MERICS Interview: China’s Influence in Europe

The Chinese government’s growing influence over Europe is beginning to receive closer scrutiny, thanks in large part to the work of researchers such as those at the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies () in Berlin and the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). and GPPi jointly wrote a report published in February titled, “Authoritarian advance: Responding to China’s growing political influence in Europe,” which looks at how the Chinese government’s efforts to influence European societies and politics are challenging European values and interests, and offers recommendations on how individuals and institutions can counter such efforts.

China’s influence is especially apparent in Central and , where it competes with E.U. funding for local projects. Andrea Dudik, Misha Savic, and Gordon Filipovic at Bloomberg recently reported:

Russia asserts a strong pull from the days of Soviet influence, but China is the latest power seeking to build a footprint in the region. It has been making overtures to central and eastern European countries through the so-called 16+1 forum, which includes the Balkan states. A report on EU-China relations published by the European Council on Foreign Relations said “there is no doubt” that the program competes with EU funding and projects.

[…] As the EU dithers over further enlargement to the east, China is marching in financially. China’s investments into Serbia exceed $3 billion and are expected to more than double, according to the Construction Ministry in Belgrade. [Source]

In the Czech Republic, Chinese influence has been evidenced through the close relationship between Ye Jianming, the chairman of energy and finance conglomerate , and President Miloš Zeman, though CEFC has come upon hard times in recent months following Ye’s reported detention, leaving his and CEFC’s future in the Czech Republic in doubt. For more on Chinese influence on Eastern and Central European countries, see a CDT post written by Sinologist Martin Hála.

While Chinese overtures in Eastern and Central Europe are increasingly well-documented, Chinese official influence in Western Europe is often more subtle, operating below the surface. Yet, as the authors of the MERICS/GPPi report point out, such influence still poses a threat to European institutions and values. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the Research Area on Public Policy and Society at MERICS, and Mareike Ohlberg, a MERICS Research Associate, who co-authored the report, recently sat down with me to discuss the various ways the Chinese government is attempting to influence European politics and societies, and how individuals and institutions in Europe can protect themselves. The first part of our discussion is below; Part Two will be posted in coming days:

Interview with Kristin Shi-Kupfer and Mareike Ohlberg of MERICS, Part One:

China Digital Times: In which European countries is Chinese influence the biggest concern?

Mareike Ohlberg: That’s kind of hard to say. Obviously a lot of people would say it’s more of a problem in Central and Eastern Europe, but I think the kind of influence is present in basically all countries, in some ways. It’s just exercised differently in different countries. As for contact at the political elite level, we see a lot of that in Central and Eastern Europe. But then Western Europe is also a target in a sense, and the U.K. after Brexit obviously has more interest in getting better deals with China. On the media side, there’s a lot more focus on Western Europe than Central and Eastern Europe. So it depends which area you want to focus on.

Kristin Shi-Kupfer: For political elites and investment, there is clearly a strong focus on Eastern and Central Europe and the neighboring countries, the Balkan countries. But concerning media, NGOs, I think the focus is much more naturally on Western Europe because we have much more liberal democracies. So the fields of influence and types of influence are different.

CDT: Have some states been more or less resistant to China’s influence than others? Which ones and why?

MO: In various states you see occasional backlash. For example, Sweden closed some Confucius Institutes. So you see some awareness boiling up eventually. But there is not one single country that would be [resistant].

KSK: The bigger and more prosperous countries–because obviously it is about financial incentives–like France and Germany, may not be resistant but they seem to be more resilient, because maybe they have different sources [of funding] and are more pluralistic, liberal democracies. So it seems to me that these two countries in particular are less vulnerable.

CDT: Has anyone (individuals, political parties as a whole, other entities) been successfully “recruited” or coopted? For example, there has been a lot written recently about the CEFC in Czech Republic and its close relationship with the president. Are there other examples, maybe not so dramatic or obvious, where you have seen the influence take hold?

