Confined discourse management and localised interactions in the Nordics

[Also posted on Sinopsis.]

Some of the challenges the CCP faces in managing public discourse in democratic societies can be overcome by insulating interactions at the local level. The decentralisation often seen in Western administrations gives local officials high levels of decision power, making them an ideal target for “friendly contact” efforts. Foreign debates over interactions with PRC entities often feature critical views, what writing on propaganda often calls the “China Threat Theory” (), generalising PRC reactions to the use of the phrase in the US in the 1990s. Xi Jinping’s rule features a global expansion of Party work, notably propaganda and United Front efforts that can help engineer environments favourable to CCP policies. The installation of Xiist concepts at the United Nations is a discourse-engineering success story, illustrating the use of multiple state and private entities and methods ranging from propaganda to bribery. Lesser endeavours, such as specific investment projects, have no access to the resources demanded by large-scale discourse management, but are just as relevant to national strategic goals. At the local level, perceptions of the potential benefits of engagement with Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative are often remarkably optimistic, and knowledge asymmetry can help avoid scrutiny of the more controversial political or military aspects of cooperation projects. In such cases, localisation can let interactions reach successful outcomes within low-level jurisdictions, creating faits accomplis before national media attention can trigger critical (“threat”) narratives.


May the China Opportunity Theory (中国机遇论) defeat the China Threat Theory (中国威胁论). Source: CRI.

The following examples, drawn from Sweden, Norway and Greenland, illustrate the risks posed to localised interactions when information management fails to confine them to the local domain. In all three cases, PRC actors enjoyed a largely positive reception from local decision makers before public scrutiny took them to a more critical discourse environment.

Sweden: a creature of Perestroika Panic guides public opinion

Sweden is a challenging environment for the CCP’s discourse management activities. The media frequently covers Chinese topics with expert insight, including original reporting from China. Public discussion regularly features local China experts, often with critical views on CCP policies. A number of incidents have hurt the PRC’s image. Publisher Gui Minhai 桂民海, a Swedish citizen, was kidnapped in 2015 in Thailand in one of a series of PRC abductions of critical Hong Kong booksellers; he was later released, rearrested and forced to deliver a statement to CCP-friendly media, including Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post. Another Swedish citizen, the NGO worker Peter Dahlin, was detained in 2016 and only released after a staged televised confession. Dorjee Gyantsan (རྡོ་རྗེ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་), a Tibetan refugee recruited by the MSS, was sentenced to a year and ten months in jail in 2018 for spying on the local Tibetan community. Public criticism led to the closure of three of Sweden’s four Confucius Institutes (in Stockholm, Karlstad and Karlskrona) between 2015 and 2016, leaving only Luleå, itself the target of some criticism; a new, less ambitious one is planned in Borlänge, with a small local government rather than a university as partner, and called ‘institute’ despite apparently being expected to cater to secondary-school students, is already controversial.


Gui Congyou, then director of the Department of European and Central Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry, at the Russian embassy in Beijing, 2016. Source: Sina.

The current approach to media management, while possibly beneficial domestically, is not improving China’s image in Sweden. A new ambassador, Gui Congyou 桂从友, was appointed in 2017, before which he had never visited Sweden or had any contact with Swedes. After working at the CCP Central Committee’s Policy Research Office (政策研究室) in the early 1990s, his career had a post-Soviet focus: he worked in Russia and at the MFA’s Department for Eastern European and Central Asian Affairs (欧亚司). In 2014, he conveyed to Russian media the PRC’s support for Russia’s position in the Ukrainian crisis. Gui’s formative years at the Policy Research Office amid post-Tian’anmen Perestroika panic and lack of acquaintance with Western media environments (and even the English language) perhaps made him the right person to implement a new set of aggressive media-management tactics to pacify Swedish media. They have failed to yield positive results.

The embassy’s loud responses to unsympathetic coverage, including attempts to smear Gui Minhai and direct verbal attacks against media and journalists, notably Jojje Olsson, have mostly generated negative publicity in Sweden and abroad. Fittingly, Gui Congyou’s PR strategy triggered associations with the former Eastern bloc when a commentator invoked Olof Palme‘s speech calling Gustáv Husák’s repression apparatus ‘minions / henchmen [lit. cattle; etymologically, ‘creatures’] of dictatorship’ (diktaturens kreatur). His Excellency’s attacks on Olsson, whom he advised to rename his website inbeijing.seInChineseTaipei’ to reflect his current residence, failed to silence the journalist, resulting instead in local and international support for him and even prompting a rare Swedish government reaction. The embassy’s campaign to discredit Gui Minhai has only increased support for him, which has included public appeals, demonstrations and, most recently, a book and events at the Gothenburg and Frankfurt book fairs. Last month, the embassy had to perform a lama drama over the Tibetan leader’s latest visit, while solemnly defending a tourist tantrum and fighting a satire show.

These actions are consistent with the intensification of a tantrum-based approach to diplomacy, featuring in-your-face attempts at extraterritorial censorship, from Australia to Denmark and Spain. these activities have proved counterproductive in terms of guidance of public opinion (舆论引导). By triggering constant media discussion of the PRC’s human rights situation and extraterritorial ambitions, such an approach has likely made local public opinion only less favourable to cooperation with China. Xi’s geopolitical initiative could, however, fare better if BRI projects are sheltered from such an adverse media environment.

“Lysekina”: a Swedish municipality meets a PLA-linked United Frontling

Last November, officials in Lysekil, a municipality with a population below 15,000, were approached by a group of consultants with an investment plan that included a new deep-sea port, an expansion of the existing one, road infrastructure and even a health resort “with Michelin-star restaurants”. The local authorities were given ten days to respond. They found the proposal “interesting” and commissioned a feasibility study from the same consultants who had proposed it.


Prompt answer demanded. From the presentation to Lysekil officials. Source: Jojje Olsson on Scribd.

The consultants were representing Sunbase (新恒基, a Hong Kong company owned by Gunter Gao (Gao Jingde 高敬德), with the backing of state-owned China Communications and Construction (CCCC, 中国交通建设). That much was made known to the Lysekil officials.

The consortium’s background was less obvious. Gao is a prominent figure in Hong Kong United Front organisations. He is in his sixth term as a member of the national CPPCC. He was the founding chairman of the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful “Reunification” of China (HKAPPRC, 中国和平统一促进会). His seniority within UF structures is evidenced by his participation in meetings with high officials, such as Du Qinglin 杜青林, then head of the United Front Work Department, in 2009. Besides his membership in United Front organisations, Gao openly supports the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB, 民主建港协进联盟). At a DAB fundraising event in 2016, he paid HK$18.8m for calligraphy (ultimately alluding to a Zuozhuan 左传 passage) by Zhang Xiaoming 张晓明, then head of the Central Government’s Liaison Office, which plays a central role in United Front work and political influence in Hong Kong (Loh, p. 229 et passim). His company used to share an address with eight groups entitled to vote for “functional constituency” representatives at the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Pro-Beijing media channelled his support for the authorities during the 2014 Occupy Central protests.


Gunter Gao as Hong Kong representative at the 8th meeting of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, Beijing, 2009. Source: 中国统促会

Gao has close links to the PLA. As his company’s website puts it, he has “generously supported the publication” of various “valuable books with the intent of promoting the glorious image of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a civilizing and a powerful force and of spreading the superior tradition and revolutionary spirit of the PLA”, some published by the pro-CCP Wen Wei Po publishing house and one with a foreword by Jiang Zemin. One of his companies has been managing the PLA’s land in Hong Kong since 1997. Its other customers include the Liaison Office and Xinhua.


The calligraphy specimen by then Central Liaison Office head Zhang Xiaoming that cost Gunter Gao $18.8m at a DAB fundraiser. Source: HK01

CCCC’s role in port building fits within the PRC’s strategic goal of becoming a ‘maritime great power’ (海洋强国). CCCC has been involved in projects in Chinese ports in Gwadar and Colombo. The planned Lysekil investment can be seen as a sign of a more general interest in global port infrastructure. Deep-sea port projects of potential interest to China have been discussed in the Arctic region (Finnafjörður in Iceland and Kirkenes in Norway), although concrete Chinese investment proposals have not yet been made public.

Open media discussion of this background had the potential to derail the project. The consortium’s demand for a quick response from the local authorities suggests they were aware of this risk. Indeed, news about the port plans leaked, leading to local and national media coverage and public criticism. It was nicknamed “Lysekina”, punning on the Swedish word for China. Gao’s United Front and military links were soon brought up, by the author on a microblogging website, and by Olsson (Swedish, English), the journalist later targeted by the embassy’s fury. Concerns emerged about its security implications, mentioning, in particular, the case of the Darwin port in Australia. The ‘China threat theory’ had indeed been triggered.

The prospective investors dropped the project in January 2018. Although it faced other hurdles, such as a landowner who refused to sell or lease, the investors’ representatives cited the public controversy as a reason.

Greenland and the two faces of Arctic propaganda

Greenland has a unique role to play in China’s Arctic strategy. Its mineral deposits match some of the goals of medium-term national planning on mining, specifically concerning rare-earth minerals. The island is an important location for scientific research; senior scientists and officials have repeatedly stressed the national-interest motives behind PRC Arctic and Antarctic science, “directly related to a nation’s ability to turn polar natural resources into commercial resources” (《极地国家政策研究报告》(2013-2014), quoted in Brady, p. 102). Organs under the Ministry of Land and Resources (since restructured into the new Ministry of Natural Resources) have driven geological research in Greenland, also promoting its findings to the mining industry and acting as the Greenlandic government’s main interlocutor. The country’s natural resource needs were invoked by a government-linked think tank promoting the first exploration project in Greenland in 2009, as well as by the research institute behind the only serious Chinese investment in Greenland to date. Plans for a permanent research station in Greenland were seen as a priority already in 2015; one of the locations discussed, at 83°N, would be the world’s northernmost settlement on dry land. Beyond natural resources, the Arctic is central to China’s national defence, both as part of its global maritime strategy and due to the region’s importance for nuclear security, since the shortest ICBM trajectories between China and the US cross the Arctic (Brady, p. 79).

