The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence activities targeting decision-making élites in Brussels, the centre of EU and Belgian politics, exploit a grey area between diplomacy and espionage, avoiding media and law enforcement scrutiny. This study explores little-known PRC-aligned entities in Brussels to show how the use of low-key proxies allows CCP agencies to cultivate Brussels stakeholders and build PRC-aligned narratives as the background of policy debates.
CCP influence operations in Brussels have no single vehicle. We tackle their complexity adopting Weber’s rhizomatic approach, originally applied to the Swiss case. We traverse ramified personal and institutional links starting from one prominent actor — the Belgium-China Chamber of Commerce (BCECC) — to identify others that stand out for their connectedness to Brussels and PRC entities. From BCECC’s business promotion focus, links lead to clusters of organisations at the intersections of business and politics — through the One Belt One Road Committee, a grouping of MEPs that survived the demise of the China Friendship Group — and of academia and policy think tanks — through the Brussels Academy for European Studies (BACES), supported by PRC and Belgian universities.
Navigating this rhizome uncovers partnerships with PRC party-state agencies, often resembling their known operations elsewhere. BCECC, e.g., is but one node in a global network of partners of the state-controlled China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT). Other PRC agencies linked to this network include united front groups, propaganda organs such as state media and Confucius Institutes, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), and the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s main civilian intelligence agency. While the network’s business and academic focuses reflect themes of contemporary CCP influence work, it institutionally links back to CCP-friendly organisations established in the Mao era. Our rhizome thus grows from the CCP’s external influence apparatus, rather than as opportunistic local actors.
The impact of these agencies’ work relies on their local partners’ position as legitimate sources of local China expertise. BCECC-linked entities have conducted exchanges with PRC’s organs with an official mandate to represent EU and Belgian interests. A cluster of organisations in this network, anchored in academia, cooperates with narrative-shaping institutions such as the College of Europe, an international relations school, and the Egmont Institute, Belgium’s main foreign policy think tank. Through this rhizome, CCP influence organs thus leverage the interests of Brussels stakeholders — in business, academia, politics and the civil service — to shape Europe’s policy options into alignment with the PRC’s goals.