China’s role in Central and Eastern Europe has changed. Not for the better, according to Ivana Karásková. Karásková is a China Research Fellow and project coordinator at the think tank Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague.
She originally wanted to become a journalist and report from around the world. But after graduation, she was deterred by the uncertain future prospects. She opted for science and studied and taught in Prague, Shanghai and Taipei. Karásková thus explored the world that she would later report on as a scientist.
Investments with political demands
Because at AMO, Karásková examines China’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Looking back at the past few years, she says: The economic crisis of 2008 hit Eastern Europe hard. Hopes were high that Chinese investment would help the region get back on its feet. But the investment boom never materialized because “China didn’t have a plan for where it really wanted to invest,” Karásková says.
There was also another catch: “The investments from China came with political demands,” Karásková explains. The fact that the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang concerned many countries in Central and Eastern Europe was not well received in Beijing.
Nevertheless, China remained an important player. And Karásková has made it her task to research its influence. In 2016, she founded the Choice (China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe) initiative – a hub for China experts from Central and Eastern Europe. “I could have met China experts in Berlin, Brussels and Washington, but not in Prague or Warsaw.” She is also the founder of MapInfluenCE. The project details how China and Russia behave in the battle of narratives.
Targeted disinformation in the West
As Karásková explains, China has been trying to undermine trust in Western democracies via social media and classic media formats for years. One example: In the spring of 2020, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, claimed that the Coronavirus originated in a US laboratory. This lie spread rapidly through Western social media channels.
In part because an army of new fake accounts, along with accounts of Chinese officials, propagated the hoax, including the Polish version of China Radio International (CRI).
Anyone who compares Western reporting and Chinese disinformation might assume that the truth lies somewhere between the two information poles. This is not only wrong but also dangerous for democracies, whose most valuable currency is the truth, says Karásková.
Ukraine framing as preparation
For Karásková, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is adding a new dimension. Because China and Russia learn from each other and multiply the same anti-Western narratives. And this is happening on Western social networks.
China’s message is that NATO is to blame for the war and that European democracies are on the verge of collapse. Eastern Europe in particular is the target of such disinformation campaigns. As a result, China is “turning from a problematic partner into a pariah partner for Central and Eastern Europe,” says Karásková.
Moreover, she suspects “disinformation about Ukraine also involves Taiwan.” The goal, she says, is to already fuel anti-NATO narratives so that China’s propaganda can already build on existing anti-Western propaganda in the event of an invasion of Taiwan. The EU must anticipate this and do more to counter Chinese disinformation, Karásková urges. Jonathan Kaspar Teacher