How much pressure Beijing is exerting in Bucharest. The China Index Project (II)

We were discussing here yesterday why it is important to understand and measure China’s influence in various countries, and why for us in Bucharest it is a priority to understand how it acts in Europe. This is exactly what we set out to do in the China Index project, designed and managed by a well-known Taipei-based foundation, Doublethink Lab, which is active in the field of anti-misinformation and digital security. Through a network of local coordinators and analysts, a total of 82 countries across the globe were covered in 2022. Each was x-rayed using 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 can be found 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. So we had in our portfolio the difficult and interesting case of Ukraine, caught in a complicated and dynamic 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 People’s Republic of China (PRC) before the escalation of Russian aggression in February 2022, have today created a state of stalemate, with Kiev and Beijing eyeing each other with suspicion but avoiding open diplomatic attacks in the hope of future cooperation.

China has had significant investments in Ukraine in agribusiness, ports and industrial production (at Mariupol) and these have been severely affected by the war, as well as an attempt to take over the Zaporijia aviation technology plant, blocked by the Kiev government in 2022, which has created much discontent in Beijing. We presented this Ukrainian case study at the China Index launch conference 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.

Romania is not a country that China has shown much interest in over the last few decades, which has made it somewhat easier today. This is also somewhat of a regional symptom: beyond rhetoric and symbolism, such as the 16+1 initiative launched in 2012, not much has happened in the China-Eastern Europe relationship in the last ten years. Chinese business must have quickly realised that there is not much to buy or spy on in terms of technology in the new EU member states, because the more important industrial assets, few in any case, had been privatised with Western partners in the 1990s. The economic complementarity of these countries with China is low, their domestic markets are small, and after their entry into the EU they cannot become quasi-agricultural colonies for Beijing either, because farming here to EU standards produces more expensive products than elsewhere. As such, after years of politicking rhetoric, the 16+1 regional cooperation format has remained an empty shell, destined to fall into oblivion. More on these developments here.

On the other hand, governments in Bucharest in recent years have been able to adopt restrictive policies towards Chinese companies in the few sensitive sectors that would really interest Beijing, practically excluding their participation in important technological projects (ITC-5G), correctly analysing and rejecting the economically unfeasible ideas of the PRC to invest in large energy infrastructure, such as the Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant or the utopian Tarnița hydropower plant. In addition, Chinese companies are limited in their ability to bid for public works. But at the same time, Romanian officials have refrained from doing or saying in public things that might have upset the PRC leaders, or from initiating rapprochement with the democratic Republic of China – i.e. Taiwan (just as they have carefully refrained from participating in the public discussion of the results of this project, or even giving any sign that they know of its existence!). In other words, we are in the well-known schizoid-Romanian “we do but we don’t say publicly” position, which makes it difficult for the analyst to interpret the government’s motivations and strategies.

All this explains the rather low score of the PRC’s influence in Romania measured in the China Index project: 107 out of a maximum of 396, which puts it in 53rd place out of the 82 countries analysed. The chart below shows the scores in each of the nine areas of analysis. We find that the PRC’s most successful mechanism of influence in our country is the co-opting of political or academic elites, which confirms many anecdotal observations or press reports. A special note is that among the political elite the influence activity takes place rather under the radar, among political leaders at county level or mayors of big cities, or in party youth organisations.

This is in fact a constant feature of the United Front’s strategy (an entity under the coordination of the CCP Central Committee with over 40,000 employees and a secret budget, which directs the organising and influencing work of non-CCP members at home and abroad) and is applied everywhere, not just in Romania: sub-national political organisations, university rectors or second-line business leaders are targeted. By comparison, much less is invested by the Beijing regime in planting propaganda in the media or influencing society at large through soft power (e.g. cultural events promoting Chinese culture or direct people-to-people relations). Military cooperation is of course excluded, given the alliances Romania is part of, as well as influencing diplomacy with regard to concrete actions such as voting in international institutions.

By further grouping the nine areas of analysis into three categories, we can use the China Index scores to get an even more interesting, cross-country comparative picture. We thus find that there are three significant clusters of countries across the globe in terms of their relationship with the PRC:

  1. Powerful states with which the relationship is hostile, or at least abrasive: e.g. Australia or the US in the graphs below. These states have a high exposure to PRC influence (trade, reciprocal investment, large diaspora) and the Beijing regime is seriously lobbying to influence them in various ways. But the effect is modest because these countries have the capacity to generate an equally strong backlash.
  2. Weak countries or countries in special situations, where we can almost speak of an invitation to China to exert influence, without much opposition: Pakistan (incidentally the country with the highest IQ score in the world) or Venezuela. Here China’s presence is seen as a positive one, sincerely or out of various political calculations of the ruling elite.
  3. Countries rather in a state of mutual indifference with the Beijing regime, for various reasons: here neither it makes much effort to be present and influential, nor the effects are great. International databases often list China’s Belt-and-Road (BRI) and other projects in these countries with the date 2023, which have never materialised or were unrealistic from the outset. This shows that international analysts specialising in China are not in a great hurry to update their information for these low interest areas either. Romania fits quite well into this category.

As such, for Eastern European countries in category three, which can be marked as “low interest”, the analysis needs to be supplemented and detailed with other elements, beyond the “mega-fauna” of BRI-type strategic projects. For example, we should be concerned that Beijing’s diplomacy treats countries in our region as not fully independent entities, with Chinese embassies in these capitals being somewhat informally subordinated to and coordinating with the one in Moscow. Such an imperial vision of the Black Sea region is not imposed on China by Russia, but is the way global relations are imagined under the authoritarian regime led by the CCP.

Also, while Chinese investment in critical infrastructure is blocked in Romania and big Chinese companies are missing, there is instead a ‘micro-fauna’ of venture capitalists, some quite dubious, who naturally connect with equally dubious businessmen of our own: controversial figures, under criminal investigation, or recycled former secret service insiders. Examples and details can be found in a report published by EFOR last year. Clearly, no successful business can emerge from such an ecosystem, but at best improvisations and many illegal arrangements, which inevitably end up in prosecutors’ files, either in Romania or in China.

In other words, a lack of high-level interest in open relations with the authoritarian regime in Beijing does not necessarily protect a country from toxic underground influences, especially against the general background of an almost complete lack of information among the general public about the realities of contemporary China and very thin local expertise on East Asia.

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