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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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RAdm Chen Yan 陈俨 in 2011~2012. Source: 81.cn.

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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’.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

 

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Liu Xiaobo and Normalised Norway

Norway’s ‘normalised’ relations with China, under which it has promised it “will not support actions that undermine” “China’s core interests and major concerns,” have been tested after the Chinese government revealed Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 was terminally ill. The administration of prime minister Erna Solberg refused to discuss his imprisonment, calls for him and his wife Liu Xia 刘霞 to be allowed to travel abroad, and his death. The experiment has been successful: Norway has proved exceptionally easy to influence through sanctions, at essentially no cost to the Chinese government, setting the stage for further enforcement of Chinese policy in the larger region.

A holiday from human rights

The government only commented on Liu’s illness through a foreign ministry spokesperson, who found the news about Liu’s diagnosis “sad.” He had earlier explained why Norway declined to raise Liu’s case during Solberg’s Beijing visit last April using a no-sex-on-the-first-date line of argument: “This first visit [was] not the right time to go into the full breadth of all issues.” After Liu’s death, the only official statement, attributed to Solberg, called him “a central voice for human rights and China’s further development,” and stated her “thoughts” are with his family. Minutes before the press release was posted, Aftenposten was told Solberg was “on holiday” and wouldn’t answer questions on the matter.

In 2009, while in opposition, Solberg had hoped Norway would be like “fireworks” in the UN Human Rights Council, as opposed to the government of the time, under which Norway had “chosen to tone down criticism” of the human rights situation in other countries. Questioned by the press over how those remarks squared with her silence on Liu, she said she still thought Norway should be pyrotechnical about human rights, although in ways “that are functional, and do something meaningful.” Although she sees “no contradiction” between her earlier statements and her actions as prime minister, her silence on China’s human rights situation could be called a rather extreme form of ‘toning down criticism’ and her Norwegian “fireworks” a bit of a damp squib.

To assess the effects of China’s ‘normalisation’ of Norwegian government policy and discourse, it’s important to determine if the politicians in power at the time find human rights unimportant out of a sincere ideological conviction, or have just taken a holiday from the issue. Solberg is on the record as approving the Nobel to Liu and “the link between respect for human rights and peace,” but past remarks by Jan Tore Sanner, current minister of local government and modernisation in Solberg’s administration, provide a clearer answer. Sanner was among those who nominated Liu for the peace prize. He rejoiced when “[his] man” won: “we cannot turn a deaf ear when China violates human rights,” which are a “universal”, not just Western, value. In early 2011, he met with Chinese dissidents, including Yang Jianli 杨建利. Later that year, he attacked the government’s silence on Liu: one shouldn’t only defend human rights “when it costs nothing.” Relations with regimes like China’s “must be combined with a clear line on human rights issues.” Norway “must demand Liu Xiaobo’s freedom” and “lead international pressure to improve the human rights situation in China.” In 2012, he lit “a candle” for the imprisoned Nobel laureate.

In 2013, he became a minister. His outspokenness about China ceased abruptly. He refused to talk about Liu during his illness, despite headlines recalling his earlier stance. When he died, his ministry informed that he was “on holiday.” Sanner’s earlier advocacy for Liu makes it hard to imagine that he sincerely sympathises with China’s authoritarian regime. Sanner and Solberg’s Conservative party (Høyre) is a centre-right, pro-market, pro-European force, a poor ideological match for the PRC. Under Normalisation, voices clearly unaligned with Chinese policies have gone silent. Statements of ‘sadness’ over Liu’s illness and death are consistent with the PRC’s official line, only mildly challenged in the ‘central voice’ press release.

Back to 1938

Norwegian media has been filled with criticism of the administration’s silence. Politicians from across the political spectrum expressed disappointment, with Petter Eide of the Socialist Left Party (SV) calling the administration “useful idiots” who will “do exactly what China wants.” Solberg, he speculated, must have felt “relieved” when Liu died. Jan Arild Snoen, a journalist with centre-right sympathies, regretted the government’s choice of “fish over human rights.” Torbjørn Færøvik, a writer and frequent commentator on China, warns that Norway “is influenced by China, not the other way round.” Sofie Høgestøl from the University of Oslo’s human rights centre writes that “Liu’s case shows that Norway’s normalisation agreement with China deserves greater public debate.” Several newspapers published editorials attacking Solberg over Liu.

