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China In Eurasia

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a giant screen as he delivers a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on July 1.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

The China In Eurasia briefing is nearly 6 months old and I want your feedback. Send me an e-mail and let me know what you like so far, what you want to see more of, and what you think can be improved. Send your feedback to StandishR@rferl.org

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

The Building Blocks For A China World Order

China celebrated the 100-year anniversary of its ruling Communist Party in grandiose fashion on July 1 as Beijing looked to signal its growing influence across the globe as it plays a more assertive and prominent role in world affairs.

You can read my report on the event and what it means here.

Finding Perspective: The anniversary was a domestic event meant to herald an array of political and economic victories at home, but the celebration’s international implications can’t be overlooked.

President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic speech, where he praised the Communist Party’s expanded influence and said that anyone who tries to challenge China “will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people,” signaled a global confidence in Beijing’s political model, which is already spreading across the world.

In addition to Beijing’s massive financial influence, Chinese standards for economically vital next-generation technology are already coming into place in the Balkans and Central Asia, and China has begun to expand into higher education as well.

As Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a former adviser on Chinese strategic issues to the French Defense Ministry, told me:

“We are starting to witness a transition that is much more proactive, where China is trying to shape the government systems of countries,” she said. “Not everything is being implemented yet, but we are seeing the building blocks for the future put into place.”

Why It Matters: This is a natural progression for a power like China, which continues to see its influence rise, but its full impact remains to be seen.

The last year has been a mixed bag for Beijing’s standing in the world. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that China’s reputation has dropped markedly among Western countries and Beijing finds itself in a series of diplomatic spats across Europe and Asia.

But China’s newfound influence is undeniable and Beijing’s confidence will lead to more and more elements of its political system being adopted around the world.

Read More

● Central to China’s rise is its growing economy. Eric Zhu and Tim Orlik examine for Bloomberg when (and if) China can overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy.

● German authorities arrested a former spy for Germany’s secret service on suspicions that he conducted “intelligence agent activities” for China, POLITICO Europe reports.

Expert Corner: Understanding China's 'Wolf Warriors'

Readers asked: Does China's so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy -- the combative and nationalistic tone taken by the country’s diplomats online and in the media -- actually work?

To find out more, I asked Peter Martin, the author of “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” and a former China correspondent for Bloomberg:

“The main audience for Wolf Warrior diplomacy is not foreigners but political elites in Beijing, and there is evidence that Chinese diplomats that try out this approach are rewarded for it.

“It’s much more debatable if it has been successful in other countries. This approach allows Chinese diplomats to appear unfazed by the challenges posed by the West and also reminds smaller countries that there are consequences for defying Beijing, and that can be very powerful.

“While some governments like Putin’s Russia or Hungary’s Orban might find it appealing to see Chinese diplomats speak so frankly about the West, if you look at polling, you can see that Wolf Warrior diplomats are contributing to China’s deteriorating image and losing China lots of potential friends.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. The Dark Side of Vaccine Diplomacy

Citing diplomatic sources, the AP reported that Beijing threatened to stop shipments of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines destined for Ukraine unless Kyiv withdrew its support for an investigation into rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Now, Beijing and Kyiv have reportedly inked an investment deal.

The Rundown: Ukraine seemed to have removed its name from a statement at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. According to the AP report, Beijing warned the Ukrainians it would block a scheduled shipment of at least 500,000 doses of China's Sinovac vaccine.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not specifically acknowledge the charge in the report but told the AP in a statement that “there isn't any geopolitical purpose or any political conditions attached” to the supply of vaccines.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. But Oleksandr Merezhko, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's Committee on Foreign Policy and Inter-Parliamentary Cooperation, called the report "unofficial information" and questioned who the anonymous diplomatic sources were.

Ukraine ordered 1.9 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine from China but has so far only received 1.2 million shots while being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. China’s War On The Uyghurs Goes Global

China is flexing its economic muscle across Asia and the Middle East to target Uyghur and other Muslim minorities from Xinjiang who are living abroad through what a new report describes as “a transnational campaign of repression on an unprecedented scale” that has reached 28 countries.

Rendition and Repatriation: The report and accompanying dataset were put together by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. They say their research is the most complete account of China's international campaign.

The research documents how governments have cooperated with Beijing to surveil, detain, and repatriate Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities from China who have fled Xinjiang, examining 1,546 cases from 1997 to March 2021.

While Beijing’s global campaign predates its economic rise of recent years, the report notes that the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 has created new levers for China to exercise influence and use its financial power to pressure governments to cooperate in targeting Uyghurs for economic gain.

