By Davide Basso
June 9, 2023
China is now pursuing "a strategy that fuels the contestation of norms", relying on its diaspora and cultural network to challenge and undermine the Western order. Like Russia, China uses "information manipulation, cyber-attacks and espionage". [Shutterstock/Herr Loeffler]
A parliamentary report on foreign interference in France, prepared upon demand of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party and published on Thursday (June 8), highlighted China’s growing interference, pointing to its methods that are becoming increasingly aggressive.
“After Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the country which most serious threat to France in terms of foreign interference”, a French parliamentary report published on Thursday states.
The parliamentary report, written by rapporteur Constance Le Grip (Renaissance/Renew), comes after five and a half months of work and hearings by the committee of enquiry into foreign interference in France.
The committee was set up by the far-right Rassemblement National (RN/ID) party in order to cut through the accusations of their collusion with Vladimir Putin’s regime.
While Russia is indeed the biggest threat to France in terms of interference, China “is resorting to increasingly aggressive and malicious manoeuvres”, the report concluded.
Bernard Emié, director of French External Intelligence (DGSE), stated that China has gone from being a “contained power” to an “aggressive power”, especially with “unbridled diplomacy”.
According to the experts and politicians heard by the committee of enquiry, China is taking its inspiration from Russia’s methods, evoking a “Russianisation or Sovietisation of Chinese influence operations”.
China is now pursuing “a strategy that fuels the contestation of norms”, relying on its diaspora and cultural network to challenge and undermine the Western order. Like Russia, China uses “information manipulation, cyber-attacks and espionage”.
This process of “Russianisation” is underway, but the “information warfare” of the Chinese regime “has not yet reached the degree of maliciousness of Russia’s”.
China’s interference is aimed in particular at controlling its image and its citizens, with a “war on public opinion”.
Its “aim is to degrade the model of liberal democracies in order to indirectly promote the political model of the PRC”, which involves, as is the case of Russia with Sputnik and Russia Today, controlling certain media such as Xinhua and China Radio International.
China also controls a large proportion of the Chinese-language press distributed around the world. Similar methods are being developed in Turkey.
In addition to the traditional media, Chinese Communist Party propaganda is disseminated by trolls on social networks, who “defend, attack, stir up controversy, insult and harass”.
The report notes that these activities are also carried out by “genuine internet users who are paid to publish content, or even Chinese officials”, such as the “warrior wolves” in Chinese diplomacy.
In this strategy of interference, the diaspora is “both a vector and a target for interference” by China. “Every Chinese citizen, even those with dual nationality, is regarded by the Chinese as an activable intelligence agent”, sums up the head of the French foreign intelligence services.
To carry out this control, the report notes the existence of “myriad cultural or sporting associations, cultural venues, friendship and mutual aid networks” that “form an integral part of a nebulous network” monitored or financed by Chinese embassies.
Economic and technological interference
The report said “the most serious threat today is the attack on scientific and technological heritage by Chinese interference”, for which Bejing makes “extensive use of clandestine intelligence”. The head of the French secret service DGSE referred to a “massive espionage campaign” involving phishing via social networks.
Digital technology is a sector in which the threat to national sovereignty is significant. The report draws attention to the cybersecurity risks associated with the widespread use of TikTok, a social network owned by a Chinese company, and the rise of Chinese 5G.
In this respect, “Chinese influence is betting on building an alternative to the American GAFAMs”, a reference to US tech giants, according to the DGSE. The activities of Huawei, the Chinese telephony and communications giant, should also call for “vigilance on the part of our intelligence services”, the report said.
“Entryism” in universities
As reported by EURACTIV, China is also engaging in a form of “entryism” in Europe’s academic and research communities, which are less regulated than sensitive sectors. Many institutions are targeted for funding from China, with the aim of interfering, and the role of Confucius Institutes is described as “ambiguous”.
The report also highlighted practices such as visa blackmail against researchers and the use of gagging procedures against them.
Finally, it emerged in the committee’s hearings that cooperation between (French or European) and Chinese universities is problematic: It is often unbalanced in favour of China, undermines academic freedom and represents a risk of “capturing the scientific and technical potential” of a nation, sometimes in sensitive areas.
“Economic predation” represents the bulk of China’s efforts to interfere, as “China has not yet deployed the full extent of its capacity to interfere”, notes the report.
Other states pose a threat of interference
Finally, the report referred to interference – or attempted interference – from other countries, although China and Russia are the main threats in the case of France. Some countries, such as Iran and Turkey, “resort to strategies that include violent action”. Others, such as Morocco, Qatar and Turkey, engage in practices more akin to “influence”.
In the case of Iran, in addition to organising attacks in France and other countries and persecuting opponents, its espionage activities are aimed particularly at France’s “scientific and technological heritage”.
Russia and Qatar are the two countries that make the most use of corruption, the report said.
Qatar, the report said, is developing “extensive influence operations” in France and other EU countries through corruption and the funding of think-tanks, research centres, associations, Islamic religious centres, and even private secondary schools for propaganda purposes.
The aim of these activities is to improve the countries’ image abroad rather than destabilise the West.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]