Several commentators have compared Liu’s case to that of Carl von Ossietzky, the only other Nobel peace prize winner prevented from collecting the award. The similarities are obvious: both Nazi Germany and the PRC treated their laureates as traitors, lobbied against the prize, saw the Nobel as an affront, reacted with sanctions (symbolic in the German case, compared to the PRC’s unofficial salmon boycott). In each case, the Norwegian government distanced itself from the Nobel committee’s decision. Just like Liu, Ossietzky was prevented from travelling to receive the prize and died of tuberculosis in 1938. Both cases prompted the creation of alternative prizes. Hitler’s, called Deutscher Nationalpreis für Kunst und Wissenschaft, was awarded to, among others, Alfred Rosenberg. A Chinese anti-Nobel, the Confucius Peace Prize (孔子和平奖), never received such high-level government endorsement, and proved unpopular even among its laureates, who have included Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe. While Nazi Germany only applied symbolic sanctions on Norway, the PRC imposed an unofficial boycott on Norwegian salmon. A Dagbladet editorial in early July feared “the biggest scandal in the history of the Nobel prize” was about to “repeat itself” as Solberg “wash[ed] her hands” over Liu’s case.

Criticism also came from abroad. Beijing-based dissident Hu Jia 胡佳 told Aftenposten he found it “unbelievable” that PM Solberg “has been elected by the people in a democratic country, the country where the Nobel peace prize is awarded.” When she visited China in April, she “behaved like just a salmon seller” without saying a word on on human rights or Liu. Yang Jianli, whom Sanner and his party had once hosted in Oslo, called the government’s silence “a shame”: Norway lacks “a moral compass.” Norway’s commitment to global human rights has lost credibility.

Your ichthyology determines your ideology

Solberg plainly admitted the government fears angering the PRC government by speaking up: “important global processes” mean Norway “must have a relationship with China,” which is why their “viewpoints on the Xiaobo [sic] issue [Xiaobo-saken]” were only conveyed through a spokesperson. Solberg’s apparent unawareness that Xiaobo is Liu’s given name provides a first glimpse of the level of expertise on ‘global processes’ at the top of Norwegian decision-making.

Norway’s choice of ‘salmon over human rights‘ isn’t simply a pragmatic decision to prioritise the economy over principles or soft power. It displays of a level of understanding of the relevant variables entirely consistent with the global know-how evidenced in Solberg’s familiarity with Chinese personal names. As I discussed in an earlier piece, Chinese sanctions had a negligible effect on Norway’s economy. The Chinese boycott over Liu’s prize left the bulk of bilateral trade intact, and indeed Norwegian exports to China increased faster than to the rest of the world during the six-year freeze. The one significant industry hit by the sanctions was salmon farming, and only in terms of missed opportunities. The sector continued to grow despite the unofficial China import ban, and, according to research that accounted for various sanction-avoidance strategies besides official trade statistics, the true volume of salmon exports to China likely grew even under the boycott.

It’s hard to find an example of such a successful use of sanctions as the salmon boycott. At virtually no cost to China, an undeclared, partial import ban aimed at a rich country over which it had minimal economic leverage achieved the silence of a Conservative government that includes an erstwhile outspoken PRC critic. In a previous piece for CPI Analysis, I compared Norway’s ‘normalisation’ to Mongolia’s response to a similar Chinese tantrum, over the Dalai Lama’s latest visit. Mongolia, a less prosperous country whose economy is heavily dependent on China, placated Beijing’s wrath with a vague statement to domestic media. The argument that Norway had no choice but to yield to Chinese pressure overlooks the extent to which Chinese Arctic interests need Norwegian cooperation. No Norwegian attempts to resist, denounce or reciprocate the boycott were made known. One is left wondering what sort of expertise on China is available to Norwegian officials. This contrasts with comparatively savvier approaches to relations with, e.g., the EU or Russia. If the Norwegian government cares so much about interactions with China, they could benefit from learning to negotiate with its authorities from a more adult position than fearfully humouring the PRC’s whim, in exchange for the promise of an eventual permission to sell fish. This also holds for those among the opposition who stand a chance of forming the next government. Post-Solberg, today’s fierce China critics might just get normalised upon elevation to the cabinet, becoming the next Jan Tore Sanners.

