1. Protecting the EU’s political sovereignty and unity
This is chapter 1 of the MERICS Paper on China "Towards Principled Competition in Europe's China Policy: Drawing lessons from the Covid-19 crisis."
Beijing’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic has confirmed for many that the Chinese party-state is firmly intent on shaping public opinion and decision-making in the EU.
The Chinese Communist Party is more confident and explicit in presenting itself to the outside world as a systemic competitor and legitimate alternative to Western liberal democracy in global affairs.
European countries face three critical and imminent challenges, namely the spread of Chinese propaganda and disinformation in Europe, the capture of elites who act as opinion shapers within European society, and self-censorship by those who shape European public perceptions of and discourses on China as a result of Chinese coercion.
To increase resilience in the face of China’s propaganda and disinformation, Europe needs to promote greater media independence and China literacy and raise the costs of engaging in disinformation practices.
On the issue of Beijing’s cultivation and co-option of elites, European governments need to promote stronger rules around transparency, disclosure, and the revolving door issue.
To tackle the issue of self-censorship, the EU and its member states need to facilitate transparency and information-sharing among actors affected by Beijing’s coercion while being prepared to counter-retaliate.
1. Crisis lessons: China has entered the mainstream of European politics and policy debates
Beijing’s behavior towards Europe during the coronavirus pandemic has added fuel to growing debates about China’s attempts to undermine the political sovereignty and unity of the EU and its member states. The news that the European External Action Service (EAAS) had temporarily withheld a report on Covid-19 related disinformation activities and softened criticism of China in response to Beijing’s pressure stoked a public discussion about Chinese efforts to influence decision-making in European capitals.1 So too did leaked reports that Chinese officials had asked German counterparts to publicly praise Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.2
As it sought to garner public praise for its system’s superiority in handling the health emergency, and to inhibit criticism of its mistakes, it became increasingly clear that the Chinese government was prepared to use both overt and covert means to influence European administrations and public opinion. Targeted messaging related to Beijing’s supplies of medical equipment to Europe – the so-called “mask diplomacy” – and an initially slow response from the EU allowed China to publicly contrast its generosity with an alleged lack of intra-European solidarity.
The Covid-19 crisis also forcefully exposed a new reality: China is increasingly entering the mainstream of European politics and policy debates. For the first time, China has come to matter in European public opinion and in the making of critical domestic policy choices. Hence, China managed to make inroads in public discourse and influence perceptions in key EU member states, like Italy, as well as in EU candidate countries, such as in Serbia. According to Chinese party-state media, Wang Yiwei, Director of the Centre for European Union Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, suggested that “European countries can't count on the US or the EU to provide them aid, so China sends out humanitarian support to relevant countries at their request,” reinforcing Serbian President Vucic’s assertion that European solidarity is a “fairy tale”.3 In April, the EU had offered Serbia a 93 million EUR package to help fight Covid-19.4
At the same time, China’s divisive rhetoric and non-transparent handling of the pandemic has cast doubts over its reliability as a partner and laid bare the limits of cooperation with a “systemic rival” that, in the words of the EU Commission, “promotes alternative models of governance”.5 This has given new impetus to ongoing debates in many European capitals about the need to recalibrate Europe’s approaches to China and to limit dependencies. It has dawned on many that, in its handling of Covid-19, China has not been any closer to OECD norms and principles than during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Indeed, in countries like France and Germany public sentiment towards China has worsened as a result of Beijing's policies.
However, this is no time for complacency. The pandemic has confirmed for many that the Chinese party-state is now firmly intent on shaping national public opinion and decision-making in the EU. This is primarily meant to ensure regime security at home, but increasingly also to undercut European citizens’ belief in the virtues of liberalism and democracy, and to loosen Europe’s geostrategic alignment with the United States and other partners around the globe.
In this regard, Beijing’s promotion of propaganda and disinformation to win consent for its domestic and foreign policy goals, both with European elites and the wider public, increasingly poses a challenge to the EU’s ability to exercise its political sovereignty and act cohesively. Hence, it is undermining the widespread public support required for the EU to act strategically and to withstand pressure from other great powers. European governments must work together to devise adequate and decisive responses. This will require them to strengthen their resilience to Beijing’s influence and learn how to manage dependencies in a way that safeguards European values and interests.
