China has sought loyalty in Europe for years. Coronavirus pandemic revealed its true face

The coronavirus pandemic gave impetus to a real revolution in European-Chinese relations – for some EU countries in these difficult times, Beijing turned out to be an assistant closer and better than Brussels. However, not everyone is happy with this state of things: spectacular humanitarian aid deliveries to Europe strengthen Beijing’s authority in the Old World, but undermine the solidarity of local politicians in matters of rights and freedoms. In addition, powerful Chinese propaganda splits European society. “Lenta.ru” understood how Beijing achieves the loyalty of Europe and how the European Union responds so as not to become dependent on a distant eastern friend.

Business is not as usual
“Essentially, China will continue to be what it has always been: a partner, competitor and systemic rival,” said Ulrich Weigl, head of the trade section of the EU delegation to China. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the balance of Sino-European relations began to tilt toward competition. The active, and often offensive, digital diplomacy of Beijing played a significant role in this.

The Chinese leadership threw their diplomats at the forefront of the information war for Europe, arming them with newly created social media accounts. The main topics of the messages of the Chinese Internet ambassadors were calls for international unity and solidarity, as well as the debunking of “anti-Chinese” theories. Officials paid special attention to promoting the Chinese model of containment of the epidemic – it was proposed to consider it an example to follow.

Not without accusations of European countries in ineffective measures to combat the virus. Articles with such content were published by the Chinese Embassy in France. The theme of the decline of the Western world during the epidemic has become popular not only among embassy staff, but also among conservative intellectuals. Thus, Zhou Bo, an honorary member of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, announced a “collapse of the West” because of the pandemic.

Pessimistic assessments of the actions of Europeans and an aggressive information policy of the PRC forced the EU authorities to reduce Beijing’s misinformation into a single report. The original version of this document was simply a list of facts that Brussels did not like.

The attempt to publish the report failed: to back down the European Union forced China’s powerful diplomatic pressure
The report eventually came out with somewhat relaxed wording. In the European Parliament, this fact was outraged and accused the EU representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrel, of loyalty to China. The diplomat admitted that Beijing really tried to influence the European officials, but he allegedly did not succeed. However, Borrel’s words did not convince the deputies.

This scandal was followed by another. On May 6, the European Union and China celebrated the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations, and the EU decided to use the round date to influence the Chinese public in the right way. For this, the EU ambassador and 27 European ambassadors prepared a joint text on coronavirus for publication in the Chinese newspapers China Daily and People’s Daily. However, the phrase contained in the original text that the virus appeared in China and then spread to the whole world in three months did not suit Chinese censors and was excluded.

The European ambassadors agreed to edit – this was explained by the fact that through the Chinese media they were able to convey important meanings to a billion readers. But indulging censorship still caused disappointment in the EU and a new wave of criticism.

At the end of May, another ideologically significant event took place for China’s relations with the entire Western world. Chinese MPs passed the National Security Act, which significantly reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy. In contrast to the active outrage of the United States, the reaction of the European Union has been restrained. On May 29, the EU published a short message containing “serious concern” about China’s actions. Brussels again reminded Beijing of its international obligations and the need to maintain the policy of “One country, two systems.” To the criticism of Western countries, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that Hong Kong’s security is Beijing’s internal affair, and the Chinese leadership will not tolerate foreign interference. This ended the exchange of views.

Divide and rule
Active propaganda and offensive diplomacy in Europe did not prevent Beijing from developing relations with individual EU states. For this, China used the already developed differentiated approach. Its essence is simple: individually strengthen relations with countries of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. Bypassing European unity in this way, Beijing tried to positively influence its image and gain more loyalty where possible.