This article is part of the series Facing China.
The coronavirus crisis has put China in the spotlight — and not just because of questions over the country’s responsibility for the pandemic (or its reluctance to investigate its origins).
Beijing made waves in Brussels and across Europe over its embrace of “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The term, inspired by a popular Chinese TV series, is increasingly being used to describe the aggressive approach of Chinese diplomats, who are no longer shy about hitting back against criticism of Beijing or picking fights with European governments.
The new tone out of Beijing — along with its strong-armed response to protests in Hong Kong, its inhumane treatment of the country’s Uighur minority, and its fast-growing economic power — has increased pressure on EU countries to come up with a stronger, more coherent China policy that makes clear the bloc won’t tolerate diplomatic attacks or human rights violations.
Here are six experts and politicians critically scrutinizing Beijing’s moves or advocating for a harder line against China — in their own countries and at the EU level.
The German political scientist and Sinologist is the man whispering in every EU leader’s ear.
In his day job, Huotari — who is 38 and has Finnish roots — leads the influential Berlin-based think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). He is also a trusted policy adviser to the big hitters in the EU-China debate: European Council President Charles Michel, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the European Commission and the German government.
Huotari is known for not mincing his words when it comes to criticizing China over foreign policy, human rights and trade issues. Nor is he shy about calling out EU governments and institutions when he considers their stance on Beijing to be too feeble.
“From the outset, I have been very skeptical about the prospects of success of the agenda of the German EU Council presidency vis-à-vis China,” he said, describing goals set by German Chancellor Angela Merkel — such as agreeing on an investment deal with Beijing this year — as “highly ambitious and doomed to failure.”
Kerstin Lundgren and Ulf Kristersson
These two Swedish opposition leaders are known as vocal backers of a tougher EU stance toward Beijing — in a country that’s already one of the EU’s most hawkish when it comes to China.
For both Lundgren, the foreign policy spokeswoman of the Swedish Center Party, and Kristersson, who leads the Swedish Moderate Party, the EU’s lack of firepower in responding to China has been a source of concern since at least 2015, when a Hong Kong-based bookseller with a Swedish passport went missing while on holiday in Thailand. Gui Minhai was known for publishing books critical of Chinese leaders and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison, sparking condemnation from Swedish authorities, who demanded his release.
The case was an early wake-up call to the increasing determination with which China is wielding its political and economic might to pursue its interests. Beijing’s diplomatic tactics are “very unusual,” according to Kristersson, highlighting the behavior of China’s ambassador in Stockholm, who has repeatedly sought to bully and intimidate politicians and journalists, he said.
Kristersson and Lundgren want the EU to develop a more united and determined response to China. “Simply saying critical words won’t change things,” said Kristersson. “The only language China understands is being [tougher], which implies economic activities like beefing up our investment screening mechanism.”
For smaller countries like Sweden, a joint EU approach toward China is even more important, he added. “In that regard, I’m very concerned that different EU countries have chosen different paths, for example when it comes to [Chinese telecoms supplier] Huawei.”
At just 32, Bondaz is at the forefront of a burgeoning debate in France about how to address Beijing’s growing assertiveness.
The Frenchman, a China researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research think tank, has become a fixture in academic and political circles, as well as a person-to-follow on Twitter, where he frequently criticizes Western policies on China and calls out Chinese officials over false claims.
“I’m part of a new, young generation of researchers that looks with a more realistic and critical mind toward China,” he said.
France has been slow to have a real public debate about China, he said, partly due to the fact that few politicians focus on relations with Beijing. “The absence of such a debate — which should neither be directed against China nor in its favor — is a real problem,” he said.
That may now be changing, following comments by Chinese officials during the coronavirus outbreak that triggered outrage among French lawmakers, according to Bondaz. Beijing’s Embassy in Paris used a blog post to accuse Western democracies of reckless behavior and alleged that French health care workers left old people to die in nursing homes, for example. The incident was a wake-up call to “what is at stake,” he said.
Over the past few years, China has ramped up its presence in Eastern and Central Europe, financing infrastructure projects and setting up political partnerships as part of its 17+1 project.
As Western Europe became increasingly nervous that Bejing was trying to influence the EU through the backdoor, Matura, a 36-year-old researcher based in Budapest, decided to set up ChInfluence to find out what exactly Beijing was up to.
Since its start in 2017, his project has become the go-to source for independent research on China’s influence in the region — and has come to some surprising conclusions, shifting the narrative on what effect Chinese money has had on the region.
“In 2012, China was seen as an economic savior for the region,” he said. “Countries were expecting huge amounts of investment and a growth in trade. What we got instead was a very low amount of investment, and from the commercial perspective what has mostly grown is the trade imbalance in China’s favor.”
The 17+1 initiative, he added, “seems to be a failure from the Central and Eastern European side. The results are negligible and disappointing.”
Growing interest in Beijing’s activities in Eastern Europe has helped Matura attract funding for his effort, he said, but the work itself is difficult. “I have been accused of being too close to China as well as being too close to the U.S.,” he said. “But I’m doing independent research.”
The 55-year-old chair of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee has become the country’s most outspoken China-critical politician by vigorously pushing to exclude Huawei from the rollout of 5G mobile technology in Germany. He has also repeatedly called out Beijing over human rights, diplomatic tensions and the crackdown in Hong Kong.
Röttgen, who has thrown his hat into the ring to become the next chairman of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union — and to potentially succeed her as chancellor — is publicly lashing out at Chinese officials including Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He accused the Chinese diplomat of committing a “diplomatic and democratic affront” after Wang said that Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil will “pay a heavy price” for making an official visit to Taiwan.
While most political analysts doubt that Röttgen will succeed in his quest to become the CDU’s candidate for chancellor in next year’s elections, he is likely to stay on in an influential role in parliament and remain a strong critical voice when it comes to relations with Beijing.