An independent Greenland with China as its main trading partner and investor would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC. The extreme asymmetry of the relationship could make it relatively easy for China to negotiate for Greenland’s support in discussions on Arctic governance. China’s efforts to cultivate the smallest of the currently independent Arctic states, Iceland, have already yielded a remarkable partnership: Iceland was the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China and the first to award a Chinese SOE an Arctic oil and gas licence (since relinquished); recent Icelandic contributions towards the CCP’s global discourse-management goals include former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s praise for aspects of China’s “leadership”, foreign minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson’s China Daily oped last month and a Reykjavik meeting to discuss ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ (or the weather, depending on who you ask) covered on Sinopsis. Given a generally positive attitude towards engagement with China among Greenland’s political elite, an independent Greenland would be even more receptive than Iceland to PRC economic and political influence. Indeed, the current attitude has emerged at little cost to China: despite China’s realistic medium-term potential to become the main investor in Greenland’s mining sector, only one serious investment exists so far, worth less than US$5m.

The PRC’s interests in Greenland are controversial, especially in Denmark. Greenland’s independence would mean the loss of Denmark’s status as an Arctic state. China may become a competitor for influence. In 2016, General Nice Group (俊安集团), a private company that owns an iron mining licence of no significant commercial value in the short term, attempted to acquire a derelict naval base in Kangilinnguit (Grønnedal). The plans were hard to construe as a commercial investment in Western terms: General Nice, a private iron trader plagued by debts and court cases, could hardly want such an asset except, assuming no state entities recommended the purchase, to make itself relevant to national interests as a form of ‘insurance’. The deal, approved by the Greenlandic authorities, was quietly blocked by the Danish government which soon rediscovered the site’s worth as a “strategic and logistical base”. The dreaded ‘China Threat Theory’ emerged in 2013, when controversy over potential Chinese investment in the Isua iron mine led to the fall of a government. A possible bid by CCCC to take part in airport projects generated concerns in Denmark and, reportedly, the US, leading to an agreement where the Danish government will help fund construction work at two airports. The Danish intervention was not to the liking of a junior party in the ruling coalition, leading to the collapse of PM Kim Kielsen’s third cabinet and the formation of a new minority government, still under Kielsen. The second government change caused by discussions of PRC interest was a net win for Kielsen’s government, putting it unexpectedly closer to getting Danish (and vaguely described American) funding for projects the Danish PM was sceptical about not a year ago.

The fact that mere talk of China deals has caused two government changes in a country without much actual PRC investment illustrates the sensitivity attached to China’s interests in Greenland; an awareness of this sensitivity informs the PRC’s messaging. While the Danish government tends to avoid identifying China on the record as a motivation for such moves as the agreement on airports, Danish reporting and analysis widely discuss the PRC’s potential ability to capitalise on Greenlandic independence ambitions, which a local writer sees as “life-threatening” to the Danish realm. The Danish intelligence service openly warns about the implications of PRC investment in Greenland, which could lead to “dependence”. The Greenlandic political elite’s commitment to developing infrastructure projects with uncertain profitability prospects, while actively inviting PRC participation, make discussion of a debttrap’ scenario predictable. (No PRC infrastructure loans to Greenland are known to have been discussed, but Chinese financing is expected for mining projects.) Accordingly, the PRC has been cautious to avoid any perception of support for Greenland’s independence. Protocol arrangements clearly treat Greenland as a subnational entity, at times in contrast to the Greenlandic government’s own communications; when necessary, the Chinese MFA has not hesitated to remind Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”. In China, emerging academic discussion of Greenland’s independence still avoids discussing its consequences for the PRC’s geopolitical goals. Appeals to China’s well-known opposition to a universal self-determination principle are a poor explanation: as Gui Congyou, now the ambassador to Sweden, once told Russian media, the PRC is “against independence declarations by any nationalities through referendums, but this doesn’t apply to Crimea”. Rather, any perceived support would generate opposition, and Chinese non-action (无为而治) can simply let Greenland approach Beijing’s orbit of its own accord. China already buys, by one estimate, around 40% of Greenland’s seafood exports (seafood makes up 94% of the island’s total exports). The head of the Greenland Business Association claims to have discussed the possibility of a free trade agreement with the PRC ambassador during a recent visit to Greenland. After years of opposition from local authorities, Chinese workers were finally allowed last year to work at state-owned Royal Greenland’s fish processing factories. 62 workers had already been hired to work in Greenland as of a few months ago; mining projects will require at least hundreds. Local politicians are often receptive towards cooperation with the PRC; as the fall of the third Kielsen cabinet shows, Danish interests can generate more opposition. A low profile and the proper messaging towards Greenland can continue to increase the PRC’s economic and political leverage with little need for the Party-state to invest actual (monetary or political) capital.


Guidance of public opinion. Source: Guangming Daily.

External propaganda (外宣, ‘exoprop’) turns attention away from Greenland’s importance within PRC policy; this strategy benefits from a lack of expertise on China among prominent commentators. Last January’s Arctic White Paper, a document for foreign consumption, does not even mention Greenland. This is in line with the general duplicity of the PRC’s polar communications towards internal and external audiences, which strictly follow the ‘insiders and outsiders are different’ (内外有别) principle, applied to both endo- and exoprop (Brady, p. 269 et passim). In English-language materials and state-supervised interactions with foreigners, PRC entities stress the country’s interest in scientific research while omitting its subordinate role to national economic and military needs.

The effectiveness of discourse-management tactics is enhanced by a frequent disregard for Chinese-language sources in publications about the Arctic, in what one may call the misère des études arctiques. A lack of Chinese skills (“in Chinese, the word for ‘sea’ literally translates to ‘vast, expansive space’” (misquoting Schottenhammer; cf.GSR 732h, Schuessler s.v. 洋, STEDT #6403, Serruys)) doesn’t deter scholars from discussing “how China sees the Arctic”. The 2018 Arctic White Paper, an exoprop product that mostly reaffirms known policies in general terms, was read as a strategy document and used to draw conclusions about China’s “main policy goals”; in a sign that reactions matched propaganda goals, an exoprop organ relayed Western remarks that the word “military” doesn’t occur in the paper (“and that’s maybe positive”); its discussion of a ‘Polar Silk Road’, by then a yearsold concept, was treated as novel (as for my own comments on the paper, they had some innocuous parts plagiarised by the People’s Daily’s English website). One think-tank report derived the “organizing principles” of the PRC’s Arctic policy from the White Paper and the English version of a speech at an international event. Another one, again ignoring original-language sources, overestimated Chinese FDI stock in Greenland by three orders of magnitude; a revised version, published after receiving my (unacknowledged) corrections, gives a smaller, though still erroneous, figure, and its lead author has continued to rely on calculations in which $2bn (overestimated FDI) is 11.6% of $1.06bn (underestimated GDP). While these examples of alternative maths and intellectual laziness are certainly not universal in writing about China and the Arctic, they illustrate the standards of scholarship and analysis in English-language writing about the region. As in other domains, China-illiteracy makes exoprop work easier.

The surreptitious “launch” of a satellite station project

In May 2017, a project to set up a dual-use satellite ground station in Nuuk was “officially launched” on Greenlandic soil. The ceremony was attended by Cheng Xiao 程晓, the leading remote sensing expert in charge of the project, and a hundred Chinese visitors, including retired PLAN Rear Admiral Chen Yan 陈俨, former political commissar of the South China Sea fleet and NPC delegate between 2003 and 2008. A Beidou pioneer with a military background spoke at the event. The trip to Greenland was also used to fly the first Chinese remote-sensing drone in Greenland, the Jiying 极鹰 3. Although these events were reported in Chinese, the Greenlandic government remained unaware of the project months after its official launch. First mentioned in English on my blog, the project’s existence only became known to the Greenlandic public and their elected representatives after it was covered in a story by Andreas Lindqvist for the local paper AG, using my translations from Chinese sources. My full account, including the background of the main individuals in attendance, was posted in December.


The project illustrates the PRC’s double messaging in the Arctic. It was possible to organise a discreet event with a hundred participants in a town with a population of 493 by bringing them as a tour group. After the event, the tourists continued on an eight-day cruise of eastern Greenland. The tour was organized by Souluniq, a high-end tour operator long associated with communicating the importance of the polar regions to China’s national interest. The fact that the Chinese public for the event was a tour group attending this ‘launch’ as a patriotic-themed attraction, after lunch in a restaurant, was not disclosed in Chinese media accounts: indeed, the phrasing allowed readers to imagine a joint ceremony with the Greenlandic government, marking the actual start of the station’s construction. In fact, no date had been fixed for the actual construction of the station, a 7m antenna to be installed outside Nuuk; the required authorisation had not been sought with the Greenlandic authorities. To a Chinese audience, this was the launch of a major project in Greenland; for the locals, it was just another group of Chinese tourists. The project’s local partner saw its leader as just a fellow scientist, a perception that can help the project’s chances with the local authorities. Relevant Chinese audiences, on the other hand, have been made aware of Cheng Xiao’s key role in China’s polar strategy. A global network of satellite receiving stations is of strategic importance to the PRC; in the Arctic, one opened in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2016, to be followed by another one in Sodankylä, Finland. The dual-use Beidou satellite navigation system, in particular, needs more ground stations. The military aspect of the PRC’s polar strategy is clear to Cheng, who warns that “China’s threats come from the Arctic” and, according to a participant, discussed the military significance of the project during the Greenland tour.


RAdm Chen Yan 陈俨 in 2011~2012. Source:


RAdm (Ret) Chen Yan aboard the Sea Spirit cruise in Greenland, after the ‘launch’ ceremony.

This dual-propaganda feat was achieved thanks to a relationship Cheng had built with Karl Zinglersen, a database expert at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources (Pinngortitaleriffik / Grønlands Naturinstitut). Cheng offered Zinglersen a satellite map of Greenland, made from American open-source imagery, as a gift, through the PRC Ministry of Science and Technology. Zinglersen had, by his own account, spent “decades” waiting for such a map from the Danish authorities. Talking to the Chinese press, Cheng has explicitly referred to this exchange as an example of engagement with Arctic populations through higher education and research institutions, since as “unofficial” entities they are able to “effectively counter the ‘China Arctic threat theory’.”