Beyond Liu’s case, what Norway has ‘normalised’ is the use of economic sanctions as a tool of Chinese foreign policy in the region. PRC policies on free speech seem to apply in the Norwegian cabinet when it comes to Liu Xiaobo. The question now is which Nordic institution will be the next to offend the Chinese government the way the Nobel committee did, triggering a round of sanctions to normalise another country.

‘normalised’ Norway and Liu Xiaobo

An extended version of this piece, with an excursus on Anti-Nobel prizes, has been published on CPI: Analysis.

[UPDATE (Jul 14). After Liu’s death, the only public statement from the Norwegian government, attributed to PM Solberg, called him “a central voice for human rights and China’s further development,” sending Solberg’s “thoughts” to his family. Minutes before the press release was posted, Aftenposten was told Solberg was “on holiday” and wouldn’t answer questions on the matter.

Also “on holiday”: Jan Tore Sanner, who was among those who nominated Liu for the Nobel prize in 2010. Sanner remained an outspoken supporter of Liu’s plight until 2012. Since becoming a minister in the Solberg administration, he has refused to discuss Liu’s imprisonment, illness or death.]

The Norwegian government is keeping silent on the fate of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 and has declined to endorse calls for him to be allowed to be treated abroad. PM Erna Solberg and foreign minister Børge Brende refused to comment, and plainly admitting their fear of angering the PRC government by speaking up: in Solberg’s words, “large, important global processes” mean Norway “must have a relationship with China”; therefore, her government “expressed their viewpoint on the Xiaobo [sic] issue [Xiaobo-saken] through the foreign ministry’s spokesperson.” Solberg’s awareness of ‘global processes’ apparently doesn’t extend so far as figuring out the Chinese naming order.

The FM spokesperson’s comment Solberg was referring to said news about Liu’s diagnosis are “sad,” and offered their “thoughts” for him and his family.

This has earned the Solberg government criticism from different quarters. Politicians across the political spectrum aired their disappointment. Petter Eide of the leftist SV called the administration “useful idiots” who will “do exactly what China wants,” supporting “the infringement on Xiaobo’s rights.” (Eide also appears to lack knowledge of East Asian naming practices, although, as a former Amnesty International worker, he has a slightly higher probability than Solberg of being on given-name terms with Liu.) Torbjørn Færøvik, a writer and frequent commentator on China, warns that Norway “is influenced by China, not the other way round.” Sofie Høgestøl from the University of Oslo’s human rights centre writes that “Liu’s case shows that Norway’s normalisation agreement with China deserves greater public debate.” A Nationen editorial called for Norway to “stand up for Liu Xiaobo.”

(There are also less critical voices. Some of these are likely to be found among the newly formed multiparty ‘Group of China Friends’ in the Norwegian parliament. Its chairman, Jørund Rytman, said at a recent meeting with the Chinese ambassador that the Group would like to “strengthen exchanges with the National People’s Congress“. At least that’s according to the embassy’s Chinese-language account of the meeting. Rytman’s party’s website didn’t say anything about the NPC.)

Aftenposten talked to friends of Liu, who also had a few things to say about Norway’s silence. An unnamed Liu friend says they are “very disappointed” in the Norwegian government. Hu Jia 胡佳 finds it “unbelievable” that PM Solberg “has been elected by the people in a democratic country, the country where the Nobel peace prize is awarded.” When she visited China in April, she “behaved like just a salmon seller” without saying a word on on human rights or Liu. He questions what salmon exports mean next to “what Norway is really known for, and what gives it international influence, namely the defence of democracy and human rights.”

