Follow the New Silk Road: China’s growing trail of think tanks and lobbyists in Europe
China is flexing its soft power in Europe, cultivating networks of think tanks and lobbyists, in particular to promote its flagship programme the ‘New Silk Road’. Meanwhile, European failures in lobby transparency mean these influencing activities take place far beyond the light of public scrutiny.
On 9 April 2019 Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk for an EU-China summit. On the agenda are topics such as bilateral trade and investment relations, as well as cybersecurity.
As China becomes an ever more potent player on the world stage, it is increasing its use of soft power and influencing tools in Europe. From funding think tanks and academic institutions, to courting officials via paid public affairs consultants and business associations, its lobbying seeks to create fertile ground for China-friendly policies.
While there is nothing surprising about a global player with the second largest GDP in the world flexing its soft power, what is rather alarming is the way that so many think tank players, policy wonks, lobby consultants, and middlemen in Europe have been all too keen to play the role of hired gun for what is a highly authoritarian regime. Presumably China’s growing wealth – and willingness to spend it to achieve its goals – makes it easier for these lobbyists to ignore this inconvenient fact. European tech lobbyists, for example, are happily working for a country ranked last in the world, for the fourth consecutive year, in internet freedom. Far from liberalising as it became more of a market economy (as some in the West futilely predicted), China has become more authoritarian and intolerant of dissent under Chinese President Xi Jinping. For example, over one million Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui, and other ethnic minorities are now estimated by the UN to be held in detention camps in Xinjiang, Western China. Some of the unquestionably state of the art information technology developed by China is being used to put them there.
Even more alarming is the way that lobbying in Europe on behalf of this authoritarian regime appears to be largely taking place under the radar. While the public clearly has a right to know what paid lobbyists of all stripes – including those working on behalf of non-EU member state governments – are up to, and how they might be influencing our politicians and our futures, we continue to be denied that right by the EU’s own failure of lobby transparency rules. Indeed, on 5 April 2019 it was announced that discussions over reform of the weak, voluntary Transparency Register had broken down, thus abandoning a key promise of the Juncker Commission. Meanwhile, lobby consultancies, think tanks, law firms, and many other players are free to exploit this weakness by lobbying for autocratic regimes under the radar.
Thus it is important to note that, while this article takes a look at just some of the players in Europe working their influence on behalf of the Chinese Government, the examples contained are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. In the United States, where lobbyists are required by law to register when working on behalf of non-US governments, the total estimated lobby spend by the Government of the People’s Republic of China in 2018 (excluding Chinese companies) is estimated by US non-profit OpenSecrets at $1,359,000. In contrast, in the EU’s Transparency Register, the People’s Republic and its various government branches appear nowhere as clients of any lobby firms.
High on China’s lobbying agenda is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sometimes known as the ‘New Silk Road’, this is a plan to create seamless trade routes by road and sea between China and Europe (and beyond). It has been described as similar in scope to the USA’s Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War, restructuring the global order and putting China at its centre. This requires huge diplomatic and lobbying efforts to get countries en route on board.
China’s lobbying strategy in Europe has often involved making alliances with individual member states or sub-groups of European nations, much to the frustration of Brussels. For example, China has been reaching out to Central and Eastern European countries via a programme called 16 +1, or CEEC (China and Central and Eastern European Countries). This includes a formal network of partner think tanks and events across Europe coordinated by the CEEC. As part of this network, China has set up its own first think tank in Europe, The Institute of European Studies based in Budapest, which recently held a seminar in Brussels on the Belt and Road Initiative.
In total, 13 EU member states, mainly from this 16+1 group, have signed bilateral treaties to become official members of the Belt and Road Initiative. Most recently, and significantly, in March 2019 China signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Italy, the first G7 nation to officially join. Indeed, several Italian lobbyists are at the forefront of China’s influencing efforts in the EU – in part due to the country’s somewhat strategic location with regards to the Belt and Road Initiative shipping routes. Particularly interesting in this context is the way the EU’s own austerity agenda and budget restrictions have helped to push the governments of both Greece and Italy into closer relationships with China, through debt agreements and selling off of key infrastructure.
