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It’s about time we started discussing China’s influence in Latvia

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Last week, noted Estonian marine scientist and researcher at the Tallin Technical University Tarmo Kõuts was sentenced to prison for spying for a Chinese intelligence service. He had access to Estonian and NATO classified information for quite some time, and during the last three years he received €17,000 for handing this information over to China, writes NRA journalist Juris Paiders.

If you ask me, it’s a laughable amount of money to betray your motherland and end up behind bars. At the same time, I’m quite certain that our own compatriots would be willing to double-cross our country for an even lower price.

Kõuts was also assisted by a woman – a formerly well-known golf player and owner of a consulting firm. She had been travelling quite a lot in recent years, including to China. It is possible that it was during one of her trips to Hong Kong that she was recruited by Chinese intelligence officers.

It should be noted that trips to China is the most common way Latvians get recruited to work for Chinese intelligence services. This is usually done according to the same pattern Soviet chekists used to recruit naïve Western travelers – the local Beijing embassy carefully selects the potential “tourists” and offers them to go on a trip to the “misunderstood” and exotic Celestial Empire. These “tourists” are most often asked to participate in an international event, a forum or conference, where Chinese intelligence services then select the most suitable agents of influence from around the world.

These “tourists” are most likely to be members of a specific profession – journalists, politicians and scientists. In order to maintain secrecy, Beijing may offer the trip to China not to the person it is interested in, but instead to one of their relatives, be it their spouse, children or parents.

Upon returning to their home country, the Chinese embassy asks the “tourists” to repay the generous trip with loyalty. Initially, it may be a simple social media entry that portrays China in a positive light. Then, perhaps an interview with a local media outlet to talk about the prosperity witnessed in China. In special cases, you may have to repay the favor by betraying your country. The latter fate was experienced by the naïve Estonian scientist Kõuts.

This is how China is able to recruit loyal agents of influence that can later be used to carry out influence operations.

Local journalists are asked to publish articles that favor China or maintain blogs and social media pages that propagate cooperation with Beijing. In some cases, the propaganda articles are prepared with the help of the embassy or the news agency Xinhua, and all the recruited journalist is required to do is to “lend” the Chinese his name and status. The keenest of readers will have already noticed that pro-China articles have appeared in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze and Diena, and occasionally in some pro-Kremlin media outlets as well.

Recruited politicians are also required to prove their loyalty. This is usually done by voting on issues that benefit Beijing, or sometimes by reporting on domestic processes and intrigues taking place in the government halls. Those of you who follow politics know that in recent years several Latvian politicians from different parties have visited China, only to then propagate co-operation with China by praising the progress and the remarkable order they witnessed there.

I won’t name any names, but the parties they represent include the usual suspects, i.e. Concord, Union of Greens and Farmers and Latvian Russian Union, as well as the pseudo-patriotic National Alliance. I’ve also personally witnessed that among these preachers of national values there are also people who after their “trip” to the magnificent China are willing to praise Communism’s superiority over the “liberal” values of Europe.

And lastly, long-term co-operation with Chinese intelligence services is also offered to scientists, and this usually entails sharing sensitive information. This is called “scientific espionage”.

Kõuts case is the first of its kinds in Estonia, and maybe even all the Baltic states, when a person has been caught spying not for Moscow, but Beijing. Perhaps this is the first high-profile case in the Baltics involving China’s influence out of the many that are inevitably to come.

I already have a candidate for facing a similar fate to Kõuts – instead of revealing the person’s name, I will just say that excellent knowledge of geography doesn’t guarantee that a person has a good moral compass.

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China-EU relations face challenges, Xi tells Germany's Merkel

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President Xi Jinping told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday (7 April) that he saw “various challenges” in relations between China and the European Union and hoped the EU could “independently” make correct judgements, a Chinese government statement said, writes Michael Nienaber in Berlin.

The statement quoted Xi as saying during a phone call that the EU and China should respect each other and “eliminate interference”, adding that China is willing to work with the global community to promote “fair and reasonable distribution” of COVID-19 vaccines and opposes vaccine nationalism.

Last month, the EU imposed its first significant sanctions against Chinese officials since 1989 over alleged human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. Beijing, which denies the allegations, hit back by blacklisting some EU lawmakers and entities.

The United States, Britain and Canada also sanctioned Chinese officials over Xinjiang, and the row threatens to derail an EU-China investment pact agreed in late 2020 after years of negotiations.

German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said Merkel and Xi had discussed international efforts to produce and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, deepen economic cooperation and steps to protect the climate and biodiversity.

She said the leaders agreed to deepen bilateral ties in Sino-German government consultations planned for late April.

“The Chancellor stressed the importance of dialogue on the full range of ties, including issues on which there are different opinions,” Demmer said, without giving details of the areas where Germany and China differ.