Greenland Institute of Natural Resources database scientist Karl Zinglersen receives a satellite map from Cheng Xiao. Source.

Reactions followed reporting on the project’s discreet launch. In Greenland, the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs and security committee found the surreptitiousness of the launch “a bit worrying,” while warning against getting “scared every time there is a Chinese project.” In Denmark, the head of the Defence College (Forsvarsakademiet) noted that the host government would need to have “full access” to data collected by the station, or otherwise it could “obviously also be used for intelligence gathering and military goals”.

Had it remained confined to the local domain, the project might have proceeded smoothly, perceived as cooperation between fellow scientists, then presented as a fait accompli for the approval of the local authorities. Its exposure, attracting the wrong kind of attention, could complicate its prospects. No further information on the project has emerged since its ‘official launch’ was revealed and it remains unclear when it will be built.

Knowledge asymmetry: all aboard the Shanzhai Choo-Choo

The effectiveness of the localisation approach depends on high levels of knowledge asymmetry. Among local decision makers, a general familiarity with American, European and in some cases Russian society and culture contrasts with a lack of knowledge of and interest in the PRC political system, despite ritual statements on the importance of relations with China. An expertise vacuum also provides a propitious environment for the CCP’s ongoing discourse engineering endeavours: often with CCP-linked support or incentives, think-tanks and other entities can help install a perception of the PRC as a munificent benefactor and the adoption of Xi Jinping’s geopolitical initiative as inevitable. A final Nordic example may illustrate this favourable environment.

Last January, the Värmland-Østfold Cross-Border Committee, an organisation that seeks cooperation between some of the municipalities on both sides of the Swedish-Norwegian border, hosted a Chinese delegation to discuss a possible $21bn investment in a high-speed railway line between Oslo and Stockholm. The host organisation’s leader and its partners are involved in TENTacle, a partnership between government and regional entities in nine countries in the Baltic region that seeks to develop transport infrastructure with EU funding; they often advocate Xi’s Belt and Road initiative. The head of the delegation, Huang Xin 黄新, gave a talk on “Bridging Scandinavia with China through the new Silk Road”. The railway proposal was welcome as an improvement over Norway and Sweden’s disinterest in building “modern railways”; the news was reported in both countries.


Source: Grensekomiteen Värmland-Østfold.

Local prospective partners and journalists without China expertise failed to notice that the proposal came from a “rogue” entrepreneur whose authority to negotiate such a high-profile infrastructure investment was rather doubtful. As was quickly noted on social media, both organisations Huang Xin presumably represented have been reprimanded by the PRC government (he has also been a Huarong employee but wasn’t identified as such in accounts of the Norway visit). One, the China Association for Promoting International Economic and Technical Cooperation (CAPC, 中国国际经济技术合作促进会), which has seemingly been engulfed in a leadership dispute, was suspended for three months in 2017 for the misuse of the terms “civil-military fusion”, “Belt and Road” and “China” by one of its subsidiary entities. A name used by the other one, the China Overseas Investment Union (COIUN, 中国海外投资联合会), occurs on an official list of “rogue” or fake (shanzhai 山寨) entities.


Huang Xin with COIUN boss Zheng Shuai 郑帅. Source: COIUN.

The bubble burst when the issue attracted the attention of national media in Sweden. Hanna Sahlberg, the state broadcaster’s Beijing correspondent, contacted CAPC, who denied even knowing Huang or his Oslo mission.

Cursory due diligence would have raised red flags about Huang Xin: whatever their legitimate activities and evidence of Party-state connections, both organisations he was said to represent seemed to be on the wrong side of the government not long before the encounter; when asked, one of the organisations denied even knowing the envoy. An American or European visitor of unclear affiliation would have hardly been taken as a serious interlocutor for a multi-billion project without further inquiry, and such suspicious signs as the ones surrounding Huang would have probably paused any discussion. Blind faith in BRI prodigality (‘the scattering of monies’), however, makes people forget the need for due diligence.

Influence for free: leverage without investment

The uncritical reception even a seemingly “rogue” entrepreneur can expect from some local partners shows how fertile the ground is for the localisation approach. Especially in societies where propaganda efforts have not yet succeeded in engineering a sufficiently favourable climate, the administrative decentralisation typical of Western countries can be exploited to compartmentalise interactions, confining them to more manageable locales. Although projects like “Lysekina” have faced difficulties once they spilled into the larger media environment, the potential for localised success is clear throughout the region.

In an example of a positive attitude, the head of a company owned by Sør-Varanger municipality in northern Norway, whose seat is Kirkenes, recently interpreted the Arctic White Paper as a sign that “the Chinese state” supports their development “vision”, including long-discussed plans for an “Arctic railway” to Finland that should turn the coastal town into “the Rotterdam of the Arctic”. Local officials have indeed adopted Xi’s “silk road” vocabulary.

The Nordic examples in this piece illustrate the potential of localisation tactics for the success of Xi’s geopolitical ‘Belt and Road’ strategy. The scenario is, however, not specific to Nordic locales. In a French example, Huawei’s ‘smart cityproject in Valenciennes seemed well received locally, with the mayor calling it “a €2bn gift to the city”. Beyond Europe, local government enthusiasm is easy to find, for example, in New Zealand, where an interesting example is provided by the links between Southland Mayor Gary Tong and noted United Frontling Zhang Yikun 张乙坤, noted for his political donations.


A New Zealand council welcomes a local Xiist lobbying group and ‘their’ BRI. Source: NZCC.

In the Nordics, a degree of success is already visible in the form of local-level interest in BRI, even before a concrete case for the initiative as beneficial to local communities can be made based on concrete Chinese plans. The importance of discourse engineering is demonstrated by cases where a reigning perception that Xi and his initiative might bring large investments has been effective in the absence of actual economic leverage. ‘Positive energy’ (正能量) on BRI gives the CCP influence over foreign societies essentially for free. The ‘normalisation’ of Norway, achieved despite the PRC’s inability to exert real economic pressure after the Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo, remains the best example. A Finnish minister’s nervous hesitation (29:54) when asked if the PRC is a dictatorship during an interview on vague cooperation plans could be a sign of things to come.

In the long term, Xi’s global expansion of United Front and propaganda work should successfully cultivate political and business elites, media entities and, crucially, the next generation of China scholars, in order to engineer favourable environments at the national and European level as well. In the meantime, localisation tactics offer considerable potential for the implementation of Xi’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and other CCP strategies.

[Thanks to Chris Button, Magnus Fiskesjö, Andreas Bøje Forsby, Nadège Rolland, Matt Schrader, Geoff Wade and Andréa Worden]



A new Comintern for the New Era: The CCP International Department from Bucharest to Reykjavík

[By Jichang Lulu and Martin Hála. Also published on Sinopsis and China Digital Times.]

The CCP’s efforts to cultivate foreign political parties and generate an appreciative consensus around Xi Jinping’s policies have now reached Iceland. During a visit by the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD, 中共中央对外联络部), Icelandic MPs had a chance to learn about “Xi Jinping Thought” and pose for pictures with a copy of Xi Jinping’s magnum opus The Governance of China.


MPs including Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir (with Xi Jinping’s book), Smári McCarthy and Ari Trausti Guðmundsson meet ILD vice director Wang Yajun. Source: ILD.

Two weeks ago, an ILD delegation headed by Wang Yajun 王亚军, one of its vice directors, visited Iceland, as part of a three-country tour that also visited Nepal and Cyprus. The following account of the meeting appeared on 2 August on the ILD’s official website:

At the invitation of Iceland’s foreign ministry, ILD vice-chair Wang Yajun led a delegation to visit Iceland between 31 July and 2 August, meeting with the chairman of the Independence Party [(Sjálfstæðisflokkur)] and minister of finance and economic affairs, Bjarni] Benediktsson, former president [Ólafur Ragnar] Grímsson, [and] the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, [Áslaug Arna] Sigurbjörnsdóttir, deepening exchanges with the various main political parties, and promoting and introducing to persons from various sectors of society Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the situation of the Chinese side’s implementation of the spirit of the 19th Congress [of the Communist Party].

Xi Jinping Thought or weather talk

While the ILD was quick to propagandise the success of the trip, no public announcement of it was made in Iceland. News about the visit spread among ‘China watchers’ on social media after a few days, originating with the Party Watch Initiative’s Weekly Report, which regularly covers the activities of the ILD and other Party departments.

News eventually reached the Icelandic press. Only after Icelandic journalists had started to work on coverage of the visit did an announcement emerge on the website of the Icelandic Cabinet, a full week after the ILD’s own account.

Representatives of the Communist Party of China, CPC, visited Iceland a few days ago and requested a meeting with Bjarni Benediktsson, the Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs. During the meeting, the CPC representatives explained the party’s ideas for increased cooperation with other countries.

At the meeting, the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs reviewed the state of the Icelandic economy, developments since the 2008 economic crisis and a comparison with other OECD countries.


Iceland’s minister for finance and economic affairs Bjarni Benediktsson with ILD vice director Wang Yajun. Source: Stjórnarráð Íslands.

DV then reported on the visit, with quotes from participating MPs. Their recollection of the “exchanges” with the CCP cadres differed from the ILD’s official account. None of the parliamentarians mentioned Xi Jinping Thought or the spirit of the 19th Congress. Smári McCarthy of the Pirate Party (Píratar) talked of a “diplomatic reception” with “much talk about the weather”.

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, secretary of the Independence Party and chair of the Althing’s foreign affairs committee, told DV that she “spoke openly” to the ILD officials about “the importance of human rights in Iceland’s foreign policy”. The answer she recalls, with the ‘out-of-poverty’ trope, will be familiar to our readers. The CCP’s long-time efforts to dilute the concept of human rights follow the age-old ‘look, puppies!’ recipe: economic growth exists, the people benefit, and any human rights abuses are irrelevant. At the UN Human Rights Council, of which Iceland is now a member, the PRC has garnered the support of governments from Eritrea to Venezuela to pass resolutions advocating the concept of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” Áslaug was likely told about. If anything, Áslaug’s satisfaction that she raised human rights with the ILD visitors only serves to validate the CCP’s claim to hold a ‘dialogue’ where the voice of rights abusers drowns that of the victims.

