With the expansion of China's behemoth Belt and Road initiative, Beijing's soft power has reached the Baltic states. Working through the Confucius Institutes found in all the three Baltic capitals, and exerting economic and diplomatic pressure, China's soft power interferes with the inner workings of the Baltics' foreign affairs institutions.
LRT brings you the first installment in a three-part series by the Latvia-based investigative Re:Baltica project, Verslo Žinios and Postimees, as they untangle Beijing's web in the Baltics.
This May, parliamentarians from all over the world gathered in Latvia’s capital Riga to meet with representatives of Tibet’s exile government and parliament. Yoko Alender, the head of Estonia’s parliament’s support group for Tibet, was debating whether to participate. Only two other people knew about her plans, and she had not yet asked the parliament to arrange the visit.
One day Enn Eesmaa, the head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, pulled her aside. “He asked me if I had already been to Riga and if I’m the only one. At first, I didn’t understand at all what he was talking about,” Alender says. It turned out that the Chinese ambassador to Estonia had brought the subject up with Eesmaa.
Alender said she felt very uneasy and didn’t understand how the Chinese could have possibly known about her plans. Ultimately, she didn’t attend the convention, citing a busy schedule ahead of European Parliament elections. In the end, no active Estonian politicians attended.
“That is definitely China’s soft power at work,” Youdon Aukatsang, a member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, told Re:Baltica/Postimees.
China’s “One China, two systems” policy doesn’t support the existence of either sovereign Tibet or Taiwan. As a result, China doesn’t shy away from using diplomacy to hinder Baltic contacts with the Dalai Lama or meetings with Taiwan’s officials.
On at least four occasions over the past two years, China’s embassy in Estonia has protested against Estonia’s politicians meeting the Dalai Lama, representatives of Tibet’s exile government or Taiwanese officials. Just last year, China’s ambassador Li Chao sent an official letter to the parliament complaining that Alender’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was an interference in China’s internal affairs.
Estonia does not stand alone in facing pressure about its politicians’ meetings. In 2015 Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš, then the head of Latvia’s parliament’s foreign affairs committee, received a phone call from the Chinese ambassador to Latvia who was upset about the upcoming visit of Tibetan representatives. As a result, Kalniņš tried to persuade his fellow MPs not to meet the guests in the parliament building.
Kalniņš told Re:Baltica these were not threats but diplomacy, while acknowledging that he hadn’t received such calls from other ambassadors. Vita Matīsa, a trailblazer in the field of public diplomacy in Latvia, disputes this notion. “If it is said that you will be in trouble if you act a certain way, then I believe that is the definition of threats.”
Even the smallest details get noticed when it comes to China’s objectives. In 2013, Riga’s international airport removed a poster advertising the Dalai Lama’s public lecture following instructions from higher-ups, airport’s representative Laura Karnīte confirmed while refusing to name the source of the request. In 2015, similar posters disappeared from Tallinn’s airport. “Perhaps someone stole it,” Estonian airport representatives claimed at the time.
Jānis Mārtiņš Skuja, a board member of the Latvia for Tibet society, says that in 2013, while preparing for guest performances in China, Latvia’s National Opera rescinded permission for the Dalai Lama to use its facilities for a press conference just a day before it was scheduled, despite the fact that the venue had been booked well in advance.
From a President’s Palace to a Boycott
While the Baltic countries have long been amiable towards Tibetan exile politicians, in recent years self-censorship has trumped friendship due to China’s pressure and the allure of business opportunities in one of the world’s biggest markets.
When the Dalai Lama visited Latvia in 2001, he met with the highest officials of that time – President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš. Ten years later, he was greeted in Tallinn by Estonia’s then-President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Defence Minister Mart Laar. In 2013 in Lithuania, the Dalai Lama merrily posed with the “Iron Lady” – the country’s former President Dalia Grybauskaite.
That was the last time any Baltic president or minister was seen meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs now recommends that the country’s higher-ranking officials not meet with the Dalai Lama or other Tibetan representatives. It also recommends withholding protocol services such as police security, Latvia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs confirmed to Re:Baltica.
This change stems from the souring of Estonia’s relationship with China in 2011. Estonian dairy producers were aspiring to expand their exports to China, but after Estonia’s president met with the Dalai Lama, the market became effectively inaccessible. Chinese authorities cancelled Minister of Agriculture, Helir-Valdor Seeder, official visit to China and businesses saw no progress in overcoming the bureaucratic barriers for exports.
“Warming up the relations and accessing the market took years and tens of meetings with Chinese officials. We were constantly working on it to get the relations back on track,” says Anne Sulling, the trade minister between 2014 and 2015 (the Chinese market eventually opened for Estonian dairy producers in 2016).
