Brother Xi, uncle Putin and mother-in-law Brussels: who wins European hearts?

Chinese and Russian ‘aid propaganda’ hijacks European corona crisis

© Reuters

China, Russia and the EU are engaged in an aid race. The Chinese came to coordinate the corona policy. The Russians came with military jets and a media circus. The Europeans came and pointed out that they had funded more than Russia and China put together.

Sirens of police cars. Armed soldiers patrol in deserted streets. All people aged sixty-five and over are not allowed out. For other residents, curfew starts at six o’clock. With pots, pans and whistles, people make themselves heard on their balconies. They don’t applaud, they protest. In the capital, a pro-government newspaper put up large billboards: ‘Thank you, brother Xi’, a reference to the Chinese president.

This is not China. This is Serbia, a candidate member state of the European Union. After having initially minimized and ridiculed the threat of the coronavirus – ‘Facebook virus’, ‘an invention of social media’ – the Serbian government introduced the strictest lockdown in all of Europe and, after China, perhaps in the whole world.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić says he follows the advice of his ‘Chinese friends’. On 15 March, he made a statement that hit hard in Brussels: ‘European solidarity is a fairy tale. I sent a letter to the only one who can help us. And that is China. Without our Chinese brothers, we are helpless’.

The European Commission called Vučić’s words ‘unfounded polemics’, but at the time, there was indeed little sign of solidarity between EU member states. ‘If I would try to convince a friend of the benefits of EU membership for Serbia and that friend calls me crazy because he saw how EU member states were treating Italy, I wouldn’t know what to say,’ notes Serbian journalist Ilir Gashi.

Blackmail

A week later, Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of EU member state Bulgaria, did the same by turning to Russia.

‘The network of companies linked to the Bulgarian government is experiencing financial problems due to the corona crisis,’ says Bulgarian investigative journalist Assen Yordanov of news site Bivol. ‘Prime Minister Borissov wants to blackmail the EU to get more subsidies. And those companies have ties to Russian oligarchs.’

Serbia and Bulgaria strengthen their ties with China and Russia to get two things from the EU: more money, less control of democracy.

Yordanov handed over seventy gigabytes of information on fraud involving European funds in Bulgaria to the European Anti-Fraud Office. Supported by hard evidence, he says. ‘Otherwise I’d be ruined in court.’ 

Yordanov and Gashi no longer feel safe in the climate of authoritarianism in their countries. ‘Since the beginning of the corona crisis, the Bulgarian media have also been promoting an enormous increase in Russian disinformation and attacks on independent journalists,’ says Yordanov. 

Gashi publishes a daily podcast on the social and political consequences of the corona pandemic in Serbia. He also keeps a close eye on Chinese activities in his country, as far as possible. For example, there is no information anywhere about the Chinese team of experts in Belgrade. ‘Nobody knows who they are or what their role is. Sometimes it seems that the Chinese are governing our country. We don’t even know if we bought or got that Chinese “support”.’

‘The corona crisis is giving President Vučić a geopolitical lever,’ says Europe-watcher Paul Butcher of the European Policy Center, a think tank. ‘He strengthens his ties with China to remind the EU that Serbia always has another option and to get two things from the EU: more financial support and less control of democracy.

‘Vučić needs the European money,’ Butcher continues. ‘If this falls away, the Serbian economy and Vučić’s power will collapse. He is playing with fire by threatening the EU with his “Chinese friends”. But he gambles that the EU will concede. Usually it does. And if the EU doesn’t legitimize his anti-democratic actions, he threatens to turn to Russia and China even more.’

The American NGO Freedom House reported that Serbia is no longer a democracy, but a “hybrid regime”. Gashi denounces European inaction: ‘I read the reports of the meetings between President Vučić and the delegation of European ambassadors. Not a word about the authoritarian measures.’

Chinese aid propaganda

Sven Biscop, researcher at the Egmont Institute, considers it likely that Vučić stepped into a Chinese propaganda operation: ‘The image of the Chinese government was tarnished by their attempt to silence the coronavirus outbreak. That’s why China is now doing everything in its power to erase that from the history books. And to replace it with the image that China has everything under control and even advises Western governments. Also, we don’t see any international aid initiative from the Americans. This is a historic opportunity for China.’

The Serbian weekly Novi magazin reported that China ranks only fifteenth of all donors to Serbia. Russia dangles even lower.

China was looking to European governments to help them seize that opportunity. Serbia participates willingly, of course because, as said, President Vučić also has something to gain.

But the image does not match reality. Over the past eighteen years, the Balkan country has received €3.6 billion in European pre-accession assistance, which has helped, among other things, to improve its healthcare system. Novi magazin, a Serbian weekly, reported that China ranks only fifteenth of all donors to Serbia. Russia ranks even lower.

