If European political decision-makers want to counter problematic elements of China’s political engagement of both state and non-state actors, they need to act swiftly and decisively.

1. Leverage the (collective) weight of EU member states

To date, Chinese political influencing in Europe has made inroads predominantly in smaller and economically weaker European countries where political leverage can be built in exchange for promises of investment and job creation more easily. Making use of significant stocks of influence in some European capitals, Beijing has been increasingly successful in dividing Europe politically when key Chinese interests are at stake. For the EU, this has meant a blow to key interests and its credibility on the global stage.

Today the larger and wealthier EU members themselves only pay lip service to the idea of pulling EU member states’ collective weight on issues where Chinese action fails to resonate with European interests. Many member states engage in intensive bilateral formats with China in order to reap economic and political benefits. German officials, for example, argue that their own ‘strategic dialogue’ with China (which culminates in yearly cabinet-to-cabinet meetings) simply complements efforts at the EU level and takes place in close coordination with Brussels as well as EU partners. France and the UK have struck similar agreements in the past. However, smaller EU countries have always had a hard time buying this line of argument. For them, the 1+1 formats of larger EU members are an incentive to find their own privileged channels with China. Since relative size will limit the abilities of these countries to use bilateral channels, they are happy to be organized in China-led formats such as the 17+1. It is up to the bigger EU member states to take serious steps towards putting their privileged bilateral relations with China in the service of common European interests and thus lead by example.

2. Build up high-caliber, independent China expertise across Europe

Efforts to raise awareness about Chinese political influencing efforts in Europe can only succeed if there is sufficient impartial expertise on China in think tanks, universities, NGOs, and media across Europe. Right now, many European countries lack the necessary independent, high-caliber analytical capacity on China, as a growing amount of China-related research is also China-sponsored. All across Europe, China-supported Confucius Institutes as well as think tanks and university scholars with links to China dominate discussions, while an increasing number of journalists go through training programs designed and funded by the CCP. European governments, foundations, and other philanthropists who have themselves undergone appropriate screenings should make funding available to build independent expertise to counter Chinese-funded or -affiliated think tanks and university researchers. Initiatives that track Chinese influence activities in Europe like “ChinfluenCE” are a promising start. Besides academia and think tanks, independent, quality journalism can also play a major role in exposing Chinese influence. There is also a need to build stronger and broader networks among independent China analysts across Europe, especially between Western Europe and the 17+1 countries. There is also a powerful case for linking researchers working on China with others working on authoritarian influences across Europe. At the same time, European researchers need to work more closely with counterparts from other like-minded and affected countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada. This will give them an opportunity to exchange lessons learned, to set up a regular tracking system, and to develop best practices for countering authoritarian influence.

3. Offer an alternative to (the promises of) Chinese investments in European countries

As China’s political influence in Europe is to a significant extent a product of investments or promises of investment, the EU needs to continue to provide attractive offerings. In doing so, it can leverage the fact that by far most investment within the EU and its periphery still comes from within Europe. With a view to Central and Eastern European EU member states, the EU needs to be aware of the fact that any reduction in structural funds for countries such as Hungary can result in a greater opening for China. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already played the China card to put pressure on his EU partners, who are considering reducing structural funds in response to his authoritarianism and a post-Brexit recalibration of the EU budget: “Central Europe needs capital to build new roads and pipelines. If the EU is unable to provide enough capital, we will just collect it in China.” Similarly, the EU needs to make funds available to non-EU members on Europe’s periphery, where China is making inroads fast through its BRI. The EU will need to implement measures to align BRI investments in its neighborhood with European interests. This includes enabling third countries to properly evaluate, monitor, and prepare large-scale infrastructure projects, including those financed by China. To protect and promote EU norms and standards in the neighborhood, European institutions and EU member states needs to support related capacity building.

4. Bolster investment screening tools

The EU should have a flexible toolkit available to halt investments from China that run against European interests. As envisaged by European Commission proposals currently debated by EU member states, this includes a more extensive public interest test in addition to a more economically- and security-minded review. Any EU mechanism will need to be supplemented by enhanced investment screening mechanisms at the national level – especially in EU countries where no such mechanisms exist or where they have not been revised in recent times. While the EU should welcome foreign investment in general, it must be able to stop any state-driven takeover of companies in systemically important sectors. In addition to high-tech sectors as well as key parts of public infrastructure, this notably includes the media as an institution of critical importance to liberal democracies. Given their difficult business environment, many Western newspapers are easy takeover targets, offering a potentially powerful entry point for Chinese propaganda in the future. In addition, foreign funding of political parties from outside Europe, including from China, should be banned across the EU. Current regulations vary from country to country and only some member states have an outright ban on foreign funding.