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The Belt and Road in Italy: Two years later

Belt & Road News Network

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On 23 March 2019, Italy officially became part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Two years since the first G-7 country became part of the controversial Chinese project, it is time to make an initial assessment of Italy’s highly contested membership in the BRI, writes Francesca Ghiretti.

Three important elements, two external and one internal, have been fundamental in shaping the development of the BRI in Italy. The two exogenous elements are the increasing tensions between the China and the United States, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has translated into more U.S. engagement with Europe, including Italy, to secure alignment in policies toward China. A sample result of this effort was the cancellation of a potential collaboration between the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and China National Space Administration (CNSA) to build habitational modules for the Chinese space station Tiangong 3. Another result, which falls in line with steps taken in other EU countries, regards changes that curtail the possibility of Huawei participating in development of the Italian 5G network.

Admittedly, neither example cited above directly relates to the Memorandum of Understanding signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Italy in March 2019. However, both are examples of a change of Italy’s position toward collaboration with Chinese entities, whether public or private, following pressure from the United States. The collaboration regarding the Chinese space station, interestingly, was abandoned soon after March 2019.

The second external element is the outbreak of COVID-19. Last year was meant to be very important for the relationship between Italy and China. In 2020, Italy and China celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relationship and were meant to celebrate the Year of Tourism Italy-China, now postponed to 2022. A line-up of events and celebrations had been organized for both, which had to be cancelled amid the pandemic. Furthermore, as the first year after the signing of the MoU, 2020 should have seen the initial materialization of the agreements signed on the occasion of Xi’s state visit. It is difficult to say whether in the absence of the pandemic, most of the BRI-related agreements would have materialized, but it can be confidently stated that without the pandemic we would have witnessed further developments. In fact, even with the pandemic, a series of deals materialized, and a limited number of new ones were reached, although mostly among private actors, at least on the Italian side.

The internal element shaping the BRI’s development in Italy is the numerous changes to the Italian government in the past two years. When the MoU for the BRI was signed, Italy was governed by a populist coalition formed by the Five-Star Movement (5SM) and the far-right League. The latter would rediscover its transatlantic call shortly before Xi’s state visit. Within this coalition, a mixture of rejection of Italy’s traditional alliances, Euro-skepticism, naïveté, and interests that pointed in favor of China led to the decision to sign the MoU. In September 2019, however, that government was replaced by a new coalition, which saw the 5SM being joined by the mainstream center-left Democratic Party (PD). The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, remained the same.

The new coalition did not necessarily have a less favorable view of China. Historically, Italy’s left has cultivated very positive relations with China. However, it adopted a less sensationalistic approach and placed Italy back into its traditional alliance systems. Notably, after September 2019, Italy adopted a very European approach in its dealings with China. Italy quietly maintained a rather positive relationship with China, while joining with the other EU countries in occasional critiques of China, and, as already mentioned, adopting a response to 5G similar to its fellow Europeans: excluding Huawei without imposing a blanket ban.

At the beginning of 2021, Italy underwent another change of government. It is now led by Mario Draghi and is even more embedded in Italy’s traditional alliances than the previous government. Given that this government has not been in power long, the assessments that will be made here mostly relate to the government of Conte II, when the 5SM governed with PD.

Keeping in mind what has so far been said, the examples that follow will show that the great majority of MoUs signed between Italy and China were either an expression of intentions that were rarely materialized or the consolidation of an already established relationship.

A notable lack of materialization can be found in the MoUs signed between the port of Genoa and the port of Trieste with China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). In brief, so far, there has been a lack of developments in the collaborations in this sector and it seems there will not be any in the future. The new BRI terminal of Vado Ligure, near Genoa, is the result of an agreement that long predates the MoU of March 2019. It dates back to the creation of the joint venture APM Terminals Vado Ligure Spa back in 2016. Furthermore, the joint venture does not involve of CCCC, the signatory of the MoU, but of COSCO and Qingdao Port. In other words, so far, the only development in the maritime sector linked to the BRI involves a project that is not part of the MoUs of March 2019.

Another example is the collaboration between the Italian Space Agency and the China National Space Administration for the mission “China Seismo-Electromegnatic Satellite 02” (CSES-02). This project is also predated the signing of the MoUs. It represents phase two of an already ongoing collaboration between ISA and CNSA on CSES-01. The collaboration in the energy sector between Ansaldo Energia and both China United Gas Turbine Technology Co. and Shanghai Electric Power Corp. was also established before 2019. Other examples of already existing relationships that were formalized by signing MoUs in March 2019 are those of Cassa Depositi and Prestiti, Eni and Intesa San Paolo with Chinese counterparts such as Bank of China and the city of Qingdao.

