The country has overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of giving in to it, it has helped others, instead of thinking only about itself – in times of coronavirus China has consistently built its positive image. And to those who persistently repeat that it all started in Wuhan, China suggests asking: “did it really?”
The Global Times, a Chinese propaganda machine, recently reported that cases of “an unexplained strain of pneumonia with highly suspected symptoms of #COVID19” had already appeared in Italy in early November and December last year.
So the pandemic started in Italy? Or maybe in the United States?
“This is so astonishing that it changed many things I used to believe in,” wrote Lijian Zhao, one of the spokesmen for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Twitter, recommending an article to prove that the pandemic started in the United States.
Officially, China reported the first cases of pneumonia in Wuhan City, to the WHO in late December last year. However, scientists claim that the new coronavirus appeared there much earlier.
East StratCom, the EU’s task force set up to address disinformation campaigns, gives many examples of the pro-Chinese narrative on COVID-19, according to which China, and especially Xi Jinping, has done an excellent job in containing the epidemic, for which the West should be grateful. An apology to the Chinese people would also be appropriate, as Western countries used the virus to fuel anti-Chinese sentiment.
Rushed to help
The head of EU diplomacy Josep Borrell pointed out that China is now making “aggressive” attempts to show that, unlike the US, it is a reliable partner. One that rushed to help the European Union when it was not able to give aid to the member states on its own, and for which the Chinese medical equipment is nowadays as precious as gold.
Of course, it is not equipment offered for free. In Spain alone, the Chinese sold sanitary equipment for over 430 million euros. The Chinese medical supply offer was also taken by Lithuania, Serbia, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic, among others. In Prague, the first plane with respirators and masks was greeted with honour. Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Interior Minister Jan Hamaczek and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jianmin appeared at Vaclav Havel airport.
“Together we are building a Sino-Czech friendship bridge,” the Chinese Embassy in Prague later wrote. At the same time, she made it clear that she hopes that the epidemic will be an opportunity to improve bilateral relations , that cooled further last year when Prague mayor Zdenek Hřib cancelled an intercity partnership agreement with Beijing over a reference to one-China policy. Prague instead signed a deal with Taiwan’s Taipei.
“It must be admitted, the Beijing may make use of this crisis support as the strong PR instrument ” – tells me Rudolf Fürst from the Institute for International Relations in Prague. And the head of EU diplomacy warns that China’s “politics of generosity” is part of the battle for influence in Europe.
The struggle for a good image of the PRC and the promotion of the benefits of cooperation with it began long ago before the COVID-19 pandemic. For years, the Middle Kingdom has been using methods that are supposed to provide as many supporters as possible and shape an environment favourable to its interests.
With increasing involvement in the CEE region, it has become natural for the country to present itself in the best possible light and thus facilitate political and – perhaps above all – economic cooperation.
“The Chinese choose countries where there is a struggle for influence with the US and other powers” – notes Kristen Lee from the Centre for a New American Security, co-author of China’s Belt and Road Report,
To achieve its goals, the PRC has been using soft power tools for years: it runs Confucius Institutes, supports NGOs, invests in the media, finances scientific scholarships. However, it also increasingly uses disinformation (qualified as “sharp power“).
According to experts, the Chinese act a little more subtly in this respect than the Russians, but like Moscow, it is not the truth that matters to them, but the impact on their interests.
“This is not a wake-up call, this is a call to arms,” the EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova recently said, warning against Russia and China “actively using disinformation and other methods of interference to undermine European democracy”.
The warning came from Brussels even before the pandemic, that Chinese alternative narratives would spread along with the coronavirus in the EU.
A Chinese viewpoint
The already mentioned Lijian Zhao is one of many high-ranking Chinese officials who are active in social media. His Twitter profile is now being followed by over 530,000 people. Many PRC embassies and diplomats around the world have active accounts on this portal.
Among the V4 countries, the most followed accounts are those of Warsaw – almost 1,300 people – and Budapest – over 1,400 people. In addition, there are profiles of Chinese media employees, such as Global Times or China Daily, who fight for a favourable perception of China, especially now that the image of the country has been damaged by the coronavirus crisis, and earlier by the brutal policy against protesters in Hong Kong or repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
“The combination of official mass messaging with direct social media interaction helps China reach some foreign users with its viewpoint on the international situation and Chinese internal affairs.” – Marcin Przychodniak, an expert of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, writes in his analysis.
According to Przychodniak, China will expand and improve the scope of its propaganda using, among other things, artificial intelligence, or relying on the Chinese Tik Tok service to share films.
“With China’s activity essentially anti-democratic messaging, it may become a threat to the quality of information in EU societies ” – believes Przychodniak.
New global media order
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Chinese are seeking to control information beyond their borders by creating a “new world media order”. They want to achieve this goal by buying advertising, infiltrating foreign media, blackmailing or taking over shares in local media markets.