5. Strengthen national and European security regimes

Counter-intelligence needs to be at the heart of any effort to counter Chinese influencing. EU members should put awareness-building measures in place to sensitize potential targets of Chinese intelligence activities, especially among individuals with frequent exposure to China. In particular, decision-makers and scholars should be briefed more systematically about common patterns of contact building and approaches by Chinese intelligence agencies or related actors. There is a need to establish and expand channels for reporting attempted approaches by the Chinese side as well as protective measures for affected persons in Europe. Europe should also put in place mechanisms for regularly exchanging relevant information between European countries. Building up cyber defense capacities — especially for key political actors, economic decision-makers, and civil society and academic organizations — is crucial to preventing the exfiltration of sensitive information that could be used for influencing activities. There is an urgent need to enhance cooperation between intelligence services across Europe on Chinese activities, both to arrive at a common understanding of the threat and to deliver joint responses where appropriate.

6. Introduce transparency requirements and build awareness among civil society actors and the broader public

For civil society actors and the wider public to get a full picture of authoritarian influencing, liberal democracies need to leverage one of the key assets of open societies: the power of critical public debate. Currently, knowledge of the different channels and effects of Chinese political influencing – and that of other foreign actors, for that matter – remains severely limited. Implementing transparency requirements concerning collaboration with Chinese actors for media agencies, universities, and think tanks, among others, would help raise awareness of the existence and often problematic purposes of the various influencing mechanisms Chinese state actors employ. Transparency requirements should relate to funding received from Chinese sources, any lobbying on behalf of China, or provision of professional services for Chinese interests. This would also cover non-profits and professional service companies in the domains of public relations, lobbying, banking and finance, or legal advice. Of course, such requirements should not only apply to China, but all funding from third countries. However, not all influencing will be exposed through such mandatory transparency requirements. More clandestine political and financial avenues of influencing in particular will remain opaque in many instances. There is a clear case for funding more investigative journalism and research uncovering influencing channels. To this end, “more collaboration across the boundaries of journalism, academic and policy research” is required. Governments as well as foundations and other philanthropic players dedicated to strengthening liberal democracy need to put the necessary funding in place. Researchers, NGOs, and media organizations could cooperate on building a tracking system on Chinese influencing. The available data should then be used to raise awareness of the channels and effects of Chinese influencing among civil society peers and the general public. That also entails exposing the manifold European enablers of Chinese influencing in Europe, such as lobbyists for the CCP, who have largely managed to avoid the public eye until now.

7. Provide support to Chinese communities in Europe

In the wake of intensified intelligence efforts from the Chinese party-state, Chinese citizens overseas have become frequent targets of Beijing’s influencing operations. Domestic “patriotic education” directives, namely education fostering nationalist and pro-CCP sentiment, have been extended to Chinese citizens and ethnic Chinese abroad. In addition, CCP officials increasingly approach Chinese citizens overseas in an effort to co-opt them into backing official propaganda in their host country or country of residence. While some may cooperate out of personal conviction, more reluctant members of overseas Chinese communities are subjected to pressure that is often also exerted on their wider family back in China. European governments should treat overseas Chinese communities as groups that are particularly vulnerable to being pressured or harassed by Chinese authorities. Specifically, European countries with a sizeable Chinese population should introduce report mechanisms as well as mechanisms that provide protection to Chinese communities from the long arm of the party-state on European soil. To better protect and support those whom Beijing may pressure, public institutions should implement an early warning system and assign a person of trust to which affected Chinese individuals or communities could report. Legal training targeting overseas Chinese communities to inform them of their rights and the tools for reporting and protection available to them in European liberal democracies should complement the early-warning system. European countries also need to strengthen the measures available to rein in clandestine surveillance or intimidation attempts against Chinese citizens or persons with ties in China undertaken by Chinese intelligence agencies within the borders of the EU. There must be a zero-tolerance approach vis-à-vis Beijing when it comes to such pressure on members of overseas Chinese communities in Europe. Publicly calling out the Chinese government is only one possible avenue for curbing such behavior. “Vigilance is wise; confidence a useful adjunct,” The Economist recently counseled in a piece on China’s influence in Europe. With the necessary defensive mechanisms in place, confidence should come more easily



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