The only response from the Normalised Norwegian government came again from a foreign ministry spokesperson, who offered a no-sex-on-the-first-date reasoning: “This first visit [was] not the right time to go into the full breadth of all issues. This applies to human rights, but also other issues that require us to establish a systematic political dialogue.” (Norway had diplomatic relations with China before its own (modern) independence in 1905. It established relations with the PRC in 1954.)

Norway’s choice of ‘salmon over human rights‘ isn’t simply a pragmatic decision to prioritise the economy over principles or soft power. It displays of a level of understanding of the relevant variables entirely consistent with the global know-how evidenced in Solberg’s surname gaffe. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the economic pressure Chinese sanctions applied on Norway was actually negligible. The Chinese boycott over Liu’s prize left the bulk of bilateral trade intact, and indeed Norwegian exports to China increased faster than to the rest of the world during the six-year freeze. The one significant industry hit by the sanctions was indeed salmon farming, but it was only affected in terms of ‘missed opportunities’. The sector continued to grow despite the unofficial China export ban, and, according to research that accounts for various sanction-avoidance strategies besides official trade statistics, the true volume of salmon exports to China likely grew even under the boycott. Mongolia, a less prosperous country with an economy highly dependent on China, was able to manage a comparable China tantrum without yielding as much. The argument that Norway has no choice but to abandon any pretence of global human rights advocacy because of the economic stakes suggests that the administration has no access to, or inclination to heed, expertise on China of the kind that manages to figure out naming conventions.

Beyond Liu’s case, what Norway has ‘normalised’ is economic sanctions as a tool of Chinese foreign policy in the region, effectively allowing the extraterritorial enforcement of PRC policies on free speech, and depriving Norway’s commitment to global human rights of any semblance of credibility.

New piece: Norway, Mongolia and ‘normalising’ Chinese sanctions

A lot has been written about Norway’s normalisation of relations with China after six years of boycott. Most of what I read boils down to either ‘it’s good for seafood’ or ‘it’s a national humiliation’. I thought it could be interesting to assess how much the agreement is worth to China as foreign policy ‘goods’, rather than how much of a win (or loss) it is to Norway. China spent an amount of effort on enacting (more or less covert) diplomatic and trade sanctions against Norway, and after a few years won a sort of (non-)apology from Norway, together with, more importantly, the ‘normalisation’ of covert sanctions as a tool for extraterritorial enforcement of its policies on dissent. I’d say the existence of those two quantities is clear to everyone involved, as is the fact that they add up to a net policy win for China, but the question is how big a win it was. So one thing I set out to do was clarifying the nature and ‘cost’ of the Chinese sanctions against Norway. It turns out the sanctions were very shallow, with hardly any significant effect on China-Norway trade, let alone on the Norwegian economy. If you look at the numbers, rather than basing your analysis on literary criticism of the Beijing joint statement, you’ll see that the ‘normalisation’ agreement indeed handed China a considerable victory.

I guess you could say that such is the nature of relations between countries the size of those two, and that such an assymetric end result can’t beused to judge the expertise of the Norwegian diplomats and policy makers involved. I’m not going to discuss their policy-fu, although word has it that the Norwegian ambassador in Beijing, Svein Ole Sæther, did work on his tennis skills during his long tenure. (As of press time, it’s not clear to me if he learnt Chinese; at any rate, as any fule no, 闲中好,尽日松为侣。) But one way to approach the issue of whether this big victory for China was the only possible result is to look at another example of Chinese sanction policy: Mongolia after the last Dalai Lama visit. Now Mongolia is very different from Norway in many ways, especially vis-à-vis China, but it’s probably the best approximation to the Norwegian case. China sanctioned both countries for (how to put this) allowing non-state local entities (the Nobel committee and Buddhist clergy) to interact with individuals the Party-state dislikes (Liu Xiaobo and the Dalai Lama). In both cases China threw a diplomatic tantrum, and applied sort-of-covert economic sanctions. In both cases the boycott ended with deniably contrite statements of ‘acknowledgment’ of China’s ‘core interest’. And those statements, remarkably enough, came out within days of each other, for reasons that probably involve larger geopolitics than the relations with these two countries. So I think the comparison is warranted.