2. China’s trajectory: The CCP’s quest to gain discourse power poses challenges to liberal democracies
Despite heavily contesting the notion that China is a “systemic rival” to the EU – as the latter has framed it – the Chinese party-state has always seen itself in competition with liberal democracies. Leaked in 2013, the internal CCP Document No. 9 on the state of the ideological sphere in China describes in no ambiguous terms the “political perils” of “Western” principles, values, and governance system as threats to CCP rule.6 Since Xi Jinping came to power, Beijing has taken more visible steps to prevent the infiltration of foreign ideas, for example by promoting stringent laws on national security – including the latest Hong Kong National Security Law – and tightening control on foreign activities, such as with the January 2017 Foreign NGO Activity Management Law, which de facto banned many foreign non-governmental organizations from working in China.
The party is now also more confident and explicit in presenting itself to the outside world as a systemic competitor and legitimate alternative to Western liberal democracy in global affairs. Xi Jinping told CCP cadres at the 19th Party Congress, held in October 2017, that China was ready to “move closer to global center stage” and that its path, theory, and system offered “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence”.
In its efforts to increase China’s discourse power (话语权) and guide the “reform of the global governance system”, Beijing has tried to constrain the way foreigners talk about China’s rise and the CCP’s core interests.7 Under Xi, these activities have intensified. Immediately after taking office in 2013, he told party cadres and government officials to assert Beijing’s vetted narratives on the global stage by “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). In the long term, the CCP aims to make the world more accepting of China’s rise and the spread of its economic and political governance model.
Communicating to foreign governments and publics that it is both impossible and undesirable to hinder Beijing’s pursuit of its interests – even where these violate international law or their countries’ national security – is part of China’s coercive diplomacy. While “wolf warrior” diplomacy might be bad for China’s image, it serves Beijing’s goal of sustaining perceptions of dependency and inevitability, which makes its threats work effectively.8
Beijing’s activities to assert its narratives and interests abroad are increasing.9 A growing number of Chinese government actors, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), consider Western social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as useful tools to conduct psychological and information warfare with the aim of achieving narrative dominance or interfering in foreign countries’ politics.10 Several Chinese party-state agencies have also hired media and communication consultancies to expand their presence and narratives overseas.11
Going forward, the spread of Chinese-designed social media apps in Europe, like TikTok, poses additional challenges with their potential to create alternative information ecosystems with censorship embedded in algorithms.12 At the same time, the CCP’s work to cultivate and co-opt foreign elites or to enforce self-censorship will remain key, if more conventional, pillars of Beijing’s efforts to shape public discourses in Europe and to undermine public support for liberal norms and principles.
3. Key issues: Beijing engages in disinformation, elite capture and coercive diplomacy to shape the way Europeans perceive and talk about China
The Covid-19 crisis has underscored that in protecting their sovereignty and unity vis-à-vis China, European countries face three critical and imminent challenges, namely the spread of Chinese propaganda and disinformation in Europe, the capture of elites who act as opinion shapers within wider European society, and self-censorship by those who rely on access to China but also shape European public perceptions of and discourses on China as a result of Chinese coercion.
Issue 1 – China's global branding activities: Propaganda and disinformation
While Beijing has been successful, so far, in hiding its disinformation efforts in the slipstream of Russia’s more visible activities in this space, China has taken external propaganda in Europe to a new level during the coronavirus pandemic and thus drawn greater attention to itself. In Italy and Serbia, bot networks helped to promote a positive image of China during the pandemic.13 Narratives focused on presenting China and the two countries as close friends, advertising China’s (commercial) medical supplies and its success at handling Covid-19.14 Polls in both countries show that China is seen as giving more assistance than the EU to their populations, despite the reality being drastically different. Roughly 40 percent of Serbians believe that China, and not the EU, is their country’s main donor.15 Italians seem to be similarly convinced that China, not Europe, has been Italy’s greatest ally during the pandemic.16 And while according to the Italian Ambassador to China only around 10 percent of Chinese medical supplies to Italy were donations,17 77 percent of respondents in a recent survey think that medical supplies from China were a “gesture of solidarity”.18
Chinese disinformation in Europe (and elsewhere) has resembled Russian-style activities in that it has tried to sow confusion about the origins of Covid-19 by promoting contradicting conspiracy theories, for example, claiming that the virus was brought to Wuhan by the US army while simultaneously spreading stories that it originated in Italy.19 It also tried to create mistrust between citizens and institutions, such as with a statement by the Chinese embassy in France claiming that French authorities were leaving their elderly to die alone without treatment.20
Issue 2 – Elite relations: Capturing European opinion leaders
In recent years, China has also been increasingly able to draw on the support of European business and government elites to promote a positive image of China in wider European societies. During the pandemic, populist leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, Czech President Miloš Zeman and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić – all of whom have forged close political ties with Beijing in recent years – have served as amplifiers for Beijing’s narrative.21 In addition to capturing elites, Beijing has also been able to influence thinking, discourses, and decision-making on China in Europe by injecting and sustaining narratives of economic opportunity and dependency, and highlighting the risks of falling out of favor with the Chinese government.22 European governments have fallen for this strategy, signing political agreements – such as BRI Memoranda of Understanding – and promoting China-friendly policies in the hope of gaining economic returns.
