Repurposing democracy: The European Parliament China Friendship Cluster

Paper presented at the workshop “Mapping China’s footprint in the world II”, organised by Sinopsis and the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

Abstract

While the CCP’s influence operations in Europe are vast and remain largely unscrutinised, some of the tactics, agencies and targets involved can be usefully summarised through case studies of organisations at the intersection of multiple aspects of such influence activity. An informal “China friendship group” in the European Parliament enjoys diverse links in China and Europe, warranting its use as such a case study. The group effectively functions as a proxy for CCP domestic and external propaganda: in China, the presentation of statements by its members helps engineer the perception of a global endorsement of the party-state’s rule; abroad, it conveys support for CCP initiatives through credible voices. A systematic overview of the group and its activities is presented here for the first time, along with its links to a wider network of CCP-aligned organisations that are best analysed as constituting a cluster. The description of the cluster’s interactions with its partner agencies across the CCP political influence apparatus is accompanied by brief overviews of these agencies, highlighting their role in other aspects of influence work. In particular, the political cooption efforts reflected in the friendship group’s activities overlap with those that seek to engineer a discourse landscape favourable to CCP policy. In such a China discourse environment, European decision-makers are not only exposed to local proxies faithfully transmitting CCP talking points, but also surrounded by an anodyne “neutrality” that legitimises such proxies and shields audiences from any critical scrutiny of CCP operations. A component of such discourse-engineering work relies on the cultivation of Europe’s policy think tanks. Both the participation of one such think tank in interactions between group members and the CCP and the absence of study of the group and its links by Europe’s leading policy research institutions illustrate aspects of the development of a CCP-friendly discourse landscape in Europe. Contrary to views of totalitarian power projection as primarily disruptive, this paper adds to a growing body of research that establishes the focus of CCP influence activity as repurposing democratic governance structures to serve as tools of extraterritorial influence, rather than destroy them.

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