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China’s digital dictatorship goes global

China is the world’s salesman when it comes to information technology. It exports the most cameras, laptop computers, and TV screens. Nearly every smartphone that’s sold around the world was produced in the factories of China.  Nine out of the world’s top 12 smartphone makers are headquartered in the Middle Kingdom.

Increasingly, however, China is not just exporting ICT goods. It’s exporting digital authoritarianism.

The Chinese leadership has used digital technologies to cement its grip on power. Surveillance cameras, autonomous drones, citizens’ data – all are used to advance the communist party’s interests and stifle any opposition. Big data meets Big Brother. George Orwell’s nightmare vision is coming true, and it’s coming from China, the world’s first digital totalitarian state. Now an increasing cohort of authoritarian states is interested in learning from China. And Beijing is happy to teach them.

It has held seminars with representatives from more than 30 different countries on regulating the digital space. It has provided capacity-buildings on how to regulate the digital realm to Uganda and Tanzania, both of which have afterwards introduced Chinese-style internet controls and cybersecurity laws. It has hosted officials from North Africa training them in “cyberspace management” and introducing them to its system of surveillance and censorship. And its companies are happy to provide the digital backbone for authoritarian leaders to exercise their control. ZTE and Huawei are building the internet infrastructure for many African states, while companies such as Guangzhou-based Cloudwalk Technology have inked deals with Zimbabwe to provide it with a massive facial recognition infrastructure. China’s big brother is coming to Africa.

With China’s digital authoritarianism going global, it is no wonder that this year’s Freedom on the Net report highlights the decline of internet freedom and democracy for the eighth consecutive year. According to the report from US-based think tank Freedom House, almost a third of the 65 countries assessed, have come up with new laws to restrict online media. 18 governments have increased surveillance and 26 in total have constricted online freedom.

We are facing a struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism in the digital realm. Humanity is “on the highway to digital dictatorship” says Israeli historian Yuval Harari.  Massive surveillance, big data coupled with artificial intelligence is making it ever easier to monitor and control billions of people. AI could allow authoritarian centralised systems to become much more efficient than democratic decentralised systems. Writing in The Atlantic, Harari points out how “the main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century – the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place – may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century”.

By exporting digital technologies China is not only exporting its digital authoritarianism, it is also establishing a digital sphere of influence run from Beijing. Xi Jinping has called for the creation of a “community with a common future in cyberspace” and wants to create a “digital Silk Road”, establishing fibre optic networks across the developing world, setting technological standards, and cordoning off the digital realm of other countries. Beijing is playing digital Wei Qi, the strategy board game better known as Go, in which one has to encircle territory and control empty spaces.

Controlling the digital infrastructure of other nations, China is able to make use of that strategic position for intelligence operations, electronic surveillance and geopolitical influence. After all, these digital infrastructures usually come with “backdoor mechanisms” allowing China access to crucial data. It wasn’t that long ago that reports uncovered, how Beijing bugged the Chinese-built African Union headquarters, which led to significant data transfers. Most recently, intelligence reports highlight how China’s secret service used the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to pursue cyber espionage.

It is time for the West to make a comeback in the digital realm and halt the spread of digital authoritarianism. The European Union has recently launched a counter-strategy to China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and put forth a strategy entitled Digital4Development designed to mainstream digital technologies in its development policy. Likewise, the United States is massively increasing development finance and establishing a new development investment agency to counter China’s long arm in the developing world. Yet, both actors need to come together and have a coordinated approach when it comes to advancing liberal democracy in the digital realm. Contours of such cooperation are already emerging. Together with Japan, the European Union and United States have recently formed an alliance to create an international framework on data protection, which could halt China’s unbridled access of international data. Setting international rules on data protection is an important, welcome start. But it is only a beginning. More must be done to halt the digital authoritarian advance.

“Russia feels like it’s winning”

The World Cup in Russia, which only very thinly masked the crisis between Russia and the European Union, is over. I spoke with Jens Siegert, former executive director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow and head of the Goethe-Institut Moscow’s EU-funded project ‘Public Diplomacy. EU and Russia’, about current EU-Russia relations; Russia’s interests, power politics and the sanctions imposed on it; and the annexation of Crimea.

How would you describe current relations between Russia and the EU?

Poor.

Is this the result of a clash between two different ideological systems?
Not really. The conflict between Russia’s authoritarian, populist system and the liberal democratic model is above all an instrument of Russian self-assertion. Russia is driven neither by a particular ideology, nor by a well-formulated counter-concept to the West as it was during the Soviet era. Its political system revolves around Putin and his desire to stay in power – hence the lack of ideological clarity. And as a result, the debate in Russia is less focused on ideology, instead focusing on geopolitics and power politics.

From Ukraine and Syria to electoral influence, Russia is very active in geopolitical terms. Is there a grand strategy behind this?
I don’t believe Russia has developed some sort of offensive plan to expand its power. Quite the contrary – it’s behaving rather more defensively. But this can certainly include taking advantage of any opportunities that may arise, such as the annexation of Crimea. In today’s Russia the dominant narrative is that the country was weak in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and had to make a lot of compromises, but now Russia is strong again and history can be revised.

At the same time, however, the Kremlin fears (and some are convinced) that the West has a grand strategy aimed at overthrowing the Russian regime. The Russians interpreted the Maidan revolution in Ukraine as more than just an intra-Ukrainian affair – more as a kind of dress rehearsal for regime change in Russia. The Georgian ‘Rose Revolution’ with Mijeíl Saakashvili and the end of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia were similarly interpreted. From Russia’s point of view, therefore, interference in the internal affairs of other states, for instance in the US or French elections, is firstly a form of pre-emptive self-defence. And secondly, they believe their actions to be justified because the Kremlin is only doing what the West does. The Russian narrative traces a very Darwinian image of international politics, in which nations fight against each other to survive and where almost anything is permissible.

