Beijing doubles down in EU propaganda battle

PARIS — Beijings not backing down.

China is pushing ahead with a propaganda campaign critical of Western democracies and their handling of the coronavirus, even after protests from Paris and a high-profile diplomatic dispute between Beijing and the EU over Chinese disinformation.

Two weeks after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned Chinas ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, over the embassys publication of a post that derided Frances care for its senior citizens during the pandemic, another critical post was published Sunday on the diplomatic missions website.

The article, entitled “Why the Covid-19 epidemic is so politicized,” was attributed to an anonymous Chinese diplomat. Seeking to explain why questions have been asked about Chinas responsibility in the spread of the virus, the article said “some Westerners are beginning to lose confidence in liberal democracy,” and “some [Western countries] have become psychologically weak.”

The article appeared on the same day that German officials disclosed that Chinese diplomats had tried to get Germany to speak positively about Chinas handling of the coronavirus.

Aware of its economic sway, China shows no signs of deferring to European sensitivities about its PR campaign, which has been particularly aggressive in France.

The two cases are the latest in a string of efforts widely seen as intended to deflect criticism of Chinas handling of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, promote images of China providing assistance to other countries struggling with the pandemic and raise questions about Western democracy.

However, the tension over Chinese propaganda efforts has also highlighted a dilemma faced by European leaders — while they may be vexed by Beijings attempts to influence their own citizens, they are also heavily dependent on China for masks and other medical supplies to fight the pandemic, and will also need Chinas economic muscle to help pull the Continent out of a deep recession.

“China considers Europe the soft belly of the West,” said Antoine Bondaz, a research fellow at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank who is focused on China. “In their logic, there is the West, and in it the U.S. that will oppose China for structural and ideological reasons, and their European allies that need to be neutral in case of conflict between China and the U.S.”

Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a Berlin-based think tank, noted that the Chinese economy is expected to bounce back strongly from the pandemic.

“What is clear is that despite all the complications, China will not experience negative growth in 2020 — unlike the USA — and it will probably have 9-10 percent growth in 2021,” said Huotari.

“Right now, all companies are desperate for anything positive to happen. So of course you look at where the growth markets are,” he added.

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy think tank, said that China will be the first country that gets out of the economic “tunnel.”

“That means exporting countries such as Germany and France will be even more dependent on the Chinese market than before,” he said.

Aware of its economic sway, China shows no signs of deferring to European sensitivities about its PR campaign, which has been particularly aggressive in France.

“Ambassador Lu is sophisticated, he knows exactly what hes doing. If he continues with pressure it means that they have a real strategy, they are not improvising,” said Bondaz, who has met Lu.

“The objective is to show that its not a summoning [of the ambassador] that will change anything, that they own up to what theyre doing, that theyre not wrong and that they were never wrong.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian | Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Lu was known for a similarly aggressive stance in the Canadian press when he was Beijings ambassador in Ottawa during a diplomatic spat in 2019 between Canada and China. The Chinese embassy in Paris did not respond to a request for an interview with the ambassador.

Even after Lu was summoned by Le Drian, the Chinese embassy has still not taken down, or amended, the original article that caused offense.

French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to strike a complicated balance between proclaiming the need for European strategic autonomy — meaning, among other things, decreasing French and European reliance on China — while also preserving current Chinese supply chains to get through the pandemic.

He has also been seeking to keep China on side in diplomatic initiatives he is championing on African debt, the quest for a coronavirus vaccine and a much-touted summit between the leaders of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

French officials deny they have been soft in their handling of Chinese propaganda, pointing to the unusually public summoning of the ambassador.

A senior Elysée official involved in talks with Chinese officials said: “We express our positions very clearly, there are no reservations when it comes to our sovereignty for fear of any sort of retaliation.”

Nevertheless, while leaders of countries like Australia, the United States and Germany have, each in their own way, called for investigations into how the coronavirus started, Macron has stopped short from joining them explicitly, preferring to leave that issue until the pandemic has been curtailed.

“The attitude of the political leadership in Beijing seems to be: Lets go all in and take all opportunities” — Mikko Huotari, executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies

But the Elysée official insisted France does want to see a proper probe into the origins of the virus. “Its evident that we will need to have all the necessary transparency on the origin of this pandemic and on the reality of its spread around the world, its important and necessary,” the official said.

Flexing muscles

China has also been flexing its muscles in Brussels and Berlin. After POLITICO reported last Tuesday that the European External Action Service (EEAS) had compiled a report that accused China of continuing to run a “global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and impRead More – Source