When the China Daily mysteriously appeared on the director’s desk at a Prague government agency one day last month, heads almost rolled in the Czech capital, one employee told me. The director, a young leader with no affinity for China’s worldview, ordered the Communist Party newspaper removed from the premises. Staff members were quizzed on the publication’s provenance and even the mailman was chastised for delivering it.
How did a newspaper with headlines like “Japanese convenience stores ban porn” and “Leg fat better than belly fat for older women” become a point of contention for a civil servant in one of Europe’s strongest democracies? Like many things in Europe these days, everything China touches is being reevaluated.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, China’s activities in Europe, as elsewhere, attracted far less attention. Ten years ago, as the global financial crisis rippled across the Atlantic, China’s deft handling and timely contribution to the European Financial Stability Facility generated a fair amount of goodwill in European capitals. As recently as last year, public opinion in places like Bulgaria, Greece, Poland and Lithuania was largely favorable.
Leaders in Brussels were also smitten. True, there was some concern that Beijing was trying to sow discord and division within the bloc and China was even labeled a “systemic rival” in 2019. But the EU’s main focus remained on trade and investment with Beijing. In other words, many in Europe believed that the benefits of increased engagement with China outweighed the risk.
The global pandemic upended that calculation. China’s poor initial handling of the outbreak – from covering up the virus to punishing whistleblowers – coupled with the overt politicization of aid, put Europe’s ties to China in a less appealing light. In the Netherlands, Spain and elsewhere, defective Chinese medical equipment delayed containment of the virus, prompting an outcry. Even in Greece, long a pro-China stalwart, Beijing’s favorability began to decline. In May, 44 percent of the Greek public blamed China for the spread of the virus.
The question now is whether the tarnishing of China’s image will galvanize the EU into adopting a more assertive policy toward its rival. If it does, the result would be a stronger European project and a return of the bloc’s values-based high ground. But if the status quo persists, the EU could become even weaker.
Historically, Brussels has had little sway over member states when it comes to marshalling a united stance against China’s aggressive tactics, from economic statecraft to “elite capture” – the nurturing of personal relationships in a bid to influence pro-China policymaking. While Beijing’s human rights transgressions in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong have drawn muted condemnation, trade and investment have long trumped liberal ideology.
But now that China’s brand of governance has directly contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world, China can no longer get a free pass.
In some ways, we’re already seeing a more assertive EU. In May, more than 100 politicians from member states signed a letter supporting Taiwan’s bid to attend the World Health Assembly as an observer, drawing a fierce Chinese response. And earlier this month, 57 parliamentarians from 19 European countries penned a joint opinion piece in Euractiv linking Covid-19 to the Tibetan issue. “Now that…China’s secrecy and misinformation helped unleash the pandemic,” they wrote, “the world can no longer accept its isolation of Tibet, where another potential crisis with global implications is looming.”
Unfortunately, even the EU’s more robust rhetorical responses lack teeth. For instance, after a foreign ministers’ meeting on May 29 to discuss China’s moves on Hong Kong, it was revealed that only Sweden called for sanctions. In fact, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, even referred to China as an “ally.” If China is ever to get the message that its actions carry real consequences, Europe needs to be much more unified – and tougher – in its approach.
At first glance, Europe’s non-punitive policy makes sense. China is the bloc’s third largest trading partner. In 2019, the EU exported 198 billion euros in goods to China and increasing access to the Chinese market remains a top priority for Germany, the EU’s largest economy. Beijing has also brought money and investment to Central and Eastern Europe, where recovery after the pandemic will require a steady flow of economic activity.
But in reality, the timidity toward China is self-defeating. The EU’s negotiating position and its status as a global power could actually be enhanced by relying less on Chinese supply chains. At the height of the pandemic, Europe’s production of everything from cars to pharmaceuticals ground to a halt as raw materials from China dried up. Cutting this dependency and decoupling from China’s economy would send a message louder than any statement.
Calls for such action are building. In a recent policy paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations, China expert Andrew Small observed that “Beijing’s handling of the pandemic has changed long-standing European assumptions about its reliability as a crisis actor and its approach to the European project.” France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, is among those suggesting that the time has come for supply-chain diversification away from China.
To be sure, China will not cede its foothold in Europe easily. Pro-China leaders in Eastern Europe remain committed to Chinese investment and Chinese propaganda is working to offset any dips in public opinion. Even European bureaucrats have fallen victim to Chinese pressure. In April, EU officials reportedly softened their criticism of China’s role in the pandemic because they feared economic repercussions.
But continuing to tread softly with China with eyes focused solely on trade will eventually cost the EU something money can’t buy: its global leadership role and position as a defender of liberal values. The Czech government official who tossed out his copy of the China Daily seemed to understand this. The rest of Europe’s leaders must, too.
Greg C Bruno is the author of “Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.” He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.