The foreign ‘influence’ activities of the Chinese party-state draw increasing attention in the Europe. From controversies about the FBI’s ‘China Initiative’ in the United States to Australian laws against foreign interference, we can see from other countries that this is an emotional debate with far-reaching personal consequences for those affected by or involved in it. But the problem it touches upon is very real. To deal with it in the right way, we have to take extreme care with defining what we talk about.
Too much of the Chinese influence debate is framed in terms of national security. ‘Influence’ or ‘interference’ are nebulous terms. Much like words such as ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’, their definitions often depend on the perspective of the observer. There is an inherent political element. Therefore, I argue that we have to clearly separate between national security threats emanating from China and the political challenge it represents. Given the nature of the Chinese government and its ethno-nationalism that politics may often be reprehensible. But people who support it need to face a political response to their bad politics, not legal threats.
The People’s Republic of China is a threat that many European leaders have neglected for too long. We do indeed have to worry about the activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Europe and prepare for more. This ranges from espionage and infiltration to attempts to intimidate European citizens to which Beijing lays claims of loyalty. There is no reason to expect Beijing will comply with international law if it goes against its perceived interests.
The Party sees confirmation of its own superiority in China’s successes during the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic of 2020, in the face of what it classifies as ‘Western’ failure. At the same time they are acutely aware of the risks stemming from the internal power struggles and decentralised practice of the supposedly unitary Chinese party-state. The official nationalist myth of the Century of National Humiliaton tells patriotic Chinese that the Western powers and Japan continuously seek to diminish China, whereas the legacy of the Self-Strengthening Movement preaches learning from Western and Japanese techniques. These various contradictions lead to a manic schizophrenia that William Callahan calls ‘pessoptimism’.
A strong ethno-nationalism in a country that has never reckoned with its own imperialist past does not only feed internal oppression, but also demands of loyalty from certain foreign citizens and expectations of regional dominance as a natural right. The way in which Beijing is currently trying to get Australia to its knees shows China does not fear interfering directly in domestic politics to get its way. Europe needs to strengthen both its legal and its political defences against what will likely be the 21st century’s premier expansionist and aggressive power. This course correction, however, is going to be painful.
Painful turn-around follows perspective correction
When discussing ways to counter Chinese interference, we need to realise that this will inflict a personal cost on those who promoted engagement. Europeans who over the years have worked to encourage relations with China show resistance. Chinese who previously were treated as dialogue partners are disillusioned. The rules of engagement are changing. It is a nasty surprise for someone who was once invited to ‘explain’ the Chinese system to now be portrayed as a propagandist for oppression. Scientists who made possible European cooperation with Chinese institutes are shocked to discover some now regard them with suspicion.
This discomfort is understandable. You cannot expect these people to like the transition. However, that is no reason to banish the unpleasant reality of contemporary China from happy receptions and enthusiastic board rooms.
Changing our perspective to that of the countless victims of China’s aggressive ethno-nationalism, we actually get an entirely different shock. Then you notice the desperate Hong Kong student beaten senseless by the police; a Taiwanese with thousands of Chinese rockets aimed at his roof; a traumatised Uighur who lost her father as her people face genocide; ruined Vietnamese fishers whose boats are sunk by the Chinese coastguard; the Tibetans and ethnic Mongolians whose culture is being erased; and the Chinese student sentenced to six months for a tweet mocking President Xi Jinping. Then you recoil in disgust that we still toast so merrily with the proponents of this horror.
Security threats and political acts
The security threats from China are real. Europe should pay more attention to espionage and state-sponsored intellectual property theft. Beijing spreads disinformation. Critics in Europe are threatened by Chinese agents, sometimes with serious consequences for them or their families still in China. Beijing’s embassies in employ staff to control ethnic Chinese. United Front organisations work with Chinese community organisations and student groups to stifle alternative voices and surveil citizens abroad. These are threats to national and personal security that should be countered by governments with legal remedies.
Some cooperation projects also actively help make the situation in China worse. The involvement of Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and SenseTime in expunging Uighur identity is well documented. Projects such as the cooperation of the universities in Amsterdam with Huawei to improve its ‘smart city’ technologies will actively harm people. There should be professional consequences for the managers and academics who work on this. Human rights legislation and university guidelines should intervene here.
However, we must also acknowledge that a large part of the problem is a political issue. What United Front-linked organisations and pro-China individuals do is often merely normal assistance to compatriots abroad, or expressions of political support to their country of origin, or the kind of networking necessary to do business in the party-state. These are matters that fall under the freedoms of expression and assembly.
Much of what happens in that ecosystem is not ‘dangerous’ for Europe itself. A hypothetical professor who interacts with such United Front organisations is not necessarily a danger to the intellectual property of their university. A businessperson who sponsors a booklet on the advantages of the Chinese system is not a ‘spy’. In Australia, New Zealand, and the United States the labeling of such political activities as ‘Chinese interference’ has led to certain people taking the real dangers less seriously.
Beijing already has the habit of dismissing any criticism of its foreign interference as discrimination. Apart from furthering the actual racism that does play a role in some accusations, declaring certain individuals are ‘Chinese agents’ because of their political activities gives ammunition to this kind of bad faith defence in cases where it does not apply. It also reduces our understanding of what is really happens and thus handicaps our ability to respond to it.
Answer moral failure with moral condemnation
Because, the aforementioned hypothetical academic and businessperson do deserve moral condemnation for their political support to the awful regime in Beijing. We need to understand that China is not just a national security threat but also a political threat. Chinese ethno-nationalism, belief in its own superiority, and expansionism make the PRC one of the biggest threats the world—including the people in China—faces this century. To protect ourselves we need to take measures. But those depend on the right diagnosis. The challenge from China is political, too.
Not all politics we do not understand is immediately evil. It is understandable that members of the Chinese communities in Europe still have an emotional band with the country from which they or their families come. We see the same with Turkish and Moroccan communities. Space should remain for this. Moreover, some political views more prevalent in such communities than in the European mainstream are perhaps uncomfortable. This does not mean they are worse than, say, the quixotic beliefs of Dutch orthodox calvinists.
Some views, however, are in fact reprehensible politics. Active support for the current Chinese regime should be condemned. We need to ask whether dialogue and exchange with the current People’s Republic is not just of limited use, but also damaging. Treating support for the horrors in China as just another viewpoint only gives more credence to the inhumanity of its politics. However, the response to reprehensible politics should be political as well.
As there appears nothing left in China to stop the erasure of Uighur identity in its homeland, Beijing’s victims increasingly depend on outside pressure to make any stand at all. This should be a political movement as opposed to a set of legal measures. Inspiration can be found in the Anti-Apartheid movement or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Gatherings of groups praising China’s system are perfectly legal. However, they do deserve to be picketted by protestors. Chinese businesspeople who want to praise genocide deserve a citizens’ boycott. Ties to PLA universities such as those of the much-discussed University of Auckland professor Gao Wei have been misinterpreted and are often symbolic. But that does not mean such academics should avoid student protests or banners on campus denouncing their symbolic complicity and the administration’s appeasement.
Portraying everything as a national security threat is damaging and ineffective. The battle is political. It has to be fought. We cannot legislate it away.
This piece is based on an earlier Dutch post I wrote on the same topic.