Unusually for someone concerned with human rights, Áslaug Arna chose to pose for a picture with writings by the head of a human rights-abusing regime. Under Xi Jinping’s apartheid-like security crackdown in Xinjiang, possibly over a million Uyghurs are interned in ‘reeducation’ camps.

Áslaug did not reply to a request for comment.

The finance ministry told Kvennablaðið that human rights were not discussed in Bjarni’s meeting with the ILD. The conversation was about Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, among other topics.

Roads of influence

On the same day that news about the ILD meeting reached the Icelandic public, Björn Bjarnason, a journalist and Independence Party politician who was a minister under six cabinets, published an op-ed on China in Morgunblaðið. Titled “Chinese pressure, near and far”, the article calls on Iceland to maintain its indepndence in the face of pressures it can expect once it assumes the Arctic Council chairmanship next year.

Björn’s piece notes China’s interest in becoming a ‘polar great power’ (极地强国), officially proclaimed at Xi Jinping’s 2014 speech in Hobart. He discusses the case of Greenland, where certain aspects of the PRC’s interests, such as CCCC’s possible involvement in airport development and General Nice (俊安集团)’s attempt to buy a derelict naval base, have led to Danish and American concerns. In Iceland, he points to the long-delayed Kárhóll Chinese-Icelandic Aurora Observatory project, predicting its eventual opening will attract international attention as a sign of China’s assertiveness in the Arctic. Kárhóll will give China “an important foothold” in Iceland.

Björn places the PRC’s Arctic interests within the context of a push for global influence, and mentions the newly introduced anti-interference legislation in Australia.

The CCP’s influence activities in Australia are not, in fact, disjoint from the ILD’s Reykjavík lesson in Xi Jinping Thought. A central role in political influence operations is being played by the United Front (UF) system. A Leninist creation originally imposed on the CCP in the early 1920s, this set of cooptation tactics eventually developed into a major institutionalised area of the PRC political system. Under Xi Jinping, it has gone global. United Front activities are being studied in an increasing number of locations. To mention just three: Hamilton and Joske’s 2017 parliamentary submission provides an overview of United Front groups in Australia; Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons proposes an influence ‘template’ illustrated in the New Zealand case; Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu’s ongoing collaboration on the CCP’s influence activities in Central-Eastern Europe has described a piece of the Czech United Front puzzle.

The United Front is not, however, the only avenue for Xi’s extension of the CCP’s domestic and diasporic control tactics to the global domain. The Propaganda system seeks to obtain global ‘discourse power’ through tactics that range from attempted extraterritorial censorship to overt and covert propaganda outlets. (An Icelandic version of the latter once attracted some attention.)

From Stalin to Xi

The ILD is another tool of foreign influence. Like other core areas of the political system, the ILD traces its origins to the Soviet management of the world Communist movement. One or more departments governing relations with fellow Communist parties (in power or not) are a feature of Leninist systems. The ILD is similar in name to a secretive Comintern intelligence agency (Отдел международных связей). Post-Comintern, its Soviet analogue was Stalin’s International Department (Международный отдел). The predecessors of the Chinese ILD were Party sections that conducted relations with the Comintern, and later an office whose functions included “researching the revolutionary potential” of Eastern countries and the diaspora. The Department was formally established in 1951. The Sino-Soviet split made it focus on aggressively countering the USSR, supporting splinter groups against orthodox pro-Soviet parties. After the Cultural Revolution, it turned to restoring relations with an expanding circle of Communist and, since the mid-1980s, non-Communist parties. As the DV piece remembers, Geng Biao 耿飚, once an envoy to Scandinavia, visited Iceland in 1979 as vice premier, months after leaving his post as head of the ILD.)


Vísir, 8 June 1979, one day before the end of Geng Biao’s visit. Source: Tímarit.

True to its nearly centenary history, the modern ILD still maintains especially close relations with Communist parties, in particular those in power. The current ILD chief, Song Tao, is often involved in high-level contacts with North Korea. While contacts with mainstream politicians are increasingly frequent, the ILD continues to nurture relations with even insignificant foreign Communist parties, such as the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), whose vice president was invited to Karl Marx’s 200th birthday party in Shenzhen, organised by the ILD.

Contrary to the impression some Icelandic MPs seem to have received, the ILD’s functions go beyond weather talk. Shambaugh’s classic study of the ILD lists among its tasks “collecting current intelligence“ on the politics and societies of foreign countries. Brady lists the ILD among the main Party-state organisations recruiting intelligence agents abroad. Gitter and Bowie note the role of the ILD and its front groups in efforts to “constrain” Taiwan’s diplomacy. A candid view of the ILD’s intelligence role was provided in the Czech intelligence service BIS’s 2015 annual report:

In 2015, the dominant Chinese intelligence force in the Czech Republic was military intelligence, whose activities supplemented the efforts of a specific Chinese intelligence organisation, the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party. This is an agency under the Central Committee of the CCP, whose remit includes, besides foreign relations, intelligence activities.

This assessment has not deterred many Czech politicians from making the ILD their main point of contact during visits to the PRC.

The rise of the New Comintern

Xi’s global expansion of the CCP’s toolkit is accelerating the ILD’s embrace of foreign ‘bourgeois’ parties. However, not everyone wants to play along; in the West, each ‘friendly’ contact achieved with the political mainstream, like the Reykjavík meeting, is still significant. In Western Europe, post-Communist and other leftist parties are still the ILD’s best friends. Last July, ILD director Song Tao and vice director Qian Hongshan 钱洪山 received a delegation from the Party of the European Left, led by Gregor Gysi of Die Linke who heaped praise on the CCP as a model for European left-wing parties to learn from.

In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), managed by the same ILD bureau as the post-Soviet space, old Communist ties still survive to some extent and provide a basis for the rightward growth of ‘friendly contacts’. The ILD’s favourite interlocutor in the Czech Republic is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM, Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy). Last year, the Party’s current Chairman, Vojtěch Filip, listed as an agent under the cover name “Falmer” in Communist-era Secret Police (StB) files, even posed for a picture with ILD head Song Tao 宋涛 for a promotional calendar distributed by the PRC embassy in Prague that highlighted major achievements in the newfound Sino-Czech Friendship.


Czech Communist leader Vojtěch Filip (“Falmer”) with ILD head Song Tao in 2016. Source: PRC Embassy in Prague

Like in Iceland, the ILD’s visits to the Czech Republic are sometimes only reluctantly publicised. In November 2016, ILD sent their “assistant minister” (部长助理) Li Jun 李军 to the annual China Investment Forum in Prague, after PM Li Keqiang abruptly cancelled his visit over the growth of local anti-CCP sentiment that followed a series of embarrassing incidents. His sudden appearance was not publicly announced, and even the event organisers were at loss as to his status, apparently not figuring out in the protocol that he was now the most senior Chinese visitor, far above the Chinese ambassador.

Similarly, when Jan Hamáček of the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), who as Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies is the fourth highest constitutional figure, attended the ILD-organised “Meeting of Political Parties from China and CEE” (中国—中东欧政党对话会) in Bucharest the following year, there was no public record of him even leaving the country. Only after Sinopsis broke the story did sketchy details emerge.

The Bucharest gathering was also interesting in other respects. It was already the second such meeting bringing together representatives from various CEE political parties and ILD cadres. The first one took place in Budapest, Hungary, a year earlier. The Bucharest meeting was attended, on the Chinese side, by Liu Yunshan 刘云山, at that point the 5th-ranking CCP Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology. (He has since been sidelined.) On the CEE side, there was a mixture of parties ranging from the usual (post-)Communist suspects to more opportunistic friends, such as the Polish People’s Party (PSL, Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe).

All hail humankind‘s shared New Era

Neither “16+1” meeting of political parties was much publicised. They were, in fact, rehearsals for the big-time event, the “World Political Parties Dialogue” held by the ILD in Beijing in December 2017 under a somewhat clumsy title: Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting (中国共产党与世界政党高层对话会). This was, in essence, an ILD coming-out party, showing its power to convene representatives of, supposedly, 300 political parties from 120 countries (a full list was never made public). A previously secretive organization came out into the limelight.

The purpose of the meeting was to reach nothing less than a consensus on the future of humankind. That task apparently went smoothly, with a healthy dose of lecturing on the spirit the 19th Congress. Participants got copies of Xi Jinping’s book. The new consensus for the future of mankind was then enshrined in the “Beijing Initiative (北京倡议)”. It “applauds” Xi‘s “full and rigorous governance” of the Party, improving its “ability to govern and lead” and generate “historic achievements” and other desirable effects. Attendees called for “win-win cooperation” before expressing their “heartfelt appreciation” for the ILD.

Two Antipodean visitors to the Dialogue may provide a taste of humankind’s brave new Shared Future. From New Zealand Labour Party president Nigel Haworth, noted for his praise of Xi Jinping’s “wise leadership”, spoke highly of Xi’s “very brave step” as he tries to “lead the world”. Former Australian Labor politician Bob Carr, who now heads a CCP-‘optimistic’ institution set up with UF-linked donations, was also there.


Bob Carr with then ILD assistant director Wang Yajun on the sidelines of the CPC “dialogue”, 2 Dec 2017. Source: ILD.

The “summit” illustrated the ILD’s innovative concept of “friendly contacts” without ideological constraints. Unlike its Soviet and Maoist predecessors, the facelifted ILD will not just make friends with Communist and revolutionary parties. In the “New Era”, it will work with whoever implicitly recognises the CCP’s role in a “Community of Shared Future for Humankind”, without necessarily understanding what that actually means. Cooptation tactics become truly universal, with the ILD as a central hinge.

Beyond intelligence gathering and ‘weather talk’, the ILD plays a role in the CCP’s efforts to shape global discourse and build an international consensus endorsing its authoritarian political system. Foreign political parties, from Bucharest to Reykjavík, aren’t its only targets. As the next piece in this series will show, the ILD’s purview within the Xiist discourse-management enterprise extends well beyond professional politics. The propaganda goods Iceland’s MPs delivered to the ILD fall, however, within a newly-normal genre: what Gitter calls “push[ing] China’s vision of the future” with politicians both in power and opposition, building up “reserves of foreign influencers” able to ensure long-term CCP-friendly policies.