Indeed, a recent Bloomberg article discusses China’s increasing outreach to European governments regardless of whether they are left or right. It reports: “Multiple European diplomats said that China has taken an unusual degree of interest in the [May 2019] EU elections, and especially what populist candidates might mean for the bloc’s China policies.” While China already had some connections in former communist states in Europe, it is hedging its bets and also building connections with parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), anti-immigrant nationalists like Austria’s Freedom Party, and the Lega Norte.
Another important channel of influence is via Chinese multinational corporations. For example Tencent, owner of Chinese social media behemoth WeChat, is an official partner of Brussels business association ChinaEU, which lobbies for technological partnerships with the EU. Tencent also ran a pilot for China’s notorious ‘Social Credit Scheme’; when the Government system launches, it will involve data surveillance of all Chinese citizens. Another technology firm, Huawei, although in private hands, enjoys a close relationship with the Chinese Government and is therefore included in this article. Along with fellow Chinese tech giant ZTE, Huawei has been a big part of the lobbying battle to persuade Europe to accept innovative – and cheaper – Chinese 5G mobile broadband technology in the face of cybersecurity fears, and they have employed several Brussels lobby consultancies. Crucially, the ‘New Silk Road’ connections are to be as digital as they are physical, and the lobby battles over 5G and cybersecurity are of vital importance for the Chinese Government.
Whether it’s what conflicts of interest your political representative is harbouring, which superpower gets to spy on you via your mobile phone, whether your city’s port is sold off and bought up, or who’s human rights are getting trampled on in the scramble for investment money, the public have every right to know who is lobbying who, why, and for how much. At the very least we need transparency on whether, and how, regimes such as China’s are lobbying European and national-level institutions, officials, and politicians. For that to happen, the rules of the Transparency Register should explicitly demand that lobby consultancies, PR firms, lawyers, and think tanks paid to lobby the EU institutions on behalf of non-EU governments, are required to declare all such clients, with details of expenditure and the policy areas being lobbied on. This is has been mandatory for decades in the US. And despite the recent breakdown of the EU’s lobby transparency talks, it would in fact be a simple matter to adjust the current implementation guidelines for the Transparency Register in order to do so. Quite simply, it’s hard to see a downside – unless you are a lobbyist working for an authoritarian regime.
2. Lobby associations
ChinaEU deserves special mention as a key lobbyist for Chinese interests in Europe. It’s a business lobby association based in Brussels, with an office in Beijing, that promotes “business cooperation between China and Europe”, and “top level public-private partnership for [Information and communication technology], linking the major Internet players, telecom operators and high tech companies from China and the EU together with high level officials and regulators from the European Institutions and the Chinese government”, according to its website. Information technology is part of the ‘digital silk road’, and an important aspect of the Belt and Road Initiative.
ChinaEU founder and President Luigi Gambardella (pictured) has been described by Politico as “Brussels’ biggest Beijing booster”. He became known as a vocal lobbyist for the telecoms industry and chairs the board of telecoms lobby group, the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO). Gambardella boasts his “worldwide network of top-level industry decision-makers, governments, regulators and trade organizations is unique”, and also serves two powerful corporate lobby groups, as a board member of the Transatlantic Business Council, and on the Advisory and Support Group of Business Europe.
Key lobby angles for ChinaEU include: “A connected Digital Single Market; EU-China Investment Negotiations; Modernisation of Trade Defence Instruments; Screening of [foreign direct investment] into the EU,” as well as “annual EU-China Summits” and an “EU China year of tourism”. ChinaEU declares a minimum lobby spend for 2017 of €100,000 Sidenote in its Transparency Register entry. It is also under contract with the EU to link European start-ups and Chinese firms.
ChinaEU’s partners include the China Internet Development Foundation, ‘cyberspace think tank’ China Labs, and several other private and government-related Chinese organisations. It also lists China Daily, and the Brussels bubble media outlet Euractiv, as media partners. Though not mentioned on the ChinaEU site, Chinese telecoms giant ZTE listed its affiliation with the lobby association in March 2017, but has since changed its transparency register entry. Politico reports ZTE is rumoured to be a founder, but that Gambardella is “reluctant to discuss who pays for ChinaEU”. Politico also quotes Fraser Cameron, director of the EU-Asia Centre, speculating that “The Chinese mission may also play a part”.
