What are China’s influence operations around the world?

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The 650-page report “ Chinese influence operations – a Machiavelli moment “Sift through the more or less secret institutions, actions and projects used by Beijing to manipulate Western opinion. The 650 pages meticulously describe the means used by the country to exert influence abroad, from the “more benign” (public diplomacy), to the “more clever” (clandestine activities). It also explains attempts to aggressively manipulate public opinion abroad through think tanks, “Confucius institutions” and the media.

The paper is written by Paul Cheron, intelligence expert and China specialist, and political scientist Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, security specialist. Both explain how “Machiavellian” China has built a sprawling network to exert its influence around the world. This is probably the most comprehensive analysis of the Chinese propaganda machine ever published in French.

Beijing’s new face

The two analysts say that for a long time China wanted to be loved rather than feared. She wanted to seduce, projecting a positive image of herself in the world and thus arousing admiration. But recently, Beijing has shown a whole new face. “Its influence operations have tightened considerably in recent years and its methods increasingly resemble those employed by Moscow,” the report argues. The authors compare Beijing to the Prince of Machiavelli. According to them, China considers that today “it is safer to be feared than to be loved”.

Taiwan and Hong Kong would constitute the first front of Beijing’s “political war”. The two territories would be outposts, training grounds and “R&D laboratories” for Chinese operations. The results obtained in these two territories can then be refined and applied to other targets around the world.

The report highlights the spread of false information. Two objectives: weaken Taiwanese democracy and resign the Taiwanese to accept Chinese annexation. The propaganda system is simple. Chinese state media publish fake news, picked up by fake Taiwanese social media accounts. The Taiwanese media then take this information back, without verifying it. At the end of this process the reader no longer knows the origin of the news.

But despite Beijing’s efforts, barely 1.5% of Taiwanese say they are in favor of Chinese annexation. According to the Irsem report, this strategy would therefore be counterproductive. The authors nevertheless observe that China is adapting. For example, Beijing now focuses its false information on the military. The goal? Make the Taiwanese believe that a Chinese invasion is inevitable and provide pretexts for Beijing’s military intervention.

China, the European Union’s new rival

In recent years, in response to the hardening of the political and diplomatic position of China, the EU, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and other countries have shown greater distrust in the ‘regard to relations with Beijing.

In its 2019 EU-China Strategic Outlook, the European Union (EU) describes China as a “systemic rival”. Earlier this year, the “ China security report Japan declared that if “China’s unilateral military activities continue without consensus, they could lead to the disruption of international order.” In a communicated, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly speaks of “increased strategic and military competition” with China. This finding echoes similar remarks by the US military. Finally, the US, UK and Australia have formed Aukus, a strategic partnership that implicitly aims to counter the perceived growing influence of China.

Since the arrival of Xi Jinping, Beijing’s image has deteriorated. An image which could “indirectly weaken the Party, including vis-à-vis its own population” according to the authors. The report concludes that, while this posture implies certain tactical successes, “it constitutes a strategic failure, China being its best enemy in terms of influence.”

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