Issue 3 – "Harmonizing" portrayals of China: Deploying coercive diplomacy and encouraging self-censorship
Businesses and other groups and individuals who depend on exchanges with China regularly face the dilemma of adjusting their language and behavior to Beijing’s expectations or bearing the costs of non-compliance with China’s political diktats alone, as was visible during the pandemic.23 Researchers and journalists have been common targets of China’s practice of visa denial. In “educating” the foreign public about the “correct way” of talking about China, Chinese state actors also reward what they consider the right kind of behavior. If “wolf warrior” diplomats have made issuing threats a habit, Chinese embassies have also taken to praise actors whose attitude is in line with Beijing’s expectations. Contrasting their reporting on Covid-19 to that of “Western media”, the Chinese embassy in Bulgaria issued a statement to “thank and highly appreciate the adherence of the Bulgarian media to professional ethics.”24
4. EU-China relations: Europe needs to push back against China’s attempts to manipulate debates and public opinion
At the very start of her term as President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen pledged to “define relations with an increasingly assertive China”. At least in Brussels, the will to increase Europe’s resilience to China’s challenges to its sovereignty and unity has grown. EU-led efforts to strengthen the fight against disinformation and to improve European strategic communications or to tackle foreign interference in higher education institutions and research organizations are testimony to this.25 Fair and inclusive implementation of the recovery scheme for post-coronavirus Europe could also go a long way to putting a brake on the spread of Euroscepticism and avoiding situations in which countries look to China as an alternative. However, the EU should not be complacent when it comes to protecting sovereignty and unity in the face of a more assertive China.
The EU has untapped power to contain Beijing’s promotion of propaganda and disinformation in Europe. China still largely depends on Western (social) media to communicate its official narratives to European audiences and to spread disinformation in European countries. Taking advantage of European news outlets’ financial struggles and appetite for coverage of China, Beijing has successfully offered money in return for these European media signing media cooperation agreements with and carrying pre-packaged content by Chinese party-state news agencies. This imbalance could be reversed with investment in independent media and China expertise. Brussels recently published a communication on tackling disinformation which fits within the Commission’s Democracy Action Plan to strengthen democratic resilience to influence and disinformation activities on social media.26 In 2019, the EU also launched a Rapid Alert System to address disinformation after expanding the focus of its East StratCom Task Force to cover not only Russian but also Chinese activities.
At the same time, there are disagreements among member states regarding how much resources to devote to tackling Chinese disinformation.27 Several EU countries have intensified scrutiny of Chinese video-sharing app TikTok, but probes have focused on data handling practices and not on network censorship.28 And while there has been some pushback against Chinese paid media supplements29, Beijing has continued to acquire European media and to conclude cooperation agreements with news and broadcasting agencies in Europe.30
In protecting the sovereignty and unity of its member states, the EU must also increase knowledge and transparency around China's outreach to European political elites. So far, the work of uncovering covert, coercive, or corrupt kinds of Chinese influence among European elites has mostly been carried out by researchers, journalists, and NGOs. A more structured and politically supported framework for examining these issues is required. Existing EU and national regulations governing transparency, disclosure, and revolving-door issues for opinion-shaping organizations and individuals still largely fail to capture the reality of China’s activities aimed at cultivating and co-opting influential elites.
When it comes to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy and the resulting self-censorship, EU countries have more power than they think, allowing them to at least resist and limit Chinese practices. European governments and industry need to realize that economic interdependence is a two-way street. Beijing is particularly interested in the single market as a source of technological know-how for its ambitious domestic plans. Good economic and political relations with Europe are arguably also important to China as tensions between Washington and Beijing intensify.
5. Policy priorities: EU member states need to take targeted measures to further strengthen resilience
To increase resilience in the face of China’s propaganda and disinformation, EU member states need to promote greater media independence and China literacy, raise the costs for China of engaging in disinformation practices, and have each others back. This requires promoting codes of conduct as well as stronger transparency and disclosure requirements for cooperation with Chinese state-affiliated agencies, using high-level media dialogues with China to communicate divergences in approach to the media and to push for reciprocity in the information sphere, and combining existing EU media literacy programs with initiatives to teach about China and its political activities in the information domain. Building on the EU sanctions scheme for cyberattacks established in 2019, the EU should demonstrate to China the costs of conducting disinformation campaigns via social media. At the same time, EU member states should display greater solidarity in the face of Chinese pressure, with the summoning of a Chinese ambassador in one member state, for example, leading to similar steps in all other member states.