ChinaEU’s partner Tencent is particularly noteworthy, as one of two Chinese companies listed as the world’s top ten most valuable brands. It owns WeChat, the social media platform with one billion users, and as such has developed of one of the world’s largest-scale and most technologically sophisticated censorship systems. Tencent was one of several companies tasked by the Chinese Government in 2015 to help develop pilot versions of the ‘Social Credit System’. The final incarnation of this system, due to be launched in full in 2020, will monitor and award or deduct credit points to every Chinese citizen, using data from everything from facial recognition technology, to financial credit, and online activity. Dissidents, debtors, and their family members are already being barred by the system from buying airline and train tickets, for example.
But ChinaEU’s relaxed attitude to Big Brother-style surveillance should come as no surprise; Gambardella has both praised the Chinese Government’s approach to the internet and digital technologies, despite its crackdown on online dissent, and accompanied Lu Wei – China’s top internet censor – around Brussels in 2015, helping to introduce him to the EU’s digital Commissioner, Andrus Ansip.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s March 2019 visit to Italy, ChinaEU hosted a series of seminars in Rome on the digital economy and smart cities, attended by both Chinese and Italian officials. Huawei global chair Liang Hua gave the keynote address; sponsors included China Daily.
3. Think tanks
“How do you change the world? Well, there are the obvious routes, such as seizing power, being monstrously rich or slogging through the electoral process. And there are short-cuts, such as terrorism or forming a think tank.” – Steve Waters, The Guardian
Often, conferences and seminars held in Brussels with a China theme are in fact receiving Chinese Government sponsorship. Setting up and funding think tanks are a well known lobbying tactic in Brussels; they create a useful impression of objectivity and impartial scholarship, whilst helping to shape the policy environment. Their events also offer interesting lobbying opportunities for high-level access to government and EU officials. For the last five years, and directed from the highest levels of the state apparatus, it appears that China has been eagerly embracing the think tank model.
The corporate-sponsored Brussels think tank Friends of Europe is well known for its signature events and conferences. Its membership includes major multinational corporations, and its well-connected President, Viscount Etienne Davignon (pictured), who served twice as a European Commissioner (ER: he’s also a major figure at Bilderberg), has sometimes been referred to as “the most powerful Belgian”. A roster of illustrious and powerful figures sit on the board, including several former European Commissioners and heads of state.
Friends of Europe holds an annual meeting of the Europe-China Forum which it co-organises with the Chinese Mission to the EU, and the China Institute for Reform and Development (CIRD). According to Friends of Europe’s website, the joint initiative is “aimed at promoting greater Europe-China engagement and cooperation, and bring together policymakers, business representatives and leading academics from across Europe and China to discuss issues of shared interest and address pressing common challenges”. In 2016 the event was held in Hǎikǒu, China, under ‘Chatham House’ rules, which means participants may use the information disclosed but not reveal its source.
Speakers at the 2018 event included Zhang Ming, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the EU, Jo Leinen, Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China, Chi Fulin, President of the China Institute for Reform and Development (CIRD), and Arnaldo Abruzzini, chief executive of the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Friends of Europe’s annual budget was €3,644,249 for 2017, and while it lists the Chinese Mission to the EU as an official partner in the Transparency Register, there is no indication of the mission’s total financial contribution to the Europe-China Forum. Friends of Europe is at pains to point out it is “politically neutral,” and “does not have party-political or national bias”.
Silk Road Think Tank Network (SiLKS)
Since 2015 the Chinese state has developed a network of partnered think tanks across the world, the Silk Road Think Tank Network, concerned specifically with promoting the Belt and Road Initiative. Partner organisations in the network include highly respected European think tanks and institutes including Chatham House in the UK, the Elcano Royal Institute of Madrid, and the German Development Institute.
The Secretariat of the Silk Road Think Tank Network, as it is known, is located at and funded by China’s Department of International Cooperation at the Development Research Center of the State Council. According to the SiLKS website, a key role for the Secretariat is “boosting the influence of the Silk Road Think Tank Network and affording high-caliber intellectual support for the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’”. It coordinates and funds cooperative research with think tank members, and co-organises the Silk Road International Forum and “special conferences with relevant institutions”.
The Silk Road International Forum, which previously has been held in Madrid, Warsaw, and Beijing, took place in Paris in December 2018. According to China Plus, it was attended by “officials and representatives from around the world calling for jointly building the Belt and Road and promoting global sustainable development”, with 300 attendees from 35 countries.
