China is ramping up efforts to influence policy and public opinion in the EU — but much of the bloc is blind to what’s happening, a special adviser to the European Commission told POLITICO.
Beijing has long aimed propaganda at the European Union, seeking to undermine transatlantic unity and promote Beijing’s outlook on world affairs, said Ivana Karásková, a Czech academic and foreign influence specialist who’s advising European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová.
But since 2019, China’s approach to the EU has been “hardening” as it ramps up direct propaganda via so-called wolf warrior diplomats; as well as covert funding of think tanks, academic institutions and nonprofit organizations, she said. And EU countries, particularly outside of eastern Europe, are oblivious to or unwilling to see the extent of these operations, Karásková added.
“In some countries, awareness of [Chinese influence operations] is high because they have a history of Russian-backed action. Elsewhere, it’s complete denial,” she said. “It’s very uneven in terms of awareness. There are some countries where the discussion isn’t happening at all.”
Asked what parts of the Continent were most in the dark about Chinese influence, she added: “The whole of Western Europe is not looking. And yet there are cases that are so blatant.”
As one of the most overt examples of Chinese attempts to sway European public opinion, Karásková cited the case of two commercial radio stations in the Czech Republic that had been regularly receiving content, including pre-written scripts, from China Radio International, a state broadcaster.
The content was used for 30-minute programs featuring seemingly innocuous content, which nonetheless echoed Chinese state talking points on subjects like Taiwan, the self-governing island which Beijing claims as its own.
More than a thousand episodes of the program aired without the stations ever disclosing their link to China Radio International. It was only when the radio stations’ directors were confronted in April following the publication of a research report, authored by Karásková, that they quietly stopped broadcasting the segment.
Asked about the partnership, Miroslav Pýcha, CEO of the HEY and COLOR radio stations, pushed back on the idea his stations were pumping out Chinese propaganda, saying they broadcast “completely non-political topics.”
The radio’s archive does not include any episodes of the program in question after early April. Pýcha declined to say whether the shows had been canceled, adding: “We are currently discussing when and how the show will continue, as we have in the past.” He also criticized Karásková’s report, saying she was proceeding on “erroneous assumptions.”
“Without being given any space to explain ourselves, we were scandalously labelled ‘tentacles of Chinese propaganda on the air,’ despite the fact that we are apolitical music radio,” he added.
Karásková didn’t agree. “It was not direct propaganda in the sense that they were saying [Chinese President] Xi Jinping is the best leader on the planet. But a huge number of episodes praised the CCP,” she said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
The warning from Karásková comes as the European Commission prepares to unveil a “defense of democracy” package of legislation that aims to combat foreign attempts to undermine EU democracy and interests.
In her State of the European Union speech in 2022, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pointed to the example of the Free University of Amsterdam — which last year cut off a Chinese funding stream following an investigation — as an example of how China is working covertly to shape opinion.
As part of that package, the Commission is set to unveil a draft law that would force organizations across the EU to disclose which outside countries are funding them.
Although the United States has its Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and Australia its Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act (FITSA), Europe’s plan — which is tentatively called the Transparency Act — is more narrowly defined, according to several EU officials, as well as experts who have seen recent versions of the plan, who asked not to be named in order to freely discuss internal work.
Europe’s law would target organizations rather than individuals, foreseeing an undefined administrative fine on any that fails to report the source of its income.
But nonprofit groups have been sharply critical, saying the proposal would allow leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to crack down on pro-democracy organizations (many of which are U.S.-funded), while emboldening autocrats to use similar laws to clamp down on dissent abroad.
Georgia erupted in protest against its own foreign agents law earlier this year — a further example of how Europe should tread carefully on the subject of foreign interference, groups say.
But Karásková responded that autocratic countries won’t wait for Europe’s permission to crack down on foreign sources of funding — and that the EU faces a growing challenge with undetected influence operations.
“We have seen a mushrooming of NGOs and think tanks with Chinese funding,” she said.
In addition to pouring more resources into shaping EU discourse, Beijing has apparently increasingly been joining forces with Russian actors to promote talking points favorable to both Moscow and Beijing — for example by citing Chinese sources in Russian state media and vice versa.
Asked if the EU risked muzzling alternative viewpoints, Karásková said the public should be free to access different sources, but that they should also know how those viewpoints are being funded.
“Europe is really open. It is time not to close, but to shed light on where the financial flows are actually going and to which end,” she said.
Source : Politico