Now to do that comparison you need to do the same thing as in the Norwegian case: look at what the sanction policy against Mongolia looked like, and what China got in return. Here it’s easy to see that sanctions against Mongolia were potentially crippling, what in turns also means they were somewhat risky for China (you don’t normally want to destroy an economy that overwhelmingly depends on you). That part is uncontroversial. On the other hand, the ‘win’ for China has been reported as Mongolia ‘banning’ future Dalai Lama visits, which indeed would be a big concession were it true. Only it isn’t. In fashionable parlance, it’s ‘fake news’, or maybe guidance of public opinion, which I think can be traced back to a specific Xinhua story. To put it briefly, the Mongolians stated their non-apology through Mongolian media, then Chinese media spun it out of control. To understand how big the Mongolian concession actually was, you need to go to Mongolian-language sources and that’s another thing I did.

The details of the analysis of the less known among these quantities (the costs and ‘wins’ for China, Norway and Mongolia) are in my latest piece for the CPI Analysis blog, reposted by The News Lens with slightly modified spelling (and the Chinese bits in traditional characters). Next week I’ll post an extended version on this blog, including the numbers I used to measure the impact of sanctions on Norway, and more details from the work of Chen and Garcia, the authors of what I think is the best analysis of the salmon boycott.

Tempus fugit: Jahresrückblick 2015

Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve been up to in the last twelve months.

Greenland

Largely unnoticed by English and Danish-language media, Greenlandic officials visited China during 2015 to discuss not just mining, but also infrastructure projects. Greenland’s coalition agreed soon afterwards on plans to renew existing airports and build new ones, as well as a container port in Nuuk and new hydro-power plants.

Meanwhile, two mining projects which China Nonferrous (中色) has signed (no-strings-attached) agreements to develop and buy into are moving towards getting production permits: GME’s rare earth and uranium Kvanefjeld deposit and Ironbark’s Zn+Pb project at Citronen fjord. If they do go ahead and Nonfezza does get involved, China’s SOE would become (by far) the largest actor in Greenland mining, but it’s too early to toast to that yet (think ore prices, domestic opposition in the case of the uranium project).

For background on Chinese interest in Greenland’s ores, there’s my post from March for the CPI blog. A new post there gave an update as of December, including the remark that the Citronen fjord project could make China Nonferrous (and of course Ironbark) not just the world’s northernmost miner, but their (largely foreign, quite likely Chinese) staff the inhabitants of the northernmost human settlement on dry land at 83°N.

2015 started with news of General Nice (俊安集团) acquiring production rights for the once promising Isua iron ore project. I wrote a long read on that company’s rather peculiar history, including plenty of data you won’t find elsewhere (at least in a Western language). Later updates on General Nice are also worth a look if you follow what is still Greenland’s only Chinese production permit holder.

Russia

Russia’s recent ‘pivot’ perhaps could be more adequately described as ‘away from the West’ than ‘to Asia’; admittedly increased cooperation with China in some domains has been overspun, especially by Russian and Chinese state media, to make up for the fact that trade between the two countries, and crucially between Russia and Heilongjiang, has actually gone down rather drastically. But the fact that Russia, and especially the Far East, needs Chinese investment more than ever before, means potential Chinese investors are being offered better conditions by the Russians (and sometimes, indeed, accepting them).

The Sakha Republic (Yakutia), specifically, has been quite active in trying to attract Chinese investment, for projects such as, first of all, the bridge over the Lena in Yakutsk, but also others like the Tirekhtyakh Тирехтях lead mine at 69°N, to mention one nobody else seems to have reported in English. For more, go check my posts on Yakutia.

Meanwhile in Vladivostok, or actually near it, Russia’s largest casino had its grand opening. As it was to be expected, most customers were from Mainland China even before they started advertising there at all.

Iceland

Other than their projects in Greenland, China Nonferrous also have plans to build an aluminium smelter in Iceland. Their agreement is all non-binding and the plans didn’t look that serious at first, but (again unbeknownst to Western-language media) meetings in China in the last few months suggests they are planning to go ahead with the thing.

In July, car maker Geely 吉利 (Volvo’s parent) agreed to buy a stake in Carbon Recycling International, a methanol fuel producer.