China Plus quotes former Prime Minister of France Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who spoke at the Forum: “We are opposed to conflict and in support of cooperation as China is. Cooperation is the key to global balance. Now in Europe, we have seen opportunities brought about by the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, and I think we should take the chance.” (Raffarin also heads the think thank Fondation France Chine, see below).
Hosted on the Silk Road Think Tank Network website is an article from Chinese media outlet Guanming Daily, noting that this is “one of the earliest attempts to build a network of think tanks internationally. After several years of operation, significant results have been achieved.” The article also points out that this is the culmination of a decision at a 2013 Communist Party Central Committee plenary session to “Strengthen the construction of new think tanks with Chinese characteristics and establishing a sound decision-making consultation system”.
Fondation France Chine
The think tank Fondation France Chine (France-China Foundation), with offices in Paris and Shanghai, was set up in 2014 by French and Chinese luminaries to create a forum to “contribute to the deepening of a privileged partnership between France and China in order to encourage an effective and constructive dialogue both at the official level and between companies”, according to its website. In China the official partner of the Foundation is the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA).
Heading up the think tank is former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (pictured), who has form in terms of friendly relations with China. For example in 2005, as Prime Minister on a state visit to China, he lent support for a lift of Europe’s arms embargo towards the country. Raffarin appears to be still active in diplomacy: in 2018 Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, entrusted a mission supporting French businesses in China to him. Raffarin is also Chair of the annual French-Chinese seminar of the Comité France-Chine, a project of MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France), the largest business federation in France.
On the strategic committee are top-level figures such as current French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma of the Ali Baba group, and Li Zhaoxing, Honorary President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs.
The foundation organises high-end events – including at the Château de Versailles – co-sponsored by prominent businesspeople from the People’s Republic of China and France, as well as featuring well connected members of the French establishment.
16+1 Think Tank Network
China’s extensive 16+1 diplomatic initiative, coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, brings together 11 Central and Eastern European members states, and 5 EU accession countries in the Western Balkans. This grouping, also known as China-CEEC, (China and Central and Eastern European Countries) is about building foreign support for the Belt and Road Initiative. The 16 countries are: Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Albania, and Macedonia. The ‘plus one’ is China itself. Greece is also rumoured to be soon invited in to what would become the 17+1 initiative. This grouping has been criticised by Brussels as a kind of ‘divide and rule’ diplomacy by China in Europe.
Notably, as part of this initiative China has set up and funded the 16+1 Think Tank Network made up of partner institutions in Central and Eastern Europe which promote research friendly to the Belt and Road Initiative. This was first proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in a 16+1 meeting in Belgrade in 2014, and set up by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) with the backing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. CASS acts as the network’s secretariat.
A key question for China, in founding the network, was to find out what key risks and opportunities on the ground there might be in the development of the Belt and Road Initiative in the think tanks’ respective countries. Indeed, at the 29 May 2017 Belt and Road Summit, Liu Qibao of China’s Central Propaganda department called on Chinese and overseas think tanks to “provide intelligence support for the Belt and Road development”. Some of the calls for papers in the 16+1 Think Tank Network do sound like appeals for intelligence gathering; for example, the December 2017 High-Level Think Tanks 16+1 Symposium, held in Beijing, asked for studies on potential risks and legal obstacles for Chinese investments in Central and Easton Europe, as well as “attitudes of the EU and of main countries of the EU” towards 16+1 cooperation.
The network is made of partnerships coordinated by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, with already existing institutions such as the Polish Academy of Sciences, the New Silk Road Institute Prague, the University of Belgrade, and the Bulgarian Diplomatic Institute. However, The Institute of European Studies in Budapest has been set up and is managed entirely by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences from scratch, making it the first Chinese think tank in Europe. The Director-General of the Institute of European Studies, Huang Ping, is also President of the China-CEEC institute.
This think tank’s activities are not confined to Hungary. To take just one example of The Institute of European Studies’ activities, in December 2018 it ran a seminar and book launch in Brussels entitled, ‘The EU-China Relations and 16+1 Cooperation – Scholars’ Views from Europe & China’. In attendance were MEPs, representatives from the European Union External Action Agency, the CEE country embassies in the European Union, the Mission of China to the European Union, the Centre for European Policy Studies, the College of Europe, and other institutions.