KSK: Taking Germany as an example again, the most evidence we do have is with right wing AfD [Alternative für Deutschland]. China seems to have had the most visible outreach toward them. I’m not sure if [any of their members have been] co-opted, but they’ve been targeted, because, on the one hand, [of] their ideological notions of an authoritarian, conservative value system and, on the other hand, because they are marginalized within the democratic system in Germany. But they have access to a lot of [parliamentary] committees so the Chinese might consider them a good target.

CDT: How does China interact with Russia in this sphere? Is there any type of conflict between Chinese and Russian influence?

MO: They run separately still but complement each other in general criticisms of Western systems, etc so they work well together. To add to what Kristin said, you can call it compromise but for a lot of political elites it’s more like a convergence of interests. They can use Chinese talking points to push their agenda, so that’s what is going on in Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary. European politicians use Chinese talking points to further their own political agenda.

CDT: The National Endowment for Democracy put out a report using the term “sharp power” which has now taken off. Do you think that is an accurate description of what is happening in Europe?

MO: Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of the term, but I was also not a fan of the term “” I suppose. Because what we are looking at is really attempts to shape how people think and feel about China, and not actual power. We know what initiatives exist, but we don’t know enough about their effects to definitely say if they translate into actual power of any sort. So both soft power and fall short on that. What we are looking at is what is going on and what the attempts are and how that’s working out, and actually measuring power are very different things. I guess with sharp power you also hand the Chinese side ammunition for accusations of hypocrisy by labeling what Western countries do as using their natural cultural allure in the form of soft power, whereas countries like China and Russia are portrayed as abusing the openness of Western societies to attack them with more aggressive forms of “sharp power.” There are actually legitimate arguments to make why what China does is different from what Western governments do, but ultimately, it strikes me as similar to saying “they do propaganda; we provide information,” and I’m personally just not a big fan of that line of argument. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say, [China’s efforts] have some very sharp edges. That’s just my personal opinion.

KSK: Sharp in the sense of clever, sophisticated. Comparing it to Russia, I think Russia’s influence is much more harsh or destructive and much more, at least for now, powerful in Europe. But China’s is much more subtle, much more difficult to detect and they use it much more cleverly, using the openness of democratic societies, the pluralism, the freedom of the press to really make their points.

CDT: Do you think that’s why it’s taken people a while to catch on to what’s going on?

KSK: I would definitely say so. From a very pragmatic point of view, Russia is much closer to Europe, there is huge awareness of it and the conflict of interest is more easily felt compared to China. China is still far away for most politicians. Now, of course on a national level they sense it’s an important relationship. But on a local level, Chinese influence, such as investments, plays a role only in some areas in Germany and might affect political decisions there. But still I think the awareness that China is directly influencing Germany or Europe is just slowly now [coming up] for individual politicians, the awareness that China might target Europe specifically to win over allies or secure support for Chinese interests or positions.

MO: I do agree that for Russia it’s a matter of being closer to Europe, but also I want to point to the fact that China does it very much as a frog in the water approach, when you put the frog in the water and then start boiling it instead of dumping it in the boiling water, and that way people slowly grow accustomed to it. A lot of that is intentional. And it’s working reasonably well.

KSK: They do it more cleverly. Xi Jinping’s style, a lot of people appreciate him unlike Putin who is more brutal, authoritarian, dictatorial. Xi Jinping is perceived much more softly.

MO: Friendly.

KSK: Yes. Rational. Reflective. Unlike Putin.

CDT: In your report, you discuss “overt” and “covert” methods of Chinese influence. Can you briefly describe some specific examples of both?