Construction of the joint Chinese Icelandic aurora observatory is, to put it mildly, delayed, but it has finally started and should be working next autumn.

CNOOC (中海油) and local partner Eykon Energy have started exploring for oil in the Icelandic sector of the Jan Mayen area (Drekasvæði).

Ragnar Baldursson, Iceland’s representative at the Wuzhen internet conference last month, had the honour to become the only Western official to be quoted by Chinese media at the event. His comments (actually quite noncommittal) were spun as “high praise” for Xi Jinping’s ‘cyber sovereignty’, freedom-and-order speech.

Norway

The Hålogaland bridge in northern Norway is already being built. The contractor for the steelwork is SRBG (四川路桥), a Sichuan SOE that won that tender in rather peculiar ways. Peculiar enough, in fact, that two people ended up in jail in Germany as a result. My modest investigation on the case is still the only English source of information on what’s the first Chinese transport infrastructure project in the Arctic.

Huang Nubo 黄奴般, poet, mountaineer, tycoon, has given up on buying land in Iceland for now. Plans to buy a plot in Norway are stalled as well, allegedly for political reasons.

Chinese media

Spurred by an article on Icelandic media (viz. Stundin) on China Radio International’s outlet targeting that country, I did some research on the state broadcaster’s ambitious network of ‘borrowed boats’, radio stations and news sites in several languages that help disseminate the views of the Chinese state while staying discreet about their status as part of the state media system. An July article of mine for the CPI blog focused on GBTimes, the arm of that network covering includes Northern Europe.

A Reuters report on CRI’s network came out in November. It had more of a US focus, but it did discuss GBTimes as well. I wrote an update a few days after that, including, as is my wont, some previously unpublished information e.g. on CRI’s affiliate in Mongolia.

A couple of weeks ago, CRI got a new partner, this time in Siberia. That partner also has an interesting background, in particular as a defence contractor.

Languages

All this reporting wouldn’t be possible without (often rather unrewarding) work on original-language sources, in English and Chinese of course, but also in Russian, Korean, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Mongolian and a few others. Those specifically interested in the linguistic angle might like my recent guest post on the names of the Lena river on Language Log; more than my post, I recommend the comments, where you’ll find remarks by experts in Tungusic and Yukaghir.

Hålogaland: the first Chinese-built bridge in the Arctic

After winning a tender in ways unorthodox enough to land two engineers in jail, a Sichuan SOE has become the first Chinese company to be involved in a major transport infrastructure project in the Arctic region. A rather peculiar kind of partnership with a German bridge-builder helped a company whose previous activities abroad were concentrated in Eritrea to be chosen over established Western competitors to build the steelwork for large bridge in northern Norway. The fact that the project, started in late 2013, has gone unimpeded despite the freeze in Chinese-Norwegian relations after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel provides an interesting data point to understand what exactly falls under the boycott.

An unprecedented success

In October 2013, Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥), owned by the provincial government, won the tender to build the steelwork of the Hålogaland bridge near Narvik, some 200 km inside the Arctic circle. Over 1500 m long, the suspension bridge will be the second longest of its kind in the country and will shorten the travelling distance northwards from Narvik by 18 km. It was the first time a Chinese contractor was awarded such a project in the West, and SRBG’s first-ever contract in Europe.

SRBG has completed a number of technically impressive projects in China, such as the suspension bridge with the second longest mainspan in the world, the Xihoumen 西堠门 that links Zhoushan 舟山 to the mainland. In contrast to the multiple collapses of often just-built bridges that have made news in China in recent years, SRBG has a comparatively clean record. Serious damages to SRBG bridges have been blamed on exceptional natural conditions, such as the 2009 collapse of the Chediguan 彻底关 bridge SRBG was chosen to rebuild after the Wenchuan earthquake. (The new collapse was personally explained by company chairman Sun Yun 孙云 as due to the unforeseeable impact of an “enormous rock”.) But a company partially established by SRBG, Sichuan Chuanjiao Road and Bridge (四川川交路桥有限责任公司), has a decidedly less stellar record: the partial collapse in 2013 of the third Tuojiang 沱江 bridge Chuanjiao was building in Ziyang, eastern Sichuan caused five deaths. At the time, the chairman of Chuanjiao was Huang Jinping 黄金平, also a vice-general manager at SRBG. Huang would eventually fall victim to an investigation for “serious violations of discipline”, usually a euphemism for corruption.