All the world’s a stage

After news of the ILD visit became known, Björn Bjarnason wrote a post on his blog, intended as a “supplement” to his Morgunblaðið article on Chinese “pressure”. Comparing the ILD’s official account of the meeting to the explanations by Icelandic participants, Björn notes that the latter might not have been aware that they were “actually taking part in a scene staged on behalf of the Communist Party”. What they saw as a “courtesy visit where they talked about the weather” was presented in China as “promoting Xi Jinping Thought to Iceland’s political parties”.

Plays so staged that foreign and local audiences may perceive them differently are the Party’s trademark. For years, the CCP has sustained such differential messaging in the Arctic, exploiting a general lack of familiarity with China and its political system. If Iceland and other countries in the region intend to preserve their interests in asymmetric relations with China, their political, business and scientific élites may wish to understand their counterparts better. As long as only the CCP knows what’s going on, ‘win-win cooperation’ will mean it wins twice.

[Thanks to Geoff Wade and Anne-Marie Brady]


UN with Chinese Characteristics: Elite Capture and Discourse Management on a global scale

[By Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu; also published on China Digital Times]

The PRC’s involvement in UN affairs has been on the rise in recent years. It has become one of the largest contributors to the organisation, in terms of both funds and soldiers. Now it wants influence. 

True to its attention to propaganda, the CCP has made it a major goal of its UN work to maximise its ‘discursive power’ at the organisation, seeking to redefine ‘human rights’ and get Xi Jinping’s pet initiatives institutionally endorsed by an international body. These goals, repeatedly stated by authoritative sources, are being pursued through both diplomacy and other means. 

Specialised CCP organs like the United Front Work Department and party-linked entities like CEFC employ some unorthodox tactics. These tactics, including elite capture and bribery, are applied both locally in vulnerable countries, and globally at the world’s foremost multilateral body. Some actors flawlessly span the whole range from individual East European and African states all the way to top UN officials. Evidence from recent court cases suggests a pattern of global interference combining both local and global “political work”.


The UN talks the Xi-Talk

Growing Chinese influence has made UN officials more and more willing to explicitly support the CCP’s political, economic and purely propagandistic projects. The PRC has managed to pass two resolutions at the Human Rights Council (HRC). The most recent one, in March, promoted “mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights”together with such illustrious champions of said field as Eritrea, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela. The first resolution invoked a favourite concept of Xi Jinping’s, the “community of shared future”, thus officially making  Xi-speak (习语) part of the UN lingo. 

Controlling discourse at the UN human-rights system has been a priority for the CCP since the PR-debacle it suffered post-Tian’anmen. Tactics to impose “human rights with Chinese characteristics” have ranged from usual diplomacy to more characteristic intimidation. A central goal is to obstruct the work of NGOs within the UN system, embedding the CCP’s abhorrence of civil society into a new global ‘human-rights’ normal. 

In what a former HRC special rapporteur has called a “Trojan horse”, the vague ‘win-win’ language in the UN resolutions channels a state-centric approach that sees human rights as primarily the rights of rulers. Not long ago, the CCP had to rely on a few bizarre characters to promote its ‘human rights’ redefinition: from Tom Zwart, a Dutch academic who finds talk of repression “unfair to the progress in human rights under Xi”, to a mysterious  “Human Rights Co., Ltd” of New South Wales. The HRC is now part of that club and this language infiltrates its resolutions. The US withdrawal from the Council will further accelerate this process. 


The PRC joins like-minded states in the pursuit of mutual benefit. Source: UNHRC.

Xi Jinping’s ‘discursive power (话语权)’ isn’t limited to the human-rights system. International endorsements of Xi’s pet ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (BRI) are a major goal of propaganda efforts involving media, domestic and foreign like-minded think tanks, and various multilateral organisations. “Multilateralist” language has indeed been recognised as a tool to “dispel misgivings” about Xi’s geopolitical project. When conducting “external propaganda [对外宣传, exoprop]”, instead of haranguing countries to “participate in the construction of the ‘Belt and Road’”, implying a leading role for China, one should call for countries to “cooperate” in such construction: with China, but also “with each other, multilaterally”. China’s Belt and Road should not be called “China’s Belt and Road”; “let us stress ‘us’, not ‘me’”. The predilection for the term ‘initiative’ over ‘strategy’ in external propaganda reflects this: although we don’t deny that the Belt and Road is part of the national strategy, when “propagandising and explaining it” abroad we can’t call it “a national strategy led by one country”: “would a country want to participate in another’s national strategy?” In this quest for multilateral-sounding backing, the UN was the big prize.


Discourse management at the UNDP

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) provided a suitable avenue. In early 2015, in a journal under the State Council Development Research Center (DRC, 国务院发展研究中心),  Wang Yiwei 王义桅, a senior BRI-proselytising academic with his own column on the People’s Daily theory website, advocated “integrating the Belt and Road into the [UNDP] Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, implementing the 18th Party Congress ‘Five-in-One’ [五位一体] concept” and “building a green Silk Road”. Propaganda portal Zhongguo wang 中国网 reposted Wang’s article on 4 May, coinciding with a Beijing visit by the head of the UNDP, former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. Talking to state media, Clark was at that point still non- committal about BRI. She was more receptive towards efforts to associate BRI with the UNDP 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Less than a month after the Agenda’s adoptionshe told Xi and others in Beijing that China’s “commitment” to his BRI project helped make the country “a major contributor to development co-operation”. 

On the same trip, she had a chance to discuss BRI and an attendant discourse-management endeavour, the Silk Road Think-Tank Network (丝路国际智库网络), at the signature of an agreement with the DRC.  By early 2016, an SIIS paper was already celebrating the expected propaganda milestone: the convergence between BRI and the Sustainable Development Agenda “helps China obtain more discursive power and influence within the new international system of development governance and even the entire global governance architecture.” Mid-year, Xi himself linked BRI to the Agenda at a meeting with secretary general Ban Ki-moon. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), a UN department described by a European diplomat as “a Chinese enterprise”, endorsed the BRI-Agenda link in a study commissioned by the PRC State Information Center (SIC, 国家信息中心) and written by a DESA employee who began his career at the SIC’s predecessor entity. 

In September, now campaigning for UN secretary general, Clark signed a memorandum with the National Development and Research Commission “to enhance collaboration” for the “implementation” of BRI and the Agenda, this time literally pledging the organisation’s “support for the Belt and Road Initiative”. Clark praised Xi’s Initiative, a “powerful platform” that “can serve as an important catalyst and accelerator for the sustainable development goals”. Clark would later deny any connection between her support for BRI and her campaign for the top UN job, during which her successor as New Zealand prime minister helpfully opined she was “recognised as a friend of China”. She lost (ironically blocked by, among others, China), but the winner, António Guterres, endorsed BRI at the 2017 Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Post-Clark, UNDP has preserved her Xiist legacy.


Li Wei 李伟, head of the Development Research Center of the State Council, and then UNDP Administrator Helen Clark oversee the signature of an MoU, October 2015. Source: DRC.

Guterres’ promotion of BRI as a useful tool to fight poverty blissfully disregards multiplestudies warning that the Initiative can lead poor countries into a “debt trap”. Perhaps the same logic lies behind his praise for the PRC’s diplomatic efforts in solving the Korean crisis, despite its violation of UN sanctions by shipping oil to North Korea.


CEFC at work locally and globally 

The CCP presumably owes these propaganda victories at the UN to good old diplomatic horse trading, sheer economic size and some harassment. But its growing influence has also been accompanied by a striking, unprecedented phenomenon: a series of corruption scandals reaching to the top levels of the organisation. Surfacing cases of bribery raise suspicions that China is effectively buying the UN, top down. 

This approach appears to mirror at a global level the PRC’s tactics in its bilateral relationships with individual states, especially the more vulnerable ones in Africa, Latin America, SE Asia and Eastern Europe. “Elite capture” in many of these countries has been accompanied by reports of and court indictments for outright corruption at the highest political level. Moreover, reported cases of global and local corruption intertwine, linked by specific actors operating both at the level of nation states and the UN system. Among these, perhaps the most curious is a mysterious Chinese conglomerate called CEFC. Various parts of the company have been connected with elite capture in Eastern Europetop-level political corruption in Africa, and bribery at the UN headquarters in New York. 

The director of CEFC’s non-profit subsidiary, former Hong Kong official Patrick Ho (何志平), was indicted last year in the US, accused of bribing several African politicians, including Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa, former president of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). Coinciding with his arrest, CEFC donated 1 million USD to the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA, the UN organ described as “a Chinese enterprise”). Just a day after Ho’s arrest, both the UN secretary general and UNGA president excused themselves from attending the ceremony to award a $1m DESA grant with “funding support” from CEFC. But DESA still kept the money.

According to the indictment, Patrick Ho had 500 000 USD wired to an account chosen by Kutesa, months after making CEFC chairman Ye Jianming, Ho’s boss, his “special honorary advisor” as UNGA president. (Kutesa denies the allegation.) Ho has been quoted as claiming that the case is not just against him, but against CEFC and the Belt and Road.


Sam Kutesa, UN General Assembly president, CEFC chairman Ye Jianming and his second in command, Chan Chauto 陈秋途 at Ye’s appointment as advisor. August 2015. Source.

Earlier that year, in April 2015, Ye had been appointed “economic advisor” to Czech president Miloš Zeman. (Except for one news item on the Chinese internet, Ye’s Czech appointment would remain unreported until September that year.) Ye Jianming is currently being held by the Chinese authorities at an unknown location.


Vratislav Mynář, head of the office of Czech president Miloš Zeman, Ye Jianming and Chan Chauto at Ye’s appointment as advisor. April 2015. Source.


Serial Corruption at the UNGA

Remarkably, these accusations against CEFC are already the second case of a UNGA’s president bribed by Chinese entities. Last May, Macau tycoon Ng Lap Seng 吴立胜 was sentenced to 4 years in prison for bribing Kutesa’s predecessor as UNGA president, the Antiguan John Ashe, and a Dominican deputy ambassador to the UN, Francis Lorenzo. The indictment claimed that Ng spent more than $1.3m to get the UN to support the construction of a large UN conference centre in Macau; in exchange for bribe money, Ashe and Lorenzo submitted to the UN secretary general a document stating that the conference centre would “support the UN’s global development goals”. In other words, Ng’s bribery had similar goals to those pursued by the PRC through usual diplomatic channels (with the addition of direct profit for Ng’s company). Ashe died while awaiting trial. Ng claimed the case was politically motivated. He was found guilty on all counts.

