China Direct: Overhaul this weekend — 21 gun salute for Lukashenko — TikBlocked
Exploring Europe’s diplomatic and commercial relationship with China.
By STUART LAU
Send tips here | Follow me on Twitter | Subscribe for free | View in your browser
FROM INSIDE BRUSSELS’ CLOSED-DOOR MEETING: The EU’s 27 ambassadors on Wednesday gave the green light to the inaugural list of Global Gateway projects proposed by the European Commission. These are meant to challenge China’s influence as steered through its Belt and Road Initiative. The mood in the discussion (known in Brussels-speak as “Coreper”) was “enthusiastic,” according to a diplomat involved, even though some of the first batch of projects would be “lower-hanging fruits.”
Nod, nod: The European Commission “welcomes the endorsement by Coreper of close to 90 flagship projects under Global Gateway that will be taken forward this year,” a spokeswoman for the EU’s executive arm said, adding that the key priority now would be to “[step] up on rolling out and delivering” the projects.
WELCOME TO CHINA DIRECT. This is your host Stuart Lau, Europe-China Correspondent at POLITICO. Now, let’s turn to our main China story this week.
DRIVING THE WEEK: XI’S OVERHAUL
CHANGE IS IN BEIJING’S AIR: All eyes are on the annual plenary, the “Two Sessions,” which will begin in the Chinese capital on Saturday. Apart from the regular ritual of expecting this year’s GDP target, this year is set to be a significant one for other reasons.
First, the new team: Xi’s new team will be announced, including the new vice-president, premier and the four vice-premiers.
Li Qiang, formerly Communist party boss of Shanghai amid the much-criticized strict pandemic lockdown for the country’s economic engine, is widely expected to become premier, the head of government. He will host a press conference toward the end of the Two Sessions. (It’s unclear yet when that will be.)
One of his deputies is expected to be He Lifeng, who is currently head of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission. As a long-time buddy of Xi’s, He is expected to be the vice-premier in charge of economic policy.
Second, institutional overhaul: There are increasing signs that Xi will use this occasion to consolidate his party/government reshuffle plan, which analysts say will see the Party take greater control over hitherto governmental policy areas. The major overhaul of institutions is likely impacting national security and finance as well as tech.
Don’t say Xi didn’t warn you: Just days ago, Xi started prepping the Party for a grand overhaul. In a speech on Tuesday, Xi said the reform of party and state institutions this time will “highlight key industries and fields, will be more targeted and intensified, will cover many areas and will touch upon deeper interests.”
— TECH HEADACHE: The frontline of China’s geopolitical battle with the West lies in tech. Xi has called for more domestic research, but funding for basic research is nowhere near enough, while state funding sometimes ended up misused or “stolen,” according to Kendra Schaefer, Beijing-based partner at Trivium China. The reliance on Dutch technology for making semiconductors — as well as on Taiwan for the most advance chips — is one of the examples showing China’s exposure to external risks. Whatever the changes we’ll see after this weekend, China’s tech bureaucrats are calling this week for further developing 6G technology — if the past was any reference, it was China’s ability to outcompete the West on 5G that ushered its companies into pole position.
— SECURITY MATTERS: Hong Kong and Taiwanese media speculate that the Party will formally take over the police and state security, currently under the State Council’s purview. Hong Kong affairs could also be elevated to be a direct Party matter. The new defense minister will also be announced — the position is far from a leading role inside the Party system, but he will become the main West-facing figure from the military.
— ECONOMIC CONCERNS: Even as the latest indicators showed that China is regaining some of the momentum lost in the pandemic, growth continues to be a major concern for China. In one of his last public remarks, outgoing Premier Li Keqiang told the State Council that China needs to pursue “high-quality development.”
ON BELARUS AND UKRAINE
CHINA LAVISHES EUROPE WITH A STATE VISIT: Just not the European nation (most of) you wished for.
Xi picked Belarus’ autocratic ruler Alexander Lukashenko to be his first European guest for a state visit — complete with a 21-gun salute at Tiananmen Square — since he embarked on a norm-breaking third term in office late last year. Lukashenko may be regarded by his home continent as a persona non grata but in Beijing, he’s treated like an illustrious statesman. After all, Xi has been focusing his diplomatic message on opposing sanctions over the past year, eager to shore up autocrats like Lukashenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin who, like some of Xi’s own officials, have been placed under Western sanctions. The Chinese message to the West is loud and clear: Never mind your economic blockade, China is happy to trade with and invest in those countries.