But the perception is different. ‘Polls consistently show that 21 percent of Serbs think Russia is the biggest donor,’ says Ilir Gashi. ‘The EU makes its support very visible in Serbia, so that’s not the problem. Rather, there has been an attitude of distrust towards the West for decades, especially since the NATO bombings of Serbia in the 1990s. China’s playing that out now, too.’

European corona measures for the Western Balkans

On 29 March, a Boeing 747 from India landed at Belgrade airport with 90 tons of medical protective equipment on board. The delivery was paid for with European funds. Serbia received €93 million for this. 

In total, the EU mobilized €3 billion to support the health sectors and economic recovery throughout the Western Balkans. Serbia can now also participate in joint European purchases of protective equipment. At the recent EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb on 6 May, European leaders announced that export licenses would no longer be required for the export of medical equipment to the countries of the Western Balkans. President Vučić had complained about this. This was already discussed at the European Council of 24 March, when it was also announced that the long-delayed accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania would begin.

It seems that the EU is giving in to pressure from the Serbian signals. The official statement of the Zagreb Summit also leaves little to the imagination: ‘This support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region and deserves public recognition.’

 

Trojan horse

The Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow calls Serbia a ‘mafia state’.

‘European leaders are repeating the mistakes they made by admitting Bulgaria to the EU too quickly,’ he says. ‘I had many conversations with German politicians about this. They closed their eyes to Bulgaria’s many flaws because they were blinded by the idea that we must expand the EU in order to keep those countries out of the Russian and Chinese sphere of influence. They’re doing the same with Serbia now.’

‘But it’s counterproductive: if we integrate them into the EU too quickly, we will bring Russian and Chinese influence into the EU. We need a different approach: how do we define the identity of the EU in terms of values? If countries are clearly not willing to be part of it, we should dare to say: get lost.’

‘Through the Eastern European countries, China and Russia are bringing their Trojan horse into the EU.’

Journalist Assen Yordanov joins his compatriot: ‘The virus of Bulgarian corruption is spreading to Brussels. And the EU has no built-in immune system: there are no repercussions for the misuse of billions of European funds. The same will happen in Serbia. Corrupt politicians and businessmen are waiting for membership. The money flows will increase. And if the mafia structures don’t change, they’ll get even richer.’

An opaque, authoritarian state structure in the candidate countries helps China and Russia establish their influence there. For example, China and Russia use the EU integration of Eastern European countries to bring a Trojan horse into the EU, according to Ilir Gashi. 

Gashi proposes to freeze accession negotiations with authoritarian candidate countries and only restart them once the country has reached a certain level of democratic functioning. In the meantime, the EU should focus on strengthening civil society in the integration process, not on strengthening the state.

‘What if the political elite has hijacked the process without the intention of actually joining the EU? What if that elite simply uses the privileges attached to the integration process to reinforce its coup, and civil society itself is unable to participate?’

Czech president

Prague airport. 20 March. During a solemn ceremony, three high-ranking members of the Czech government welcome a Chinese flight with medical protective equipment. Prime Minister Babiš praises the Chinese ambassador standing next to him. ‘The Czech Republic is the only country that managed to purchase so much material from China, he proudly repeats in the media. There is even talk of a real ‘airlift’. Message: China helps, the EU doesn’t.


‘But China is not helping us, on the contrary,’ says Czech journalist Jakub Šimák of research platform Investigace.cz. ‘First of all, China didn’t donate those materials. They sold them. Thanking China for profiting from us in a commercial operation of hundreds of millions of euros is not exactly something to be proud of.’

China exported four billion face masks in March alone. Czech doctors said the material is of poor quality.

‘Secondly, a month earlier, Czech intelligence warned that Chinese people in the Czech Republic were buying medical equipment and respirators and sending them to China, while we would still need them here.

‘The Czech government thanked China for profiting from us. Not exactly something to be proud of.’

Why does the Czech Republic play this role so willingly? There is a connection between Czech president Miloš Zeman and Chinese state-owned companies. President Zeman brought the Chinese private company CEFC to the Czech Republic. It bought shares in Czech breweries, football clubs, airlines, real estate, travel agencies and media companies. Subsequently, the company was taken over by an investment group of the Chinese state.

‘China is trying to bind the elite in European countries,’ says Jakub Janda, director of the Czech think tank European Values in a webinar. ‘They recruit influential figures to represent their interests. The Czech president, for example. They get positions or benefits from Chinese state-owned companies.’

The Czech government promises that Chinese investment will make the economy grow. But according to Šimák, the Chinese promise of investment and wealth is not coming true. ‘More than that, corruption is on the rise. The EU’s new China strategy also warns against this.’

But Eastern European countries continue. Hungary reached an agreement with China for a loan to finance the construction of a railroad between Budapest and Belgrade. It is part of China’s ‘New Silk Road’ and the first major Chinese investment project in the EU.

