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: Europe dithers, the G7 makes China a priority, and wolf warrior activity in Sweden
China’s influence operations — this newsletter’s subject — are finally in the international spotlight, with the G7 summit lambasting the party-state’s “arbitrary, coercive economic policies and practices”, as well as domestic repression.
Responses vary. But the main trend is that the bullying is backfiring. The European Commission has put the EU’s investment deal with China on ice. Legal drafting continues, but with no effort to muster political support for ratification. Instead, the EU’s executive branch has drafted new rules for screening investment from state-subsidized enterprises and wants greater supply-chain resilience (i.e. less dependence on China). It is also (belatedly) sending vaccines to the covid-hit countries of the Balkans, where Chinese (and Russian) vaccine diplomacy has flourished amid a vacuum of concern from richer European countries.
The obvious sticking point for the investment deal is the sanctions that China unwisely imposed on European politicians and others. But hawks in the European Parliament say dropping these isn’t enough: Chinese repression of Uyghurs and others, and the crackdown in Hong Kong, are the real hurdles. European lawmakers don’t just block things: they set their own foreign policy agenda. Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a Taipei-based academic, notes how the parliament is pushing Brussels to upgrade ties with Taiwan.
The EU’s problem is national governments. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán had a friendly chat with Xi Jinping last week. His government blocked (again) a common EU statement on Hong Kong. (We asked why: no answer). But Germany is not far behind. Angela Merkel was also on the phone with the Chinese leader, seemingly with no mention of bothersome human rights. Like France, Germany fears being dragged into a US-led new cold war with China. But Spain, not usually seen as a China hawk, is urging the EU to accelerate a trade deal with Latin America to forestall growing Chinese influence there.
Merkeldämmerung [the twilight of the Merkel era] has also clouded Germany’s promising-sounding naval expedition to the Pacific this summer. Instead of taking part in a freedom-of-navigation exercise with the British-led carrier group, the frigate Bayern will start its stint in the region with a friendship visit to Shanghai, signaling that Germany seeks Chinese permission before conducting any other activities. Still, the plans may change again, and Germany’s election this autumn is likely to bring the China-critical Greens into a coalition government.
None of this bodes well for the EU’s upcoming Indo-Pacific strategy, due to be published in the fall. Japan’s sent an envoy to Europe to try to stiffen spines on that. Overall, this is a disappointing response to the Biden administration’s attempts to build international alliances.
Our take: While Europe dithers, its foes advance and its friends fume.
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WOLF WARRIOR WATCH
We could have missed the Belgian parliament’s evidence session on human-rights abuses against Uyghurs. But a huge cyber-attack on the legislature’s computer networks ensured that we didn’t. It halted proceedings, underlining (observers assume) the Beijing authorities’ belief that they have the right to control all discussion of China, by anyone, anywhere.
Similarly, we would probably have overlooked the US ambassador to France lunching his Taiwanese counterpart. But the eagle-eyed Global Times didn’t. Thanks for the heads-up, comrades. Social contact in third countries may be an element of the State Department’s new Taiwan policy. We’ll keep you posted.
But it is our old friend Gui Congyou, the party-state’s man in Stockholm, who wins this week’s prize for obnoxious and counterproductive diplomacy. He gave a car-crash TV interview (transcript in Swedish, video here) to the admirably persistent and hard-nosed Anders Holmberg.
The usually splenetic ambassador (“We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns”) stuck rigidly to his script, asserting, in a bullying tone, that China never bullies anybody, except people who deserve it. The reaction in Sweden was almost universally negative (“Orwellian” according to the journalist Katarina Erlingson). The highlight: when the hapless envoy briefly conceded that Taiwan is an independent country.
A court case in Copenhagen is examining official Danish collusion with the Chinese authorities in dispersing legal, peaceful pro-Tibet protests in 2012 and 2013. Who ordered the police to confiscate Tibetan flags? We’ll keep you updated on “flagport” (that’s Danish for flaggate). It’s a reminder that when China bullies free countries into breaking their own rules, it creates lasting problems.
What we’re reading
- The FT’s Taipei correspondent dismisses alarmist talk about looming war over Taiwan, while her colleague Jamil Anderlini describes how Western business executives in Hong Kong have developed Stockholm syndrome: they blame journalists for exposing abuses of power, rather than the perpetrators.
- Markus Decker’s detailed investigation into a Chinese-run boarding school in Germany leads into a broader discussion about influence operations.
- Threatpost has a technical but informative account of what appears to be Chinese cyber-espionage against Russia.
- The Diplomat summarizes an investigation by the Czech news outlet Denik Ninto Chinese information operations and local accomplices.
Many thanks to Isobel Cockerell, 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,
May 6, 2021