The one and only legitimate leader: The EU has called the 2020 Belarus election “fraudulent” and consistently shown support for opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya — who, of course, was the last concern for Xi when he told Lukashenko by way of a joint statement: “China supports Belarus’ efforts to maintain political stability … and opposes any outside interference in domestic affairs of Belarus under any pretext whatsoever.” We’ll have on that more further down.
PERFECT PARTNERS: China’s diplomatic-speak categorizes Belarus as in the best possible group of partners, with Pakistan being the only other country worthy of an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership.”
In Xi’s own bold statement: “The China-Belarus friendship is unbreakably strong,” he told Lukashenko, according to state media Xinhua. “China and Belarus are the joint guarantors of international justice.”
UKRAINE UTTERANCE: Xi also spoke about Ukraine for the first time since China rolled out the so-called “peace proposal” last week. “China’s position boils down to supporting talks for peace,” Xi said, calling for “adherence to the direction of political settlement, abandoning the Cold War mentality, respecting legitimate security concerns of all countries, and helping forge a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture.”
Which means… Xi is sticking to some of the original key points that have caused uproar in the EU and U.S., where politicians criticized Beijing for failing to ask specifically Russia to stop the war, and condemning its illegal invasion.
All praise from Lukashenko: “Belarus fully agrees with and supports China’s position and proposition on a political resolution of the Ukraine crisis,” he said, according to Chinese state media Xinhua.
Now comes the weird part: According to Belarusian media Lukashenko told Xi that he was “worried” about him prior to the latest Communist Party congress. “I honestly admitted that we were really worried about the outcomes of the congress of the Chinese Communist Party. We were very nervous, though probably we should not have been. In fact, people always worry about their friends,” he said, without explaining directly what caused his worry.
COOPERATE ON EVERYTHING: The agreements signed between China and Belarus during Lukashenko’s visit are estimated at over $3.5 billion, according to Belarus’ First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Snopkov. The deals cover a great many areas; here’s the Belarusian statement.
“I PLANNED XI’S 2015 VISIT TO MINSK”
PAVEL SLUNKIN was a Belarusian diplomat, who resigned following the rigged presidential election in 2020. Now a fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank, he tells China Direct why Lukashenko has taken a fancy to Beijing — especially amid his growing dependence on Putin.
First, let’s take a walk down the memory lane: When Xi was planning his trip to Belarus in 2015, Slunkin was one of the Belarusian diplomats who helped plan the trip. The most interesting part, he recalls, wasn’t about policy deliverables.
“The first impression was not about policy analysis, but the protocol — how big and serious, how many people they have in the Chinese Foreign Ministry to organize such visits. [They had] 20 people who organized just one element of the whole program; while [in Belarus] we had only 11 people for the whole protocol team,” he says.
“They also started preparing for the visit two months in advance — which is also incredible.”
Putin stopped spending? Here came Xi: The Chinese leader’s 2015 visit was considered a diplomatic success for Lukashenko, according to Slunkin. “In those years he had not very successful economic relations with Russia. Russia didn’t want to spend a lot of money for him,” he says. “So he found another investor, another sponsor in China.”
Make no mistake, Russia’s still the big player. For Lukashenko and his officials, “they want to compensate their dependence on the Russian market because 65 or even 70 percent of Belarusian exports go to Russia, and this has nearly doubled since 2019,” Slunkin says. “This is not something that Lukashenko is happy with. He wants to diversify a bit. Where can you do it when you are sanctioned by the West? OK, China has a lot of money, then let’s try to do it there.”
Make Minsk the Chinese gateway to Europe: Lukashenko initially portrayed the Great Stone China-Belarus Industrial Park project, right next to the National Airport of Minsk, as a gateway for Chinese goods to enter the European market. Until EU slapped sanctions on the Lukashenko regime in 2020.
“The sanctions were imposed, and China was very careful. They didn’t want to invest money to the projects that would be sanctioned, or that would lose its economic relevance. So they waited for some time trying to understand what to do. Now, I think they mostly coming back to the previous cooperation,” he says.