‘The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Czech President Zeman not only praise Chinese investments, they also love the Chinese political system,’ says Jakub Šimák. ‘China is not perfectly democratic, but at least it can deal with crises, they claim. They actually mean that they are against the democratic governance of the EU.’

The Czech Republic quickly got a taste of its own medicine: the country is becoming increasingly vulnerable to Chinese intimidation. At the beginning of this year, Senate President Jaroslav Kubera announced his intention to pay an official visit to Taiwan, the de facto independent island considered by the Chinese government to be part of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese embassy threatened Kubera with a letter. There are indications that it was drawn up in cooperation with the chancellery of Czech President Zeman. Not much later, Kubera died of a heart attack.

But the Chinese pressure was counterproductive. The new Senate President said he is considering going to Taiwan himself. ‘We cannot let our foreign policy be poisoned by non-transparent foreign means’, Jakub Janda said.

Chinese goals

With its disinformation and corona aid to Western countries, China does not necessarily aim to spread the authoritarian form of government. Rather, it is grasping the historical opportunity to make it more difficult for the West to oppose Chinese interests in Africa, Taiwan or Hong Kong.

Taiwan, an island of 24 million inhabitants, recorded only two corona-related deaths. The Deputy Prime Minister is an epidemiologist. He acted when China was still covering up the outbreak. The U.S. government had a Zoom-meeting with him about how to deal with the corona crisis, to China’s displeasure.

‘Taiwan has handled the coronavirus crisis well’, says MEP Assita Kanko of the Flemish party N-VA. ‘If you plead for Taiwan to join the World Health Organization (WHO), China is there to threaten you.’

Hong Kong is effectively part of China, but the Chinese government officially recognizes its self-government. Recently, the Chinese government announced it would introduce a ‘national security law’ in Hong Kong. According to Jakub Janda, the EU should announce that it would grant asylum to Hong Kong residents threatened by China.

‘If you look at Hong Kong, you see what the new world order would look like if China took the lead,’ says Assita Kanko.

Many observers point out that it won’t go that fast. Above all, the Chinese and Russian aid propaganda should create an impression of a power balance tilting to the East, but in reality that balance will not change that much. China, the US, Russia and the EU are all economically weakened by the pandemic and the global consequences will not be as radical as one would expect.

 

Chinese Twitter diplomacy

‘Official and state-backed sources from various governments, including Russia and – to a lesser extent – China, have continued to widely target conspiracy narratives and disinformation at public audiences in the EU. Reports indicate that there are continued efforts at deflecting blame for the outbreak of the pandemic,’ says a recent report by the European External Action Service of Josip Borrell, High Representative of the European Commission for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The news site Politico revealed that some passages criticizing China were watered down after pressure from the Chinese government. ‘China is using the world’s largest diplomatic network to actively disseminate disinformation and put pressure on our institutions’, says MEP Hilde Vautmans, permanent rapporteur for China on behalf of the European Parliament. 

Vautmans expressed her concern to Borrell, who came to answer to the parliament a day later. He denied having bowed to Chinese pressure. ‘Listening is not the same as bowing down’, he said. Assita Kanko also asked a parliamentary question, ‘because we need to know whether the Chinese government made contact and what changes were made. What is China’s influence on European policy? That needs to clarified.’

There are also increasing calls to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. Such an investigation could make it clear to the whole world that Chinese mismanagement, in the beginning, contributed more to the spread of the virus than to its containment. This is what China wants to prevent at all costs.

When the Australian Foreign Minister recently called for such an investigation, China took economic punitive measures. On 12 May: an import ban on Australian beef (35% of all Australian beef exports to China are affected). On 18 May: an import tariff of over 80% on Australian barley.

Some EU member states fear the same would happen if they would ask for such an investigation. ‘But Australia does not give in to the economic blackmail. They did not abandon their call for an investigation after the Chinese punitive measures, even though they are economically highly dependent on China,’ says Janda.

Italy experienced it quickly became the object of fake news by accepting Chinese help.

More and more groups in the European Parliament want the European Commission to demand such an investigation. ‘But European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in an interview with Knack that “this time there are no culprits, not even the Chinese”. This statement is not reassuring,’ says Assita Kanko.

Italy, just like the Czech Republic, experienced that one quickly becomes the object of intimidation and fake news by accepting Chinese aid. New Twitter channels of the Chinese diplomacy spread the fake news that the coronavirus originates in Italy, much to the indignation of the Italian government.

That was the flip side of the images of thirty tons of Chinese medical aid to Italy and of the work of the Chinese doctors and nurses, portrayed by Chinese reporters who accompanied them to Italy.