KSK: Overt, that’s easy: investment mechanisms, financial incentives like loans. Investment is probably a good case in point of how these mechanisms can be merged – investment into infrastructure, telecommunications, railroads. And slowly, only later on will it result in more subtle political pressure, or in calls to support Chinese positions. Often Chinese companies make these investments, and the ownership structure is not very transparent so it’s hard to track state interests. Other open measures we detect a lot: media cooperation, advertising, funding of conferences, for example.On the covert channels, intelligence etc, we only have reports that point to what is going on below the surface. Using intelligence channels to befriend people via LinkedIn or Weixin [WeChat] and trying to befriend them and win them over to support official Chinese positions, also by inviting them to China, giving them a very generous treat, granting them free access to “positive” research topics or experts.

CDT: How does the Chinese government use cultural or educational channels to exert its influence in Europe? How effective are those methods? In the U.S. now Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students and Scholars Associations are becoming a big topic. Are there other initiatives in Europe that are similar?

MO: Obviously Confucius Institutes, even though I don’t know how [their status is] going to work out in the future. They started under the previous administration, and it’s been pursued less zealously under Xi than under the previous administration. CSSAs, we have lots of those as well. General academic cooperation, translation projects, translating Chinese academic works into English, there’s a lot of that going on. And a lot of it is legitimate. We can’t say that that’s wrong or anything, but it’s part of a central plan to push Chinese research results out there; what Xi Jinping and the CCP now call “Chinese wisdom” or the “China solution,” to get that research out there.

The CCP sees this as a more subtle form of influence through pushing out academic research. It’s actually something people inside the party believe Western countries are also doing. The CCP distinguishes between overt, blunt attempts to influence public opinion and more subtle attempts, such as promoting and spreading research that supports China’s own political system. The idea here is that the message is more subtle and may be more easily accepted as objective or academically sound by the recipients than, say, a statement made by the CCP or party media directly.

KSK: To add one thing, something we have just started to look into is how, for example in Germany, we have freedom of association as in many other countries, so it’s quite easy to form an association in Germany. So there are dozens of so-called friendship associations, professional associations, alumni associations, but also associations for engineers, technicians, accountants. In Germany, we see them organizing events, publications, and conferences, and they often are financed, as we have found, by the Chinese embassy or by the Ministry of Education, and often their websites are only in Chinese. To me it is weird that under the German law for associations this could happen because they should have a non-profit and non-official aspect. They look like friendship, alumni, professional associations, but there is also a very subtle political element in there, Xi Jinping quotes on their websites, for example.

MO: The friendship associations are a club that is centrally run from Beijing and they have all their local branches and they are very present. They organize their own stuff but they also show up at other events.

CDT: What is their purpose? What kinds of activities do they organize, at least publicly stated?

KSK: Sometimes it’s just to assemble talent or to organize exchange on research. Alumni clubs sometimes also invite German alumni to exchange and networking activities which of course could potentially be a platform to co-opt people and align them with other political interests.

MO: Even if there is just a China-focused event, someone from a friendship association will be there. They are often easy to spot.

KSK: We also have German-Chinese friendship associations run by Germans. What they do is, in a sense, harmless: tea ceremonies, movies or documentaries about China, but they don’t take a political stance on problems or human rights issues in China. [They present a] very beautiful, somehow one-sided image of China, as an ancient country and a great civilization. Also they would stress their focus is to look friendly upon another culture and not criticize other countries, but portray them in a beautiful, inspiring way.

CDT: Have there been any incidents you know about where these groups have tried to influence other China activities that people in Germany are working on that may be more political or human rights focused?

MO: I don’t know any examples where I myself was present. I’m pretty sure it happens. What I usually see is they just show up representing the CCP point of view. That’s what I see a lot.

KSK: Examples I know are mostly the Chinese embassy or political entities directly pressuring websites to take content down or pressuring German politicians to refrain from certain meetings or statements. But this seems to be done more officially, not using these associations.

MO: You don’t know how much is directly the outcome of a phone call and how much is self-censorship. In the case of the publishers [Cambridge University Press and other academic publishers] it seems to have been a case of preemptive self-censorship to comply with the regulations.

