Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanized the Euro-Atlantic community’s motivation to assess and counter Moscow’s interference in their democracies. The Kremlin’s financing of French far-right politician Marine Le Pen was a central issue in France’s April 2022 presidential race, prominent pro-Russian advocates like Germany’s Gerard Schroder are under unprecedented pressure to cut ties with their patrons, and few now contest the need for Europe to eliminate its economic and energy dependency on authoritarian Russia, whose regime enriches itself from these proceeds.
However, Russia is not the only state attempting to weaken and destabilize democracies around the Atlantic. In fact, while all eyes are on Moscow and its proxies abroad, the Chinese state continues to subvert civil society by harassing activists, conducting cyber operations on a wide range of public and private organizations, and abusing its economic weight to shape democratic governments’ decision-making. We highlight these incidents on our Authoritarian Interference Tracker.
Subverting Civil Society
Various diaspora groups who have fled China continue to bear the brunt of Beijing’s extraterritorial repression. The Uyghur and Tibetan communities, as well as Hong-Kong and Taiwanese activists, are systematically targeted by Chinese surveillance and intimidation, even when they live in and are citizens of democratic states. In the first three months of 2022, cases involving the Chinese state’s harassment of these groups came to light in Canada, Norway, and the United States. In Canada, a federal court upheld a decision identifying the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Chinese state body responsible for liaising with the Chinese diaspora, as an entity that engages in espionage acts “contrary to Canada’s interests.”
In the United States, where government agencies are more actively pushing back against Beijing’s interference, the Department of Justice brought charges against five Chinese operatives for “stalking, harassing and spying on U.S. residents on behalf of the [People’s Republic of China] secret police.” Most strikingly, one of those cases involved a Chinese operative hiring a private investigator to disrupt the campaign of a U.S. congressional candidate in New York. While the Department of Justice’s charges were brought in March 2022, it’s important to note that the events they concern span the course of several years, highlighting the long-standing nature of China’s civil society subversion efforts in democracies.
The Chinese state’s harassment of diaspora communities in democracies is frequently done through electronic means. In March 2021, Facebook revealed that a hacking collective based in China was using fake accounts, as well as websites and apps intended to appeal to an Uyghur audience, to target that community outside of China. The hacking group, known as Evil Eye or Earth Empusa, was “well-resourced and persistent,” hinting at nation-state backing, and had a long track-record of going after diaspora groups of interest to the Chinese state.
However, China’s cyber operations in democracies go far beyond the harassment of specific communities. From May 2021 until at least March 2022, cybersecurity firm Mandiant tracked a Chinese state-led cybercampaign targeting the systems of as many as 18 U.S. state governments. In February 2022, cybersecurity firm Symantec published a report about another Chinese state-led campaign against U.S. government systems and critical infrastructure facilities that demonstrated an unprecedented level of technical sophistication.
These attacks are not limited to the United States. In July 2021, French cybersecurity agency ANSSI publicly attributed a cyber campaign that targeted a vast array of organizations and industries to Chinese state affiliated APT31, “an actor specialized on intellectual property theft.” In March 2022, two China-affiliated hacker groups targeted diplomats in EU institutions working on the war in Ukraine with phishing emails. In response to these attacks, European agencies are developing their knowledge of the threat posed by Chinese cyber operations. In August 2021, the Lithuanian National Security Center released a report warning about “cybersecurity risks” and censorship capabilities in phones made by Chinese firms Huawei and Xiaomi.
As disruptive as cyber attacks have been, the most egregious instance of Chinese foreign interference in the transatlantic space in recent times has been Beijing’s sustained economic coercion against Lithuania since the summer of 2021. In July 2021, Taiwan announced it would open a representative office in the Baltic nation, and Vilnius committed to opening a trade office in Taipei. China saw these moves as violating its sacrosanct “one China” principle. In August 2021, China withdrew its ambassador in Lithuania and prompted Vilnius to recall their envoy to Beijing the following month.
However, Lithuania forged ahead with its planned rapprochement with Taiwan, and the Chinese state chose to escalate beyond legitimate diplomatic avenues, resorting to economic coercion. Over the course of August 2021, a Chinese state-owned railway operator put the freight link between China and Lithuania “on hold” indefinitely, and Chinese authorities stopped approving new permits for Lithuanian food exports to China. When this proved insufficient to deter Vilnius, Beijing proceeded to pressure multinationals into severing ties with the Baltic state or be excluded from the Chinese market. As of January 2022, damage to the Lithuanian economy ran “to hundreds of millions of euros.”
With Beijing transparent about the geopolitical aims of its economic maneuvers against Lithuania, the EU has attempted to protect its member state. EU officials have facilitated Vilnius’ moves to help companies affected by China’s coercion and consistently bring up Lithuania in meetings with their Chinese counterparts. More significantly, in December 2021, the European Commission submitted a proposal for a regulation to protect EU member states from “economic coercion by third countries.” Although the document does not specifically refer to any third country, the European Parliament’s research arm prominently featured China’s economic coercion of Lithuania in its March 2022 report on the proposal.
Why It Matters
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses the most immediate threat to European security and European democracy, China’s sapping of institutions and societies on both sides of the Atlantic should not be ignored. In fact, Chinese diplomats and state media’s consistent pro-Russian messaging shows that both authoritarian states often have convergent objectives. Just like democracies have mobilized to push back against Russian aggression, they should tolerate neither China’s harassment of diaspora communities inside their borders, nor its disruptive cyber operations. And with Europe undergoing a painful readjustment after decades of reliance on Russian hydrocarbon imports, it is now evident that democracies on both side of the Atlantic must think strategically about the economic ties that bind them to China and better account for the coercion to which those ties expose them.
Try out the Authoritarian Interference Tracker here.