Vaccines; Hostages; Spies

Edward Lucas


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 point you towards this week’s best (and worst) coverage. 

In this issue: Diplomacy bubbles; Sino-British ties freeze; Germany wakes up (a bit).


President Biden is talking to G7 leaders, largely about China, on Friday. Transatlantic enthusiasms will also be on public view then at a virtual session of the Munich Security Conference. Another landmark: EU foreign ministers have invited US Secretary of State Tony Blinken to their China-focused meeting on Monday. 

Opinion in Europe is clearly shifting. Take these warnings from the shadows:

  • The Dutch intelligence service just assessed Chinese cyber espionage as an “imminent threat”. 
  • Estonia’s spy agency warned in its annual report of tactics including economic leverage, surveillance and elite capture. 
  • Last week Norway’s spooks made similar points. 
  • Even in super-cautious Finland the country’s spymaster, Antti Pelttari, said (unnamed) “authoritarian countries” were trying to “get hold” of its critical infrastructure. 

Outside the spy world, the new Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, stressed his country’s foreign policy “anchors” (a shift from his predecessor’s flirtation with China). The Icelandic prime minister highlighted human rights worries and the importance of preserving multilateral values.  

The level of public concern is unprecedented. But two factors pull in opposite directions:

  • Europe can’t be neutral in a tussle between the US and China. 
  • China has just overtaken the US as the EU’s top trading partner. 

In the hot seat: Portugal, regarded as one of the most China-friendly European countries, holds the rotating EU presidency until the summer.

As the crackdown intensifies in Hong Kong, Britain’s relations with China are freezing over. The mainland authorities loathe the British National (Overseas) passports, colonial relics that bring fast-track residency; 3 million Hong Kongers hold or are eligible for these, and 300,000 are expected to use them to come to Britain. The Chinese propaganda machine is cranking out scare stories: the weather in Britain is terrible (true) and Hong Kongers who move there will end up stateless (false). The latest twist, the FT reports, is that a further 20,000 people without BN(O) status are planning to claim asylum in Britain. 

Central Asian countries are choosing Russian jabs over Chinese ones, but it’s another story in the Balkans, where China’s early lead has eroded. Elsewhere: Ukraine agreed to buy 1.9 million doses of Sinovac at a hefty $17.85 per jab, but the deal is now mired in controversy

The standout success for China is Hungary, the first EU country to use the Chinese jab. Prompt and plentiful deliveries, contrasting with the shambles elsewhere in Europe, have boosted prime minister Victor Orbán’s chances of reelection this year. Big deliveries are heading to Turkey too — which may be bad news for Uyghur exiles there.

Taiwan says China leaned on the German firm BioNTech to delay supplies of its vaccine, after it had declined to use the mainland-approved “Greater China” distributor. The Beijing authorities are also offering free jabs to Taiwanese living in China. Unintended consequence: the authorities in Taipei escape blame for the delayed roll-out and can instead criticize interference by the communist bullies on the mainland. 

58 states and the EU endorsed Canada’s “Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-To-State Relations.” This marked the 800-day incarceration of the “two Michaels”, Canadian citizens held in harsh conditions to pressure the Ottawa authorities in a row over a US extradition order on a Huawei executive. 
Notable non-signers included Hungary, the non-EU countries of the Western Balkans, plus Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and Russia. China decried “megaphone diplomacy” and said it had lodged “stern representations” with the Canadians about the “hypocritical and despicable” move. 

We asked the Hungarian government for a comment: no reply.

What we’re reading: Germany is waking up. The public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk has a long and startling investigation (link in German) into the soft-power aspect of video games (chats censored, swathes of personal data end up in China).

Meanwhile, German academics are demanding, with great thoroughness (link also in German)  a new and more critical “Chinakompetenz”. This echoes what elsewhere is called (in English, phew) New Sinology. Keep an eye on Germany’s ties with Taiwan, set for a modest upgrade, and the looming ban on Huawei.

Also don’t miss: 

  • A grim account by Benedict Rogers on religious persecution – of Christians as well as Muslims. 
  • This long take by Adit Adityanjee on Indian worries about China’s Arctic activities. 
  • discussion on the catastrophic environmental costs of Chinese investment in Central Asia. 
  • And this FT story on China’s new privacy-munching digital currency – what happens when foreigners start using it?  

That’s it for this week — thanks to Coda Story’s Isobel Cockerell, Oleksandr Ignatenko and Mariia Pankova. We will be back in your inboxes next Thursday.

Best regards,