If Russia considers its actions to be defensive while the West sees them as offensive, would you not say that an escalation in the relationship is inevitable?
No. The West now understands the situation quite well but has nevertheless underestimated Russia. The extent to which this is true, and for how long it will remain the case, is another question altogether in the Trump era. Many mistakenly believed that an escalation in the relationship with Russia could be avoided by simply not responding, or by being conciliatory. But those who don’t fight back are perceived as weak by the Russian mainstream; the understanding is that every compromise must be fought for. Figuratively speaking, you can’t reach a compromise without getting (and giving) a bloody nose.

What role does NATO play in this context? To what extent is NATO becoming less relevant with regard to Russia given Trump’s ambivalence towards NATO?
NATO, or rather the US and NATO, is the only military alliance that is currently able to act as something of a counterweight to Russia’s nuclear weapons potential. Given that the current Russian leadership basically sees international politics as a competition of major powers, with medium-sized and smaller countries playing a subordinate role, we really can’t do without its protection. Russia does not hesitate to use its military capabilities for political purposes, and opposition to this within Russian public opinion is non-existent. As a result, Trump poses a direct threat to the independence of the EU. Not as a possible hegemon, but rather because a US withdrawal or an agreement with Russia over the heads of its European NATO allies would deliver them, rather defenceless, into Russian hands. For historical reasons, this is far better understood in the east and north of the EU than in the west and the south. In the US, as the negative reactions to the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki in mid-July have shown, there are still enough opposing forces on both sides of the aisle – for the time being, at least. In these turbulent times, however, this can no longer be held as self-evident. EU member states have no choice but to improve their own defence capabilities as quickly and as sustainably as possible.

Russia’s hardness obviously also comes from the fear of showing weakness. The classic social democrat would say that Russia should be approached for this very reason.
Yes, but this will only work if it is a joint effort. It is only possible to have a sense of security and trust if this is shared. If the West makes concessions to Russia during a period of conflict, this will be interpreted as a weakness and exploited again at the next opportunity. Then the previous compromise doesn’t count anymore. According to the predominant mindset in Russia, a compromise is always only a snapshot of the current balance of power. If the balance of power changes, the compromise is forfeited and the stronger party has the right of appeal, also in moral terms. This is precisely the background to the violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on the denuclearisation of Ukraine in the course of the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.

In order to find a way out of a possible spiral of escalation, both sides need to be involved – both need to want this to happen. And at present, I don’t see that on the Russian side. Russia feels like it’s on the winning side while the West is falling apart. Why should it compromise? The first task is to counter this impression.

The EU recently prolonged its sanctions for the annexation of Crimea and for the war in eastern Ukraine. What are your thoughts on these sanctions?
The sanctions were imposed after the annexation of Crimea, and when it seemed that military escalation in Ukraine might be possible. At that time, the Russian leadership obviously assumed that a unified reaction from the EU would not be forthcoming, that the EU member states would not be able to agree on a course of action. That was a fallacy. Both rounds of sanctions are important as an expression of a strongly united Europe. I believe that this made a significant contribution to the fact that the war in eastern Ukraine has not spread further. The political signal sent by these sanctions is therefore even greater than their economic impact.

How likely is it that the EU member states will continue to present a united front and stand by the sanctions? Or is their unity crumbling?
Of course, there’s always a risk that the sanctions will be either lifted or weakened. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has reiterated that he would like the sanctions to be lifted in December. Austria’s governing ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) are also steering a course that is not exactly critical of the Kremlin. Germany is also not totally immune to this. If Chancellor Merkel was to resign for whatever reason, then I no longer see Germany standing so clearly by the sanctions. The personal contribution of Mrs Merkel is really significant here.

Any threat to the sanctions would, however, be a huge mistake in my view – it would be a clear sign to the Russian government of the EU’s weakness, and would invite Moscow to do something risky.

But just how realistic is the possibility of getting Crimea back? Henry Kissinger says we should just accept that Crimea belongs to Russia.
It clearly isn’t very realistic to think that something will shift in the short term. The West will not give military support to Crimea and on the Russian side a return is totally unimaginable. The Russian leadership and Putin personally have associated a great deal of prestige with the annexation of Crimea and have had a lot of public success as a result of it.

But this doesn’t mean that the EU’s current position on the recognition of Crimea should simply be abandoned. There’s a whole string of conflicts that have been going on for decades. Let’s just look at Cyprus. The EU does not recognise Northern Cyprus as an independent state and even admitted the south of the island, the Republic of Cyprus, in contravention of its own rule on the admission of states with border disputes. The annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union after the Second World War was never recognised by the West. But that did not stop it having diplomatic and trading relations with the Soviet Union, and, somewhat later, discussing disarmament. We also do not recognise areas such as Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, although the likelihood that these conflicts will be resolved in the foreseeable future and that they will be returned to Moldova and Georgia respectively is extremely low.

How is Russia’s foreign policy seen by its population?
The Kremlin has successfully established the narrative that Russia is surrounded by enemies from whom it must defend itself. Add to that the annexation of Crimea, after which Putin could portray himself as the ‘gatherer of the Russian lands’, and as the one who finally ‘showed’ the US (and the West in general) after almost three decades of weakness. As a result, there is a great deal of support for the country’s foreign policy. This also generates much of Putin’s legitimacy, especially against the backdrop of the country’s economic problems.

Does this international prestige fill the legitimacy gap created by the country’s economic difficulties?
There has certainly been a shift. For various reasons, there was a strong economic recovery from 1999 onwards and this lent Putin a large share of his legitimacy. But not only that; Putin brought the Russian state back into operation in a whole range of areas. An implicit social contract developed from this in the 2000s: Putin and his regime saw to it that the economic situation improved, and that the lives of as many people as possible in Russia got a little better every year. In return, the Russian population refrained from getting involved politically. And here, unlike in the Soviet Union, the state did not interfere in the private lives of its people. In the 2000s, you could love, live, work, and travel how and where you liked in Russia. While the Soviet Union demanded ideological loyalty, Russia under Putin did not – and it worked well.