“Lukashenko has always been very sympathetic to China.” Which is probably not a surprise to many. According to Slunkin: “He [Lukashenko] doesn’t really understand democracy, he doesn’t really understand rule of law, so he prefers these countries where the system of political rule is more like the Soviet one, or to the one he has built in Belarus.”
TIKTOK BAN LATEST
THE CHINESE APP IS A THREAT, EU OFFICIALLY PROCLAIMS: It has been a bad, bad week for the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok as all the major EU institutions announced one after another that their staff members would be barred from installing the app on any devices with connection to their work portals.
How did we get here? Last Thursday, the European Commission fired the first shot, ordering every of its 32,000 employees to remove TikTok from their devices. Later in the day the European Council made a similar announcement, asking its 3,000 employees to get rid of TikTok. On Friday, the European External Action Service took its turn, prohibiting more than 4,300 diplomats and other employees from using the app. And that’s not the end.
The final nail in the coffin came after the weekend. On Tuesday, the European Parliament announced the ban to its 705 lawmakers and 8,000 staffers. “Cybersecurity concerns have been raised on the usage of the social media platform TikTok, in particular regarding data protection and collection of data by third parties,” read an internal memo seen by China Direct.
No mercy: While the Commission, the EU’s executive branch, tried to reassure staff members who really, really want to watch TikTok videos to simply delete work-related apps from those devices, the European Parliament is unimpressed with that advice, saying: “It is strongly recommended that members [of the parliament] and staff … remove TikTok from their personal devices.”
MEPs’ reaction: “We need to be cautious about the app, given that there are concerns that data from the device could fall into the hands of China’s regime, which creates room for potential blackmail,” Czech Pirate party MEP Marcel Kolaja said. He added that while TikTok is the most high-profile example, EU institutions need to “approach the issue systematically and require compliance with privacy rules for applications on EU institution’s devices.”
NOW COMES THE DISSIDENT VOICE: “I think it is absurd to abandon the highest-growing social network in Europe, even if the Chinese are using it for spying,” said Pedro López, the spokesperson of the European People’s Party group, which has about 50,000 followers on TikTok. He said the group had no plans to remove its account — and suggested the Parliament launch an official TikTok account because it is a useful tool to fight fake news. Clothilde Goujard and Eddy Wax have the story.
CLOSING DOWN THE APP? NEIN: For the German health ministry — which has 140,000 followers on TikTok — it’s possible to keep running the app while also abiding by a ban on using the app on the work phone. The solution seems simple: Just buy a phone for TikTok, and no other purposes whatsoever. Louis Westendarp and Gabriel Rinaldi have the story.
TIKTOK ISN’T DANCING TO EU’S TUNE: A TikTok spokesperson said the EU suspension was misguided and based on misconceptions.
“TikTok is enjoyed by 125 million EU citizens and potentially depriving users” of “access to their representatives is a self-defeating step, especially in our shared fight against misinformation and when this action is being taken on the basis of fears rather than facts,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We repeat our calls to EU institutions for due process and equal treatment.”
BEIJING BERATES BRUSSELS: “The EU claims to be the world’s most open market, but has repeatedly adopted restrictive measures, in the name of national security, to unreasonably suppress companies from other countries,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a regular press conference Wednesday. “Such a practice jeopardizes confidence of the international community in the EU’s business environment.”
WHAT WE ARE READING THIS WEEK
China Select Committee hearing highlights partisan divide on Beijing-countering strategy, by my DC-based partner-in-crime Phelim Kine.
African Media Cultures and Chinese Public Relations Strategies in Kenya and Ethiopia, by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Chinese Views on the War in Ukraine and Lethal Aid at the One-Year Mark, by Morning Consult.
Robotics sector, “Complete industrial chain”, Industrial internet, by MERICS.
Europe’s Response to the Sino-American Rivalry, by Jacques Delors Institute.
MANY THANKS: To my editor Christian Oliver, reporters Clothilde Goujard, Eddy Wax, Louis Westendarp, Gabriel Rinaldi and producer Grace Stranger.
SUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: Brussels Playbook | London Playbook | London Playbook PM | Playbook Paris | POLITICO Confidential | Sunday Crunch | EU Influence | London Influence | Digital Bridge | China Direct | Berlin Bulletin | D.C. Playbook | D.C. Influence | Global Insider | All our POLITICO Pro policy morning newsletters