 The first and most telling was provided by Huawei, with alleged help from the embassy in Vilnius and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, both of which had been heavily involved in the 2019 incident. Notably, the shipment, which became the single most important example of Beijing’s so-called “mask diplomacy” in the country, was delivered free of charge by a controversial Lithuanian-origin airline with a rapidly increasing profile in China. 12
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; “Group for Inter-Parliamentary Relations with the People’s Republic of China,” Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, Retrieved June 21, 2022, https://www.lrs.lt/sip/portal.show?p_r=38800&p_k=2
Reach of influence measures
It is safe to conclude at this point that Chinese malign influence in Lithuania is neither as active nor as effective as in many other Western democracies, including larger neighboring Central European countries such as Bulgaria and Serbia. The attempts, however, are widespread enough. As in other countries, three principal targets for China’s influence can be discerned in Lithuania: political and economic elites, the population at large, and the Chinese diaspora.
The first of these is clearly the most important and potentially damaging in the short to medium perspective. According to Lithuanian intelligence, their Chinese counterparts spend a lot of effort looking for suitable targets — decision-makers and other individuals sympathizing with China who can exert political leverage. Key influence tactics include giving gifts, funding trips to China, and covering expenses for training and courses organized there. 13 Internet and cyber capabilities allegedly form an important part of these efforts, 14 including gathering information about decision-making elites from open sources on the web (as in the so-called Zhenhua leaks) 15 ; monitoring political, economic, and social developments through Lithuanians working for Chinese think tanks 16) ; and using Western professional social media for recruitment. 17
Ultimately, as in most other countries, it is economic leverage associated with real or perceived dependence on the world’s second largest national economy that enables China to sway the opinions and actions of Lithuanian elites particularly. When Chinese leaders are unhappy with decisions made by their Lithuanian counterparts, they resort to damaging economic statecraft, including unprecedented pressure campaigns, while Chinese companies use law(fare) to protect their commercial reputation and potentially access to the local market. 18 Particularly significant was China’s imposition of unofficial secondary sanctions on Lithuanian components within the global supply chains in late 2021, which, among other things, helped gin up domestic criticism of the government from affected businesses and some opposition politicians. 19 Those critical voices have been increasingly muted, however, since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, due to a natural shift of attention and China’s stance during the conflict, widely viewed as de facto pro-Moscow.
Photo: Eric Huang, the chief of Mission for the Taiwan Representative office in Lithuania and Lithuanian Vice Agriculture Minister Egidijus Giedraitis are photographed at the Lithuanian pavilion, at the Taipei International Food Show in Taipei, Taiwan, June 22, 2022. Credit: REUTERS/Ann Wang
The rest of the Lithuanian population has primarily been targeted by the embassy’s sponsored articles and interviews, which are by far the most clear-cut and potentially effective means to affect the country’s public discourse on issues related to China. According to its own website, 20 throughout 2021, the embassy supplied a rough dozen sponsored articles and comments to three nationwide Lithuanian-language newspapers. As the relationship entered the crisis mode in spring, Chinese media outlets, including English-language ones, launched a series of public attacks against Lithuania and its decision-makers, some of which have reached the domestic audience. Perhaps the single most “viral” of these was an editorial by the party’s particularly jingoistic tabloid calling for Russia and Belarus to join efforts with China to punish Lithuania. 21 Comment sections in this and other related English-language social media posts suggest widespread activity by the Chinese “50 Cent Army” of hired commentators, although that remains speculative. As has already been stated, China’s official diplomatic activity on social media has very limited exposure in Lithuania.
The party-state’s attempts to influence the Chinese diaspora in Lithuania should also be taken into account, particularly considering the party’s role in the 2019 Vilnius incident. Indeed, barely 12 weeks earlier, You Quan, the head of the United Front Work Department of the CCP, visited the country. The department is the party’s main agency tasked with influencing non-party members both within China and abroad. During a brief visit, You met with prominent representatives of the Lithuanian parliament and government, although his actual remit suggested that the principal aim of the stopover in Vilnius was unpublicized meetings with members of the local diaspora. 22 As will be showcased below, the party also used the United Front to influence Lithuanians in a more direct fashion.