It wasn’t only businesses that felt the chill. When Estonia built a new embassy in Beijing in 2014, China didn’t allow Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, now a member of European Parliament, to open it. Paet was told that if he were to attend, no Chinese official of higher rank would be there. “Such petty behaviour really disturbs me,” said Paet. China’s embassy in Estonia, which was approached for a comment for these series, did not reply to the questions.
All Rules Come from China
Another, subtler Chinese tactic are the Confucius Institutes. Named after the most famous Chinese philosopher, they teach a version of Chinese culture and history that avoids the issue of human rights and teaches that Tibet and Taiwan are inseparable parts of China, their critics claim.
“The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, said in a speech in 2011. “It has made an important contribution toward improving our soft power. The ‘Confucius’ brand has a natural attractiveness. Using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
There are three Confucius Institutes in the Baltic countries. Institutes at Tallinn University and Vilnius University were opened in 2010. A year later, a Confucius Institute was also established at the University of Latvia. There are also Confucius Classrooms – Chinese language study programs which are available in 14 Latvian, eight Estonian and 10 Lithuanian schools.
In each Baltic country, only the director of the institute and the secretary are hired and funded by the local universities. Teachers are chosen, hired and paid by Hanban, a non-profit government organisation under China’s Education Ministry promoting Chinese language instruction around the world.
The teachers report to the Chinese institution. The US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations discovered that the Chinese teachers need to sign contracts with the Chinese government “pledging they will not damage the national interests of China”. Employment contracts also include a clause which states that teachers can’t be practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice banned in China, or members of any other China-banned organisations.
The National Association of Scholars, a conservative US non-profit which has investigated how Confucius Institutes operate, is concerned that “there is some evidence that the Hanban may provide teachers with stock answers to questions it wishes to avoid”.
A student of the Confucius Institute at the University of Latvia, who did not want to be named, confirmed to Re:Baltica that teachers evaded questions about the sensitive political topics of China’s history. For example, when the student was interested in how and why Hong Kong’s administration model differed from China’s, the teacher said it did not relate to the study topic and, with that, the question was closed.
Vita Matīsa stresses that Confucius Institutes are not independent and notes they are called “Trojan horses”, meaning that the institute is an organisation of China’s Communist government which has permeated a foreign university, not an institution which simply organises language courses somewhere in the city.
Concern for Security Services
After operating in the Baltic countries for nearly 10 years, Confucius Institutes became prominent just this February when Lithuania’s intelligence services mentioned the organisation in the annual national threat assessment report. It was a vague side note to a larger point, but it made headlines.
In the report, the Lithuanian intelligence services acknowledged that increasing aggressiveness of Chinese intelligence and security services’ activities were observed in Lithuania. “When abroad, Chinese intelligence traditionally operates under diplomatic cover, utilises state-funded Confucius Institutes, Chinese companies and news agencies, [and uses] Chinese students studying abroad.”
The report said: “Primarily, China’s domestic policy issues drive Chinese intelligence activities in Lithuania. For example, it seeks that Lithuania would not support independence of Tibet and Taiwan and would not address these issues at the international level.”
After the report was published Aušra Maldeikienė, a long-time Lithuanian politician and now a member of the European Parliament, questioned whether Vilnius University really needs the Confucius Institute. “The role of [the] Confucius Institute must be evaluated, as well as the fact that an institution, financed by the ideological wing of the Chinese Communist Party, is operating in the confines of a national university in Lithuania,” she opined.
Latvia’s security services also have been observing the Confucius Institute for several years. “The goals declared by the Confucius Institute are lofty, however, its operation is related with intelligence risks,” the State Security Service told Re:Baltica. “Goals of its operation include not only popularizing China in foreign countries, but also disseminating ideological messages favorable to China’s Communist party among academics, ambassadors of culture and entrepreneurs.”
Meanwhile, Estonia’s security services remain mum.
Small China for 100,000 euros a year
Dinners at the Chinese ambassador’s residence were a part of a regular working relationship for the former rector of the University of Latvia, Mārcis Auziņš. Sometimes at those dinners he would receive hints about the university’s work. “You know, Rector, a lecturer such and such cooperates with [Taiwan’s] s mission (..) You know that our government supports you, my government may not like it,” Auziņš recounts one of the conversations.
The wider public doesn’t know that China generously supports its Confucius Institutes.
Of the three Baltic countries, the best-funded Confucius Institute is in Estonia. Out of its 226,000-euro budget for 2019, Tallinn University provides 124,000 euros. Most of it is spent on operational costs. Hanban provides the rest, just over 100,000 euros. The Chinese money pays for organizing events such as a Chinese cultural seminar, the visit of Estonian educational workers to Shanghai and the China Week in Pärnu.