But then came the 2008-2009 economic crisis. This hit Russia very hard, and then sanctions were imposed. Since then, the Russian economy has not really recovered. And the people certainly noticed: wages fell sharply. Putin really couldn’t draw much legitimacy from this economic slowdown – and then came Crimea.

With the annexation of Crimea, the source of Russian national loyalty has shifted from the economic realm to that of foreign policy. This created a sense of national pride, yes, but also pride in the fact that Russia has caught up with the West, and indeed that the West is finally afraid of Russia.

Is this a helpful perspective from which to analyse the 2018 presidential election, and does this explain why there were no protests, unlike in 2012?
Without a doubt. The 2012 protests had a lot to do with the change from President Medvedev back to Putin. In response to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, then-president Medvedev proposed a programme of modernisation; Russia had to modernise. But practically nothing came out of it, and then Putin’s return was announced in autumn 2011. This was a source of great disappointment, especially among what is often called the ‘creative class’ in Russia, the well-educated, urban middle classes. They saw their hopes for change disappointed.

How has the human rights situation changed over this period?
The Kremlin responded to the 2012 protests by re-ideologising politics: an emphasis on ‘traditional values’, the adoption of a law against homosexuals, and the intensified repression of the protest organisers. This was also related to ‘Maidan phobia’. Since then, more than 30 different laws have been passed that restrict civil liberties even further. And now, after a long period without, political prisoners are again being held in Russia: about 150 at present according to human rights organisation Memorial. This has also led to a new wave of emigration. The human rights situation is so bad and there is no improvement in sight. Rather the opposite, in fact.

What can the EU do about this? Especially if supporting human rights organisations is seen as trying to influence Russian domestic politics?
Any help that is given is seen as an attempt to exert influence, but the very worst thing to do is to say nothing. Raising awareness is still the best means we have. People like Oleg Sentsov can’t just disappear silently into some dungeon. Sentsov is a Ukrainian film director from Crimea who protested against the annexation and is now sitting in a camp in the far north. It must be repeated again and again, also during contacts with government officials: these people have to be released. There is, of course, no guarantee that this will work, but the Russian leadership doesn’t like being pilloried, and as a result, every now and then you manage to help individual people. Moreover, we shouldn’t support Russia’s isolationist tendencies. Contacts and exchange at all levels, especially person-to-person, are always good. The World Cup in Russia was certainly very positive in this regard; it was a breath of fresh air for the country. In a more concrete sense, I am still convinced that the EU should dare to go against the grain and introduce a visa-free regime for Russian citizens. That would deprive the Kremlin’s argument that ‘Westerners don’t want us’ of much of its effect.

One more question: Putin has now been in office for almost 18 years. What’s the outlook as far as successors are concerned?
That’s Putin’s problem. He can’t go because the political system depends on him – he personally guarantees its functioning and stability. Everything that is currently being said or written about Putin’s succession is mere speculation. The Kremlin is a black box and in recent years its workings have become even more opaque than they already were. Nobody knows who Putin’s successor will be, or when Putin will resign – probably not even Putin himself. The next general election will be held in 2024, when Putin will be 72 years old. That’s an age at which you can do it all over again. And Putin still has six years left in office; a lot can change in six years.

Digital changes the balance of power

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The road to hell is known to be paved with good intentions. Although digitalisation isn’t devil’s work, it does remind one of this idiom. Not too many years ago the digital world was celebrated. The internet, many believed, would be the key to a brighter future. Technology companies from California became the world’s problem-solvers.

The initial euphoria has passed. Indeed, digital technologies have opened up completely new possibilities. But at the same time their darker sides came to the fore: cyberattacks, fake news, manipulated elections, filter bubbles, a polarised and aggressive public discourse, a collapse in the privacy sphere, massive upheavals in the economy and world of work. The list goes on.

And what about politics? Authoritarian regimes used the digital revolution to advance their interest while in Europe and America, the political arena didn’t do much about. The digital world was, at least in the early years, treated as a mere technological question, a non-political issue. But it ain’t merely a technical matter. Digitalisation is a question of power and is thus deeply political.

Who controls whom? This Leninist Leitmotiv is at the heart of digitalisation ranging from individual users to geopolitics. It runs through all levels, because the digital revolution leaves no stone unturned.

Russia’s President Putin already declared — he who dominates artificial intelligence, controls the world. He’s not wrong. Geopolitical domination was also always based on the control of a significant informational infrastructure. Knowledge is power. The Roman Empire controlled the streets, Great Britain the naval routes. Whoever controls the digital technologies and data flows, can shape the world order. Data is king.

We are already finding ourselves in a technological cold war. The US and China are competing over technological leadership. Numerous nation-states are walling off their digital markets in order to secure their data sovereignty. Laws are enacted to prevent the flow of data into other countries. The Internet is becoming a Splinternet.

Economically, digitalisation is challenging the old, analogue economic order. Especially Europe is affected. Europe is strong in the industries of the 20th century. It’s not certain, whether they will survive. In the 21st century, software dominates hardware. European companies could quickly be degraded to mere hardware parts suppliers for technology companies.

And the world’s biggest companies are young technology players from the US and China. Data is their fuel. And with their platform economies and network effects, they are expanding. China’s Tencent is not only a social media platform, it’s also a travel agency, a search engine, a computer games developer, a music company, an insurance company, and so on. The technology titans are conquering new markets, creating new dependencies and shaping powerful monopoly structures. If Europe does not develop its own strong digital industry, then it will have to decide whether to be a cyber colony of Silicon Valley or Shenzhen, says Germany’s former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

The digital world is also changing the balance of power in the labour market. The pressure on the qualifications of workers is increasing. Digitalisation puts traditional jobs into question. To what extent new jobs will be created is still unclear. Employees are also put under pressure with any rise in wage costs possibly leading to a substitution via robots. Some studies already highlight that a rise in the minimum wage can lead to increased automation. New forms of precarious work are increasing. Risks are being dumped on digital subcontractors. The digital world of work also challenges the modern social state. If workers are replaced by robots, who will finance the social security system?

