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17th Apr 2024

Interview

Why was central Europe open to China's Covid disinformation?

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Disillusionment with democracy, a lack of public debate on China and other states' disinformation campaigns, and local politicians playing into fake-news narratives are all combining to make central and eastern Europe more susceptible to foreign influence.

"With Covid-19, China really accelerated its influence and information campaign in the eastern and central European region. Our data showed that it really resonated among the people," Katarína Klingová, a senior research fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Resilience at the Bratislava-based think tank, Globsec Policy Institute, told EUobserver.

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  • Katarína Klingová: 'The EU really need to work on their PR. They got beaten by China, according to our findings' (Photo: Globsec)

"We need to be calling a spade a spade, we cannot put our head in the sand," Klingová said, who recently gave a presentation to the European Parliament's committee on foreign interference.

Disinformation is not only coming from Russia, but China too. However, awareness of Chinese activities in the central and eastern European region is still lacking.

Globsec recently published a study, called Vulnerability Index which showed that Serbia and Hungary are the most susceptible to Russian and Chinese influence.

"Perceiving the Chinese regime as an inspiration goes hand-in-hand with rising perceptions among central and eastern Europeans to support, or prefer, strong autocratic leaders who don't have to deal with elections, or parliament," she said.

A March study by Globsec showed that in eight-out-of-10 countries in the region, a majority of respondents judge their governments to have handled the Covid-19 pandemic badly.

The report also showed that the identification of democracy "as an ideal governance system has plummeted by 15 percentage points and seen its 'buy-in' fade in 9 of 10 surveyed countries when the word 'liberal' is added before democracy".

Countries in the region are, of course, diverse. For example, in the Czech Republic people are much more aware of China's human rights violations in Tibet . But increasing mistrust in governments and the spread of conspiracy theories seem to be a common thread.

Malign actors, such as China and Russia, have been able to play into that sentiment, but with an added ingredient - politicians from the region amplifying those disinformation narratives unwittingly - or even willingly - for political gain.

Ignorance on China

Klingová said what is unique about central Europe is that Chinese propaganda resonates "because of low awareness of this influence operation being a threat", since it is not yet part of any public debate.

"The politicians themselves do not talk about it. This backdrop is enabling China to intensify its influence operations in the region," she said, highlighting Globsec research that showed only one-in-four respondents have heard of Chinese president Xi Jinping.

China was able to successfully use the Covid-19 pandemic to create a more positive image.

This was especially noticeable in the western Balkan countries, where narratives were constructed that 'the West' abandoned the region, while China helped it.

Klingová mentioned the example of a viral video of a Chinese hospital being built "in a few days" at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which she said really resonated in the region. In Belgrade, billboards went up thanking "brother" president Xi for China's help.

Klingová had criticism for the EU, saying "they really need to work on their PR". "They got beaten by China, according to our findings," she concluded.

Public figures, and their administrations, amplify Chinese propaganda particularly in Hungary and Slovakia, according to the analysis, with the report finding that "ruling elites in Hungary drive the country's vulnerability".

"Within the past two years you really see a 'mainstream-isation' and politicisation of disinformation," Klingová warned.

"More-and-more mainstream political parties [and] representatives are using disinformation as a part of their electoral campaigns, to gain attraction and votes," she said.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has been adept at creating different 'enemies' to rally his supporters - whether they be mirgants, LGBTIQ people or US billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

Meanwhile, Slovakia's former prime minister Robert Fico has even suggested that anti-government protests in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak were organised by Soros-affiliated groups.

False dawn of democracy

What also plays into making the region more vulnerable is the lack of debate about local history and its education system.

"We need to talk about our histories," she said, adding that there should be discussions about the countries' roles in the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Education does not build critical thinking or digital skills in the region, Klingová added.

There is also sense of disillusionment with democracy in the region - that it did not deliver on its promised, compared to the perceived security and paternalism of the previous communist state.

"There was a notion that once we become democratic and join the EU and Nato, the quality of life is going to be comparable to Austria and Switzerland. That was never delivered, and some people link it to democracy not having delivered," Klingová warned.

This sentiment is exploited by malign foreign players.

To counter that, the EU and member state governments should be more proactive in promoting the benefits of democracy and EU membership, she argued, adding that investment in good journalism, and making it freely-accessible, is crucial.

Some 30-40 percent of respondents in the region do not know how the EU functions, she pointed out - warning that these countries' support for EU membership should not be taken for granted.

Call for sanctions on foreign meddling and disinformation

The draft report, from a special committee on foreign interference and disinformation, also calls for the EU-wide ban on foreign funding for European political parties — and legislation to make it harder for foreign regimes to recruit former top politicians.

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