With a clumsy and ugly disinformation campaign, China is trying to project “soft power” as the U.S. loses its cachet. That’s backfiring

If 2019 was the year when Europeans began having serious doubts about Beijing’s geopolitical intentions, 2020 may go down in history as the moment they turned against China in defiance. That’s not because they blame the Chinese for originating Covid-19, as U.S. President Donald Trump and his secretary of state seem obsessed with doing. It’s because China, by trying to capitalize on the pandemic with a stunningly unsophisticated propaganda campaign, inadvertently showed Europeans its cynicism.

The motivation behind the Chinese propaganda is obvious enough: With the U.S. flailing under Trump, Beijing sees an opening to finally rise to the status of a second superpower. The biggest geopolitical prize in this contest is the European Union, formerly anchored securely in the transatlantic camp but in recent years increasingly nervous about Trump and open to Chinese trade, investment and influence.

As the pandemic’s epicentre moved from Wuhan to European countries such as Italy and Spain, China initially had the right idea. Starting in mid-March, it sent Europe big shipments of face masks and other medical equipment, adorned with Chinese flags. Some of this gear turned out to be shoddy, but people saw it as a nice gesture. China could have stopped at “mask diplomacy” and come out ahead.

It didn’t. Beijing’s minions instead began spreading disinformation, apparently intended to paint the EU’s democracies as effete and authoritarian China as comparatively strong. In France, the Chinese embassy posted on its website a wild accusation that French retirement homes leave old people to die. In Italy, Chinese sock puppets disseminated tales that the coronavirus had in fact originated in Europe, or doctored video clips to show Romans playing the Chinese anthem in gratitude. In Germany, Chinese diplomats (unsuccessfully) urged government officials to heap public praise on China.

In response, the EU’s diplomatic service assembled a report on the disinformation campaigns being waged by China and that other usual suspect, Russia. China promptly made a bad situation worse, leaning on the publication’s authors to tone it down. At this, members of the European Parliament took even more umbrage and demanded assurances that the EU will not self-censor under Chinese pressure.

In some European countries, these tensions aren’t new. Even before the coronavirus, Swedes were outraged by the Chinese ambassador’s thinly veiled threats against their press, and some politicians want to throw him out of the country. But other EU members have willingly put up with the heavy-handed China treatment.

They include several southern and eastern EU countries — such as Croatia and Hungary — which have signed up for China’s two big geopolitical efforts. One is a Chinese-led forum called 17+1, in which Beijing (the 1) tries to organize economic cooperation with 17 European countries. The other is the Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure project that sceptics see as a Chinese attempt to turn Asian, African and European countries into economic vassals.

Even before the pandemic, Europeans were becoming disappointed by the one-sided nature of these “partnerships,” both economically and politically. Take the rather symbolic tiff between Prague and Beijing, for example, which agreed to be sister cities, with Prague accepting the One-China policy (which denies that Taiwan is a country) and Beijing delivering, among other things, some cute pandas to the Prague zoo. But the pandas never came. As other conflicts escalated between the two partners, Beijing backed out in a huff. The mayor of Prague, fed up, found a different sister city in Taipei, Taiwan.

China’s largest trading partner in Europe, Germany, has also put up its guard after several Chinese companies took stakes in German technology firms ranging from a robot maker to a power company. Last year, Berlin tightened the rules on such sensitive acquisitions. The EU followed suit, with a common investment-screening approach taking effect this year. Meant to preserve Europe’s technological and industrial autonomy, it implicitly aims to keep China at bay.

The weather vane showing the overall direction of the EU’s China policy will be this year’s rollout of fifth-generation telecoms networks, or 5G. Even with the Trump administration haranguing Europeans to get them to boycott the largest Chinese equipment maker, Huawei Technologies Co., the EU’s members have been split or undecided on whether to allow the company to bid for contracts. In Germany, the mood seems to be tilting against Huawei. Even the U.K., now outside the EU, may reconsider its decision to let Huawei participate in its 5G plans.

For all of this, Beijing only has itself to blame. Somehow, Chinese officials have managed to offend Europeans across the continent who usually agree on nothing. At the beginning of the year, the calendar for 2020 was filled with Sino-European summits celebrating ever deeper ties. Instead, the pandemic is likely to be the occasion for Europeans to begin emancipating themselves from a bad relationship.

Even on the assumption that the real target of China’s infantile propaganda campaign is its domestic audience or the Chinese diaspora, this “diplomacy” can’t exactly pass as brilliant strategy. If it reflects the quality of Beijing’s statecraft, fears of China’s rise may have been greatly exaggerated.