A Bloomberg News report from 2018, referred to by RSF, states that China has invested around 3 billion euros in the media on the Old Continent over the last decade. In the Visegrad Group, the situation on the Czech market is most striking, where the Chinese have shares in two media groups, Medea and Empresa Media, including TV Barrandov, known not only for its weekly talks with President Milos Zeman, but also for its favourable attitude towards China.
In the Czech Republic, the Chinese have valuable allies also in business. Last December, the media revealed that the company of the controversial billionaire Petr Kellner financed a campaign promoting Chinese interests.
The PPF financial group is also accused of paying for the activities of the Sinoskop research institute, which was meant to counterbalance criticism of China in the Czech public debate.
“It seems that Kellner’s main motivation in this venture was to ensure his company’s stable position on the Chinese market by showing loyalty to Chinese decision-makers and cultivating a business-expert environment in the Czech Republic favourable to Beijing’s policy” – believes Alicja Bachulska from the Asia Research Centre of the War Studies University, author of a report on China’s soft power in the Visegrad Group.
Attempts at soft power
The confusion surrounding the Czech-Chinese Centre at Charles University in Prague also shows how much the Chinese are trying to use soft power in the Czech Republic.
Although the centre has been operating since 2016, it was only at the end of last year that it caused a scandal when Czech investigative journalists revealed that the events organised by the centre were financed by the PRC Embassy in Prague. The centre was closed, and its head was forced to resign. However, Rudolf Fürst believes that the allegations of the Centre’s pro-China narrative are not entirely justified.
“I attended about two seminars there. My personal experience did not prove these allegations, no Chinese individuals were present at the seminars, and the discussions were very open and critical,” says Fürst. He adds that the lack of transparency in the financing of the Centre by the PRC embassy was a problem.
This is not the first time China has tried to influence the academic community in the Visegrad Group. They have been doing so for years, financing academic scholarships or setting up Confucius Institutes, which are controlled by the Chinese Ministry of Education, at European universities.
Although their official goal is to promote Chinese culture and language outside the country, the subject matter of the courses offered by the Confucius Institutes sometimes departs from the officially adopted framework in order to rush into political subjects, which, as Alicja Bachulska notes, “raises concerns that their content actually reflects the official position of the CCP, while limiting freedom of expression in the world of science”.
Today, there are six Confucius Institutes in Poland, two in the Czech Republic, three in Slovakia and five in Hungary. It is worth noting that Beijing has gone one step further in the latter country. In 2017, it founded there the first Chinese think tank in Europe, the China-CEE Institute, which in its analyses promotes cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe.
Fooled by Chinese courtship?
How much is all this worth to the Chinese? Is Central Europe fooled by Chinese courtship, “soft power” tactics and manipulation? These are still open questions.
Given the generally low resilience of societies to disinformation (the Brexit campaign, elections in the United States, fuelling anti-EU sentiment in France or the Czech Republic), one could be afraid that the Chinese alternative narratives are being put on fertile ground. If we add to this all the soft power tools used by the Chinese, we can consider that Europeans are under some Chinese pressure and are not even aware of it.
Meanwhile, sentiment towards China varies greatly. The PEW Research Centre study shows that the Eastern Europeans of our region perceive the Middle Kingdom somewhat better than Western Europe, but they are far from the pro-Chinese enthusiasm of Russians, Israelis or Lebanese.
In Central and Eastern Europe, China is viewed most favourably by Poles – as many as 47 per cent of them have a good opinion of the country (above the average), 34 per cent – negative. In Hungary, the proportions are similar (40 per cent perceive positively, 37 per cent negatively). Slovaks are more sceptical (48 per cent bad, 40 per cent good), and the Czechs see this country the worst (57 per cent negative and 27 per cent positive).
Media in the region – despite Chinese attempts to create a “new world media order” – still show some resistance to Beijing’s influence. According to the ChinfluenCE study, the vast majority of materials analysed in the last decade in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary were neutral towards China. Polish media in this group most often wrote positively about it (39 per cent of analysed materials), while the Czech media – negatively (41 per cent).
There is still a lack of in-depth research on the effectiveness of Chinese soft power and disinformation. Therefore, it is difficult to say to what extent its recipients – i.e. citizens and decision-makers in Central and Eastern Europe, among others – are resistant to Chinese propaganda.
However, experts emphasise that Beijing’s actions are long-term in nature, and the arsenal of tools will be expanded. That is why it is so important for Europeans to be aware that disinformation is no longer just the domain of the Russians, that the message of Chinese diplomats and “useful idiots” should be verified, that programmes broadcast by the pro-Chinese media are not always credible, and that help offered during the crisis is not always selfless.
Everything is part of a larger jigsaw puzzle in which Beijing wants to be an increasingly active player.