And of course digitalisation is having a pronounced societal effect. Similar to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century it is radically changing the information landscape. The printing press made information more accessible creating a new public sphere. This promoted reflection, doubt and criticism. This, so Henry Kissinger, provided the base for the age of Enlightenment. Digitalisation, however, puts this into the extreme. Information spreads at breath-taking speed. There is no time for reflection. Everything can be put into doubt. Fake news sweeps through the internet and ever more people are living in a digital echo chamber only being confronted with their very own views and opinions. Artificial intelligence can also lead to more advanced deep fakes, with fake videos and imitated voices. Manipulated information is then spread via bots and reaches millions of people.

This threatens the most basic essential element of society: trust. Trust is the invincible glue that keeps a society together. But trust is dwindling if you can’t trust anything anymore. And Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shown how some actors are trying to undermine elections and other forms of participation. This creates power. Because power isn’t just the “storm of the Bastille”. It is, according to Gramscis understanding of hegemony, also the battle over ideas and narratives that define a society.

Digitalisation brings us into a systemic conflict. China uses digital technologies to strengthen its authoritarian regime. Beijing has the best facial recognition software and employs a social credit system that rates people according to their actions. Total surveillance and social credit system — Big Brother meets Pavlov’s dog.

In the United States on the other hand, there is a largely unregulated hyper data capitalism. The private sphere is sold on the marketplace. This allows anyone — also unknown entities from Russia — to buy and use data. That’s how democratic elections get influenced.

Several years ago the digital world threatened autocratic regimes. Digital technologies seemed to be a tool for greater democratisation. Social Media accelerated the Arab Spring. But the tables have turned. Now it seems the digital world is threatening democracy.

Digital technologies give power and take power away. They empower and disempower. That’s how it is with many technologies. They contain germs of freedom and of suppression. Digital prophets such as Mark Zuckerberg only saw the potential for freedom. They were, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, the “stupid children of light” who were all naïve about the power of self-interest and domination, which made them “inept at defending democracy”.

Digital technologies aren’t created in a vacuum and they aren’t neutral. They are what you make of them. In this context, liberal democracies have to actively shape and regulate the digital world. Lest others do it for us.

US, China and a new economic order

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The trade war between the United States and China isn’t about trade. It’s about global economic dominance. Both are locked in a struggle over the international economic order. This has been a long time coming. In three fundamental economic areas, China is challenging US economic hegemony.

First, in terms of trade. A rapidly growing consumer class with rising demands has turned China into a massive market. Companies are falling over backwards to get a piece of that action. Over the past decade, China has displaced the US in many economies as the top export destination, shifting the centre of world trade.

Second, with regards to economic relations. Its grand infrastructure plan – the Belt and Road Initiative – aims to connect more than 60 countries across three continents to China. This flagship project intensifies China’s economic reach from Asia into Europe and Africa, deepening economic ties thereby carving out a new Chinese-dominated economic space. Joe Kaeser, CEO of Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company Siemens, has warned that “China’s One Belt, One Road, is going to be the new WTO – like it or not.”

Third, technology. Washington was content with its deep economic ties to Beijing as long as China was playing the subservient role of mere supplier of lower-value goods. But those times are over. The world’s workshop is becoming the world’s innovation hub. We are bearing witness to China’s technological return to the world stage. By 2035, China wants to become the world’s most important force for innovation. Consequently it’s massively investing in key technologies ranging from artificial intelligence to quantum computing. China wants to dominate the industries of the future, the very area where the United States derives its future economic competitiveness from. Hence the economic relationship between the US and China is changing. And the US is unwilling to let it change without a fight.

In all three areas, China is creating economic dependencies, which translate into political influence. It has leverage over foreign companies that depend on its market. Daimler’s CEO Dieter Zetsche had to apologize profusely after the company published an Instagram post showing one of its luxury cars along with a quote from the Dalai Lama. Shortly thereafter, Chinese billionaire Li Shufu bought a sizable share in the company.

It has leverage over many developing countries. The Belt and Road initiative is giving China not only control over strategic infrastructure but is also forcing the recipient countries into a Chinese-fuelled debt-trap.

And lastly, China’s technological ascendancy is giving it an increasing amount of sway in the digital world as well as in future markets, affecting developed economies. China manufactures an estimated 90 per cent of the world’s IT hardware. This doesn’t come without problems. A case in point is the Bloomberg “Big Hack” story, which illustrated that the Chinese secret service had managed to add a tiny chip in the production of servers. These servers had then been used by US companies such as Apple and Amazon and therefore gave China secret access to their data. The world is increasingly finding itself in a Chinese IT chokehold.

Especially Europe seems to be naively letting China build its future digital infrastructure. Europe, and particularly Germany, are all building their 5G networks based on hardware from the Chinese company Huawei. In Germany, there hasn’t even been any public debate on this issue and whether or not it constitutes a security risk if the critical digital infrastructure is based on Chinese hardware. After all, the US, Australia and India have already banned Huawei from participating in their 5G networks and others, such as Japan and South Korea are investigating whether to follow suit.

We are witnessing how China is expanding its economic zone to build influence in Europe, Africa and Asia and the United States pushing back. This isn’t a short-term trade war, this is a fundamental shift in the economic order. The international economic order is breaking down and a scramble for its replacement is underway. In its element, this is about power. Because economic dependencies translate into political influence. And in the end it is also about the supremacy of political systems. Will China’s digital authoritarianism – a kind of gamified 1984 that mixes Big Brother surveillance with a social credit system akin to Pavlov’s dog – fuel future technological revolutions, drive innovation and promote economic modernization and competitiveness, or will free market liberal democracies?