On the issue of Beijing’s cultivation and co-option of elites, European governments need to promote stronger rules around transparency, disclosure, and the revolving door issue. European countries can take inspiration from notable examples from the US and Australia, such as the Australian Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. A dialogue with countries that have for long dealt with China’s influence activities – primarily Taiwan but also liberal democracies in the Pacific like Australia and New Zealand – can provide European security communities with great insights and best practices. To tackle the issue of self-censorship, the EU and its member states need to facilitate transparency and information-sharing among affected actors. At the same time, EU member states need to address relevant cases with Chinese counterparts and be prepared to threaten and carry out targeted retaliatory measures in response to Beijing’s coercion.
1 | Apuzzo, Matt (2020). “Pressured by China, E.U. Softens Report on Covid-19 Disinformation.” The New York Times. April 24. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/world/europe/disinformation-china-eu-coronavirus.html Accessed: August 29, 2020.
2 | Reuters (2020). “Germany says China sought to encourage positive COVID-19 comments.” April 26. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-germany-china/germany-says-china-sought-to-encourage-positive-covid-19-comments-idUSKCN2280JW Accessed: August 29, 2020.
3 | Global Times (2020). “China sees rising status, image with virus fight.” March 20. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1183273.shtml Accessed: August 29, 2020; Popović, Sofija (2020). “‘Steel friendship’ between Serbia and China criticised by European commentators.” European Western Balkans. March 30. https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/03/30/steel-friendship-between-serbia-and-china-criticised-by-european-commentators/ Accessed: August 29, 2020.
4 | The Delegation of the European Union to the Republic of Serbia (2020). “EU Partnership with Serbia: EU Best Partner and Biggest Donor for 20 Years – and in the Front Line against COVID-19.” April 24. http://europa.rs/eu-partnership-with-serbia-eu-best-partner-and-biggest-donor-for-20-years-and-in-the-front-line-against-covid-19/?lang=en Accessed: August 29, 2020.
5 | European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (2019). “EU-China – A strategic outlook”. March 12. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf Accessed: August 29, 2020.
6 | ChinaFile (2013). “Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation.” November 8. https://www.chinafile.com/document-9-chinafile-translation Accessed: August 29, 2020.
7 | Reuters (2018). “Xi says China must lead way in reform of global governance.” June 23. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-diplomacy/xi-says-china-must-lead-way-in-reform-of-global-governance-idUSKBN1JJ0GT Accessed: August 29, 2020; Rolland, Nadège (2020). “China’s Vision for a New World Order”. The National Bureau of Asian Research. January. https://www.nbr.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/publications/sr83_chinasvision_jan2020.pdf Accessed: August 29, 2020.
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10 | Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Nathan and Chase, Michael S. (2019). “Borrowing a Boat Out to Sea: The Chinese Military’s Use of Social Media for Influence Operations.” Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. November 15. https://ac594fe2-a8ef-4a25-a40c-8acd006ea1a4.filesusr.com/ugd/b976eb_ad85a42f248a48c7b0cb2906f6398e71.pdf Accessed: August 29, 2020.
11 | Quartz (2019). “China’s propaganda machine is spending over $1 million to buy influence on foreign social media”. August 21. https://qz.com/1691785/chinas-paying-to-build-its-influence-on-foreign-social-media/ Accessed: August 29, 2020.
12 | Kliman, Daniel et al. (2020). “Dangerous Synergies. Countering Chinese and Russian Digital Influence Operations.” Center for a New American Security. May. https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS-Report-Dangerous-Synergies-May-2020-DoS-Proof.pdf?mtime=20200506164642 Accessed: August 29, 2020.
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19 | Reuters (2020). “China government spokesman says U.S. army might have brought virus to China.” March 12. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-china-ministry/china-government-spokesman-says-u-s-army-might-have-brought-virus-to-china-idUSKBN20Z2HJ Accessed: August 29, 2020; Global Times (2020). “#Italy may have had an unexplained strain of pneumonia as early as November and December 2019 with highly suspected symptoms of #COVID19, reports said.” March 22. https://twitter.com/globaltimesnews/status/1241559268190343168?lang=en Accessed: August 29, 2020; Ho, Matt (2020). “Italian professor repeats warning coronavirus may have spread outside China last year.” South China Morning Post. March 24. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3076792/italian-professor-repeats-warning-coronavirus-may-have-spread August 29, 2020.
