The Washington-based “Freedom House” published a report on “Nations in Transit 2020” on Wednesday (May 6). The report said:
” While China’s
international engagement is often less directly confrontational than Russia’s, it nevertheless has an insidious effect on
the development and functioning of democratic institutions
in the region spanning from Central Europe to Central Asia.”
According to the report, the Chinese Communist Party’s influence campaign is focused around two major goals—expanding the country’s influence abroad, and promoting a positive image of China globally.
The most glaring example of China’s expanding antidemocratic influence in the region is in the area of technology and surveillance. China’s tech giant Huawei has signed a “Safe City Agreement” with governments in 10 of NIT’s 29 countries, each of which has a record of poor governance and serious problems with corruption. In Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for example, nearly a thousand cameras have been installed to monitor events in public spaces. In Serbia, another country that has instituted Huawei’s surveillance system of facial and license-plate recognition, police officers have taken part in joint exercises with their Chinese counterparts, learning how the Chinese “disable terrorists.” These partnerships raise concerns that China’s increasing reach could strengthen authoritarian-minded leaders, contributing to repression and diminishing democratic governance and active civil society. Even in democracies, experts point to vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the Chinese authorities, as Chinese technologies are integrated into the surveillance sector. Another area of expanding Chinese influence in the region is the media, in which Chinese authorities intervene in in order to shape content to their advantage.
Lastly, China has aimed to gain influence in the region through a strategy of debt diplomacy—that is, providing cash-strapped, infrastructurally weak countries with funds in a way that creates political dependency. China’s advantage in the region is its ability to grant loans with few strings attached—as compared to the EU, which has more stringent guidelines for loaning and paying back financial support. As a result, foreign-held debt in the region is increasingly found in the hands of the Chinese government: Tajikistan, Montenegro, and North Macedonia owe 41, 39, and 20 percent of their debt, respectively, to China. In April 2020, hit by the coronavirus, Kyrgyzstan resorted to asking for debt relief; the country owes as much as two-fifths of its foreign debt to China’s Eximbank.
China is an opportunistic actor in the region in the sense that it takes advantage of domestic vulnerabilities. Its corrosive influence can and should be countered, but financial investment and political deals only go so far. Ultimately, its sharp power will only have less potential to penetrate if democratic stakeholders focus on backstopping the region’s democratic institutions.