China’s Policy of Influence-Seeking in Europe

Russia is not the only country strongly seeking to influence liberal democracies. A new report from the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) warns that China is increasingly pursuing a policy of influence seeking. The Communist Party of China is intensifying its efforts to influence European states for political and economic reasons, and also in order to promote its own authoritarian political model. We talked to Kristin Shi-Kupfer, co-author of the report, about increasing Chinese influence, the country’s goals, and what Europe’s response should be. This interview first appeared in the Green European Journal.

Roderick Kefferpütz: After the Cold War, the “end of history” was proclaimed – the liberal democratic model had won the day and no alternative was present. Is this still the case, or are we currently in competition with China over socio-political models?

Kristin Shi-Kupfer: We can certainly see that liberal democracies are in crisis. This can be very clearly observed in the core countries of this societal model: the US and parts of Europe. These countries are being challenged to re-explain themselves, to offer a new perspective. Due to this crisis in the West, the Chinese system and its developmental path are, of course, subject to greater attention. At the last party congress, the Chinese leadership itself under Xi Jinping hinted that the Chinese path to development could be superior to that of the West. Beijing also actively promotes this alternative developmental path through investments and involvement in developing countries, with little regard for good governance principles such as the rule of law and transparency.

Foreign powers have increasing influence within liberal democracies; all eyes are on Russia in particular. Your report paints China as an undervalued player in influence terms. How so?

Russian influence-seeking policy is relatively easy to grasp. It is rather destructive in its approach and has the aim of infiltrating and subverting democracies. The Chinese approach is much more long-term and subtle. It’s not just about infiltration or disinformation, as is the case with Russia’s influence policy. China uses a range of open and hidden channels. They offer investments, conclude cooperation agreements, build networks, and organise joint conferences with think tanks. It’s a very subtle way of networking. But this network can then also be mobilised when it comes to its own interests.

A cynic would say that the Europeans also do this.  

Yes, that’s a very important point. But the question of the difference between legitimate public diplomacy and illegitimate influence is not the primary issue. The crucial difference is the political system. In China, there is no pluralistic competition and no transparency. National interests are, in principle, party interests. China has a different political system that generates completely different processes and interests. Therefore, any action by the Chinese state towards Europe is potentially problematic and needs to be closely scrutinised.

What are these Chinese networks used for? What are Chinese interests as far as Europe is concerned?

There are different levels. First, there are clear economic interests, for instance gaining access to technology by buying into high-tech companies, or by creating new markets such as the Belt and Road Initiative. There are also political interests. When it comes to the South China Sea or human rights issues, it is certainly useful for China if there are actors within Europe who support the Chinese position. And, of course, disrupting European unity is also a goal. On the one hand Europe is a necessary counterbalance to the US; on the other, from a Chinese viewpoint it is less than desirable to deal with a united Europe speaking with one voice.

Finally, it is also a matter of increasing legitimacy for the Chinese system and its developmental path. International collaboration and interdependence bring recognition and increased cooperation. This in turn has an effect within China itself.

Are there any EU member states that are particularly susceptible to Chinese influence?

In the study, we felt that it was important to emphasise that the whole of Europe is affected. Due to their size and economic strength, countries such as Germany and France are less susceptible than southern or eastern European countries, but we do warn against a certain western European complacency. China also invests in western Europe and tries to influence public opinion in these countries.

Eastern and southern European countries are certainly more vulnerable, however, because of their much weaker position. They are more dependent on economic cooperation and investment and have fewer opportunities to speak directly to, and on an equal footing with, China. It is for this reason that the eastern European member states are so enthusiastic about the 16 + 1 mechanism: it offers them the opportunity of direct, face-to-face communication with the Chinese authorities.

However, it must also be said that these countries, such as Hungary for example, at least partly sympathise with authoritarian tendencies within their own countries. For this reason, it may be easier for them to cooperate with China.

You describe the subtle nature of China’s current influence-seeking policy. How might this evolve in the future?

In our report, we use Australia as a blueprint to show the direction this could take. Up to 80 percent of foreign donations to Australian political parties come from China. Numerous politicians work for Chinese companies after their political careers have ended, and the Australian intelligence service has identified ten regional and local politicians who allegedly have close ties to the Chinese secret service. Chinese influence runs deep within the political elite. Even in the media, certain decision-making processes may well have been deliberately influenced using financial means.

We don’t yet see this in Europe, but it could happen here too. This is what we are warning against. This is why we want to draw attention to Chinese political influencing efforts. We advocate for appropriate disclosure requirements for political parties – or simply for banning certain types of political donations.

What further recommendations do you make, especially with regard to investment policy?

There has already been some movement in this area. France, Italy, and Germany are pushing for a European investment screening mechanism to better control foreign investment in critical strategic areas, for example in power supply or in companies with key technologies. We go one step further, however, and say that the definitions of these critical areas should be broadened. It is important, for example, that the media and academia are included. At the same time, our societies must avoid exposing research and media institutions to such commercial pressures that they forced to rely on third-party funding, including Chinese money.

To what extent does digitalisation offer new opportunities for gaining influence? Europe is always looking in the USA’s direction and criticising Apple, Facebook, and Google, while in the East the tech titans Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu are striding ahead. Will they not eventually arrive on the European market and potentially present us with challenges?

This has already begun. Wechat and Alipay offer cashless payment methods in Germany and other European countries – German drugstore chain Rossmann offers Alipay for Chinese tourists in Germany, and Huawei wants to participate in the 5G expansion in Europe. Chinese digital companies are already on the rise in Europe, and this also has significance for data flows. Europe has been asleep at the wheel for too long; the fact that we have so few digital players in Europe, for instance, is problematic.