20 | Irish, John (2020). “Outraged French lawmakers demand answers on ‘fake’ Chinese embassy accusations.” Reuters. April 15. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-france-china/outraged-french-lawmakers-demand-answers-on-fake-chinese-embassy-accusations-idUSKCN21X30C?il=0 Accessed: August 29, 2020.
21 | Blesk.cz (2020). “Vysílali jsme: Zeman pro Blesk o metálu pro Prymulu a pochvale vládě i Číně. Testovat se nenechal.” March 31, 2020. https://www.blesk.cz/clanek/zpravy-politika-s-prezidentem-v-lanech/639300/vysilali-jsme-zeman-pro-blesk-o-metalu-pro-prymulu-a-pochvale-vlade-i-cine-testovat-se-nenechal.html Accessed: August 29, 2020; Bei, Francesco (2020). “Il Pd attacca Di Maio: Troppo ‘filocinese’.” La Stampa. March 24. https://www.lastampa.it/politica/2020/03/24/news/il-pd-attacca-di-maio-troppo-filo-cinese-1.38633410 Accessed: August 29, 2020; Euractiv (2020). “Serbia sets the stage for Beijing’s mask diplomacy.” April 2. https://www.euractiv.com/section/china/news/serbia-sets-the-stage-for-beijings-mask-diplomacy/ Accessed: August 29, 2020; Bayer, Lili (2020). “Viktor Orbán criticizes EU’s coronavirus crisis response.” Politico. March 27. https://www.politico.eu/article/coronavirus-viktor-orban-criticizes-eu-crisis-response/ Accessed: August 29, 2020.
22 | Poggetti, Lucrezia and Zenglein, Max J. (2020). “Exposure to China: A Reality Check.” Berlin Policy Journal. February 26. https://berlinpolicyjournal.com/exposure-to-china-a-reality-check/ Accessed: August 29, 2020.
23 | He, Huifeng (2020). “Coronavirus: Italian prosecco maker apologises after owner asks China to pay compensation.” South China Morning Post. April 1. https://www.scmp.com/economy/global-economy/article/3077996/coronavirus-italian-prosecco-maker-apologises-after-owner Accessed: August 29, 2020; Liu, Caiyu (2020). “Change in Netherlands’ office name in Taiwan is ‘playing with fire,’ poses risk to ties with Chinese mainland: experts.” Global Times. May 1. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1187254.shtml Accessed: September 1, 2020.
24 | Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Bulgaria (2020). Press release. February 1. http://www.chinaembassy.bg/bjly/dtxw/t1739731.htm Accessed: August 29, 2020.
25 | European Commission (2020). “Concept note on tackling interference in higher education institutions and research organisations.” February 20. https://s3.eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/euobs-media/3ef6dc3d60ee27a2df16f62d47e93fdc.pdf Accessed: August 29, 2020.
26 | European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (2020). “Tackling Covid-19 disinformation – getting the facts right.” June 10. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52020JC0008&from=EN Accessed: August 29, 2020.
27 | Scott, Mark (2020). “Political fight grows over EU response to China disinformation.” Politico. June 25. https://www.politico.eu/article/european-union-disinformation-china-russia/ Accessed: August 29, 2020.
28 | Reuters (2020). “Dutch watchdog to investigate TikTok’s use of children’s data.” May 8. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-netherlands-dataprivacy-tiktok/dutch-watchdog-to-investigate-tiktoks-use-of-childrens-data-idUSKBN22K1UE Accessed: August 29, 2020; Fouquet, Helene and Bodoni, Stephanie (2020). “TikTok Faces French Data Probe, Adding to EU-Wide Scrutiny.” Bloomberg. August 11. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-11/tiktok-faces-probe-from-french-privacy-watchdog-after-complaint Accessed: August 29, 2020.
29 | Waterson, Jim (2020). “Daily Telegraph stops publishing section paid for by China.” The Guardian. April 14. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2020/apr/14/daily-telegraph-stops-publishing-section-paid-for-by-china Accessed: August 29, 2020.
30 | Johnston, Raymond (2020). “Chinese state firm gets majority stake in Czech media adversiting agency.” Expats.cz. April 22. https://news.expats.cz/weekly-czech-news/chinese-state-firm-gets-a-majority-stake-in-czech-media-advertising-agency/ Accessed: August 29, 2020.
This is chapter 1 of the MERICS Paper on China "Towards Principled Competition in Europe's China Policy: Drawing lessons from the Covid-19 crisis." Continue with Chapter 2 "Safe interdependence: Managing economic vulnerabilities" or go back to the table of contents.