China is losing propaganda war in Europe

June 07, 2021 09:15
Thousands of Hungarians marched through Budapest to protest against a proposed Chinese University campus.Photo: Reuters

China has launched a diplomatic offensive to win the hearts and minds of European governments and people and save the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) that it signed last December after seven years of negotiations.

Last week the Foreign Ministers of three European Union (EU) countries – Ireland, Poland and Hungary – were invited to Guiyang to meet Wang Yi, their Chinese counterpart. “The visits provided a platform for dialogue on the common interests China and the European countries have in a variety of area and an opportunity to shore up mutual trust,” said the China Daily in an editorial on June 1.

Last Monday President Xi Jinping told the Politburo in Beijing: “it is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority and constantly expand the circle of friends in international opinion.”

It was the nearest Xi has come to admitting that China is losing the propaganda war, especially in Europe.

The sharpest points of dispute are Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Beijing and the EU present two narratives that are completely contradictory. Beijing says its policies are necessary to fight against terrorism and preserve national security against foreign interference.

But a majority of EU governments and people do not believe Beijing’s narrative.

On June 4, a Uyghur Tribunal opened in London, an independent inquiry to examine allegations of human rights abuses and claims of genocide in Xinjiang. Beijing is not taking part and has denounced the inquiry as “neither legal nor credible”.

It was tit-for-tat sanctions over Xinjiang that led to a suspension of the votes needed to implement the CAI. China’s sanctions include members of the European Parliament, who have to approve the agreement.

On Hong Kong, Europeans must choose between Beijing’s official narrative and that presented by Hong Kong exiles, lawyers and NGOs. The majority have chosen the second -- protests were a mass movement of Hong Kong people and outside parties played but a secondary role.

China’s case is not helped by its diplomats who act as “wolf warriors”. In March, Lu Shaye, its ambassador in Paris, called French academic Antoine Bondaz “a small-time thug”, an “ideological troll” and a “crazed hyena”. France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned Lu for a telling off. "The remarks by the Chinese Embassy in France and their actions against elected officials, researchers and EU diplomats are not acceptable,” he said.

Le Drian said that, during the last 18 months, they had seen a real hardening of the Chinese political system, which had returned to the basics of Communism. “As a result, the issue of the competition of systems has become more intense. For the first time since Tiananmen in 1989, we have been driven to take sanctions, linked to the tightening of policies toward Hong Kong, then the Uighurs,” he said.

In the pre-Xi era, before 2012, Chinese diplomats would have made their views clear but not in such as provocative manner. It pleases their bosses in Beijing – but alienates the European public.

Beijing’s strongest ally in the EU is Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, who often votes on China’s side in major decisions.

But even there opposition has grown against his plan to allow Fudan University to build a satellite campus in Budapest, the capital. The city government has named four streets after “Free Hong Kong”, “Uyghur Martyrs”, “Dalai Lama” and “Bishop Xie Shiguang”, a Catholic bishop imprisoned many times by the government.

Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony strongly opposes the campus, saying it serves the interests of China’s Communist Party and that the details of the US$1.5 billion loan and construction details are secret. Orban has promised to continue supporting the project.

On Saturday, thousands of Hungarians marched through Budapest to protest against the proposed campus. They said the funds should be used to improve their own universities instead of building a Chinese one. They carried banners saying “Treason” and supporting the Uighurs.

Also negative for Beijing is the retirement in September of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years in office. She is the EU leader most sympathetic to China. She has visited the country 12 times, more than any other Western leader, each time with a large business delegation.

Her support is a major reason why German investment in China is more than that of any other EU country, and she was one of the main architects of the CAI.

In May, the Nanfeng Chuang (南風窗) magazine of Guangzhou ran a cover story in praise of Merkel and her achievements at home and abroad. It said that, during her term, Sino-German trade and investment ties had deepened, showing how important she regarded the Chinese market.

“She believes that only if the two countries develop rapidly together can Europe bear the pressure of globalisation,” it said.

A report in April by Germany’s Foreign Ministry said: “China was Germany’s most important trading partner for goods in 2020, with volume of trade of over 212 billion euros. China views Germany both economically and politically as a key partner in Europe. Germany advocates substantive and reciprocal relations between the EU and China, as well as increased EU unity towards China.”

The retirement of Merkel means that Beijing will lose an important ally at the policy-making table in Brussels.

Wu Qiang, an analyst in Beijing, said that China was facing the worst international isolation since the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.