Of course, the new EU Data Protection Regulation will set certain limits. Adjustments are also being made on the Chinese side in order to secure these transnational data streams – for instance, we are seeing the adaptation of Chinese standards to conform at least partially to European data standards.

Europe should stand up for its values and interests when dealing with China. Europe needs more self-confidence – then it will gain more respect. Otherwise other countries will think of Europe as a pushover.

Liberal Democracy’s War With Itself 

In many countries, authoritarian populism is on the rise and liberal democracy is in decline. Citizens are turning away from their political systems and increasingly heeding the siren song of the populists. In his new book, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It, Yascha Mounk analyses the reasons behind these developments and the key challenges posed to liberal democracy in our time. This interview first appeared in the Green European Journal.

Roderick Kefferpütz: In your latest book you describe the demise of liberal democracy and how liberalism and democracy are actually at war with each other. Can you explain that?

Yascha Mounk: I believe that liberalism and democracy are two fundamental elements that go together; in some ways they need each other. But my fear is that they are falling apart, creating two malformed systems. On the one hand we have ‘rights without democracy’: political systems that are strong on individual rights, with independent institutions and a very effective separation of powers, but which are insufficiently responsive to the popular will and actually pursue policies contrary to this.

And on the other, partly in reaction to this, we are seeing the emergence of political systems in which populist politicians claim that they alone represent the popular will, in which minorities are victimised, and independent institutions such as courts are undermined. Here we have ‘democracy without rights’.

Liberal democracy means maintaining individual rights while also being able to respond to the popular will. The question at the heart of the challenge we are currently facing is how to maintain this balance.

What are the reasons behind this?

It’s partially a product of elite capture. Over the years we have seen money becoming increasingly important in politics, and the development of a revolving door between lobbying and legislating. Special interests have become too powerful, and politicians have become too disconnected from ordinary citizens.

This disconnection is, in part, a consequence of the way we deal with the numerous challenges we face. Just think about climate change. To tackle this issue, you obviously need cooperation between hundreds of countries around the world; you need international agreements and international institutions. But this takes a lot of decisions out of the hands of ordinary people.

The result is that people feel alienated because their interests aren’t being taken into account. And then come the populists who want to abolish institutions such as central banks, international organisations, trade treaties, and so on.

That’s what elections are for, so that citizens can make their views heard.

Sure, and they can elect politicians who are more responsive to their views. The issue, however, is that the challenges we are facing are so complex that we need expertise in decision-making and cooperation between multiple stakeholders on an international level. But at the same time, this level is too far removed from ordinary people.

The author Parag Khanna argues that there is actually too much democracy and that in fact what we need is more experts and technocracy.

This is what I call the ‘technocratic dilemma’. Parag Khanna is partially right. The world has become much more complicated and therefore we need expertise and technical institutions. There are certainly some areas in which a more technocratic approach might lead to better results, but there are many others in which technocracy is delivering poor results. Why? Because the actors involved, expert as they may be, do not necessarily have the interests of ordinary people at heart. This means that the people’s views are not taken into consideration when public policy is shaped, breaking the core promise of our political system — to respond to the popular will. People won’t stand for that for too long.

We’re now finding ourselves in a situation in which people have also changed their views on certain issues. That’s one of the points in your book, that people have become less liberal.

Yes, that’s part of both the rise and the danger of a democracy without rights. If you want to uphold the democratic and the liberal elements of the political system then a majority of people have to vote for liberal rights. Otherwise you can’t solve the riddle. The fact is that the views of a lot of people in Europe have become less tolerant. Let’s take Switzerland as an example. When the majority of the Swiss people vote to ban the construction of minarets on mosques, then you are forced to either violate the liberal element of our political system, which is the right to worship, or the democratic element, which keeps the system responsive to what people want.

The only way to solve this problem is to convince a majority of the electorate to actually embrace and vote for liberal policies.

But how does this work for forced migration, for example? In his latest book, Ivan Krastev argues that the refugee movement is the biggest existential threat faced by the EU.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the biggest. There are too many to choose from. But I agree that Europe needs to develop a clear vision of the nature of its refugee system. It needs to show that it’s in control of the process. The public would feel more comfortable knowing there’s a system in place that works.

We have both a humanitarian commitment and the responsibility to reassure citizens that there is an orderly, functioning process in operation. That’s the challenge. If politicians give their citizens the impression that there’s an open door and that no-one is controlling who comes into their country, then this will also put pressure on liberal attitudes within the EU.

But how do you convince voters to vote for liberal policies? Is it a question of leadership, or of arguments, or of an emotional connection?

It’s a question of leadership, and of policy. The gap between politicians and ordinary citizens is too wide, and their policies are failing to deliver in key areas such as the aspiration for a better material future. During the Cold War period, living standards increased rapidly. Now we find ourselves in a situation in which that type of material future can no longer be guaranteed.

Emmanuel Macron is one of the few politicians who has put forth an optimistic vision for his country. This has allowed him to persuade people — to some extent at least — that politicians can actually deliver for them. You can only fight populism with an optimistic vision of how the future is going to be better. If all you can offer is the status quo, or if voters remain pessimistic, then you aren’t going to win. Whether or not Macron is actually going to deliver on some of his promises, however, is a different question.

In Hungary and Poland we see the rise of illiberal democracies, and institutions such as the European Commission are struggling to rein this in. How does your answer work there?

If illiberal actions are without consequence, the populists will just carry on. If Europe wants to be an example to the world and uphold liberal democracy, it needs to make it very clear that Hungary cannot remain a member of the EU if it maintains its current government. At present, Hungary would never meet the criteria for EU membership. So why is there no attempt to suspend its membership, or to limit the generous payments it gets from the EU? Most shameful of all is how Chancellor Angela Merkel, a member of the European People’s Party alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has remained silent on Orbán’s openly anti-semitic campaign.

