Janka Oertel is director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
In the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Europe has become an unexpected battleground for a different kind of threat: a propaganda war.
As Beijing tries to shape the narrative of the outbreak, it has ramped up its efforts to influence how Europeans think and talk about China and the pandemic in ways that are alarming policymakers across the bloc.
Of course, intimidation tactics are not new to China’s foreign policy toolkit. Neighboring countries in particular know a thing or two about it. And even in Europe, Beijing has a track record of picking off smaller European states to prove a point.
Norway was put in the diplomatic “freezer” for years after the Nobel committee awarded Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize; Sweden is dealing with a Chinese ambassador so openly offensive he seems to be deliberately trying to derail the relationship; and Estonia has faced significant pressure to amend an intelligence report that warned about China’s growing influence.
Europe is, in some ways, an unlikely target.
Since the start of the pandemic, however, Beijing has ramped up its efforts in a way that sets a new standard in scale and timing. Chinese diplomats have spread claims that the virus originated in Italy and attempted to make German policymakers applaud China’s crisis management. In France, Chinese diplomats have ridiculed the ability of liberal democracies to respond to the emergency.
Beijing’s attempt to pressure the European External Action Service to water down a report that clearly lists Chinese influence activities was one of the latest — but certainly not the last — in a series of attacks on the EU.
Europe is, in some ways, an unlikely target. Unlike the United States, leaders there did not blame Beijing for its handling of the health emergency at the start of the crisis. Europeans also consistently tiptoe around the most contentious problems in order to keep collaboration on climate change and multilateralism alive, but also to avoid fatal disruptions in the economic relationship.
And yet, instead of making strategic use of Europe’s cooperative stance, Beijing’s aggressive, ham-fisted and sometimes outright inept campaign to stamp out any hint of criticism has irritated policymakers from Paris to The Hague, Brussels and Berlin.
So, why is Beijing doing this? While it’s difficult to untangle the specific reasoning behind China’s decision-making, there are at least three possibilities.
The first is that Beijing is operating with a sense of panic. The Communist Party leadership has faced severe criticism over its handling of the pandemic, and it is increasingly nervous about domestic repercussions and the potential economic impact, which is likely to be significant.
In this sequence of events, the crisis has exposed massive challenges China had swept under the rug of economic growth for decades: authoritarian overreach, economic inequality, local debt, and deficiencies in the social and health care system, to name just a few.
As Chinese dissident author Ma Jian argued in February, President Xi Jinping is following the party’s tradition of burying the truth to solidify its leadership. But as the virus spread around the world, burying the truth in nationalist domestic propaganda became more difficult. To remain in control and demonstrate the supremacy of its system, Beijing took its domestic tactics global — because making others look bad makes China’s leaders look better at home.
The second possibility is that the Chinese leadership is angry — especially about the way the United States is trying to blame Beijing for the virus, as Washington papers over its own incapacity to prepare for the pandemic and handle its fallout.
Even before the pandemic, the battle between the U.S. and China had already moved far beyond the initial trade war into the territory of systemic confrontation. The Chinese leadership, worried that Washington is seeking to exploit a moment of weakness, may have decided to proactively lash out against the U.S. and its allies alike.
Europe, in this scenario, is to a degree collateral damage in the bigger struggle between these two global powers — a struggle in which Europe will not be neutral, as Beijing sees it, but will necessarily take Washington’s side.
The final option is that Beijing is simply taking a calculated risk. China’s shift into offense, the thinking here goes, comes at a time of European weakness. As such, it is a strategic and deliberate move to bully Europe into compliance at a time when there is little unity and a lot of nervousness among EU countries.
This could explain Beijing’s initial attempts to score points with countries most affected by the virus — such as Italy — by sending face masks and other medical gear, in an effort to demonstrate the benefits of friendly relations with China.
This strategy rests on the assumption that times have changed, and that Europe needs China more than China needs Europe — especially when it comes to its economic recovery post-crisis. The fact that Europe’s top diplomatic personnel allowed a recent op-ed by EU ambassadors celebrating the anniversary of EU-China diplomatic relations to be censored before it was published in the China Daily demonstrates that this assumption is not fully unwarranted.
The toughening of Europe’s stance toward China over the last two years, which saw the EU label it a “systemic rival,” was not in Beijing’s interest. Now, the Chinese leadership may see a chance for course correction. If Europe gives in, it can continue to do business as usual.
All of the above
The most likely explanation is that all these dynamics — an eye toward the domestic audience, a limited degree of panic, a dose of anger and the desire to make the most of a strategic opportunity — are informing Beijing’s current approach.
What is unclear, however, is whether this is a temporary offensive that will ebb as the pandemic fades, or is part of the “new normal” awaiting Europe in the future.
In the short term, those in Europe who had been sounding the alarm bell about China before the crisis have been handed more leverage to pursue a confrontational agenda, while supporters of deeper engagement may find it harder to make their case. Already, the calls for reducing the bloc’s dependency on China and diversifying its economy are growing louder.
Ultimately, economic relations between China and Europe are still strong. It will take more than just a few diplomatic missteps to completely derail them. But if the past few weeks are a sign of a permanent shift toward a strategy of intimidation, views in Europe may well harden against China even more broadly. In the end, Beijing may find it has made a huge strategic mistake: Losing Europe to win the battle of narratives would be a big price to pay.