China commands a comprehensive and flexible toolkit. The CCP apparatus is geared towards building lasting leverage. Often, the Chinese side focuses on building relationships with political elites, scholars, or business leaders that “someday, some way, might become valuable” with a view to exercising pressure or courting favors. The Chinese leadership often waits to see whether the unfolding professional or private interests of its contacts might naturally align with Beijing’s.

Overall, China is interested in a stable  if pliant and fragmented EU and the large and integrated European single market that it underpins. Beijing is acutely aware that Europe has many assets like technology and intellectual property, which China needs for its industrial upgrading, at least in those domains in which it has not yet established its own technological leadership.

Beijing’s influencing tools range from the overt to the covert. The overt measures include public diplomacy to advance economic, political, or security interests. Among these are spreading Chinese official viewpoints via social media or organizing highprofile workshops with Chinese and European officials to market pet projects . The much less public and more covert efforts include obscuring party-state stakes within the ownership structures of Chinese companies making investments in Europe or Chinese intelligence befriending European officials and others via social networks.

Chinese political influencing is particularly visible across three arenas :

1. Political and economic elites;

2. Media and public opinion;

3. Civil society and academia.

Chinese efforts across these three arenas target all EU member states as well as the EU’s immediate neighborhood. However, the build-up of influence is happening particularly fast in smaller or economically and politically more fragile countries, where efforts bear fruit more quickly and translate into political leverage that helps fragment European unity where it is convenient for China.

Importantly, most of China’s influence comes through open doors. Europe’s gates are wide open, whereas China seeks to tightly restrict the access of foreign ideas, actors, and capital. Beijing profits from that the fact that there are willing enablers among Europe’s political and professional classes who are happy to promote Chinese values and interests, including challenges to principles such as transparency, pluralism, or human rights. They do so mostly for financial or other advantages, but at times also out of genuine political conviction. Not only is China actively trying to build up political capital; there is also a tremendous amount of influence-courting on the part of those political elites in EU member states who seek to attract Chinese money or attain greater recognition on the global plane and therefore propagate political ideas that deviate from the European mainstream. Rather than simply being bullied into submission, European states increasingly tend to adjust their policies in fits of ‘preemptive obedience’ to curry favor with the Chinese side.

Chinese leadership’s seeking of political influence 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 — way of political and economic governance to a growing number of third countries. This second point also helps prop up the CCP domestically. Gaining widespread national support for its approach to political governance and its model of economic development is becoming more and more important to China as it expands its global presence and furthers those interests which depend on cooperation from third countries, such as a favorable climate for Chinese investments.

Beijing pursues three related goals. The first is aimed at building support among third countries like EU member states on specific issues and policy agendas, such as gaining market economy status from the EU or recognition of territorial claims in the South China Sea. A part of this short-term goal is to build solid networks among European politicians, businesses, media, think tanks, and universities, thereby creating layers of active support for Chinese interests.  The second related goal is to weaken Western unity, both within Europe and across the Atlantic. Beijing realized early on that dividing the US and the EU would be crucial to isolating the US, countering Western influence more broadly, and expanding its own global reach.

The third goal is of a more systemic nature. It is geared towards creating a more positive global perception of China and presenting its political as well as economic system as a viable alternative to liberal democracies. In large part, this is motivated by the CCP’s continued fear of the appeal of so-called Western ideas like liberal and democratic values as well as of the popularity of European education or even of longterm brain drain as China’s elites settle abroad. From the vantage point of Beijing, European and Western ‘soft power’ has always had a sharp, aggressive edge, threatening the Chinese regime. At the same time, this goal is based on the idea that as China rises in economic and military terms, it should command more respect in the court of global public opinion. Activities geared towards long-term shifts in global perceptions include improving China’s global image through measures like media cooperation, making liberal democracy less popular globally by pointing out real or alleged inefficiencies in democratic decision making processes, and supporting illiberal tendencies in European countries.

Multiple Players Drive the Expansion of China’s Political Influence in Europe .The Chinese leadership has clear motivations and goals regarding its influencing efforts. At the same time, it is important to understand that it is not a monolith. China’s political influencing efforts in Europe are driven by an array of different players in the Chinese system. Most of the time, the actors involved complement each other’s efforts, but they might also generate friction or have different priorities.

  1. The first set of actors consists of party and state organizations focused on winning over political elites in Europe. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes use of official foreign policy channels, networking, and reaching out to diplomats via local Chinese embassies as well as preparing official visits and dialogues.
  2. The second set of actors revolves around Chinese global investments, including state ministries, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and private companies.
  3. A third set of actors involved in influencing operations consists of organizations associated with China’s internal and external propaganda apparatus. This includes the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP and the State Council Information Office, both of which are responsible for the implementation of propaganda efforts, for instance setting up media cooperation and forums with European countries. Party-state media are also involved. One key example is China Global Television Network (CGTN), a spinoff of the global branch of state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), which offers up-to-date, audiovisual “positive” news on China and its activities abroad in various European languages.
  4. A fourth set of actors is focused on identifying and potentially co-opting scholars and journalists to promote Chinese positions. Various institutions, including the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries as well as state think tanks like the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), drive this approach. Scholars might be approached either at conferences in China or Europe or, via social networks like LinkedIn.
  5. A fifth and final set of actors is concerned with influencing Chinese communities overseas. This work is primarily coordinated by the United Front Work Department and the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council.

Tools aimed at

Political Elites

  1. Building political leverage through economic investments and aligning with leaders willing to break EU unity.
  2. Proving political elites with an alternative model to liberal governance and European cooperation.
  3. Marginalizing critical voices with foreign administrations and supporting China-friendly officials or former top-level politicians.
  4. Putting dissenting governments into the freezer.

Media and public opinion

  1. Spreading China's official view and creating subtle dependencies by using newspaper supplements as vehicles.
  2. Turning European media into instruments of fostering friendship by promoting media cooperation agreements.
  3. Using the lure of the Chinese market to encourage (self-) censorship in film, art, and academic publishing.

Civil Society and academia

  1. Setting-up research exchange mechanisms and think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe to influence perceptions and agendas.
  2. Funding knowledge production in Brussels and deploying European pro-China lobbyists to boost Chinese views on critical issues in EU-China relations.
  3. Investing and shaping academic programs.
  4. Mobilizing student organizations to pressure Western European Universities on critical issues.




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