Belt & Road in trouble, China opens a university in Hungary and bans Ghengis Khan in France

Hello, and welcome to China Influence Monitor, a collaboration between CEPA and Coda Story. I’m Edward Lucas, the curator of this weekly newsletter tracking how Chinese policy and influence is affecting politics, the economy, and alliances across Russia and into Europe — and what that means for the world.

Culture wars 

China’s thin-skinned approach to geography and history is notorious. But attempts to censor a French exhibition highlighting the empire-building Mongol leader Genghis Khan mark a new level of sensitivity — and incidentally highlights mounting repression of his descendants in Chinese-occupied inner (southern) Mongolia.

Why it matters The real frontline of China’s conflict with the West is not rows over trade, Huawei and the South China Sea. Beijing authorities see intellectual and academic freedoms taken for granted in free societies as potent threats. 

China’s aim is to control all discussion of anything related to China, anywhere in the world — a sweeping ambition that Genghis Khan himself might have appreciated.

What happened The Nantes History Museum was collaborating with the specialist Inner Mongolia museum in Hohhot, China on an exhibition called  “Son of the Sky and the Steppes.” Chinese officials demanded the removal of supposedly offensive words such as … er … “Genghis Khan”, “Empire” and “Mongol”. 

They followed up with a demand for complete control over the texts, maps, catalog and public communications. 

The Beijing heritage office then supplied a different synopsis featuring what the museum director Bernard Guillet called “elements of biased rewriting aimed at making Mongolian history and culture completely disappear for the benefit of a new national story.”

The good news The exhibition will go ahead — featuring material from other collections — in 2024. 

Talking point The repression of the Mongolian population inside China is a huge issue for the neighboring Republic of Mongolia, which sits uncomfortably between Russia and China. Outright resistance is futile, passivity fatal. Some Western support would be welcome.  

Pushback

A new academic-freedom initiative by 100 China scholars from 71 universities highlights the particular danger of the extraterritorial provisions of Hong Kong’s national security law. This potentially criminalizes any discussion of sensitive China-related issues, even by foreigners on foreign campuses.

The dilemma What level of national-security attention is compatible with university autonomy and academic freedom? Should faculty and students from mainland China be subject to vetting? Is it possible (or desirable) to allow students to submit term papers and other material anonymously? 

Crumbling concrete 

Seven years since its  launch, China is refashioning the troubled Belt and Road Initiative. Xi Jinping’s hallmark global infrastructure program faced increased competition and growing scepticism — even before the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Murky financing, environmental and social costs, and fears of  “debt-trap diplomacy” were just some of the worries. The high profile €4bn Budapest-Belgrade railway, for example, is under fire as outsized, overpriced and shrouded in secrecy. 

Now the pandemic has delayed construction, tightened finances and hampered the movement of labor. It prompted a high-profile power-station cancellation in Bangladesh and Pakistan’s request to renegotiate a $30 billion loan.

Cue more emphasis on digital and health cooperation. But foreign countries are increasingly worried about Chinese presence in their communications infrastructure. Health care is more promising, with new deals with Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. 

Central Asia is still a Belt and Road hotspot. Much awaited railway infrastructure modernization on the Kazakh-Chinese border will boost the rail link with new-best-friend Iran (the second direct train from China to Turkmenistan arrived last month). 

China is also modernizing a power station in Tajikistan’s Khatlon region, with 100 workers brought in despite quarantine restrictions. 

Another hotspot is in the western Balkans. Serbia has signed a deal for a new Belgrade expressway project and Croatia has taken delivery of a newly renovated Chinese LNG terminal. And a purpose-built Chinese tunnel-digger has arrived in Poland to connect two towns on the Baltic coast. 

Meanwhile in central Europe: the first train left the Austrian city of Linz for a two-week trip to Qingdao seaport. And in Budapest, where the authorities found bureaucratic pretexts to chase away the Soros-backed Central European University, Shanghai’s Fudan University is to open its first campus outside China in 2024. 

To mark its opening, why not investigate one of the great mysteries of history — why the Mongol empire withdrew from Hungary.  

What we’re reading: A new report by the Hungarian thinkshop Political Capital highlights authoritarian (mainly Russian and Chinese) influence in the European Union. Key takeaway: The European Parliament is the EU’s conscience and should have a bigger role in foreign policy. 

Also: Poland’s Institute of New Europe has mapped trips by Xi Jinping, Li Kequiang, Wang Yi in the 2013-2020 period. A Swedish-financed Ukrainian study of Chinese influence counsels caution. China is not an easy alternative to Russia.  

Where we’re going (virtually) The Three Seas Summit in Tallinn on October 19 showcases Western efforts to push back against China’s 17+1 infrastructure beauty contest by boosting connectivity between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Sea.

Guests and menu US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and European Commission Vice-President Margrethe Vestager are attending. Estonia wants to highlight digital connectivity. 

Conversation starter/stopper What happens next? The Three Seas countries and their backers need to stop limping and start serious work, with a permanent secretariat, government buy-in and a strategy for wider membership and deeper integration, don’t expect that to be discussed on the livestream. 

Thank you for reading, and make sure to sign up if you want to receive China Influence Monitor every week.

Edward Lucas

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. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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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).