Meanwhile, 16+1 think tank forums bring together high level Chinese government officials and members of its state owned and private enterprises, along with scholars from China and Central and Eastern Europe, and diplomats and officials from the 16+1 countries. These forums may also serve as useful influencing opportunities, particularly as some events take place behind closed doors.
As well as official partner institutions, the 16+1 Think Tank Network website also lists academic collaborations. This includes for example the prestigious Vienna Institute of International Economic Studies, which in 2017 produced a briefing entitled ‘Economic policy implications of the ‘New Silk Road’ which it describes as for: “Client: Embassy of the People’s Republic of China (2017-2018)”. Sidenote: Another partner is the ESSCA School of Management EU-Asia Institute, described as one of the “top twenty business schools in France”.
Brussels Academy for China and European Studies
The Brussels Academy for China and European Studies (BACES) is an academic platform and ‘critical think tank’ shared by four founding universities: Renmin University of China, Sichuan University, Fudan University, and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). BACES website says part of its work includes “academic services including policy advice”, and that it “work[s] closely with the VUB Confucius Institute, the Brussels Diplomatic Academy and faculty members of the founding and affiliated partners”. It is funded by the China Scholarship Council and Chinese tech company Huawei.
The VUB Confucius Institute hosts BACES in Brussels. The Confucius Institutes (CI) are cultural centres funded by the Chinese Government on university campuses around the world. There are 160 Confucius Institutes in Europe. Their beneficial cross cultural exchanges – language learning, film evenings, and so on – are uncontroversial. But there are reports of disturbing limits on academic freedom at these Institutes, with discussion on sensitive topics such as Tibet or Taiwan shut down; Beijing both funds the centres, provides teachers and materials, and at least some universities have signed confidentiality clauses about these arrangements.
As a result of these problems, some CIs have been closed by the host universities. In 2013 the University of Lyon shut down their Confucius Institute, with the board chair of the institute complaining that the CI Director was “taking his instructions directly from Beijing”. Sweden’s Stockholm University closed its centre in 2015. In 2014, at a Chinese studies conference in Portugal, Hanban, the branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education that sets up the Confucius Institutes, reportedly tore out pages from materials relating to Taiwan.
Lobby Communication Advisory
According to Intelligence Online Lobby Communication Advisory, an Italian lobbying firm briefly registered in the EU Transparency Register around February 2019, only to withdraw its entry quickly. Corporate Europe Observatory was unable to track down this entry. The firm’s founder, Irene Pivetti (pictured), is an Italian lobbyist who, according to her website, holds various other positions on boards and government institutions in China, and is President of the Italy China Friendship Association. She appears to be well-connected in China, having visited at least 40 times. Lobby Communication Advisory’s former clients include a Chinese TV channel owned by the Shanghai Media Group.
According to Intelligence Online, Lobby Communication Advisory is mainly focused on the promotion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the Shanghai Research Institute is a shareholder in the firm, owning ten per cent of the company. This university coordinates over 100 Chinese academic institutions involved in promoting the Belt and Road Initiative.
Pivetti was formerly President of the Italian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. She started out her political career in the Lega Nord, the far right party of Italy’s current First Minister Matteo Salvini. In an interview on her website she says, “I have always been loyal to the League in my heart.” She recently started a new political party, Italia Madre.
Lobby Communication Advisory is part of Only Italia, also founded by Pivetti, a company that helps Italian businesses to enter the Chinese market. According to Intelligence Online, Pivetti accompanied Chinese Premier Li Kequiang on a tour of Italy in 2014; we do not know if she also played a role in the March 2019 by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, but Only Italia published a puff piece for the occasion.
In an Only Italia press release championing Xi Jinping’s March 2019 visit, Pivetti says it focused “on cooperation between the two sides in the field of transport infrastructure, including port logistics…. Italy’s cooperation in the area of infrastructure will help China… to achieve better interconnection.”