Targeted audiences and populations
As in other Western democracies, we might expect economic elites in Lithuania — particularly those already dependent on China or seriously planning to deepen trade or investment with it — to be among the most vulnerable to Beijing’s influence. Luckily, Lithuania’s limited business ties with China have made it somewhat immune to this risk. This is even more true for Lithuania’s national political elites, most of whom are indifferent to, wary of, or even hostile to China, especially since 2019 as a result of the judgmental diffusion from the country’s security-intelligence community and changes in Chinese domestic and foreign policies, most importantly toward Lithuania itself. To illustrate, the current Lithuanian parliament has more members in the provisional Parliamentary Group for Relations with Taiwan 23 than in the permanent Group for Inter-Parliamentary Relations with China. 24
The data is less straightforward for the Lithuanian public. Before the 2019 incident, their views of China’s influence in the world were surprisingly favorable (45% positive versus 33% negative). 25 A year later, 40% of Lithuanian respondents were undecided on whether their country should put economic interests ahead of national security challenges in its relationship with China (33% agreed while 21% disagreed). While only one-fifth of respondents agreed that Chinese medical equipment that was being sent to Europe was benevolent aid with no underlying political motives (32% disagreed and 38% remained undecided), 34% thought of China as friendly toward Lithuania (26% saw it as unfriendly and 40% were undecided). 26 On the other hand, the results of a representative poll published in January 2022 revealed a clear lack of support for the government’s recent policy shift on China. 27 Finally, the most recent available poll, largely conducted soon after the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, showed that 20% of Lithuanian respondents viewed China very negatively and 44% rather negatively, suggesting a certain impact of the war. 28
Although the Chinese United Front Work Department in Lithuania was brought to attention by the August 2019 incident, its reach extends beyond the diaspora to the country’s local elites. For almost two decades, the Association of Local Authorities in Lithuania has facilitated and the Chinese People’s Associations for Friendship with Foreign Countries — a key agency within the UFWD system responsible for sister-city relationships in general and a related nasty dispute with the Czech capital, Prague, in particular — has driven the process of reaching the local elites. 29 As a result of this campaign, at least eight Lithuanian municipalities established official contacts with their Chinese counterparts before the onset of the pandemic. 30 Besides political and economic elites on national and subnational levels, China-related entities seem to target current and aspiring technology professionals through talent support 31 and academic cooperation programs, some of them with clear-cut dual-use potential. 32
Photo: The Lithuanian state emblem is seen at its embassy in Beijing, China December 15, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo
Although not as active or effective as in many other Western democracies, including larger neighboring Central European countries, Chinese malign influence activities in Lithuania take place amid a gradual deterioration of the relationship since 2019 that became particularly acute in 2021. As part of the ongoing crisis, China has launched a multipronged pressure campaign against Lithuania that seems to have undermined its previous attempts to influence political and economic elites, the population at large, and the Chinese diaspora on issues that Chinese officials deem to be their own domestic business. Thus far, China’s limited successes have primarily derived from Lithuania’s real or perceived economic dependence, which convinced some Lithuanian elites and parts of the public of the need to maintain good relations with the world’s second largest economy. Along with some United Front activities directed at the local Chinese diaspora and subnational political elites, the most important means to affect the Lithuanian population writ large has been the embassy’s sponsored articles and interviews in the country’s printed media, while its messaging in social media remains limited. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is expected to further damage China’s reputation among Lithuanians due to widespread association between the two Eurasian autocracies.
- This is the first time in Europe and the US where Taiwan is represented as the Taiwanese Representative Office instead of the name Taipei to avoid a reference to the Chinese-claimed territory.
- The State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania and the Second Investigation Department under the Ministry of National Defense, National Threat Assessment 2019. 2019, p. 33, https://www.vsd.lt/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/2019-Gresmes-internetui-EN.pdf.
- Konstantinas Andrijauskas, “The Dragon and the Knight: China’s Growing Presence in Lithuania,” Eastern Europe Studies Centre, February 16, 2020. https://www.eesc.lt/uploads/news/id1137/v07_Dragon-and-Knight_leidinys_A4.pdf.
- Hong Kong solidarity rally in Vilnius met with Chinese counter-protesters – photos,” LRT English, August 23, 2019, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1090902/hong-kong-solidarity-rally-in-vilnius-met-with-chinese-counter-protesters-photos.
- Mindaugas Aušra, “Chinese demonstration in Vilnius unmasks Beijing’s reach into Lithuania – LRT Investigation,” LRT English, October 9, 2019, https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/news-in-english/19/1104874/chinese-demonstration-in-vilnius-unmasks-beijing-s-reach-into-lithuania-lrt-investigation
- The State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania and the Second Investigation Department under the Ministry of National Defense. National Threat Assessment 2021, 15, https://www.vsd.lt/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2021-EN-el_.pdf
- The ambassador of the People’s Republic of China, Shen Zhifei, “Reiškiu pagarbą Pauliui ir visiems jo bendražygiams”, Lrytas.lt, February 18, 2020,https://www.lrytas.lt/pasaulis/ivykiai/2020/02/18/news/reiskiu-pagarba-pauliui-ir-visiems-jo-bendrazygiams-13690979
- Vaidas Saldžiūnas, “Kinijos ambasadorius Lietuvoje: virusas kilo ne pas mus,” Delfi.lt, April 29, 2020, https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/kinijos-ambasadorius-lietuvoje-virusas-kilo-ne-pas-mus.d?id=84158423
- Since Ambassador Shen was recalled to Beijing in August 2021 (see below), this task has been handled by the embassy’s chargé d’affaires, as showcased by this article on Xinjiang titled, “A lie repeated a thousand times is still a lie,” which was published in one of Lithuania’s most notorious newspapers associated with fringe and conspiracy theories: http://lt.china-embassy.org/sgxw/202109/t20210913_9866437.htm
- Linas Jegelevičius, “Shen Zhifei, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Lithuania: China is your friend and partner, not an enemy or threat – the choice is yours,” The Baltic Times, September 28, 2021, https://www.baltictimes.com/shen_zhifei__ambassador_of_the_people__39_s_republic_of_china_to_lithuania___china_is_your_friend_and_partner__not_an_enemy_or_threat___the_choice_is_yours_/
- “National Threat Assessment 2021,” 15.