CDT: In the recommendations that open your report, you say that “European governments need to invest in high-caliber, independent China expertise.” Where would you say this expertise currently exists most effectively in Europe, and where specifically would you like to see resources go to further develop such expertise?  

MO: It’s needed everywhere. I wouldn’t say that there is a single country that would not need that at this point. Even the countries where there are some initiatives, still need more.

KSK: Talking about fields of policy, we have a lot of good expertise concerning the economy, the financial system, foreign policy. A lot of think tanks in Europe and the United States focus on China’s economic policy and foreign policy, but we don’t have so much on domestic policy and social policy. I think that’s a mistake because we need to know much more what is going on inside China, like China Digital Times is doing, following discussions in China, trying to detect the red lines of what can be said, what does the Chinese government still allow to be published –also within social media because that also gives some indication of the battles that might be going on among the Chinese political elites, the spectrum that they would allow to be published on social media and also party-state media. I think this would be a good point to put more resources into.

MO: Also at the high school level, basic education, as that is something that is becoming more prominent. How do we get China expertise to younger people? We can’t just say, let Confucius Institutes do it, which has often been how this has been done. You have a free or partially free service and of course you want to make use of it and that’s obviously not the wisest choice. You want to stay more in control of how Chinese language and culture is taught at an earlier level.  So I think there is quite an investment that needs to be done on that side as well.

CDT: How sophisticated is the understanding of China among the general public in Europe, and how is the country perceived there? Are there negative connotations? Positive connotations?

MO: In terms of negative or positive connotations, there is probably a very wide split. Some people are on the extremes; some see it very positively and view anything negative about China is part of a great conspiracy against China. There is a lot of that on commentaries on news articles but you don’t know, are those individuals? Or is that organized? You don’t really know. You see that, then you see very negative images. All the research I see points to not enough information on the side of the general public.

KSK: It’s selective. First, much is focused on official China, Chinese government, politicians. Second, it is very focused on modern cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong, with less awareness of differences within China, rural areas, societal aspects. It’s very selective depending on your own positions and interests. In general, I do think that, for example taking Germany, the general image of China was rather positive until maybe one and a half to two years ago, also in parallel with the decline of the image of the United States. But again it seems to be shifting now, to this sense of China influencing and being a competitor in the economic realm. I now sense a lot more anxiety, worries and doubt, especially vis-à-vis official China. I think it is important to differentiate between Chinese society in general and official China. We need to know a lot more, that China is not just the CCP and not just official China, and that’s the key message we have to bring across.

CDT: How would you evaluate media coverage of China in Europe? I imagine that point still stands, that there is not enough focus on internal societal issues, but generally when you read media coverage within Europe, would you say it’s fair?

MO: Certain topics are popular and get a lot of attention, and that’s fine, but I do find a lot is missing, as Kristin just said. Especially societal, bottom-up, everyday China. There are a lot of people that do a great job, but overall it could be a more varied picture.

KSK: But this is probably a general struggle for journalists, this focus on diseases, war, catastrophes, scandals, disasters, technological advancements. This is not China-specific. But looking at the younger generation of correspondents in China, most of them speak Chinese, they read Chinese, they make a huge effort to befriend Chinese. It also depends on the surroundings, the context, which is much more repressive within China so it’s much harder, especially for TV and radio, to get Chinese people to voice their opinions because for them often they are really directly threatened if they talk to foreign media so they censor themselves, which is understandable. Overall though I would say that journalists try to make an effort.

MO: Within the limits in general.

KSK: Right.

CDT: What about the influence from the Chinese government on the media in Europe?

