Xinhua/Li Xueren via Getty Images

China had a busy diplomatic week in EU

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: Charm; Diplomacy; Spies; Lies

To get China Influence Monitor delivered straight into your inbox sign up here

SMOKE SIGNALS 

Stoked by leaks from spookdom and growing circumstantial evidence, once-sceptical scientists and journalists are taking another look at the theory that the Covid-19 virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan. The case is still wide open — President Biden has ordered US intelligence to come up with an answer in 90 days. 

But already there should be red faces. Facebook wrongly applied fact-check warnings to discussion of the lab-leak hypothesis. The British medical journal the Lancet in 2020 published an open letter denouncing it as a conspiracy theory; its editor Richard Horton wrote a piece decrying Sinophobia and arguing:

“The world owes Chinese and Hong Kong scientists a debt of gratitude for their carefully calibrated warnings. But today’s global narrative is exactly opposite to that judgment.”

The Lancet loudly bangs other political drums, such as on the “ongoing torture and medical neglect of Julian Assange”. We asked for examples of pieces similarly critical of Beijing. A spokeswoman tells us the paper has been “clear” that China has “legitimate questions to answer” about Covid and other issues. 

We’re looking forward to this (to us so far invisible) no-holds-barred coverage and hope it doesn’t get the magazine’s Beijing office into trouble.

CHARM (OFFENSIVE)

Xi Jinping came close to admitting that Wolf Warrior bombast doesn’t work, telling the Communist Party leadership of the need to “make friends” and paint a more positive image of China. Certainly China’s Covid-related “twiplomacy” has been chaotic and counterproductive

But for now, the charm offensive still stresses offense rather than charm. In particular, an inoffensive EU-Japan communique prompted this bossy outburst from the Chinese embassy in Brussels, saying the two sides had “completely gone beyond the norm of developing bilateral relations.” It wins this week’s Wolf Warrior award. 

DIPLOMATIC NEWS

Some rare crumbs of good news for Beijing this week. 

  • Norway expressed concern about NATO taking on too much (meaning China-related security). 
  • Italy gave conditional and limited approval for some Huawei tech in its 5G network. 
  • Spain suggested it could help move the stalled EU investment agreement forward. 

After several weeks on the back foot, China launched a diplomatic mini blitz last week, with a flurry of phone calls, a trip to Croatia and Slovenia by Communist Party foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi, and visits to China by the foreign ministers of Hungary, Ireland, Poland, and Serbia.

Poland is the oddity here — why is a stalwart US ally in the region flirting with America’s greatest adversary? The main reason is pique in Warsaw about being snubbed by the Biden administration. Nonetheless, foreign minister Zbigniew Rau went overboard with his explicit praise for the crumbling 17+1. 

Serbia is no surprise, signing a deal on law-enforcement and security cooperation (that’s surveillance) the Hungary meeting was notably warm, with foreign minister Péter Szijjártó giving a medal to his Chinese counterpart, and announcing that a Hungarian factory would make the Sinopharm vaccine.

But on the ground in Budapest, it’s another story. The opposition-run Hungarian capital is welcoming the controversial new Chinese university by changing some street names. New roads include  “Uyghur Martyrs,” “Free Hong Kong,” the Dalai Lama and Xie Shiguang, a much-jailed bishop of the underground Catholic Church.

The big picture, though, is that EU-China relations are in the deep freeze, as Noah Barkin notes in his useful monthly round-up, with still no reply from Beijing to a summit invitation issued in December. The US and the EU are cooking up a plan in advance of next week’s G7 summit in Cornwall. Cooperation on infrastructure, trade and supply-chain resilience are the ingredients. But the Americans are increasingly fed up with European foot-dragging. Australia, Japan and India are more useful allies. 

SPY NEWS 

Two reminders of why we worry about Chinese espionage activities in Europe: 

  • The trial of an ex-employee of Huawei began in Warsaw. Prosecutors allege that Wang Weijing spied for China for seven years, trying to penetrate government technology infrastructure and also recruiting a former Polish intelligence officer to gain information about government radio networks. Both men deny wrongdoing.
  • Colleagues at Sinopsis in Prague unearthed a picture of Dr Junzong Feng, a visiting researcher at Cambridge University’s NanoEngineering Group, in PLA uniform. His specialty is graphene. Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper has since found nine research papers co-authored by staff at the Cambridge Graphene Centre and academics at PLA-linked universities. Dr Feng didn’t comment; Cambridge University says he had no access to laboratories or group meetings. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • As the June 4th anniversary of the massacres in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere approaches, this guide from the Doublethink Lab (the snazzy graphics are a particular treat) explains how to deal with the party-state’s trolls.
  • This great piece by Elizabeth Economy on the underlying and growing problems facing the party-state.
  • The Washington Post on Hollywood’s habit of groveling to China.
  • This heartrending account in Elle on a daughter’s search for her kidnapped mother. Rahile Dawut, an internationally renowned Uyghur anthropologist, disappeared on the way to the airport.  
  • Kevin Rudd tells the BBC that democracies must stick together in dealing with Beijing’s bullies.
     

Coda Story’s Isobel Cockerell, Makuna Berkatsashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Mary Steffenhagen 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.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

Support Coda

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