At the time he bribed Ashe and Lorenzo, Ng was a sitting member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body part the United Front system that did not expel him despite his arrest. He was not reappointed last January.

CEFC also interacted with Ashe. In 2014, DESA and CEFC’s think tank co-organised an event about China’s urbanisation plans, with PRC academics as speakers, Patrick Ho as moderator and Ashe as “officiating guest”. An announcement for the event published by DESA, written in a style somewhat resembling Ho’s own, asserts CEFC’s dedication to “the post-2015 development goals”. The event was hailed by PRC state media. Not three months earlier, Ashe had attended a CEFC-organised “Luncheon talk” in Hong Kong, where he delivered a speech titled “The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage!”. 


UNGA president John Ashe, bribed by CPPCC member Ng Lap Seng, with CEFC chairman Ye Jianming at a CEFC event in Hong Kong. April 2014. Source.

CEFC has also cultivated Ashe’s predecessor, Vuk Jeremić, former Serbian minister of foreign affairs. After he left office in 2013, the Chinese company hired him as a consultant. His cooperation with CEFC included “[d]iscussing […] China and the New Silk Road” with Patrick Ho, who lectured at Jeremić’s think tank on BRI and the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda. Jeremić also moderated a CEFC event with Wang Yiwei, the BRI-UN harmonisation advocate cited above, and a Silk and Road forum with DRC director Li Wei as keynote speaker. Serbian media claim CEFC has donated money to Jeremić’s think tank.


The Australian connection

Two consecutive UNGA presidents being bribed is hardly a coincidence. Moreover, the Ashe and Kutesa cases are personally linked: Kutesa’s wife was a board member at the Global Sustainable Development Foundation, an organisation used by Sheri Yan (严时玮), the “Queen of the Australia-China social scene”, to bribe Ashe “in exchange for official actions […] to benefit several Chinese businessmen”. The arrangement, which began before Ashe’s presidency, and continued through and after it, involved Ashe’s appointment as (remunerated) “honorary chairman” of the Foundation and its later reincarnation, the Global Sustainability Foundation. She pled guilty in 2016 and was handed a 20-month sentence.

In China, Yan’s Foundation enjoyed a disproportionate degree of access given its novelty and vacuity. Two months before Yan’s arrest, Chinese media reported, the Foundation bestowed an appointment to a former Shenzhen propaganda chief and counsellor to the State Council at no less a venue than the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Sheri Yan was there, accompanying not Ashe but his successor Kutesa. Yan has used her CCP connections to facilitate Australian access in China, and, allegedly, vice versa: an Australian media investigation claims she “introduced an alleged Chinese spy to her Australian contacts”.

Yan’s Ashe-pampering included arranging for the dignitary to attend a private conference in his official capacity, hosted by “a real-estate developer” whom the indictment names only as “C[o-]C[onspirator]-3”, who was not himself charged. “One of [CC-3]’s companies” paid Ashe a $200k fee for his attendance. Although it doesn’t name him, the indictment (p. 33 ff.) provides sufficient information to identify CC-3. As open, authoritative sources show, the date for the conference (17 Nov 2013), where Ashe “gave a speech”, points to the event held at a venue provided by Kingold Group (侨鑫集团), owned by Chinese-Australian billionaire Chau Chak Wing 周泽荣. Its official agenda, in Chinese and English, shows both Ashe and Chau spoke at the event; the official Kingold website also bilingually summarises his speech. The event was widely reported online by state media, in Chinese (CCP News) and English (China Daily). In short, if the quotes in the US indictment are correct, CC-3 is indeed Chau. 

Chau has sued local journalist John Garnaut for defamation over a piece that reached similar conclusions. Based on the reasoning above, however, Chau’s identification, which Garnaut claims to have confirmed with additional sources, can only be called solid journalism. Moreover, Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Australian parliament’s joint intelligence and security committee, recently confirmed he had learnt “from US authorities” that CC-3 is Chau, and that he had not been indicted for “reasons that are best not disclosed”. Chau, whose links to the United Front system are well-documented, has generously donated to both sides of Australian politics, as well as to various causes. 

As quoted in the US indictment, “CC-3” seemed to share the PRC’s interest in UN affairs: Ashe’s “sincere friend” in Guangdong “has the pleasure to offer you a permanent convention venue for the UN meetings on the sustainability and climate changes [sic] in the efforts to fully realize the Millennium Development Goals.”


New world a-comin’…

Despite charges of high-level bribery, the non-profit subsidiary of CEFC, China Energy Fund Committee, 中华能源基金委员会), still holds the title of special consultant to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC), whose current chair is Czech diplomat Marie Chatardová.

Czech President Zeman has supported Chatarodová both for the ECOSOC position and as possible minister for minister of foreign affairs in discussions on cabinet formation. Zeman, known for his pro-Beijing stance, has not dismissed his own honorary advisor, the ex-chairman of CEFC, Ye Jianming, who is now detained by the Chinese authorities at an unknown location. Similarly, the non-profit wing of CEFC remains in ECOSOC even as its leader Patrick Ho lingers in US custody on corruption charges. 


ECOSOC chair Marie Chatardová with Czech President Miloš Zeman. New York, September 2017. Source.

Chatardová and other high-ranking UN officials had been declining to comment on the situation despite repeated requests from Inner City Press, a project specialised in investigative journalism within international institutions such as the UN or the World Bank. 

After repeated inquiries from both Inner City Press and Czech media, the UN finally released a statement on June 5 explaining that Chatardová could not have done anything to dismiss CEFC, as that power lies with member states. Further communication with the Czech mission at the UN clarified that the corruption charges against one of their associates have not even been discussed at ECOSOC. The only official body interested in the corruption at the top of the UN seems to be the FBI.

It is hard not to see a connection between the corruption cases in the United Nations and the rise of China’s “discursive power” in the organisation. As top UN officials get arrested for corruption by Chinese actors, the global body increasingly adopts Beijing’s narrative on a new “Globalisation 2.0”, epitomised by the Belt and Road Initiative. The strange happenings at the UN could indeed offer glimpses of this new world coming. 

[Edit (Jul 2): “CCP News website” to “People’s Daily theory website”.]

My name is Wu, James Wu: The United Front in the Czech Republic

[By Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu]

The Czech president’s bromance with CEFC has most saliently illustrated the intensity of CCP influence in the country’s high politics, teeming with links to the Party’s International Liaison Department (ILD). However, in the shadow of this high drama, the United Front (UF) system, famous for its Antipodean prowess, is also active in the Czech Republic, cultivating lower-level decision makers below the media radar. There are many foot soldiers in this more pedestrian side show, but one in particular stands out. His name is Wu. James Wu.

Czech president Miloš Zeman famously appointed CEFC chairman Ye Jianming 叶简明 as his ‘advisor’. Ostensibly a private businessman, Ye has been linked to CAIFC, a ‘friendly contact’ organization under the Central Military Commission’s Liaison Department. CEFC has since fallen out of favour, in what some interpret as a move to prevent international bribery allegations involving the company from reaching the Party itself (‘forsaking a soldier to save the general’ (舍率保帅) was the idiom chosen by Chinese writer Yu Jie 余杰). CEFC’s Czech creditors and CITIC, involved in its nationalization, are now fighting over its local assets. (Oblivious to the debacle, Zeman still officially keeps ‘friendly contact’ Ye at his advisory post, without clarifying what advice can possibly be sent from an undisclosed location where the Chairman is now held for internal Party investigation.) Apart from Zeman’s peculiar choice of advisors, the Party’s International Liaison Department (ILD) can also boast of friendly exchanges with the Czech political élite.

The ILD’s friendly Czech liaising with political elites have left the United Front with smaller fish to fry, but its role within the CCP’s foreign policy shouldn’t be underestimated. Discreet contacts with local organizations attempt to make ties and deals faits accomplis before the media notices, thus preempting what Beijing’s propaganda officials call the ‘China threat theory’ (中国威胁论). In decentralized administrations and free media environments, such local work can provide better results than the kind of high-level engagement seen in Cambodia, Chad or at Prague Castle. Top level politicians get voted out of power; grassroots links often tend to prove more durable.

A discussion of UF tactics in the Czech Republic  can hardly avoid acknowledging the common Stalinist heritage. After some reluctance, the CCP came to like the UF policy imposed on it (cogently expounded by Stalin in 1927). It greatly expanded it, turning it into a tool to co-opt not just the political parties typical of the Leninist concept, but also business groups, religions and secret societies. Meanwhile, Czechoslovakia also got its ‘national front’ as a gift from Uncle Joe, as an increasingly Communist-led coalition after the war, destined to eventually demote its non-Communist partners to an ancillary role. Despite Mao’s claims that the CCP had become independent of the Comintern by the mid-’30s, as late as 1947 he wrote to Stalin about his wish to “study the work of the national front” in Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the region, Beijing’s UF work just brings back home a tactic that should sound vaguely familiar. The Xiist ‘Community of Common Destiny’ (命运共同体) Czech politicians recently signed up for at the ILD’s invitation could perhaps be better called a ‘Community of a resurgent Comintern’.


Making friends in Olomouc

Olomouc, a city of 100 000, is mainly known for its historical landmarks. Less well-known is the flourishing of a provincial version of the Czech-China druzhba that brings together local Czech politicians and Chinese businesspeople with colorful connections. In cooperation with the independent media outlet Hlídací pes, Sinopsis has mapped a web of local connections all going back to one man, James Wu (Wu Ruizhen 吴瑞珍). Strange things happen. Town squares in Prague get blocked from protestors. Provincial “embassies” of the region are being opened in China.


Olomouc “embassy” to Fujian. Source: CECDC.

