Oscars censored; Europe stiffens; our Wolf Warrior winner

Gogi Kamushadze

Hello, and welcome to China Influence Monitor, a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story and edited by me, Edward Lucas. We track the westward footprint of China’s influence operations, and their effects on politics, economies, societies and alliances across Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and Europe.

SHOWBIZ

The party-state’s ability to choke foreign films with even the faintest connection to criticism has long been a scandal. It was in full flow at the Oscars. Chloe Zhao, who lived in Beijing until she was 14, won best picture and best director — the first Asian woman to do so. She gave her acceptance speech partly in Mandarin. Last month she was the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for best director. 

But that victory had alerted the Chinese propaganda machine to an incautious remark eight years ago in an interview with Filmmaker magazine, about growing up in “a place where there are lies everywhere.” 

Rather proving her point, within hours censors in the land of her birth removed social media posts about her Oscar triumph and ensured that searches for her Chinese name returned no relevant results. Making its own contribution to Chinese censorship, Filmmaker removed the offending interview from its website (thank goodness for the Web Archive: you can read it here).

Fans are eagerly awaiting Zhao’s upcoming Marvel superhero film “Eternals.” Outside China, that is.

WOLF WARRIOR WATCH

This week’s Wolf Warrior competition features a veritable fiesta of obnoxiously counterproductive diplomacy.

As Joe Biden’s visit to Brussels for an EU-US summit in June draws near, China is center stage. Few things matter more for the authorities in Beijing than whether Europeans will follow the American lead on containing China. Grounds to tread softly? Not for Yang Xiaoguang, a foreign ministry official who tried to block an EU report on disinformation, saying that its publication would make China “very angry.”  

The spineless European External Action Service did apparently delay and water down the report (and later denied doing so). Other officials, incensed, promptly leaked the episode to Reuters. The largest grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP, said it was “revolted” by the kowtow. 

The muscle-flexing was ill-timed: the EU’s stance is already shifting. Politico has a scoop on an EU internal “progress report” that slams China’s “authoritarian shift” and broken promises on subsidies and market access. The EU also lambasted Chinese mischief-making in the South China Sea. France and Germany seemed to hit an impasse on climate-change talks with China after their leaders talked to Xi Jinping. He slammed EU proposals to tax imports according to their carbon content. This underlines Biden’s point that only a united Western front can negotiate with the Chinese leadership. 

Meanwhile, Parliament in London labeled the treatment of Uyghurs as “genocide.” The embassy reached for its thesaurus, calling the move  “the most preposterous lie of the century, an outrageous insult and affront to the Chinese people, and a gross breach of international law and the basic norms governing international relations.” If you say so. 

It also demanded that the “UK side” take “concrete steps to respect China’s core interests” and “immediately right its wrong moves”. Surely the comrades are not suggesting that governments should prevent lawmakers discussing things that China doesn’t like? 

In a similar vein, China’s embassy in Lithuania let rip after lawmakers there took evidence from Uyghurs and other victims of human rights abuses: “maliciously attacking and slandering China,” it said, helpfully publicizing the hearing. 

But this week’s award goes — for the first time — to a foreigner. The director of the Bratislava Confucius Institute, Ľuboslav Štora, tried to intimidate the local independent-minded China expert Matej Šimalčík with a message reading: “Are you sleeping well? You should be under a lot of stress when you’re walking down the street…”

That not only highlighted how the supposedly innocent Confucius Institute culture-shops are in fact part of China’s sharp-power offensive. It was also deeply stupid. Šimalčík published the message, prompting a media storm in Slovakia, and abroad. Štora then came out with a prize-winningly lame apology, claiming he had been deliberately absurd to, um, highlight the absurdity of Šimalčík’s views.

 IN BUSINESS NEWS: 

  • Germany passed tough new 5G legislation, dooming Huawei’s chances in Europe’s biggest market. 
  • Austria blocked a planned 400km broad gauge railway that would have hooked up central European rail and water transport to the Russian — and Chinese — network. The EU had criticized the scheme. Local environmentalists didn’t like it either. 
  • Montenegro is trying to refinance its jinxed (delayed, super-costly, useless) Bar-Boljare highway project, economic development minister Jakov Milatović said. Repayments on a €1 billion ($1.2billion) loan to China’s Exim Bank start this summer. Milatović also said talks were under way with EU institutions to refinance the loan. The project is emblematic of Chinese debt-diplomacy, attracting notice even from Francis “end of history” Fukuyama.
  • Environmental worries surround Chinese projects in next-door Serbia, too, as the FT reports.

WHAT WE ARE READING:
 

  • This take on China’s new spy mania; for the authorities’ explanation of it, read this unintentionally chilling account in Global Times.
  • Lord Chris Patten’s eloquent evidence to a British parliamentary committee. Zinger: “China is from time to time a malign actor which threatens the U.K.’s interests and values, but … we do not want to say this too explicitly in case we hurt China’s feelings.” 
  • J Michael Cole on the dangerous habit of distorting history. 
  • The EIU has investigated Russian/Chinese vaccine diplomacy. 
     

Finally, check out my report (with Bobo Lo) about Chinese and Russian efforts in eastern Europe.  

Many thanks to Isobel Cockerell, Makuna Berkatsashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Oleksandr Ignatenko, Masho Lomashvili, Mariia Pankova and Katia Patin of Coda Story, and to Michael Newton at CEPA. 

That’s it for this week — we will be back in your inboxes next Thursday, 

Best regards
Edward

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. Lucas has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986, writing, broadcasting, and speaking on the politics, economics, and security of the region.

A graduate of the London School of Economics and long-serving foreign correspondent in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, and the Baltic states, he is an internationally recognized expert on espionage, subversion, the use and abuse of history, energy security and information warfare.

He is the author of four books: The New Cold War (2008, newly revised and republished); Deception (2011); The Snowden Operation (2014), and Cyberphobia (2015).

@edwardlucas