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China’s week of mixed messages in Europe

China Influence Monitor is a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story, tracking the westward footprint of China’s influence operations. In this edition: UN collusion; NATO for Trade; Campus mischief

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ILL WIND BLOWING 

This week brought a sharp reminder of the party-state’s mushrooming influence in international organizations. An investigation by Madrid-based Safeguard Defenders highlights ties between the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)  and China’s National Supervision Commission (NSC). This runs the secretive extra-judicial  “liuzhi” system into which thousands disappear every year: an odd choice of partner for an international body that condemns arbitrary detention and forced disappearances. A spokesman for the Vienna-based UN body tells us that the deal “does not foresee” operational cooperation and the UNODC wouldn’t object to making it public.  

China’s personal and institutional clout in the UN bureaucracy has been growing for years. The pushback is overdue. 

But a record 40-plus countries did back a US-led motion criticizing China at last month’s UN Human Rights meeting in Geneva.  The party-state is fuming and details are emerging about some of the arm-twisting it employed: the AP reports that Ukraine withdrew its support when China threatened to curb vaccine delivery. (China denies this). 

Liu Yuyin of the Chinese mission in Geneva brusquely told the UN’s human rights envoy Michelle Bachelet to “respect facts” and to “stop making erroneous remarks against China”. He wins this week’s Wolf Warrior award for counter-productive diplomacy.  Bachelet is now signaling that she may start investigating conditions in Xinjiang (as China calls the homeland to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims) even if China continues to ban her from visiting. 

MEDICAL PROPAGANDA

The row about self-censorship in scientific publishing rumbles on. Last week we reported the Lancet’s grudging admission that Peter Daszak, the lead author of a pro-China open letter it published in February, had a potential conflict of interest. The British investigative journalist Ian Birrell has unearthed more strange behavior: six other signatories have similar ties. The Lancet, normally zealous to the point of self-righteousness in uncovering other people’s failings, is strangely silent on this so far.

And the former editor of the Annals of Genetics, Peter Curtis, describes how his publisher tried to muzzle criticism of China. 

ALL FOR ONE 

The outgoing head of NATO’s military committee, the British airman Stuart Peach, used his valedictory interview with the FT to highlight “shocking” improvements in China’s shipbuilding, military aviation and domestic surveillance capabilities. 

They may be needed in Afghanistan, where neighboring countries are mulling the future after the US withdraws. China’s favorite regional security body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, might finally find something to do. Doubtless talks with the Taliban will be fruitful.

There’s also growing interest in collective security as a way of dealing with Chinese economic power. The new EU-US trade and technology council is a litmus test of such efforts.The British parliamentary China Research Group has a paper proposing a more ambitious Democracies’ Alliance Treaty Organisation (DATO). Any trade sanctions from the party-state would prompt a NATO-style joint response, blunting the impact and imposing countermeasures. 

That’s not what happens now: when China sanctioned Australian barley imports, American exporters quickly snapped up market share.

DATO for now is just a trial balloon. But a Global Times op-ed lambasted the idea as stale, doomed and dreadfully damaging. The authors of the proposal will find that encouraging, at least.

ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE 

  • Italy was the first G7 country to formally sign up for the Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Now foreign minister Luigi di Maio says that though commercial ties with China are important, they are “absolutely incomparable with” Italy’s alliances with the U.S., NATO and the EU. Meanwhile his boss, prime minister Mario Draghi, bluntly criticized the ineffectiveness of Chinese (and Russian) vaccines. Foreign Policy explores Italy’s disappointments.
  • A stand-out exception to European countries’ shift towards a more hawkish China policy is Poland. Piotr Buras of the European Council on Foreign Relations offers some depressing insights into a confused, and confusing, foreign policy: one big ingredient is resentment at perceived US neglect. 

BUSINESS NEWS

HSBC’s kowtows are not enough — a Reuters investigation shows how the once-proud British (sort-of) bank is systematically excluded from Chinese deals.

Nike is trying to avoid that fate. During the sportswear manufacturer’s quarterly results presentation CEO John Donahoe grovelingly insisted “We’re a brand of China and for China.” Yet the company also denies allegations that its products are made by enslaved Uyghurs, stressing its respect for human rights. Let’s hope nobody spots the inconsistency.

We’ve written before about Turkey’s grandiose plans for a new canal to relieve pressure on the Bosphorus. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pressing ahead with the hugely costly project — and China’s the only obvious source of cash. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • US engagement with China “will end bleakly” argues Cai Xia, once a high-ranking CCP functionary, now living in exile, in her expert take on the cost of Western naivete. 
  • Bullying and other influence operations in Australian universities are uncovered in this Human Rights Watch investigation. It’s a similar story in New Zealand, though the authorities there are far more timid. The Czech government has an excellent new report on how to counter this behavior — we hope it comes out in English soon. 
  • Who would have thought that Tiktok’s Chinese owners could exert such malevolent influence on this harmless home for happy videos? CNBC has been digging.
  • If this poignant farewell to Apple Daily doesn’t make you tear up, then try the last broadcast interview with its now-jailed founder. The free-speech champions at Article 19 chronicle the “creeping darkness” in the supposedly autonomous territory. The New York Times describes the party-state’s growing influence as a form of collective brainwashing. 

Coda Story’s Makuna Berkatsashvili, Isobel Cockerell and Mariam Kiparoidze, and Michael Newton at CEPA contributed to this week’s China Influence Monitor, a joint project of CEPA and Coda Story. Sign up here to get the next edition straight in your inbox.

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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