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.

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