Orbán cites Putin as a role model, and we see how liberal democracy is increasingly coming under pressure from outside actors such as Russia. How can we defend liberal democracy in the world? Do we need to reconsider John McCain’s proposal of an international ‘League of Democratic States’?

The problem with the League of Democratic States is that it’s impossible to say how many countries would be left in 50 years’ time.

What’s clear is that liberal democratic countries and governments need to be much more willing to fight for their values and to develop long-term strategies. Take Germany, for example. In response to the Skripal poisoning in the United Kingdom, the Germans joined the UK and others in expelling Russian diplomats. A couple of days later, however, they approved the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will make Western Europe even more dependent on Russian gas for many decades to come. This will allow Putin to continue to bully Russia’s Western neighbours. Germany effectively kicked out a few diplomats but helped the Russian regime to build its geopolitical dominance. That’s not a coherent strategy.

This interview was published in the Green European Journal — https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/liberal-democracys-war-with-itself/

Car Wars: The Future of Europe’s Car Industry

The automotive industry is experiencing the biggest disruption in its history. The car will undergo more changes in the next 10 years than it has over the last 10 decades put together. Several trends are pushing forward this massive transformation, accompanied by the emergence of new companies and competitors. Europe’s automotive industry urgently needs to address these challenges if it wants to stay successful.

This article was first published with the Green European Journal.

Europe is the cradle of the car industry. The first automobile, invented in Europe around 130 years ago, was a niche product. Few understood its broader implications. As Germany’s last Kaiser Wilhelm II infamously quipped, “The automobile is only a temporary phenomenon. I believe in the horse”.

Since then, Europe has put the world on wheels. Its cars and automotive technologies are sold and used all over the globe. Europe’s automotive industry has grown and flourished, becoming an essential part of the continent’s industrial fabric, providing millions of jobs, contributing substantially to GDP, creating value and moving people and goods. Overall, it’s an economic success story.

But as founder of tech giant Intel Andy Grove noted, success breeds complacency and complacency breeds failure.

And failure is looming. Emissions-cheating scandals have seriously damaged the industry’s reputation and finances. What’s more, they have highlighted a smug disregard when it comes to eco-innovation. Cheating rather than beating environmental standards is not a sustainable strategy. This lack of innovation and future-oriented approach is endangering Europe’s car industry.

A perfect storm is brewing in the automotive world. The car is practically being reinvented. And Europe’s automotive industry is failing to keep pace.

The car of the future is sustainable, smart and shared, and each of these characteristics brings both new challenges and new challengers.

The first is climate change. The automotive sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The transport sector is responsible for roughly 22 per cent of overall emissions in the European Union. And while the EU was able to cut its emissions by 23 per cent since 1990, the emissions in the transport sector actually grew by 20 per cent during this timeframe. If the EU wants to achieve its climate targets, every sector must play its role, including the car industry. This is a matter of climate stability, but it is also an economic matter.

Sustainability is becoming a market factor. An increasing number of countries are introducing new regulations and frameworks limiting fossil fuel powered combustion engines and promoting electric cars. France and the UK have put forward a ban on combustion engines by 2040, Norway has plans to have all new cars be zero-emission by 2025, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all have set official targets for electric car sales and even the world’s largest car market, China, has put in place quotas for electric vehicles and is considering a similar end date to France and the UK. In addition a number of cities such as Paris and Copenhagen are planning to ban diesel cars from entering the city centre.

But the market is irreversibly changing in favour of more environmentally friendly cars. If Europe’s automotive industry doesn’t adapt to these changes quickly enough, it will lose out. Those who come too late will be punished by the market. This particular trend towards greater sustainability is also accompanied by advances in battery storage technology. The mileage of electric cars is increasing and the costs are coming down. Questions around the sustainability of their supply chains notwithstanding, electric cars are in the midst of a break-out moment.

The second trend is autonomous driving. Artificial intelligence is giving the car a brain. The car of the future is not only sustainable, it’s also smart. Fitted with sensors, cameras and high-tech electronics, the car is becoming a computer on wheels. Rather than relying on a human driver, cars will drive themselves, reducing traffic deaths, avoiding congestion and freeing up their passengers’ time for other things. In the future, prospective car buyers might be more interested in on-board entertainment systems and other similar features than any other aspect.

And last but not least, the car of the future is becoming connected and shared. Rather than being an isolated, personal transport solution, it is becoming part of a mixed mobility network together with public transport and bicycles. New mobility platforms and business models are emerging, with numerous ride-hailing and car-sharing apps conquering the world of mobility. Instead of selling cars, these new players are selling kilometres. This, too, could be a great challenge to traditional car manufacturers, with the competition only one smartphone-click away.

Cultural and demographic changes are also fuelling this trend. Young people and urban dwellers no longer have a strong desire to own a car, and worry about the availability of parking spaces, insurance, and other inconveniences associated with car ownership. They want instant, on-demand access to mobility solutions. Car-sharing and ride-hailing could therefore also displace car ownership in certain areas, particularly in big cities. It is also a more efficient mobility system, given that the average car is parked 95 per cent of the time and therefore is only in use for the remaining 5 per cent.

In the context of these three transformative developments, international competition in the automotive world is heating up, challenging Europe’s traditionally strong position. Many new competitors have emerged. US-based Tesla, for one, has become a leader in the luxury electric vehicle market, and is now entering the mass market for electric vehicles with the new, more affordable Model 3. Simultaneously, a whole new type of competitor is joining the fray. Traditional car companies may find themselves increasingly side-lined in a ‘parasitic’ relationship with tech titans such as Google, Apple and Baidu: the former provide the basic car structures, while the latter kit them out with the latest design, technology (such as automated driving, voice-assistants like Siri, cloud-based solutions, cyber-protection, etc.) and infotainment systems, therefore getting a greater share of the value-added. Besides the data protection issues that arise when data monopolists enter the car industry, a crucial question actually is whether car companies can manage to diversify their offer into the technology sector rather than vice versa. And last but not least, a whole range of start-ups and service providers with new business models, such as Uber, Lyft and Didi Chuxing, have penetrated the automotive world. These forces could spell veritable ‘carmaggedon’ for some of Europe’s car manufacturers.