President Xi Jinping wrote an op-ed in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera during his visit, promoting the Belt and Road Initiative and talking of “Committing ourselves to … the New Silk Road initiative with the Italian projects of ‘building northern ports’ and ‘investing in Italy’ in order to create a new era for Belt and Road in sectors such as navy, aeronautics, aerospace and culture.” During this visit Italy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China to join the Belt and Road Initiative. One of the potential hubs is the development of the port at Palermo, in Sicily, which Xi Jinping visited on his trip. The Silk Road Briefing (produced by law firm Dezan Shira & Associates, see below) reports that here, “a delegation of Chinese officials met with Eurispes (Istituto di Studi Politici, Economici e Sociali), an institute of political, economic and social studies, to discuss the [port development] project, which could become a hub on China’s Belt and Road Initiative”. The Briefing also notes that the right wing coalition government in Italy, constrained by EU fiscal deficit limits (and committed to tax cuts), feels that “Chinese investment or cheap financing or infrastructure to create economic activities will obviously be welcomed”.
The Silk Road Briefing also notes, from its Italian offices, “we understand there are already discussions concerning port investments in the south of Italy, including in Genoa and Palermo”. These ports expand “Italy’s export potential to China and other countries along the Belt and Road, and, perhaps more importantly, Chinese/Asian exports into Africa (from Sicily and Calabria). China will also have its flag on the map very much within the EU, a major coup for Beijing.”
Sicily isn’t the only Italian island to have caught the eye of China. Italian newspaper Libero ran a headline in July 2018, “Sardinia conquered by China? Revelation: Irene Pivetti is behind it all”. It reported that the Chinese interest in port development was due to Only Italia. Pivetti had brought Xi Jinping on a visit there in 2016; the Golden China Fund then decided to invest in port and tourism infrastructure.
Dezan Shira & Associates
The pan-Asian “multi-disciplinary professional services firm” Dezan Shira & Associates has three client liaison offices in Germany, two in Italy, and a bespoke international office that gathers all its expertise: the Belt and Road Liaison Office, “due to the desire for corporate intelligence concerning the [Belt and Road Initiative]” as it says. The firm offers “market intelligence, risk assessment”, legal, and other advice to governments and business interested in investment or “intelligence studies in all countries along China’s Belt & Road Initiative” and adds: “Learning how to… profit from China’s involvement in Eurasian infrastructure build is a huge question for todays MNC’s.”
The founder of Dezan Shira & Associates, Chris Devonshire-Ellis is now mainly based in Europe after several decades in Asia, and publishes a regular Silk Road Briefing. An October 2018 piece entitled, ‘How Chinese Contractors are Winning EU Infrastructure Projects’ touts the benefits for Chinese companies of hiring lobbying consultancies when bidding for EU tenders, saying that while Chinese firms have traditionally been reluctant to pay lobbying and legal intermediaries, they are fast catching on to how this helps in bidding for infrastructure projects in Europe. Sidenote: He also points out that Beijing is throwing “diplomatic money at developing a better understanding of Eastern Europe’s issues, strengths, weaknesses, and suitable opportunities”; and points out one such successful bid in Europe by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) was helped by the fact that “the official lobbyist of the CRBC in Montenegro [was] the former PM of Serbia at the time of Slobodan Milošević, and is well known politically to Beijing”.
He also notes that, “China has been keeping far better intelligence about who is who and connecting the dots between politicians. It now has a far better idea of who can be useful and who not. Having ascertained a greater percentage of probability of success in identifying key lobbyists, it can afford to pay professional fees to such people.”
Cooperans is a small French lobby consultancy “specialised in projects related to the new Silk Roads and China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative'”, according to the EU Transparency Register. It has set up a website to keep “French and European decision-makers informed about the development of the “Belt and Road initiative” through the One Belt One Road Europe platform, OBOReurope.”
5. Private companies
Chinese technology and communications company Huawei is on the high end of corporate lobby spenders in Brussels, declaring €2,190,000 for the year 2017. Its headquarters are located directly behind the European Parliament. While not officially a state company, it has ties to the China’s ruling Communist Party with “national champion” status, and it is suspected to have received state subsidies from the PRC Government.
The company enjoys expert advice in the form of members of the European establishment; for example, it hired the British Government’s former Chief Information Officer John Suffolk as its Global Cyber-security Officer, and French former European Commissioner Serge Abou, who moved to Huawei after six years as the EU ambassador to Beijing.
