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What the Belarus plane interception could mean for Chinese dissidents

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: Kidnapping; Propaganda; Yoga; F9 Kowtow

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AIRSPACE VIOLATIONS

For critics of the Chinese party-state the Belarusian authorities’ abuse of aviation rules to snatch a campaigning journalist and his girlfriend is both familiar and worrying news. 

The authorities in Beijing have been kidnapping their opponents for years (the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, abducted in Thailand in 2015, is just one example); next up may be this hapless teenage dissident trapped in Dubai, where he unwisely changed planes en route to the US. 

Chinese pressure on Kazakhstan and Pakistan makes those countries now risky for refugees too. A Freedom House report in February cited more than 600 examples of what it calls “transnational repression.”

As Anne Applebaum notes in the Atlantic, the interdiction of an international flight adds a new element to the autocrats’ arsenal. If Alexander Lukashenko gets away with this — and it seems that he will —  others will find the tactic tempting. Anyone involved in what the Chinese Communist Party regards as “hostile” activity (Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights — it’s a long list) will have to rethink travel plans that cross Chinese airspace, or indeed of any other country where Beijing has influence.

DIPLOMATIC NEWS

China’s relations with Europe are tanking. 

  • The European Parliament froze talks on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), stalling a seven-year negotiation. 
  • Estonia says it too has “reduced participation to a minimum” in the 17+1, following Lithuania’s formal withdrawal from the Beijing-run beauty contest for eastern Europe. Global Times published a sulfurous warning about how small countries who get uppity are tempting fate.
  • Undeterred, Lithuania blocked “unreliable” suppliers (ie Huawei) from its 5G networks, as has the Netherlands
  • News of a (probably) Chinese state-sponsored hack of Belgian government computers has underlined the cyber-threat from Beijing. 
  • The foreign affairs committee of Italy’s parliament is the latest to condemn human rights abuses of Uyghurs and others.  
  • Britain’s launched a new government office to help universities to protect their intellectual property. Officials say arrests are looming within weeks for some people who’ve got too involved in the party-state’s drive to steal technology. 

But China’s foreign minister Wang Yi was unstoppable in his virtual appearance at the Munich Security Conference online event. China never forces countries to take sides (except on Taiwan) and ”never started a war or encroached upon a single inch of foreign soil”  (which will be news to Vietnam). And the EU sanctions on China are illegal because they didn’t go through the UN. In a final sideswipe, he told Europe that it “knows what genocide is.”

China celebrated a diplomatic victory, yet again preventing Taiwan from taking part in the World Health Assembly. But Taiwanese diplomats were pleased at the support: the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, the Czech Republic and Japan joined the Chinese democracy’s handful of formal diplomatic allies. 

And here’s a vignette of how Chinese pressure works at the UN. The World Yoga Community was blocked from “special consultative status” until it changed its designation of “Taiwan” to a “province of China.” A swift purvottanasana (“Intense East Stretch”) and the deed was done. 

WOLF WARRIOR WATCH

In Fast and Furious 9, John Cena plays a master thief, assassin, and high-performance driver. But the outspoken professional wrestler was out of character when he posted a groveling apology on Weibo for a dreadful error. The video (in creditable Mandarin) was larded with praise for China and expressions of remorse, but didn’t actually explain the (potentially career-breaking) mistake — a fleeting reference to Taiwan as a “country.”

The excruciating kowtow has drawn attention to the party-state’s neurotic attitude to terminology, and to the star’s spinelessness, while failing to appease China’s nationalist netizens. It wins this week’s Wolf Warrior award.

WHAT WE’RE READING 

Disinformation: The International Federation of Journalists exposes China’s use of the pandemic for propaganda, while the Doublethink Lab outlines the information operations directed against Taiwan during last year’s election.

Eastern Europe: Chinese influence and investment in the region is often wildly overstated (like this piece on Chinese influence in Serbia). A new report on the V4 countries offers some insights – eg into how the Hungarian government uses China ties to boost its image at home (watch the authors discussing it here).      

Long arms: The pro-Beijing Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) tried to stop exiled Hong Kong activist Nathan Law speaking at a US university. We hope he gets home safely.

Technology: A chilling BBC report about how Artificial Intelligence is used to identify emotions: it’s being tested on Uyghurs. A mammoth study by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and EmergingTechnology unpicks China’s foreign technology wish-list.

Coda Story’s Isobel Cockerell, Makuna Berkatsashvili, Mariam Kiparoidze, Oleksandr Ignatenko, and Mariia Pankova, 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 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