The report also notes that efforts to target Uyghurs and force them back to China have intensified since 2017, when Beijing is believed to have begun its mass internment program in its Xinjiang Province that is estimated to have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in a vast camp network.

Read more about the report’s findings and my interview with its lead author here.

3. Brussels Steps Up In Montenegro

Cash-strapped Montenegro appears to have reached a solution and will be receiving help from a European financial institution to refinance its $1 billion debt owed to China, my Balkan Service colleagues Srdjan Jankovic and Gjeraqina Tuhina and I reported.

A Coming Deal: The Balkan country’s debt is from a controversial highway project that has been hit with delays and is still incomplete.

A European Union source told us that an agreement on providing credit is in the process of being finalized and, once finished, will be signed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

It is not yet known which institution will provide the refinancing, but Montenegrin Finance Minister Milojko Spajic said that the low-interest credit will allow the cash-strapped government to make savings and cut interest rates.

China holds approximately one-quarter of Montenegro's total debt, which reached 103 percent of GDP last year, and the government is juggling a host of financial and political crises at the moment.

Europe and China: A refinancing agreement could bring an end to the ongoing uncertainty over Montenegro's debt with China and its relations with the EU.

The highway and the massive debt have been at the center of ongoing conversations about growing Chinese influence in Europe and an agreement is seen by observers as a necessary and welcome move from Brussels that can boost the EU’s credibility in the Balkans.

However, the outcome isn’t necessarily bad for China, as Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, explained.

“China is not entirely the loser here. Let's not forget that it will be paid in the end,” he said.

Across The Supercontinent

Heavenly Siberia: My colleagues at Current Time released an excellent documentary looking at how China’s growing influence is changing all aspects of life in Russia’s Siberia and Far East. Watch the documentary here (in Russia with English subtitles).

Beyond The Garden: The team at Current Time has another new China-theme documentary available to watch. This one explores how residents of Russia's Bolshoi Ussuriisky Island are trying to adapt after Moscow handed over part of the island to China in 2008. Watch it here.

Chinese Bitcoin Moves Next Door: Shenzhen-based Bitcoin miner BIT Mining has delivered 320 mining machines to a facility in Kazakhstan, with another 2,600 expected to arrive as China continues to crack down on crypto-mining at home.

A Lovely Day In The Neighborhood: During a June 28 teleconference, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping extended the China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years.

The treaty was first inked in 2001 and outlines broad cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. The renewal comes as relations between the two countries are closer than ever, although increasingly slanted in China’s favor.

The China Picket: A small-scale demonstration in Almaty, Kazakhstan, against rising prices and growing Chinese influence ended in skirmishes with police on July 6, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.

Another Shipment: North Macedonia received 500,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine on June 27, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported. The small Balkan nation has relied heavily on Chinese shots for its immunization campaign.

An Eye On Afghanistan: I sat on a June 25 panel hosted by the Middle East Institute discussing how China and other regional players like Iran, Pakistan, and Russia will deal with the uncertainty in Afghanistan. You can watch it here.

A Visit: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on June 21 that she hopes to be able to visit Xinjiang this year and be given "meaningful access” to investigate “reports of serious human rights violations.”

One Thing To Watch

Taliban forces are making rapid advances in Afghanistan as the United States has nearly completed its military withdrawal from the country, leading to speculation about how Beijing may react to the fallout.

It’s a tough situation for China, which shares a 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan and has security concerns about the country moving forward.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a recent assessment by the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the U.S. military withdrawal from the country is completed.

Beijing is reportedly already having talks with the Taliban to have its concerns over Uyghur groups met and is also looking to entice the group with offers of investment.

What role Beijing will look to play in a future Afghanistan is still to be seen, but the country is becoming more involved despite hesitancy about being drawn too far into the country’s affairs.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

A big screen outside a shopping mall in Beijing shows Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of China's Communist Party.

China was marking the 100-year anniversary of its ruling Communist Party on July 1 to herald its rise on the world stage, celebrating what it says is its growing influence abroad, along with an array of economic and political victories at home.

Standing at the Gate of Heavenly Peace above a portrait of Mao Zedong, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech to a massive crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing where he credited the party with lifting the country out of poverty and pledged to expand its military and political influence, saying that the era of China being bullied was “gone forever.”

“We will not accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us,” Xi said. “We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.”

“By the same token, we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate [China]. Anyone who tries will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people.”