In March, half of all Italians questioned regarded China as friendly, compared to barely 10 percent in January. Confidence in the EU institutions fell from 42 percent in September to 27 percent in March. This was the finding of a well-known Italian opinion pollster. It remains to be seen whether these percentages will change again.

Russian soldiers in Italy

Accepting Russian aid also poses security risks. At the end of March, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte accepted an offer from Russia. The Russian army flew medical aid to Italy. The military plane and all the boxes were labeled with the words From Russia with Love.

Russian media went into overdrive, with images of a military convoy of decontamination equipment and 122 Russian experts in bacteriological warfare heading for Bergamo. ‘We are hit over the head here with the message that the EU and the US are struggling with the corona crisis,’ says Russian human rights activist Oleg Kozlovsky, ‘that they don’t have enough protective equipment and that we are helping them, even if they treat us badly. Moscow acts where Europe and NATO fail, they say.’

Belgian military intelligence also noticed this, as reported in Knack last month. The result is that Italy becomes vulnerable to Russian blackmail and espionage. Blackmail: Russia expects Italy to convince other EU member states to lift the sanctions because of the Russian annexation of the Crimea.

But more importantly: espionage. Two sources within the Italian army confirmed to the Italian newspaper La Stampa that the Russian aid is of little use to Italy. ‘Our own army has perhaps the best nuclear, biological and chemical troops in NATO,’ said Andrea Armaro, former Italian army spokesman.

‘The Russian presence undermines Italy’s position in NATO. This is an exaggerated reaction of Italy to the lack of solidarity from EU member states.’

Italian defense specialists and high-ranking sources within the Italian army fear that Russian intelligence agents joined the relief convoy. They would be gathering information about the Italian armed forces.

‘There was a high geopolitical price to pay for accepting this aid,’ says Sven Biscop of the Egmont Institute. ‘This is an exaggerated reaction of Italy to the lack of solidarity from other EU member states. But this lack of solidarity was a temporary phenomenon, while the Russian presence could undermine Italy’s position in NATO for a long time to come.’

‘Clearly, this is more important to Russia than the lives of its own people,’ says Oleg Kozlovsky. ‘Russian hospitals themselves are struggling with large shortages of protective equipment and then see those planes fly to Italy. That makes for bad blood. Members of the Doctors Alliance, a kind of trade union associated with the opposition, were arrested while delivering protective equipment to hospitals. Hospital managers forbade their staff from accepting material from them, even if there are shortages. For the Kremlin, the image of the strong Russian state takes precedence over human lives. I always think of the television series Chernobyl when I hear that.’

Solidarity as a geopolitical force

‘France and Germany delivered two million masks to Italy, but that’s not in the news. More people know what China does once, than what the EU does all the time’, says MEP Cindy Franssen of the Flemish christian democrats. ‘Political parties should put the spotlight much more on what the EU means for their countries, but they don’t do that often enough. If Europe does something right, it’s because of the member states brave lobbying in “Brussels”. If Europe does something bad, then it’s because “Brussels imposed it on us”. That perception is our own mistake.’

‘An airplane with a nice logo works better on social media than the complicated distribution of European regional funds’, says Hilde Vautmans of the Flemish liberal party. ‘But when the corona crisis began in China, more than 56 tons of protective material from Europe were delivered to China. Member states in the EU are also helping each other through structural support. We should show this mutual solidarity in the EU much more as a geopolitical force.’

If we don’t, China and Russia will eagerly fill the gap. That’s what the corona crisis showed. As long as some European governments prefer to proudly show their dependence on China and Russia, rather than form a joint force in the European Union, it will remain difficult for the EU to be strong on the world stage.

Huawei blackmail

Chinese telecom company Huawei promised 500,000 face masks, 50,000 goggles, 30,000 medical suits and 120,000 gloves to hospitals in New York, even though the U.S. government sees the company as a threat to its national security. Much of it has already been delivered. Noteworthy: the company donated millions of face masks to countries that are still undecided onwhether they will allow Huawei in their 5G networks, including Canada and the Netherlands.

‘The blackmail is sometimes more aggressive,’ says Jakub Janda, director of the Czech think tank European Values. ‘If you don’t allow Huawei in your 5G networks, we will hit the German car industry in China. That’s what the German government was told by the Chinese ambassador in Berlin. Or they’re threatening to withdraw Chinese investments.’

‘We must not stop our trade with China. But European foreign ministers should investigate how dependent we are on China and how China can use that against us. And then reduce those Chinese levers on us.’

After all, the EU also has power over China. China is the EU’s second largest trading partner and the EU is China’s largest trading partner, the EU’s China strategy says. The Swedish government tried to stand up to China. After Chinese pressure, the Swedish government wants to monitor Chinese investments even more. This could lead to the Swedish company Ericsson, and not Huawei, gaining access to 5G networks.

 

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