- Konstantinas Andrijauskas, “Sino-Lithuanian Relations in 2020: Shedding the Masks?” Eastern Europe Studies Centre, November 30, 2020 https://www.eesc.lt/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/SINO-LITHUANIAN-RELATIONS.pdf
- National Threat Assessment 2019,” 33.
- The State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania and the Second Investigation Department under the Ministry of National Defense, “National Threat Assessment 2020”, February 2020, 34, https://www.vsd.lt/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-Gresmes-En.pdf
- Mindaugas Aušra, “Chinese company collected data on Lithuanian officials and their families – LRT Investigation,” LRT English, October 16, 2020, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1254751/chinese-company-collected-data-on-lithuanian-officials-and-their-families-lrt-investigation
- Linas Eriksonas, Lithuania briefings, Budapest: China-CEE Institute (accessed November 1, 2021
- “National Threat Assessment 2021,” 32–34.
- Liudas Zdanavičius, “Russia, China and the Baltic Connectivity,” In Gaens et al: “Nordic-Baltic Connectivity with Asia via the Arctic: Assessing Opportunities and Risks” International Centre for Defence and Security, 2021, 252–276, 274–275, https://icds.ee/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/ICDS_EFPI_Book_Nordic-Baltic_Connectivity_with-Asia_via_the_Arctic_Gaens_Juris_Raik_September_2021.pdf
- BNS, “Lithuanian opposition party leader offers to negotiate with China to mend ties,” LRT English, February 17, 2022, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1617849/lithuanian-opposition-party-leader-offers-to-negotiate-with-china-to-mend-ties; Vaida Kalinkaitė-Matuliauskienė, “‘We have been sacrificed’ – laser sector representatives decry Lithuania’s China policy,” LRT English, January 20, 2022, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1592701/we-have-been-sacrificed-laser-sector-representatives-decry-lithuania-s-china-policy.
- The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Lithuania, official webpage (accessed November 1, 2021), http://lt.china-embassy.org/
- “China, Russia can cooperate to punish Lithuania: Global Times editorial,” Global Times, August 11, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202108/1231251.shtml
- Andrijauskas 2020, 14.
- “Parliamentary Group for Relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan),” The Seimas, https://www.lrs.lt/sip/portal.show?p_r=38735&p_k=2.
- “Group for Inter-Parliamentary Relations with the People’s Republic of China,” The Seimas, https://www.lrs.lt/sip/portal.show?p_r=38800&p_k=2&p_kade_id=9.
- Laura Silver, Kat Devlin, and Christine Huang, “People around the globe are divided in their opinion of China,” Pew Research Center, December 5, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/05/people-around-the-globe-are-divided-in-their-opinions-of-china/
- Linas et al, “Geopolitikos ir tarptautinės politikos bei grėsmių suvokimo tyrimas,” Eastern Europe Studies Centre, July 2020, 37–39, https://www.eesc.lt/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/RESC-tyrimas.pdf.
- “Most Lithuanians critical of Vilnius’ China policy – survey,” LRT English, January 12, 2022, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1586875/most-lithuanians-critical-of-vilnius-china-policy-survey
- ELTA, “Apklausos: Lietuvos gyventojai išrinko draugiškas ir nedraugiškas šalis,” Made in Vilnius, March 27, 2022, https://madeinvilnius.lt/naujienos/lietuvos-naujienos/apklausos-lietuvos-gyventojai-isrinko-draugiskasir-nedraugiskas-salis/
- Jichang Lulu, “Repurposing democracy: The European Parliament China Friendship Cluster,” Sinopsis, November 26, 2019, 22, https://sinopsis.cz/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/ep.pdf
- Konstantinas Andrijauskas, “Lithuania’s Decoupling from China against the Backdrop of Strengthening Transatlantic Ties,” Eastern Europe Studies Centre, August 2021, 9–11, https://www.eesc.lt/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/RESC.-Lithuanias-decoupling-from-China_2021_EN.pdf
- “Seeds for the Future: Lithuania” Huawei, https://www.huawei.com/us/sustainability/win-win-development/social-contribution/seeds-for-the-future/lithuania
- Andrijauskas 2021, 12.