The fiery rhetoric, which was met by thunderous applause, comes at a time of rising Chinese nationalism that has coincided with Beijing taking on a more assertive and prominent role in world affairs.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s international influence, appeal, and attraction have continually increased, placing it at the forefront of world politics,” Guo Yezhou, deputy head of the party’s external liaison department, told reporters on June 28.

China has seen huge improvements in living standards over the past 40 years, accompanied by rising international financial and political influence.

Shipments of Chinese vaccines arrive in Belgrade, Serbia.
Shipments of Chinese vaccines arrive in Belgrade, Serbia.

Yet, while many nations have benefited from China’s rise, analysts note, Beijing is also seen as eroding democracy and human rights in countries over which it holds economic influence.

They say the trend highlights an increasing contrast between the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation at home and how it is seen abroad.

“In Chinese diplomacy, domestic politics is always king, and a lot of the way that Beijing has behaved over the last few years is geared towards that domestic audience,” Peter Martin, the author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, told RFE/RL.

“Many governments are worried that China will attempt to spread its model across the world, so internationally there is more concern about Beijing under the [Communist Party] than there has been since at least the 1970s.”

Charting Pushback

As much of the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic that seemingly originated in central China, Beijing has been flexing its geopolitical muscles, leading to both increased heft and deteriorating relationships across some parts of the world.

A June 30 survey of 17 advanced economies in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific by the Pew Research Center found that most countries see China in an unfavorable light, with views of Xi “near historic lows.”

Over the last year, China has had a trade row with Australia, a military clash with India along their shared border, and effectively taken control of parts of the disputed South China Sea.

China’s policies in its western Xinjiang Province, where it is operating an internment-camp system that has detained 1 million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, have also damaged its relations with many countries.

While Beijing’s standing with Central Asian governments remains strong, the internments next door have inflamed tensions and contributed to negative views of China among local populations and led to protests and pickets in Kazakhstan, for instance.

The United States government and several Western parliaments have meanwhile labeled China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

Tit-for-tat sanctions with the European Union over Xinjiang led to the bloc freezing a massive investment deal in May between Brussels and Beijing.

China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, which takes its name from a nationalistic Chinese film franchise and refers to the combative tone taken by the country’s diplomats online, has also ruffled feathers in many Western countries and led to diplomatic spats across Europe.

Allegations of “vaccine diplomacy,” wherein Beijing has donated and preferentially sold doses of COVID-19 vaccines, have also highlighted a potential path for expanding Chinese influence and trading doses for political favors.

Such charges surfaced on June 24 with Western diplomats alleging that Beijing pressured Ukraine into withdrawing its support for greater scrutiny into Xinjiang by threatening to withhold vaccine shipments. Chinese authorities denied the accusations.

“We won't be seeing a recalibration in Chinese diplomacy,” said Martin. “Beijing shows no signs of softening its approach on any issue, from environmental policies to Xinjiang.”

Following China's Rise

Despite China’s newfound international difficulties, Beijing is still successfully expanding influence across much of the world, said Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a former adviser on Chinese strategic issues to the French Defense Ministry.

“The developing and emerging world is a huge area where China is actually pushing harder and harder to expand its own influence and is showing results,” she told RFE/RL.

Beijing has expanded diplomatic ties across Africa, Eurasia, and Latin American in recent years, inking technology and infrastructure deals under the guise of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese companies have been selling surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia.
Chinese companies have been selling surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia.

“We are starting to witness a transition that is much more proactive where China is trying to shape the government systems of countries,” said Rolland. “Not everything is being implemented yet, but we are seeing the building blocks for the future put into place.”

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked up their growing partnership during a June 28 teleconference in which the two leaders extended the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years.

In Serbia, which is a crucial hub for Beijing’s growing presence in the Balkans, Chinese technologies have gained a foothold through surveillance cameras and a “smart city” project, which includes data gathering, storing, and management, under way in Belgrade and planned for Novi Sad.

Chinese companies have also begun to supply surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia, where the security services of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have each inked agreements in recent years.

The systems are officially sold as monitoring of traffic and citizens, but the use of the technology raises ethical and human rights concerns and has been already deployed widely across China, including as part of a vast surveillance system in Xinjiang to target Uyghurs.

Elsewhere, China has made forays into education. Three Serbian universities have signed a cooperation agreement with Jiao Tong University, opening the door to deeper long-term cultural ties.

A planned university project in Budapest with Shanghai’s Fudan University has come under fire in Hungary for its use of taxpayer funds, but the campus would mark an important milestone as the first Chinese university in the EU.

“This is the next step for a power like China, which has risen to a new level,” said Rolland. “[Beijing] wants other countries to become amenable to the principles and values within its own system.”

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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