The first time Wu, originally from Fujian province, appeared in Czech media was in 2008, when he lost his goods to a fire at an Asian market in Prague. His name resurfaced again in 2016, when one of his “trade” organizations booked prominent public spaces during Xi Jinping’s visit in Prague, thus effectively blocking protesters from meeting the general secretary face to face. Wu founded the Czech-Chinese Trade Association in 2009, but left it two years later and established another organization, the China-Europe Cooperation and Development Center.



A presentation on the Olomouc office in Fujian, by Roman Spáčil and James Wu.


The Office was run at the Czech end by an Olomouc businessman, Roman Spáčil. He was  introduced to Wu by a senator ) for SPO, a party based on personal loyalty to President Zeman. He was also behind the establishment of an Olomouc “embassy” in Fujian, an institution with the stated primary goal of strengthening the cultural and trade relations between the two provinces. All with the financial and political support of the local government.


Roman Spáčil with James Wu. Ca. 2015. Source: CECDC.

Wu and Spáčil had big plans for the institution, but for no clear reason (all parties give different explanations) nothing came out of it and today there is only scarce information about what the Center is actually working on—if anything. The local government is unable to name any benefits of the above mentioned “embassy” or its current activities, three years after its establishment. According to Spáčil, it is Wu who is still responsible for the institution, now using the name Economic and Trade Coordination Centre of Olomouc Region. In his own words:  “It is all about making contacts. Also, there is no concrete project we could cooperate on.” At the same time, Wu claims to be the representative of Olomouc government in Fujian province in his own bio.


Good relations are the key

Wu’s main quality seems to be his ability to make contacts, as his former partner confirms:

“James has very good, even excellent long-term relations with top-level Fujian officials. I have started working on my other projects and we parted our ways,” says Spáčil. He also adds that Wu demanded as much access to Czech politicians as possible and to get pictures taken with them, which Spáčil rejected.


James Wu gets his picture taken with former PM Petr Nečas. 2016.

Excellent relations with top-level Fujian officials are also mentioned in documents prepared for the founding of the “embassy”, quoted by Hlídací pes.

Wu’s bio on the website of the European Confederation of Fujian Associations (欧洲福建侨团联合总会) can shed light on his prominence in United Front activities. Out of more than twenty members of the institution, Wu boasts the longest CV (most of the others only have photos next to their names). Only Dong An 董安, the chairman of the German Fujian Association, comes close.


Navigating the diaspora

James Wu graduated from Jimei University (集美大学) in Xiamen with a degree in maritime navigation. After school he worked at a Hong Kong logistics company, Orient Overseas Container Lines (OOCL). In 1997 he moved to Prague and entered the luxury furniture and shoe businesses. Since 2006, he has been “participating in events” organized by the the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council (OCAO, known by its abridged Chinese name Qiaoban 侨办), first at its Shanghai branch and later at the national and other regional levels. The Qiaoban, which, like many state organs, exists at the national, province and municipality levels, coordinates Overseas Chinese affairs (Qiaowu 侨务) across the PRC government.

Qiaowu is a major domain of CCP policy, dealing both with PRC citizens living abroad and foreign nationals of Chinese ancestry. James To, the author of the most complete study of the subject, describes Qiaowu as “a massive operation involving incorporation and co-optation of the [Overseas Chinese] at every level of society, and managing their behaviour and perceptions through incentive or disincentive to suit the situation and structural circumstances that the CCP desires”. Qiaowu is also a major aspect of United Front work: the United Front Work Department (UFWD) has always had a central role in guiding diaspora policy, now undergoing further institutional consolidation. Under Xi’s ongoing restructuring of the Party-state, the Qiaoban will cease to exist as a government organ to be absorbed into the UFWD, a Party department.


United Front tour on the way to the Expo

In 2010, Wu led a delegation of Czech businesspeople to the Shanghai Expo. “Along the way” they visited several local offices of the Qiaoban, the UFWD and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce in Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Fujian. Everywhere they “established friendly cooperation relations”.

The UF system’s official recognition of Wu’s role came soon afterwards, through the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The CPPCC, a major UF body with committees at multiple levels of administration, has an “advisory” role to the government, and mostly consists of representatives of extra-Party groups vetted by the UFWD. Between 2012 and 2016, Wu was a member of the city-level committee of the CPPCC in Ningde 宁德, a municipality of 3 million in northern Fujian that includes his hometown.

His CPPCC role did not, however, stop at the city level. In 2013, he helped organize a visit to the Czech Republic by Zhang Changping 张昌平, then chairman of the Fujian province CPPCC. Wu’s bio claims he himself attended the Fujian CPPCC three times as a non-voting delegate, an important recognition. In an endorsement of his work in the Czech Republic, last year Yang Gensheng 杨根生, a vice chairman of the Fujian CPPCC, and the PRC ambassador attended the opening of the Czech-Fujian Association (捷克福建同乡会) presided by Wu.


Fujian CPPCC vice chairman attends the opening of the Czech-Fujian Association presided by James Wu. Prague, May 2017. Source: Ningde Qiaoban.

Wu himself says that he is now mainly focused on projects in Fujian through the China-Europe Cooperation and Development Center, but at the same time willing to help with culture exchange and other activities beneficial to Czech-Chinese friendship.


An accomplished networker

Wu keeps getting awards, praise, invitations and appointments from the Chinese authorities. Last January, his bio claims, he received an award for extraordinary individual contribution at the Belt and Road International Talents Award Ceremony from the hands of former vice-ministers of commerce and foreign affairs. The same month, he was invited to a Chinese New Year Celebration for senior retired officials and PLA officers, co-organized by popular spirit brand Kweichou Moutai.


Martial entertainment at a booze-themed VIP gala attended by James Wu. Beijing, January 2018. Source: Moutai.

Months ago, Wu appeared to jump across the division of labour among Sino-Czech influencers, rising from his United Front world to approach an orbit around CEFC. According to his bio, in February he became vice-chairman of the World Fujian Youth Organization. Another prominent Fujianese active in the Czech Republic, Chan Chauto (Chen Qiutu 陈秋途) was appointed chairman of the body. Chan was president of CEFC, a corporation plagued by corruption scandals at the UN and in Africa, until apparently falling from the CCP’s grace in recent months.

CEFC president Chan Chauto, Fujian CPPCC chairman Zhang Changping and James Wu.  Xiamen, September 2016. Source.

Before Ye Jianming’s fall, Wu claimed plans to cooperate with CEFC and praised its “grand” projects. He was looking for “the right time and the right project”; they just never came. Now that the tide has turned against CEFC, he might choose his words more carefully. As the CEFC saga has taught us, the CCP’s highest awards are no guarantee of permanent favour. Chairman Ye, disappeared since last winter, could surely confirm that. If CEFC’s flamboyance had a role in its undoing, United Frontlings like James Wu might want to stick to their more discreet approach.

great minds think alike: the People’s Daily (mis)copies Lulu

An early April story by Kou Jie 寇杰 for the English-language People’s Daily website (“Breaking the ice: China’s entry in the Arctic region”) displays remarkable similarities with my early February piece for CPI Analysis (“The Arctic White Paper and China’s Arctic Strategy”). Viz.,

me, February:


An Arctic strategy document had long been expected. Internationally, China’s silence contrasted with Arctic policy papers published by fellow non-Arctic players: South Korea’s 2013 Arctic Strategy Master Plan (북극정책 기본계획), the Arctic sections of Japan’s 2013 Ocean Policy Master Plan (海洋基本計画) and the 2015 Arctic Policy (我が国の北極政策), the German and Italian Guidelines, among others.


Peep’s Deli, April:


The document had long been expected, as China’s non-Arctic players, including South Korea and Japan, established the Arctic Strategy Master Plan in 2013 and Arctic Policy in 2015 respectively.

—and again:

Lulu, Feb:


Proper emphasis is placed on opening trade routes and exploiting natural resources, recapitulating two known pillars of Chinese polar policy.

Peep’s, Apr:


In the document, China has emphasized its interests in opening trade routes and exploring natural resources as well as recapitulating two known pillars of its polar policy which are in line with the needs of many Arctic countries.

It will not escape the astute reader that the august Peep’s chose to steal the most innocuous bits of my piece, rather than its substance, which mostly deals with aspects of the PRC’s Arctic policy the January white paper doesn’t discuss. Another topic was the paper’s reception among those relying on exoprop materials, of which Kou’s less-than-fully-original article is itself a specimen.

The journalistic standards of exoprop media are well known, which makes ‘expert’ reliance on them even more telling. An interesting example of cheating readers and interviewees involves a China Daily op-ed attributed to a person who didn’t write it. But cheating higher-ups on the successes of propaganda efforts is also common. Memorious readers will remember this case at China Radio International I described in 2015 (“China’s state media and the outsourcing of soft power”, CPI Analysis):

In the 2009 article quoted above, CRI head Wang Gengnian bragged about how during the previous year the state broadcaster had “received more than 2.7 million letters and emails from listeners in 161 countries and regions.” At least for those countries and regions served through the Finland-based affiliate, that figure might not be entirely reliable: a Danish former employee wrote that, short of the reader reactions CRI demanded to see about their 2008 ‘Two Sessions’ coverage, the outfit’s staff simply penned a few themselves and submitted them to Beijing.

Indeed, the entire ‘borrowed boat’ / fake-foreign-reporter business is only successful as a charade meant to entertain the internal exoprop bureaucracy. Its actual propaganda value is negligible or negative, as these exercises often backfire. A recent example, the ‘eye-roll of the century’, was recently described in some length by Victor Mair in a guest post for this blog.

In another incident, China Daily online editor-in-chief Han Lei 韩蕾 reported last year in a piece posted on the website of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC, 国家互联网信息办公室) that the outlet had recruited nearly 200 foreign think-tankers to write “more than 300” op-eds “to influence more overseas audiences and explain China’s story well” (CAC, April 2017; partial translation by C.A. Yeung posted to a microblogging site). Such prowess had been achieved through “cooperation” with foreign think tanks, including the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. However, no evidence of such op-eds by Lowy-affiliated scholars could be found besides the fabricated piece referred to above, and a person from the institute, responding to Leung, called Han’s claims “[f]alse”.

Even more instructive is an incident involving higher-level authorities, the Confucius Institutes, a dubious ‘survey’ and the universally loved China Daily, resulting in multiple reports in English and Chinese repeating some remarkable linguistic claims. (The following paragraphs are an edited form of my earlier comments on Language Log, where the incident was discussed.)