Some successful developments of the MoUs have been the restitution of 796 archaeological artifacts from Italy to China, which occurred in March 2019. There was also collaboration between the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) and the Alibaba Group for the creation in 2020 of an online Made in Italy Pavilion for Business to Business (B2B) commerce. Finally, one notable successful MoU has been that between the Italian news agency Ansa and its Chinese counterpart Xinhua. Despite the relationship again predating March 2019, it was only after March 2019 that news from Xinhua translated in Italian began to appear on the website of Ansa, labelled as Xinhua News.

All in all, Italy has undeniably witnessed the developments of many of the MoUs signed in March 2019. However, as anticipated, most of the MoUs were the result of collaboration that already existed before 2019 and thus, arguably, Italy would have witnessed the same type of developments even without joining the BRI, with some exceptions. Furthermore, if the BRI is analyzed uniquely as a connectivity and infrastructure project, then only a handful of the examples presented above can be considered as being part of the BRI.

However, the mere fact that alongside the signing of the BRI MoU, other MoUs belonging to diverse sectors were also signed means that not only for China, but also for Italy, the BRI is about a lot more than just connectivity. The BRI is a way to frame the relationship between a country and China. In both cases, one can easily say that yes, the BRI has not been as successful as one would have thought, in Italy and elsewhere. But it is not dead. Authors

Francesca Ghiretti is a research fellow at Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), where she specializes in the Italy-China relationship, Europe-China relationship and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Leverhulme doctoral fellow at King’s College London, looking at Chinese FDI in the EU.

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China: Bomb attack in Mingjing kills 5

EU Reporter Correspondent

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A man detonated a homemade bomb blowing up four other people besides himself in Mingjing, a small village in Guangzhou on 22 March. Jeimian, a news website, shared a video of the aftermath, a destroyed office, with blood splattered on the walls and at least two people motionless on the ground.

The Guangzhou Panyu Security Bureau confirmed the bomb blast on its Weibo account. Investigations into the explosion are still ongoing. Xinhua, China’s news agency, described the blast as an ‘act of sabotage’, while several others are attributing it to an ongoing dispute due to the forcible land grab by the government that is causing hardship to the residents. Meanwhile, the blast was claimed online by a pro-TIP telegram channel. The message indicated the blast as the result of the oppression of the Uyghurs by China. It urged more attacks on government buildings and officials across China. The message ended with a shout out call to all Uyghurs to make their voices heard.

However, this is not the first time such a blast has happened in Guangzhou. In 2013, a similar blast had happened in a storehouse for shoe-making materials, in Baiyun district, killing 4 people and injuring 36. The coercion  of Uyghurs is causing a lot of resentment and the brunt of this resentment has been borne by Beijing (2013) and Kunming (2014) as well.

Guangzhou has been witness to several such incidents which have highlighted the simmering resistance in the society. Guangzhou is a commercial hub and hosts a lot of industries. The labour in these industries is sourced from Xinjiang. This serves the twin purpose of changing the demography of Xinjiang and providing for cheap captive labour. Studies have pointed out that between 2017-2019 alone, 80,000 Uyghurs have been relocated from Xinjiang to other parts of China. Footage of these Uyghurs being transported to remote parts of China as forced labour (CBN News, Channel 4 News, BBC) confirms this. The policy involves a high degree of coercion and is designed to assimilate minorities by changing their lifestyles.

Guangzhou by virtue of being an industrial hub has afforded more opportunities for the expression of this angst. Guangzhou hosts a large number of people from Africa and Middle East, who demand halal meat. This is provided by ethnic Uyghur restaurants in the city. The increasing crackdown on Islam in China initially forced these restaurants remove the Arabic signage’s, which brought a dip in their business. Added to this was the ousting of foreigners by the Chinese government to rein in the corona virus spread has resulted in hardships to these Uyghur eateries.

The forced relocation and the restrictive employment opportunities have added to the frustration of the Uyghur minority. This oppression has formed the bulk of the propaganda for Uyghur militant groups such as TIP. Last year, the TIP chief Abdul Haq Turkistani, had appealed to the Taliban and Al Qaeda to support the Uyghur cause. It is not surprising that inspired by the success of the Taliban, the Uyghurs are emboldened to stand up for their rights. A pro-TIP telegram channel claimed the blast as retribution for the injustices met out to the Uyghurs. It further warned of similar attacks across China.

The growing restlessness and insecurity amongst the Uyghur is a cause for concern. Irrespective of the justification and success stories that the government peddles to support its education camps, the fact remains that denying the Uyghurs right to religion and freedom of expression is not only a violation of the Chinese constitution, it is also repression of the human rights. The government will have to rework its policy and ideate on a more heterogeneous approach to the issue.

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