Europe is finding itself in a two-front war. In the West, it is facing companies such as Tesla, Google and Uber, which together represent the three trends that are defining the car of the future. Tesla is electrifying the car fleet, Google is working on autonomous cars and Uber, Lyft and others are providing new mobility concepts.

The situation in the East is no different. Chinese tech titans such as Baidu and Alibaba are developing driverless cars. Ride-hailing players such as Didi Chuxing — China’s Uber — are expanding abroad. And China is a market and industry leader in electric mobility. It has witnessed a rapid increase in electric vehicle production capacity, as well as sales. According to McKinsey research, Chinese manufacturers produced 43 per cent of the 873 000 electric vehicles built worldwide in 2016, and the country is home to the largest fleet of electric vehicles. In addition, China is a booming place for start-ups in the automotive sector.

Furthermore, China, South Korea and Japan are leaders in battery technologies and dominate the battery market. China in particular is building up its battery production capacity in order to gain a strategic stranglehold over this key sector. Not having a single battery production plant itself, Europe might come to regret relying on countries such as China for electric car batteries, given that China will increasingly require those batteries for its own electric car production.

It is an open secret that Europe has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to these technological developments. Electric cars have been belittled for too long, and by too many of Europe’s major car companies. According to the European Commission, the Chinese market already features 400 different types of electric vehicles, compared to Europe’s six. There’s a veritable race for low-emissions vehicles and Europe is being forced to play catch-up.

Europe’s policymakers have long been too lax towards the automotive industry. EU emissions targets have been watered down, and regulators have kept regulatory loopholes open and their eyes closed when it comes to emissions cheating, while providing subsidies to the car industry. Thinking that this would protect the car industry and strengthen it against the global competition, in fact the opposite has been the case. Keeping the status quo and lowering ambitions in the midst of a great transformation is never a successful strategy. It is reminiscent of the iPhone moment when Apple’s new smartphone quickly destroyed Nokia’s leadership of the mobile phone market.

Europe’s car companies have incredible know-how, expertise, R&D, and formidable skilled workers. But they need to change gear. And governments need to push them too. The European Commission, for instance, is now energetically working towards a European battery alliance with the aim of building a European battery supply chain for electric vehicles. It should be commended for that. However, more scepticism is warranted when it comes to its newly proposed CO2-emission targets for cars. Under the Commission proposal, which is still to be negotiated with the European Council and European Parliament, new cars would have to reduce their CO2 emissions by 15 per cent on average by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2030 (compared to 2021). These reduction targets are flanked by a crediting system for zero- (electric vehicles or fuel cell vehicles) and low-emissions vehicles (less than 50g CO2 per km, mostly plug-in hybrids). Manufacturers that have a share of zero- and low-emission vehicles that is higher than 15 per cent in 2025 and 30 per cent in 2030 will be rewarded with a less strict CO2 target.

While the car industry has complained that the targets are overly ambitious, a variety of NGOs have criticised them for not being ambitious enough.

The crediting system, which would allow companies to underperform the emissions target depending on the number of their zero-emissions cars, also seems somewhat misplaced. Such a system should act as an incentive for companies to be even more ambitious. But a whole range of European car manufacturers have already announced that they will boost the sale of electric cars. Volvo will electrify its entire vehicle line by 2019, Aston Martin will go completely hybrid by 2025, and BMW too has said that it aims to have 25 per cent EV sales by 2025.

What was supposed to be a reward for ambition is looking more like an emissions target loophole. Where’s the drive in this crediting system? Given these circumstances, and the fact that a number of EU Member States has already announced an end date for fossil fuel-powered cars (France, Netherlands), it is possible that some Member States might want to move ahead of the pack and put forward more ambitious national plans, knowing that ambition is needed to drive this great transformation in the automotive world.

Greens have a lot to gain from the fundamental trends reshaping the car industry. They are recognised as being one of the only political parties with strong credibility on mobility and transport issues. And unlike other political parties, the Greens have not been tainted by the emissions-cheating scandal.

The Greens could make use of this situation to strengthen their position as a credible, respected actor on transport and mobility issues. This does not mean finger wagging in the direction of the car industry, but rather an earnest, pragmatic dialogue. Unlike the socialists and the conservatives, with their strong focuses on jobs and competitiveness respectively, the Greens are in a good position to take a comprehensive view of the issues facing the car industry and their likely impacts, and to engage with the different stakeholders in this industry. The fact that the Greens hold the chair of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee is also helpful in this context.

There has traditionally been some bad blood between the car industry and the Greens. There is, however, little point in continually looking back into the rear-view mirror. Now is the time to discuss the future, and to make the European car industry fit for it. Indeed, this is the approach taken by Germany’s only Green Minister-President — in the state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Daimler, Porsche and Audi — who has launched a strategic dialogue with the automobile industry to discuss the multitude of challenges it faces, and to come up with proposals on how Baden-Württemberg can retain its leadership position in the sector. Participants include car manufacturers and original-equipment manufacturers, energy companies, public transport entities, city representatives and policymakers, academics, trade unions and environmental NGOs.

Europe was the birthplace of the car, but the car isn’t what it used to be. It is being reinvented, and the birth pangs are shaking the European car industry to the core. Greens can play an important role in ensuring the ongoing success of the European car industry by mixing ambition with pragmatism, and idealism with governing experience. They are in the perfect position to integrate emerging models and best practices, to make new alliances, and to strike the right balance to make the car industry more sustainable and simultaneously more competitive for the future.