A recent post by Victor Mair (“The language impact of the Confucius Institutes“) enigmatically proposed a list of pinyin words and phrases from a China Daily article. These had supposedly become known among foreigners, but the list included some Xiist Newspeak items that even people with some exposure to Chinese couldn’t recognise. As it emerged in the comments, the whole exercise was a manifestation of internal processes of the exoprop bureaucracy: a rather peculiar ‘survey‘ had been produced to prove the success of “people-to-people exchanges” mandated by Central Committee injunction (《关于加强和改进中外人文交流工作的若干意见》). The ‘survey’ was in turn used to produce positive-energy news stories that eventually reached the China Daily.

This involved writing, presumably with a straight face, that a Mandarin term sometimes translated as ‘Sincerity, Practical Results, Affinity and Good Faith’ (zhēn-shí-qīn-chéng 真实亲诚) enjoys 10.3% awareness in the Anglosphere, and is in fact better known among English speakers than the word for ‘dumpling’. To obtain such auspicious results, the “survey” was blended with online media searches. Another remarkable item: fèng 凤 ‘phoenix’ (36.7% awareness in India). What sort of “survey” can make toneless pinyin feng (as opposed to fenghuang (fènghuáng 凤凰)) recognisable as ‘phoenix’? Once you get 0 ‘awareness’ of feng=phoenix from a (hypothetical) survey with actual (hypothetical) people, how do you even design a biased online search to raise that to 36.7%, specifically in India? The Xi-speak item Mingyun gongtongti 命运共同体 (now officially translated as ‘community of shared future’; recently discussed by Nadège Rolland (“Beijing’s vision for a reshaped international order“)) has no less than 8.0% Anglosphere awareness. (A personal favourite, Ass Theory (驴论), didn’t make it to the survey, as it’s a Xiism only meant for domestic propaganda (endoprop).)


The theoretical framework for the report invoked no less an authority than peculiar ‘million-word’ business the Global Language Monitor (and its honcho Payack) to the effect that Chinese has been the main source of loanwords into English since 1994. The Monitor has been discussed on Language Log, and Payack had some interesting ‘exchanges’ with Zimmer, Pullum and Nunberg. There’s precedent for Payack being quoted in propaganda pieces (“Chinese puts in a good word for the English language“).

Quite likely, no one involved in the process believes these claims, but incentives are such that concocting the mock survey and attendant articles is easier and more fun than asserting this exoprop task has failed.

I look forward to reports to Relevant Honchi up the exoprop echelon on the Relevant Lulu ‘contributing’ to ‘telling China’s story well’ in the Arctic ‘new frontier’. Meanwhile, those following Arctic (or other) affairs are advised to take ‘analysis’ primarily relying on exoprop with a catty of salt.

Victor Mair: Eye-roll of the century

[This guest post by Victor Mair expands on his Language Log coverage of the ‘Two Sessions’ eye-roll. As I commented there, this isn’t the first time a state-media affiliate abroad (in this case, AMTV (全美电视台)) causes a propaganda failure at a peak-sensitivity event. ‘Foreign shills’ (such as Question Sister (提问姐) or a less known Question Brother (提问哥)) are indeed a feature of these press conferences, and reporting on them has hardly generated much ‘positive energy’ (正能量).

A major purveyor of faux-foreign media entities is China Radio International (CRI), whose network of affiliates, affectionately known as ‘borrowed boats’, have made several appearances on this blog, reflecting my interest in propaganda for foreigners (‘exoprop’, 外宣). (The Australian part of CRI’s borrowed fleet was recently covered in reporting by McKenzie and Joske.)]

Eye-roll of the century (illustrated)

by Victor Mair

Materials assembled by informants from China, together with their comments, supplemented by my own findings and with additions by Jichang Lulu.

The protagonists

Ms. Red, Zhang Huijun, representing an alleged American television station

Ms. Blue, Liang Xiangyi, representing a Shanghai financial journal


From sources in China, I have collected a tremendous amount of materials about the “epic eye-roll” incident at the 13th NPC (Two Sessions).  Much of it is in Chinese, which I don’t have time to translate, and there is an abundance of visual materials, which  are difficult to post in circulars and on e-mail discussion lists.  Consequently I am writing this guest post on Jichang Lulu’s blog, which enables me to share these materials with a larger audience in a convenient format.

Needless to say, most of the sentiments expressed in what follows are strongly pro-Blue and anti-Red.  Indeed, many of the comments about Ms. Zhang are devastating, as will soon become obvious to those who continue reading this post.

Ms. Zhang has a strange way of speaking.  I base this not just on the 44 second video clip that records her remarks, but on other recordings of her speech as well.  Sometimes she halts and stops at odd places, and then she dashes along at lightning speed for a phrase or two (probably the bits she has memorized beforehand).  Also, the way Ms. Zhang moves her head and smiles is very sājiāo 撒娇ish / coquettish / flirtatious — unprofessional for a journalist.

The rolling of the eyes incident is not a simple matter.  I think that it will have long and lasting implications for the CCP and the PRC.  In my estimation, ultimately it will be one of the most celebrated events of the Xi reign.

N.B.:  While I hope that anyone with an interest in this monumental imbroglio will be able to extract meaning from these materials, full utilization assumes some familiarity with the Chinese political, social, economic, and cultural realms.  Furthermore, my usual practice on Language Log and elsewhere is to provide transcriptions and translations for all Chinese characters, but here I will forego the phonetic transcription in most cases, though I will generally provide translations.


For a video of the encounter, a transcription and translation of Ms. Zhang’s “question”, and basic explanatory information, see:

Epic eye-roll” (Language Log, 15 March 2018)

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leading Chinese scholar discusses Greenland’s independence

My latest on China and Greenland, written for China Brief, discusses the two major mining projects with (or awaiting) Chinese investment and the rather peculiarly “launched” plans to set up a satellite ground station near Nuuk, revealed last year on this blog. The Brief piece also mentions, I believe as the first English-language source to do so, a mid-2017 paper with Guo Peiqing 郭培清, a well-known scholar of polar politics at the Ocean University of China (中国海洋大学), as lead author, on the geopolitics of Greenland’s independence. Guo’s paper openly talks about the “inevitability” (必然性) of Greenland’s independence as seen by Denmark, analyses its significance for the interests of Denmark, the EU, South Korea and the US (stressing the latter’s military presence), describes various economical and social challenges faced by Greenland, and concludes with the necessity of help from the “international community”. The article carefully avoids discussing China’s own interests. As I mention in the piece, Guo’s past statements, and Greenland’s importance within China’s Arctic strategy, warrant a reading of the piece as advocating China’s involvement in such international cooperation with a nascent Greenlandic state.

This would be entirely unremarkable, were it not for the extreme caution Chinese officials and academics exert, at least in public, on the delicate issue of Greenland’s independence. Although an independent Greenland with China as a major economic partner would be geopolitically advantageous to the PRC, any sign of support would generate unwelcome debate in Greenland, potentially hurt relations with Denmark, and trigger the feared “China threat theory” (中国威胁论, a propaganda term used to refer to discussion of negative aspects of PRC influence abroad). In fact, Greenland’s authorities appear interested in ‘talking up’ the relationship with China, which doesn’t quite reciprocate. The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs once publicly reminded Greenland it “should follow the foreign policy upheld by Denmark”, after a minister had been forced to cancel a planned visit to Taiwan on a trade mission. When a high-level delegation led by Greenland’s premier Kim Kielsen visited China right after the 19th Party Congress, it was not invited by a state organ, but by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (中国人民外交学会), a state-affiliated think tank; Kielsen was received by a foreign-affairs vice-minister, Wang Chao 王超, the same protocol accorded to a Danish parliamentary delegation a few days later. The Greenlandic government, however, called the visit “official“. Greenland’s main interlocutors are, in fact, the Ministry of Land and Resources and its subordinate the State Oceanic Administration (responsible for Arctic affairs).

Protocol aside, Greenland’s apparent interest in ‘upgrading’ its relationship with China stems from its need for foreign investment, specifically in mining projects. Although (largely state-driven) Chinese interest in Greenland’s minerals is real, as documented on this blog, and is often related to national resource-acquisition strategies, a Chinese mining boom capable of powering Greenland’s economic independence has failed to materialise. As I say in the Brief piece, talks with Chinese SOEs on infrastructure development, including controversial airport projects, have so far not resulted in any announcements of Chinese interest, something probably related to the financial uncertainty that surrounds these plans. China is still of minor importance for a crucial industry, tourism, although there is clear growth potential. China is, on the other hand, a major destination for Greenland’s only major export, seafood (most of it reexported through Denmark; based on a recent estimate of yearly seafood exports to China and official export statistics for 2016, China’s share of seafood exports could be around 40%).

Besides the actual level of trade and investment, the perception of increasing Chinese interest can help Greenland’s position in negotiations with Denmark, in such aspects as having a greater say in, e.g., defining the Kingdom’s Arctic policies. The obvious answer to any Danish concerns about ‘sensitive’ Chinese investments and other activities in Greenland is that China is simply filling a vacuum left by other actors. Chinese activities in Greenland are mostly state-driven; it’s hard to imagine how other actors could compete for economic or other influence without clear state policies. The Brief piece mentions, in particular, the extent of MLR-led efforts to identify and study mining projects of interest and promote them to Chinese companies.

The modest scale of the economic relationship and the potential pitfalls of any overt support for independence will likely continue to define China’s cautious approach, but the publication of Guo’s paper could be a sign of more open discussion of the issue in academic and policy circles.

The paper is also a window into how knowledge is made: just like much ‘Arctic studies’ literature continues to rely on second and third-hand sources and blissfully ignore Chinese-language materials, Guo’s article contains a telling mistake. The paper gives “April 2017” as the date for the Danish rejection of General Nice’s plans to buy the abandoned Grønnedal base. In fact, the events took place before the summer of 2016, and were widely reported in Danish and English in December that year (I discussed them in January 2017). Guo’s source is a Chinese-language reporting based on a Reuters story that arrived much later.

I will discuss these and other aspects of the China-Greenland relationship in a forthcoming report.