MO: What’s happening in Europe has been happening in other parts of the world for a long time. In the United States it happened a lot earlier that you get paid ads, either official China takes out ads or individuals tied to the CCP take out ads in newspapers. That’s been ongoing here [in the U.S.] for a while. It’s happening in Europe now. We have the inserts, paid advertisements that look like editorial content but are edited by China Daily. That’s being inserted into more and more papers. Mostly I think at present these initiatives focus on Western Europe, at least the examples that we’ve been able to find. Part of that is getting the content out, part of that is trying to establish some financial dependence. With those inserts you obviously can’t buy the paper, but it’s getting a foot in the door and generating some financial contributions. Obviously post-2008 and 2009 a lot of papers have been struggling and everybody is trying to find new models of financing themselves and that’s obviously a huge chance. Initially there was a lot of talk in China about actually buying papers. In Europe they had one test case in the U.K. with a struggling television channel. That was just a test case but there have been more attempts to buy papers in the United States as well. The most prominent example [globally] is of course the South China Morning Post. I think there have been bids on the European media from the Chinese side, but I don’t think that they succeeded, though I may not be up to speed.

KSK: The interesting question would really be if a Chinese investor were to bid for a larger publishing house, would Europe or national governments have the tools to really counter that? That’s also why we made the recommendations in general to take into account universities and also the media as part of “strategic industries” for an investment screening because I can imagine this to be a strategy that China might pursue in the future, to try to target failing or struggling educational or media institutions and try to buy them. And what do you do against it? If it’s a seemingly private company.

MO: I think in some cases the media institutions themselves have ways to prevent that, with different shareholder structures. In the case of the New York Times, a Chinese investor talked about maybe buying it, and the New York Times said, we have an ownership structure with Class A shares and Class B shares that doesn’t allow you to just take over the paper, sorry about that. So I think in some cases that is already in place but I’m not sure how many media can do that.

KSK: It’s something you have to be able to afford to do.

MO: And also there is the lure of the Chinese market, of media companies trying to gain access to China, and again I’m not saying anyone has been compromised in that way, but for a long time, media companies have had an interest in getting a Chinese presence. But that comes and goes and right now I think not a lot of them are trying that.

CDT: The New York Times tried and were shut down pretty quickly.

MO: But after the New York Times, other media tried to build up a presence, including, I think, German media. And in my opinion that’s not worth the risk.

KSK: In Germany also we have seen media cooperation with CGTN and German state-owned TV broadcasters to have joint formats having a Chinese and German host.

MO: That’s been done quite successfully.

KSK: It has, but it’s not been totally one-sided, not just showing the positive China. But it was in English, so for just a limited, well-educated audience within China. I think they are testing the ground there and seeing how far they can go.  Clearly issues like human rights, Tibet, Taiwan won’t be mentioned. I think this is a strategy they are specifically testing now.

MO: This is going on at all levels, at German main state broadcasters as well as less prominent media.

CDT:  Has China worked to exploit divisions within Europe on societal issues such as rights advocacy?

KSK: Norway was a clear case, they got punished after standing up to the Chinese government and awarding the Nobel Prize for Peace to Liu Xiaobo.  Now it seems the relationship has turned around, and they have Norwegian-Chinese negotiations for a free trade zone agreement, but the Norwegian government made a lot of efforts to get the relations back on track. In London, after Tony Blair met the Dalai Lama, we have also seen a turnaround.

MO: It’s really hard to track, but I guess one thing that’s sort of popular in a way is in countries where public opinion is already anti-EU, to say that, “Well, the EU doesn’t care about you.”

KSK:  In Brussels, you hear a lot of active lobbying is going on within the European parliament and also the commission, all the European institutions with the goal to prevent them from raising issues like Tibet, Taiwan, or human rights, civil society, NGOs. We also see some of these activists in Brussels – Germans or other European citizens working for Chinese-funded think tanks or research institutes and even using the same language, the same terms and wording to support official Chinese positions.

MO: I think the two different issues are that on the one hand, you have European actors [adopting] CCP speak, and on the other hand you have CCP-financed organizations identifying existing sentiment in Europe and trying to exploit that. And both are going on, absolutely.

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