Beijing’s influence in Romania. The China Index Project (I)

For us Europeans, Russia is the storm, but China is climate change, as the head of counterintelligence in Germany said the other day: the former causes short-term disruption, but goes away, while the latter is inexorable and will change everything, forever. It is true that a whole debate has been going on lately around the theory of peak China, i.e. the idea that the period of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) vertiginous growth is almost over, and that it has now reached a plateau – in demography, economy, investment – because the resources for extensive growth through industrialisation have been exhausted and a slow decline relative to other countries will follow.

But even if Beijing is at its peak and entering a period of stagnation, the regime will still continue to exert great pressure on Europe through the levers it already has, primarily through Western multinationals operating in the PRC and dependent on the market there. But the economic, diplomatic, media and scientific presence, or that of groups of citizens in Europe (the Chinese diaspora), in certain Member States or in the European Union as a whole, cannot be neglected either.

For example, there are the controversial investments in critical infrastructure (ports of Hamburg, Piraeus), IT and cybersecurity networks installed by Huawei (Berlin is full of them) or the equally controversial Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) with the EU pushed by Angela Merkel on her last chancellery run, now suspended indefinitely. Although Europe’s relations with China have cooled substantially in recent years, and especially after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022, the Beijing regime still has many supporters on the continent, whether out of conviction or paid: the enablers. All this is based on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) five-point strategy of shaping domestic politics in democratic countries in its own interests, which has become evident under Xi Jinping:

  1. Weaponization of trade and economic relations: CCP leaders influence national decisions by explaining the benefits of cooperating with them, but emphasizing the costs they can create for states, companies or individuals who oppose CCP interests.
  2. Narrative dominance: the CCP grossly manipulates information and floods the global conversation with massive protests, invective or trolling of pre-speakers it perceives as hostile (red-grey-black, i.e. friendly-neutral-hostile, with different approaches for each category).
  3. Coopting local elites for intermediation: the CCP relies on local agents of influence to shape perceptions of the Beijing regime, which must be positive; the methods of co-opting political, media and academic elites in Europe are much the same as those used at home, based on uncertainty and fostering self-censorship rather than visible and measurable benefits to the pocketbook.
  4. Instrumentalisation of the Chinese diaspora, increasingly through repression, widespread fear and self-censorship rather than material rewards.
  5. Promotion of the authoritarian development model as a viable and more effective alternative to liberal democracy; the rhetoric of development by dictatorship has obvious appeal to many leaders in the Global South, even when development is slow to show itself.

But while large investment projects (Belt-and-Road) or trade relations (with their often deficit balance for the host state) have been debated, less publicly discussed until recently has been the PRC’s illicit influence abroad through para-legal structures, such as the organisation of ad-hoc and extraterritorial police stations, usually in the form of cooperation agreements with regional administrations in China rather than with state institutions in Beijing. The purpose of these entities, coordinated by the United Front – an entity under the CCP Central Committee with over 40,000 employees and a secret budget, which directs the work of organising and influencing non-CCP members at home and abroad (in business, local politics, universities, friendship associations, Confucius Institutes, etc.) – is to infiltrate and intimidate the Chinese diaspora in those countries and even to take more aggressive action against dissidents, especially those from Hong Kong.

All this is done under the cover of legitimate operations to ease bureaucratic procedures for Chinese citizens living abroad who have to renew documents (passports, driving licences, translation services), or to cooperate with local police in areas where there are large Chinese communities. There have been many scandals over the last few years about “illegal Chinese police stations” operating undercover in Italy, Spain, the UK or the US, collecting data and threatening members of the diaspora.

At one point, a similar approach was made in Romania, following the standard pattern: a delegation from Nantong province (never from the central ministries) came to visit and signed a memorandum with the Dobroești local government for the supply of surveillance equipment. Of course, it’s no coincidence but all part of the United Front’s strategy that Dobroești is that suburb of Bucharest where most members of the Chinese diaspora in Romania live and where the famous Red Dragon shopping centre operates. Most probably, the local administration in Romania – maybe even the central one – has no idea about this method applied by the CCP in the West.

Even more difficult to document is the infiltration of the new Chinese mafia: organised crime groups that have inherited the structure of the old Triads, which have been present in some European countries for a long time, but which have recently joined forces with officials from the Beijing regime, thus gaining high-level protection at home and partly serving the PRC’s state objectives. This organically reproduces a pattern of action that we know from examples of cooperation between Russian organised crime and the Kremlin’s power structures. Very often organised crime within Chinese diaspora communities is commissioned by the CCP precisely in order to intimidate these communities, to threaten political dissidents in places where Chinese state bodies cannot reach, and thus to participate in actions that are now called Transnational Repression, in which the PRC is the champion.

The West’s naivety in handling these situations is sometimes glaring: until 2018 the president of Interpol was a Chinese police officer. Infiltrating Chinese officials into international institutions thus helps the regime gain access to databases of cross-border fugitives, cover up what it has to cover up and, conversely, to chastise dissidents with ostensibly legal procedures. (As of 2021, Interpol’s president is a general from Saudi Arabia, second only to China in the global rankings of cross-border repression.) A press investigation published this week in Italy uses the case of the massive Chinese diaspora in Prato to illustrate how the Chinese mafia infiltrates a local community in order to control it, how it generates black money to be sent home to China, and how it supports the Beijing regime, with whom it has direct and confidential meetings.

All these developments in recent times have made it extremely necessary to create tools to monitor systematically and in a way that is accessible to the general public and researchers – so not just through secret intelligence reports – the influence of the Beijing regime in each country, depending on its specifics. This is how the China Index project, conceived and managed by a well-known Taipei-based foundation, Doublethink Lab, active in the field of counter-intelligence and digital security, came about. Through a network of local coordinators and analysts, the project covered 82 countries across the globe in 2022, each of which was screened for 99 indicators of the Beijing regime’s influence, grouped into nine categories: Academia, Domestic Policy, Economy, Diplomacy, Police & Internal Affairs, Media, Military Relations, Society and Technology. The full database of results is available here.

EFOR took part in this project and carried out the analysis and scores for five countries in the Europe region: Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Italy and the Netherlands, with the help of local analysts. Obviously, we were interested in Romania, but the most difficult and interesting case is actually Ukraine, which is in a very complicated and changing ballet with Beijing. The substantial economic and investment relations with China that Ukraine, solidly placed on the Belt-and-Road route of interest due to geography, had with the PRC before the escalation of Russian aggression in February 2022, have given way to a stalemate, with Kiev and Beijing eyeing each other with suspicion, but avoiding open diplomatic attacks in the hope of future cooperation. We presented this case study of Ukraine at the conference launching the China Index project in December 2022 in Berlin. The project continues and we are in the midst of data collection and analysis for the 2023 round, when the scores for the existing 82 countries will be revised and several new ones (including Russia) will be included; the final total will probably be towards 100.

Of course, the interesting thing is what these scores tell us in substance, what analyses can be made on each of the 9 dimensions of Communist China’s influence in each country – and especially how Romania fits into the context. But about this, in episode II to be published tomorrow

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