It is a member of numerous Brussels trade groups, both in the technology field – including DigitalEurope, mobile industry trade association GSMA, and the European Internet Forum – as well as general corporate lobby groups BusinessEurope and Friends of Europe (see think tanks).
Huawei’s EU Transparency Register entry reveals EU procurement funding of €2,956,199, which is “Public funding received from the European Commission or through national funding programs in EU Member States”.
The company funds Brussels-bubble events that can open up access to EU officials; for example, a November 2018 debate with Huawei lobbyists in key roles, moderated by a top Commission official, Dan Sobovitz, Digital Communication Strategist to the Vice President of the European Commission.
A key lobbying aim for Huawei is the European roll-out of 5G mobile broadband using their technology. A fierce lobbying battle has been waged in Europe; the USA called for a blanket ban on Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE’s 5G mobile network infrastructure being installed in Europe. While this may be in part about competition, there are fears the technology could entail a security risk to data and privacy. After all, surveillance and intelligence gathering is exactly what the US required its own giant technology firms to do, as revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. However, the EU does share some of these worries: Andrus Anspit, Vice President of the European Commission recently cited “specific security concerns”, adding “everyone knows I’m talking about China and Huawei”. Huawei Europe has had 46 meetings with top European Commission officials in the last five years. The last three meetings alone – one with Anspit – were all about the security of 5G technology.
Huawei has employed several lobbying consultancies in Brussels to push these issues. Ogilvy Social Lab for example, received at least €200,000 from Huawei technologies in 2017. Among the work Ogilvy has undertaken for Huawei includes press work on the opening of a recently opened ‘Transparency and Cybersecurity Center’ lab in Brussels, in order, “to help all stakeholders consolidate strengths – and consolidate trust – in the digital world”. This is likely in response to the EU setting up its own cybersecurity centre. (See also M&M Conseil below.)
Alber & Geiger, a law firm which prides itself on bringing US-style lobbying to Brussels, lists Huawei as a client paying a minimum of €100,000 in 2018. Alber & Geiger’s Transparency Register entry is far more forthcoming than most lobbying firms: “For Huawei, we focus on EU telecoms policy… [and] followed files related to research, development and innovation as well as privacy, security and data protection.” Alber & Geiger’s website has a ‘Wins’ section with an article on the ‘Chinese credibility gap’ over security concerns in Europe: “The main concern was over the cyber security of Huawei products in Europe, and the risk posed to personal information and data. This would damage Huawei’s reputation and hamper business development in Europe. Huawei reached out to Alber & Geiger to mitigate concerns and build support in Europe.” The lobbyists’ strategy has been to target “key Members of the European Parliament in all relevant committees and across the political spectrum… The goal was to show to the EU law makers that there was no Chinese government involvement in Huawei’s business strategies, let alone any cyber security issue with Huawei’s devices.” They also ran a parallel strategy “with the European Commission and related EU agencies to show that Huawei is fully integrated in the EU market and successful for business reasons only.” (The latter presumably refers to EU concerns that Huawei had been unfairly state-subsidised.)
In France, Huawei employs lobbying firm M&M Conseil (a subdivision of Boury Tallon) to lead on its push for 5G, approaching French politicians for support. We have a brief glimpse into their behind-the-scenes work via Wikileaks, which published a cache of campaign emails leaked from the Macron campaign. This included one from Huawei’s public affairs executive inviting Pierre Person (pictured), a mover in Macron’s political circles, to the company’s VIP area to watch the Women’s Open semi-final in 2016, organised via M&M Conseil. Person became an election adviser to Macron’s 2017 Presidential campaign.
Via Boury Tallon, and in tandem with another firm EuroPolitic, Huawei has wooed French parliamentarians via lunch meetings and debates on, for example, 5G and cybersecurity. Attendees included MPs, as well defence and other government officials. EuroPolitic’s website claims, “Huawei has made cybersecurity one of its development priorities on the French market,” and similar to Ogilvy’s PR work in Brussels, EuroPolitic announces: “Huawei has also established a dynamic research facility on the territory, the French Research Center”.
It’s worth noting that according to France’s new lobby register, Boury Tallon is the company with the largest lobby spend in Paris with at least €1,250,000 declared. While its register entry claims its levels of intervention include “Local, National, European, World”, the firm does not appear in the EU’s Transparency Register.