by Thorsten Benner, Jan Gaspers, Mareike Ohlberg, Lucrezia Poggetti, Kristin Shi-Kupfer
GPPi & MERICS
China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests. While Beijing’s efforts have received much less scrutiny than the efforts of Putin’s Russia, Europe neglects China’s increasing influence at its own peril. Drawing on its economic strength and a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatus that is geared towards strategically building stocks of influence across the globe, Beijing’s political influencing efforts in Europe are bound to be much more consequential in the medium- to long-term future than those of the Kremlin.
China commands a comprehensive and flexible influencing toolset, ranging from the overt to the covert, primarily deployed across three arenas: political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia. In expanding its political influence, China takes advantage of the one-sided openness of Europe. Europe’s gates are wide open whereas China seeks to tightly restrict access of foreign ideas, actors and capital.
The effects of this asymmetric political relationship are beginning to show within Europe. European states increasingly tend to adjust their policies in fits of “preemptive obedience” to curry favor with the Chinese side. Political elites within the European Union (EU) and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests. EU unity has suffered from Chinese divide and rule tactics, especially where the protection and projection of liberal values and human rights are concerned. Beijing also benefits from the ‘services’ of willing enablers among European political and professional classes who are happy to promote Chinese values and interests. Rather than only China trying to actively build up political capital, there is also much influence courting on the part of those political elites in EU member states who seek to attract Chinese money or to attain greater recognition on the global plane.
The Chinese leadership’s political influence-seeking in Europe is driven by two interlocking motivations. First and foremost, it seeks to secure regime stability at home. Second, Beijing aims to present its political concepts as a competitive, and ultimately superior, political and economic model. Driven by these motivations, Beijing pursues three related goals. First, it aims to build global support on specific issues and policy agendas. This includes fostering solid networks among European politicians, businesses, media, think tanks, and universities, thereby creating layers of active support for Chinese interests. Second, China seeks to weaken Western unity, both within Europe, and across the Atlantic. Third, Beijing pushes hard to create a more positive global perception of China’s political and economic system as a viable alternative to liberal democracies.
In the debate on Beijing’s influencing, Chinese officials have complained about Western actors questioning “normal economic co-operation and cultural exchanges with other countries.” This negates the fact that, from the perspective of liberal democracies, all areas of interaction with China are potentially problematic and deserve scrutiny. After all, China’s political model is based on an authoritarian regime intent on strengthening a deeply illiberal surveillance state at home while also exporting – or at least trying to popularize – its political and economic development model abroad. Thus, today, all areas of Europe’s interaction with China have strong political undertones.
If Europe intends to stop the momentum of Chinese influencing efforts, it needs to act swiftly and decisively. In responding to China’s advance, European governments need to make sure that the liberal DNA of their countries’ political and economic systems stay intact. Some restrictions will be necessary, but Europe should not copy China’s illiberalism. While staying as open as possible, Europe needs to address critical vulnerabilities to Chinese authoritarian influencing through a multi-pronged strategy that integrates different branches of government, businesses, media, civil society, culture/arts as well as academia:
The full joint report by GPPi and MERICS is available for download.
Research for this publication was partly funded by Stiftung Mercator.
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