China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests. While Beijing’s efforts have received much less scrutiny than the efforts of Putin’s Russia, Europe neglects China’s increasing influence at its own peril. Drawing on its economic strength and a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatus that is geared towards strategically building stocks of influence across the globe, Beijing’s political influencing efforts in Europe are bound to be much more consequential in the medium- to long-term future than those of the Kremlin.
China commands a comprehensive and flexible influencing toolset, ranging from the overt to the covert, primarily deployed across three arenas: political and economic elites, media and public opinion, and civil society and academia. In expanding its political influence, China takes advantage of the one-sided openness of Europe. Europe’s gates are wide open whereas China seeks to tightly restrict access of foreign ideas, actors and capital.
The effects of this asymmetric political relationship are beginning to show within Europe. European states increasingly tend to adjust their policies in fits of “preemptive obedience” to curry favor with the Chinese side. Political elites within the European Union (EU) and in the European neighborhood have started to embrace Chinese rhetoric and interests, including where they contradict national and/or European interests. EU unity has suffered from Chinese divide and rule tactics, especially where the protection and projection of liberal values and human rights are concerned. Beijing also benefits from the ‘services’ of willing enablers among European political and professional classes who are happy to promote Chinese values and interests. Rather than only China trying to actively build up political capital, there is also much influence courting on the part of those political elites in EU member states who seek to attract Chinese money or to attain greater recognition on the global plane.
The Chinese leadership’s political influence-seeking in Europe is driven by two interlocking motivations. First and foremost, it seeks to secure regime stability at home. Second, Beijing aims to present its political concepts as a competitive, and ultimately superior, political and economic model. Driven by these motivations, Beijing pursues three related goals. First, it aims to build global support on specific issues and policy agendas. This includes fostering solid networks among European politicians, businesses, media, think tanks, and universities, thereby creating layers of active support for Chinese interests. Second, China seeks to weaken Western unity, both within Europe, and across the Atlantic. Third, Beijing pushes hard to create a more positive global perception of China’s political and economic system as a viable alternative to liberal democracies.