Impressive though SRBG past achievements in bridge building already were, the Norwegian tender was an unprecedented success. Although the company’s activities abroad began as far back to 1979, their major operations so far have been in Cambodia, Yemen, Tanzania, Micronesia, and most saliently Eritrea, where SRBG have even diversified into gold mining. Winning contracts in at least some of those locations, Eritrea in particular, surely involves more government-to-government contacts to a greater degree than technically outcompeting other bidders. SRBG’s Hålogaland contract, the second cheapest contender for which was MT Høygaard, looked like the first such infrastructure project awarded to a Chinese company in Scandinavia.

An unorthodox partnership

The thing is, SRBG weren’t competing on their own. As I, and seemingly nobody else in a Western language, reported in 2013, SRBG won the tender in partnership with DSD Brückenbau, part of a German group with a long experience in steel construction in Europe, the Middle East and China. The exact nature of the partnership remained elusive: while Chinese reports mentioned SRBG had sought DSD’s help to enter the European market, the contract was formally awarded to a joint venture of SRBG with a little-known Serbian company that shared an address with a DSD subsidiary. The German connection was still obvious: the contract was officially signed on SRBG’s side by He Saizhong 何赛中, a senior engineer with a decades-long career in the German bridge-builder, not known to work for the Sichuan SOE.

The truth would emerge a year later, during a trial conducted in Saarbrücken, Germany. He Saizhong, the DSD engineer, and Frank Minas, a colleague, were accused of defrauding their employer by preparing the Hålogaland bid at DSD, only to eventually present it as their own. As I have learnt from Helmut Jakob, a journalist who covered the trial for local media, the two first convinced the company to act as a subcontractor, managing the project through a Serbian company they were connected to. In the end, DSD was completely left out of the project when the project management was taken over by a company led by the wives of the two engineers. He Saizhong and his colleague were found guilty of ‘breach of trust’ (Untreue) and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. The Chinese company has not itself been accused of fraud.

Although He Saizhong’s central role in the project should have made it clear to everyone from the beginning that the well-known German company was in some way behind SRBG’s bid, the Norwegian public roads authority (Statens vegvesen) have denied they were misled by the way the offer was presented. Einar Karlsen, a project manager for the project, told me in March that, although DSD had been originally mentioned as a possible subcontractor, the German company “was not important” in the evaluation of the bid. It is possible that the evaluation was only based SRBG’s past merits, but the fact that the offer was prepared at DSD by a DSD team, together with reports that SRBG had sought to partner with the German company, make it safe to conclude that SRBG did indeed benefit from the unorthodox way the offer was prepared. A source suggests it was He Saizhong who facilitated the Sichuan company’s partipation in the project.

An unimpeded deal

Construction is going ahead, seemingly unhindered by the German trial and the imprisonment of the contractor’s “representative”, and is expected to finish in 2017. Norwegian reporting on the bridge, an important project for the region, appears to have made no mention of the trial in Germany before an article published in a local newspaper last September (paywalled).

The defrauded German company and the now imprisoned He Saizhong are not the first to be sacrificed for Sichuan Road and Bridge to win contracts. In 2008, a manager with SRBG had admitted to bribing an official to earn the company the contract for the Xinlongmen 新龙门 bridge near Chongqing.

The fact that SRBG’s participation in a major project in Norway was not blocked by Chinese authorities is a telling detail about the unofficial boycott imposed on Norway after the award of the Peace Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010. This could be the result of a publicity calculation. Most known aspects of the boycott can be interpreted as ways of showing the Norwegian public they were being punished: it became harder for Norwegians to get Chinese visas, salmon shipments were rejected; real-estate tycoon Huang Nubo 黄怒波 could not buy a 100 hectare plot in the north of the country until relations get better. Not letting SRBG bid to build their bridge would have simply meant a European competitor would build it.