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Chinese media reports dismiss the current debate in Europe over Chinese political influencing. At the same time, their government is telling Western institutions, companies and organizations not to meddle in China’s affairs. China could be more persuasive if it allowed open transnational exchanges and debate - rather than using opaque channels and financial leverage to broaden its influence.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Li Keqiang and Donald Tusk at the EU-China Summit

The debate over Chinese political influencing has raged in Australia and New Zealand for some time, but it has only just spread to Europe. A new report by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and MERICS has compiled many examples of China’s overt and covert attempts to gain political influence and to shape public opinion. The European Council on Foreign Relations has also drawn attention to the issue in a study last December.

The GPPi/ MERICS report describes how China’s economic involvement in Eastern Europe has caused countries from that region to break ranks on China policy in the European Union – from plans to increase the scrutiny of Chinese investments into strategically important sectors to statements criticizing China’s human rights record. It also shows how China tries to influence media and academic debates by buying content and funding research. The authors argue that China pursues the aim to build support for issues in its own interest and to weaken European unity. But they also claim that China seeks to promote its state-led political and economic system as an alternative to liberal democracies.

Is China “returning the favor” for Western influencing?

Chinese party-state media reactions were mixed, clearly targeting different audiences. One Chinese-language report on the online platform “Observer” (观察者) portrayed the GPPi/MERICS study and its coverage in Germany's Spiegel magazine, as the most recent manifestation of “China threat” theories in the West. The headline in a summary of the report in “Reference News” (参考消息), a daily news digest that is widely circulated among and read by party-state officials, suggests that the study provides evidence of China’s growing influence and acceptance in Europe. To the paper’s main audience this would highlight the success of China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

Obviously appealing to a more international audience, English-language party-state media reacted with a mix of rejection and defensive pride. “China has no desire to change the EU's political system nor does it believe it is capable of doing so,” wrote the Global Times.

A commentary in the same publication starts by complaining about “surging Sinophobia” in the United States and Europe, but then appears to acknowledge the fact that China has indeed entered into a systemic competition with the West. Quoting Renmin University scholar Wang Yiwei, the paper writes: “Many Western media, think tanks, education organizations, foundations, NGOs and enterprises with links or sponsorships from Western governments and politicians have been trying for decades to affect China's policymaking and public opinion, and now that China has the ability to ‘return the favor,’ the West has suddenly taken offense, Wang said.”

Wang Yiwei raises a legitimate point. All countries lobby for their interests and build alliances with the aim to promote their own positions and strengthen their status in international negotiations and institutions. Buying influence through foreign aid is also not unique to China. And influential nations use the tools of cultural soft power to project a positive image into foreign societies – from the Alliance Française to China’s growing global network of Confucius Institutes.

Not all efforts to affect change are national interest-driven

This line of argument however also assumes that all efforts to effect change in the world are national interest-driven and that international relations are nothing but transactional. But not all Western attempts to influence public opinion in authoritarian societies have been driven by such narrow calculations. Liberal democracies are built on a shared and clearly stated belief that human rights and personal freedoms such as free access to information transcend national borders. China has yet to formulate a vision for the world that goes beyond entering into “win-win” cooperation with selected partners. And it still has to fill its newly coined foreign policy mantras such as the “community of shared destiny for mankind” (the literal translation of 人类命运共同体) with content.

There are other important differences in how political influencing works on both sides, and these differences have their roots in the different systems of government. National interests are formed, communicated and reevaluated in a more transparent and pluralistic way in liberal democracies than in a one-party system. Therefore, the influencing efforts of democratic and authoritarian nations do not take place on a level playing field. As the GPPi/ MERICS report states, “Europe’s gates are wide open whereas China seeks to tightly restrict access of foreign ideas, actors and capital.”

China’s political system in particular is off-limits for foreign actors. Scandals over allegedly Chinese-influenced parliamentarians have shaken up Australia and New Zealand. A scenario in which a foreign government could manipulate China’s tightly controlled executive or legislative institutions in a similar way is simply unthinkable.

In the economic realm, China closely controls foreign market access to sectors it considers sensitive. In liberal democracies, such government powers don’t extend as far. Europe in particular seems rather defenseless – unlike the United States, it lacks a process for screening investments for national security implications. Efforts led by Germany, Italy and France to install such a process in Brussels have met with resistance from other member states – notably from those that had been courted by China.

Beijing uses Europe’s openness while shunning foreign actors

When it comes to influencing public opinion, the deck is once more stacked against open societies. Beijing makes full use of Europe’s openness, while increasingly shutting its doors to foreign actors. At the same time in which China has set up party-state funded think tanks and education institutions across the Western world, it has curtailed the activities of foreign civil society organizations within its own borders through a strict NGO Law. Over the past year, the CCP has also increased political control over foreign-invested companies that operate in China.

No government of a liberal democracy can rally its media and think tanks the way the Communist party-state can do. European audiences can read the articles published on the English-language Global Times website and form their own opinion on the merits of liberal democracies versus a one-party state. Chinese citizens on the other hand are blocked from accessing many Western media sites and won't be able to read this blogpost.

If the Chinese government wants to have a real debate over these issues it can engage with Western audiences and it should allow its own citizens to freely access Western news and social media sites. The world is waiting to hear more about how China seeks to shape it beyond putting its global power ambitions into reality.