On August 23, a rally supporting Hong Kong protests and Tibet in Vilnius was met by a smaller but aggressive group of Chinese protesters. A verbal clash and minor scuffles ensued in what was the first time Lithuania experienced China's increasingly assertive efforts to use its diaspora to further Beijing's interests.
One of the participants in the pro-Hong Kong rally, Rūta Norkutė of the NGO ‘House of Tibet’, says she was attacked by the counter-protesters who tried to knock out a phone from her hands as she was trying to film the Chinese.
The police were summoned to the site in the Cathedral Square and several Chinese protesters received small fines for the disturbances.
The Vilnius-based Embassy of the People's Republic of China received a diplomatic note from Lithuania's Foreign Ministry about the incident, although the embassy denied it was involved in the counter-rally. However, LRT Investigation Team has seen evidence that members of the diplomatic staff did take part: the Chinese ambassador himself, the defence attaché, his deputy and the second secretary of the embassy.
Footage from the rally shows the pro-China protesters taking out banners from a car with diplomatic license plates parked outside the nearby Kempinski hotel.
Chinese Ambassador Shen Zhifei is seen in images captured by the protesters themselves. Some of the Chinese counter-protesters are the same people that later attended the official event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.
LRT Investigation Team has learnt that Lithuania's State Security Department collected information about the August 23 rally and forwarded the report to members of the government and parliament. Several MPs approached by LRT confirmed they received the information, but refused to go into further detail.
The involvement of the Chinese Embassy in the rally is not that surprising, says Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation thinktank.
“What's surprising is that the diplomats got ‘caught’, that it was so obvious. The reality is that the Chinese, whether officially through embassies or unofficially through government-linked organisations, throughout the world are trying to counter those who criticise China,” Cheng tells LRT.
LRT Investigation Team interviewed one of the protesters, Hongzhi Chen, who runs a restaurant in Vilnius.
He said the Chinese community in Lithuania learned about the Hong Kong support rally via Facebook and turned up spontaneously. He later admitted, however, that the community was in another event and came to the Cathedral Square from there.
He said the community decided to come to the rally because Hong Kong was China's internal affair and “the Chinese are for their country”. He also confirmed that the Chinese Embassy staff were present as well.
“Yes, we saw people from the embassy. When they learned that a number of Chinese will be in the square, the embassy people came to oversee the order, so that there weren't any incidents,” Hongzhi Chen told LRT via a Chinese-Russian interpreter.
LRT Investigation Team approached the Chinese Embassy for comment in writing, as advised by a staff member. Twelve days after sending out the questions, we had not received any response by the date of the publication.
Many in Lithuania may have been surprised by such a strong reaction from the Chinese community to a public event, but elsewhere in the European Union and beyond it is a familiar phenomenon. In 2016, when China's leader Xi Jinping was visiting Prague, the local Chinese community staged a much more massive counter-protest to oppose Tibet supporters and Xi's critics. A few cases reached the courts over Tibetan flags taken from the Czech protesters and witnesses claimed that the Embassy was also involved in busing the Chinese to the site.
Czech security agencies drew attention to Chinese intelligence operations, including efforts to influence Czech politicians, back in 2014, while in Lithuania they were mentioned only in this year's national security report. The Beijing-Prague relations soured even more this year when China threatened to halt all investments in the Czech Republic following Prague's statements about respecting Taiwan's independence.
Chinese pressure was particularly felt during the protests in Hong Kong this year when, according to media reports, Chinese diplomats urged Chinese students abroad to confront Beijing's critics.
Hongzhi Chen has lived in Lithuania for about two decades, roughly as long as the a Chinese diaspora community has been present in the country. However, it was only three years ago that the Chinese Overseas Association of Lithuania was set up. According to a report by Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, the association has 500 members and was founded with the help of the then Chinese ambassador, Wei Ruixing.
The association, headed by Jinwei wang who could not be reached for comment, is registered at the home address of Hongzhi Chen.
“We came together and decided to found the association so we could help one another in Lithuania and abroad,” Hongzhi Chen explains.
At first he rejected the idea that Chinese diplomats played a role in the organisation's founding, but did admit the embassy's invovlement after he was shown the Xinhua report. The embassy's participation was needed for organisational order, he said, insisting nonetheless that the initiative came from the community.
Chinese diaspora as a pressure tool
The current ambassador, Shen Zhifei, addressed the community at a Chinese New Year event last February.
“The personal fate of each [citizen] is closely linked to the fate of the motherland. The great motherland will always remain a source of support for the people. 2018 was the first year when the idea of the 19th National Congress [of the Communist Party of China] was fully implemented. All the embassy employees will be working together for the economic and social development of the motherland,” Shen Zhifei's speech is quoted on the Chinese community's website ltchina.lt.
In the 2017 National Congress mentioned by the ambassador, Xi Jinping urged the ruling Communist Party to work closer with overseas Chinese communities and mobilize their support. It was announced last year that the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party would take over the functions of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office. The move is reportedly meant to bring the management of Chinese diaspora closer to the party leadership.
The United Front Work Department has been accused by the US and Australia of meddling into their domestic affairs and attempting to spread Beijing's influence abroad.
“There are communities that left China hundreds of years ago, they have formed naturally and it is difficult for the government to influence them. But newly founded associations are a different matter,” Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation says. This part of the diaspora includes people who still have Chinese citizenship or students who will eventually return home. “China uses these people as tools to organise protests and pursue other interests,” according to Cheng.
Chinese intelligence efforts have also been active in Lithuania, according to the State Security Department's latest Threats to National Security Reports.
“As China's economic and political ambitions grow in Lithuania, much like in other NATO and EU countries, Chinese intelligence and security services are becoming more aggressive in their activities. In order to get information, Chinese intelligence is trying to recruit Lithuanian citizens,” the report reads.
Despite being a small country some 6,500 kilometres from Beijing, Lithuania also falls within the Chinese government's field of interest. Its geographical situation makes it significant – not least because it is on China's Belt and Road.
“Lithuania is in a physically sensitive region – close to Russia, a NATO member, by the Baltic Sea, with ties with the Scandinavian countries. From this point of view, the Chinese intelligence is very interested in Lithuania,” Cheng says.