China today is not China of the past. The “hide capabilities and bide our time, never try to take lead” mantra of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping is long gone. The 2008 global financial crisis shifted the world’s balance of power and made it clear that China plays an important role in global growth.
China’s international approach changed even more after Xi Jinping, a man whose name was enshrined in the Chinese constitution, began his rise to power in 2013.
Internationally, Xi Jinping’s China displays big global ambitions and rigidly asserts its core interests. The “core interests” primarily refer to China’s sovereignty over places like Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibet. Presently, Hong Kong is high on the list, too. Multiple countries around the world have been on the receiving end of China’s efforts to undermine popular support for Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan, in turn threatening democratic freedoms guaranteed by these countries’ laws.
In February 2017, the Chinese-Canadian human rights activist Anastasia Lin was invited to speak at Durham University in the UK by a student debating society. This prompted the Chinese embassy in London to warn the university that letting her come could damage relations between China and the UK.
In June 2017, Dalai Lama’s commencement address at the University of California San Diego in the US proved to be too much for mainland Chinese students as well. They insisted that the invitation of the Tibetan spiritual leader was “insensitive” to them.
Last year, students in Australia and New Zealand were harassed and targeted by pro-Beijing supporters in campuses. Response from the universities and Chinese diplomats couldn’t have been less aligned. Both universities opened investigations into the incidents and reiterated their support for freedom of speech for all, while top Chinese diplomats in Auckland and Brisbane praised the actions of pro-Beijing groups, “appreciated” their “spontaneous patriotism”, effectively encouraging intimidation of anyone who supports policies that Beijing finds unacceptable.
Regardless of whether Beijing officials indeed remunerate Chinese students who participate in Communist Party-sponsored protests and counter-protests, this kind of official position and encouragement incite violence and are extremely troubling.
China is no stranger to using economic leverage on countries to influence their decision-making and Lithuania stands in an increasingly vulnerable position. According to a 2018 report from Enterprise Lithuania, trade between the two countries has almost doubled since 2011, exports grew 2.5 times and re-exports, 8.8 times. In 2017 alone exports of Lithuanian-produced goods to China increased by over 40 percent, making the country more vulnerability to Chinese pressure.
Lithuania and China signed a memorandum of understanding on the Silk and Road Economic Belt and the 21 Century Maritime Silk Road in 2017. Cooperation with China in transport and logistics, trade and investments, finance and culture as well as people-to-people contacts were highlighted as the main priorities for Lithuania by then Vice-Minister of Transport Ričardas Degutis.
While economic growth is important, now more than ever Lithuania should be cautious of Chinese investments that could potentially make the country more vulnerable to Beijing’s economic pressure and influence on politics.
In the past, China was more reserved and cautious, dealing with sensitive issues mostly through rhetoric rather than action. In 2010, for example, Chinese Ambassador to Lithuania Tong Mingtao said that naming a square in Vilnius after Tibet would “harm Chinese people’s feelings” (a phrase that is quite commonly used by the Chinese leadership) and would not benefit Lithuania, but it ended at that and the square is open to this day.
Although this kind of rhetoric persists, today China uses stronger language to convey dissatisfaction or goes even further and employs covert divisive actions, as Australia’s and New Zealand’s experiences show.
Lithuania is no exception. On August 23, 2019, several hundred Lithuanians, including MP Mantas Adomėnas, participated in a pro-Hong Kong democracy rally when counter-protesters supportive of the Chinese government turned up to show their discontent. It led to a brawl between the two groups and an investigation which concluded that not only were Chinese Embassy representatives involved, but that the counter-protesters violated public order and democratic freedoms enshrined in the Lithuanian constitution. Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs handed a diplomatic note to the Chinese ambassador.
In turn, the Chinese Embassy labeled Hong Kong supporters as “rioters” – in what has now become a standard practice – and expressed hopes that “such events tarnishing the Chinese government will not happen again in the future”.
Another incident, resulting more from the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda than direct government involvement, took place just after Christmas. A religious site, the Hill of Crosses, near the town of Šiauliai was vandalised by a pro-Beijing supporter who removed a cross with a message supporting Hong Kong protesters. Additional pictures showed a graffiti on another cross saying “Hope all the protester cockroaches soon rest in peace. Hope Hong Kong can return to peace”.
Chinese officials’ and regular citizens’ confidence, assertiveness and will to impose their views on others through force or coercive actions rather than just rhetoric is becoming increasingly evident, problematic and simply goes against the democratic values of the Lithuanian constitution and law.
With the most recent reports by Lithuania’s State Security Department emphasising China’s malicious cyber activities, espionage, expanding global influence and using economic leverage to influence policies in other countries, Lithuania should be extremely cautious and stand firm. Considering the ramifications of projects and acquisitions under the Chinese Belt and Road is a must, and Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis and President Gitanas Nausėda have done well so far by refusing to allow China the controlling stake in Klaipėda port, citing national security risks.
However, the Chinese Communist Party will continue to assert dominance and pressure countries, including Lithuania, to endorse pro-Beijing worldviews through official and non-official channels.
Tomas Jevsejevas is a researcher who works on issues related to Indo-Pacific Security and EU-Asia relations. The views in this article are his own.