NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n July alone, European governments have spurned Huawei and criticized Beijing’s handling of human rights. Just this week, the European Union imposed sanctions for the crackdown in Hong Kong. This deterioration of relations has coincided with an awakening to Beijing’s influence operations and coercive diplomacy in the months since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese diplomats have pressured European officials into accepting their preferred outcomes, occasionally with some success. In April, they convinced EU officials to water down a report that initially cast blame on China for the spread of the virus. But these efforts have also triggered a backlash, such as when the Chinese embassy in France published an article that falsely claimed that French nursing-home caregivers had left elderly patients to die. And in June, another EU report called out Beijing for its disinformation efforts.
Just a few years ago, there was scant public awareness of attempts like these to sway public opinion and government policy in liberal democracies. Australia is a rare exception, as it has for a couple of years faced an onslaught of heavy-handed foreign-influence campaigns. Attorney General Bill Barr’s July 16 speech about the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions and work to co-opt American businesses and universities marked one of the highest-profile acknowledgments by a top U.S. official of the PRC’s political-influence operations. It was arguably the most prominent warning about CCP influence in the United States or Europe to date.
But while awareness of Beijing’s designs on European democracy has risen on the continent, most people are still half asleep, according to Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t think that Europe’s really thought through what it needs to do in order to take care of itself. I think that Europe has been used to relying on the United States for some time now,” she tells National Review. Tatlow, in a paper this month, suggests reviving an old framework to push back: Europe should focus on a concept called democratic security, she says.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europeans seeking to chart a new path for liberal democracy in the post–Cold War era expanded their thinking about security issues. In addition to the “hard security” guaranteed by military force, “democratic security” came to be seen as a means of protecting democracy from authoritarianism. In essence, the concept suggests that democracies mobilize democratic practices to protect themselves. “Democratic security aims to provide democracies with a set of practical tools and intellectual/moral concepts to protect democracy, recognizing that traditional, ‘hard’ (military) security, while necessary, is insufficient on its own,” Tatlow writes. While democracy and security are often viewed as competing priorities, democratic security seeks to reconcile them, turning democratic practices into their own form of security.
The conversation about democratic security emerged again a couple of years ago, as Europe fought Russian attempts to interfere in elections. Sweden already has an agency designed to work with government and civil society to combat disinformation, and in 2018 government officials called for a “psychological defense” agency with a similar mandate. That new office is supposed to launch in 2022. Not surprisingly, then, Sweden has been proactive about taking on CCP influence, this spring closing all of the country’s Confucius Institutes, the Beijing-funded and -influenced research centers at foreign universities.
Sweden has led its peers in fighting foreign influence, and the rest of Europe is catching up. Efforts to counter Chinese disinformation will vary across countries, but by and large, European governments have taken aim at economic dependence on China. The European Union in 2019 approved stricter guidelines on screening foreign investment, which are set to take effect in October. Meanwhile, France, Germany, and Italy have also imposed stronger rules to scrutinize foreign investments.
CCP influence campaigns also work through subtler conduits, such as the “Chinese friendship associations” that operate worldwide — including at the European Parliament and in its member states. These civil-society organizations mobilize dignitaries from the worlds of politics and business, bringing them into contact with the United Front, the CCP arm that works to soften foreign resistance to Beijing through persuasion. As Jichang Lulu, an independent researcher, put it last year, Chinese influence activities aim to repurpose “democratic governance structures to serve as tools of extraterritorial influence, rather than destroy them.”
The soft influence of the friendship associations is precisely the kind of threat that democratic security best defends against. While awareness of these malign influences in Western democracy grows at research institutions and among policymakers, there’s a long way to go before they become the center of public attention, as Russia’s influence has been in recent years. Tatlow suggests that every EU country replicate Sweden’s proposed Psychological Defense Agency to track and disrupt disinformation and influence. In the current political environment, this might be something that some governments can get behind, especially as they become more vocal about Beijing’s malign actions with regard to the coronavirus, Hong Kong, and human-rights abuses against Uighurs in the Xinjiang autonomous region.
But what happens when a government is reluctant to act? Despite Germany’s new investment screening rules, Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reluctant to speak out about the CCP, prioritizing her country’s economic ties with China. Even in situations like that, there are important steps other institutions can take. “I think that one can certainly build structures at home or raise education, fund research, publicize the research, and do it all in a very fair, politically safe way for everyone in the country, including people of Chinese origin,” Tatlow says.
Europe’s fight against Chinese influence also has implications for the United States. On a strategic level, CCP influence campaigns in Europe operate in part with the goal of driving a wedge between Washington and its European allies. In 2013, Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University wrote a book describing how Beijing ought to approach its ties with Europe — cultivate friends, sway “frenemies,” and neutralize enemies. The goal of Chinese policy today fits that framework, according to Tatlow, who says that Beijing is trying to nudge Europe toward neutrality by cultivating division. It only takes one country to torpedo a proposed rule that must be approved by consensus. But the United States, too, can benefit from an emphasis on democratic security. “I think that when it comes to informed, rational knowledge and debate about how the party functions, how it functions overseas, what its goals and aims are, I think that’s missing in the States as well,” she says.
So are democracies up for the challenge? At least in the United States, there’s now widespread agreement about the existence of strategic competition with China, if not a new cold war. “Tough on China” has become a campaign-trail refrain as Trump and Biden trade blows to claim the title. But while Western democracies are getting tougher on a range of issues in their relations with Beijing, they also need to get smart about fighting CCP influence.