University of Latvia has received 633,000 euros from China within the last eight years to support the Confucius Institute.
In Latvia, the institute is run by one of the country’s best-known sinologists, former diplomat and KGB agent Peteris Pildegovics. He was not too happy to talk to Re:Baltica about the institute’s funding. When Re:Balticaasked, if the institute received around 100,000 euros from China every year, as happens elsewhere, Pildegovics rebuffed such claims.
“There may be institutes around the world which have such figures, we don’t. (..) I have told you everything. I don’t understand, can you not comprehend? Do you understand Latvian language well? Maybe you need it to be spelled out in Chinese?” he snapped. The Institute’s budget, however, shows that the director tried to downplay Chinese payments, which average at around 79,000 euros every year over the last eight years.
The Institute in Vilnius is similar to Riga. In 2018, Hanban gave it 52,562 euros, while together with its own income and donation of Vilnius University the total budget reached around 110,000 euros. In Vilnius, too, the university pays for the two local employees, but three Chinese teachers are paid by Hanban, which also covers costs of lectures, seminars, and celebrations.
Threat to Academic Freedom?
Rachelle Peterson, the Policy Director of the National Association of Scholars, told Re:Baltica that the Confucius Institutes are “a little bit of the Chinese government on the college campus”. She is convinced the institutes should be closed due to risks of academic censorship.
According to several reports, the host universities of the Confucius Institutes have shown symptoms of self-censorship such as not holding events in support of Tibet on the campuses. In the US, discussions about these risks have been ongoing for years. As a result, since 2014 altogether 24 Confucius Institutes have been closed in the US, 10 of them just this year. Universities elsewhere, such as the University of Lyon in France and Stockholm University in Sweden, are also closing down their Confucius Institutes.
Jekaterina Koort, director of the Confucius Institute at Tallinn University, says that because the Chinese issue is very delicate and Confucius Institutes are controversial globally, she avoids arranging events on sensitive issues. According to her, the university is not in a position to choose – it doesn’t have the money or skills to teach the Chinese language. Teaching Chinese language at the Confucius Institute with Chinese money is a solution.
Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, the head of Riga Stradins University China Studies Centre, disagrees with the call to close the institutes, pointing to the high quality of Chinese language teaching as the primary benefit from the Confucius Institute. However, she acknowledges that institutes’ operations should not remain unregulated.
To counter concerns about censorship and threats to academic freedom, she recommends that the institutes’ budget is separated from that of the university, and that academic programs of China studies are independent from the institutes. The situation at the University of Latvia does not meet these standards as teachers from Confucius Institute are teaching Chinese language to students of academic programs.
Meanwhile, Vilnius University has seen no attempts by the Confucius Institute to limit academic freedom, says Živilė Kaminskienė, university’s director for public communication.
Gathering information on students
Money and academic freedom are not the only concerns.
Re:Baltica interviewed three students of the Confucius Institute at the University of Latvia who all said that teachers often took pictures of them during the classes, mentioning that it was necessary for their reports. Pildegovičs admits that such reports really are being written, but he was not able to comment on either their contents or addressees because “to be honest, I haven’t seen them”.
Tallinn University, which is negotiating a renewal of the contract with its Confucius Institute, wants to add a clause about data protection. The issue arose as the Chinese wanted to receive lists and photos of people attending the Confucius Institute’s events. They also wanted to create a database of people who’ve been taking Chinese language classes at the institute. The database was to include information about learning time as well as attendees’ career trajectories afterwards. Koort, the director of the institute, said she declined to provide such information.
“Of course, [the Confucius Institute] is a form of soft power that tries to create a positive image of China,” she says. For the language teachers sent to Estonia by the Chinese, it is officially their only job. “My job is to keep an eye on them here.”
It is naive to think that the large Chinese investment is motivated by generosity, said Rachelle Peterson.
“The problems with the Confucius Institutes are not just what they teach in class. It’s also the influence that they have over the rest of the university – over administrators who are afraid to jeopardize that funding stream from China, over college professors who feel a need to self-censor,” she says.
“The Chinese government knows that Confucius Institutes are appealing to colleges and universities. They know that it is appealing to have access to native Chinese speakers in classes and to have funding opportunities for students to go abroad. The Chinese government capitalizes on the fact that Confucius Institutes are appealing. That is why they are able to place strings on that money.”
Vita Matīsa sounds a warning. “This is a very dangerous road. It seems appealing from the beginning, especially if you see an opportunity to get money. But the further you go down this road, the more its peril is manifested. It has been understood in many places around the world.”
This is the fist installment in a three-part series by the Latvia-based investigative center, Re:Baltica, Verslo Žinios in Lithuania, and Postimees in Estonia.
Part II: Baltics caught between superpowers in China's 5G battle
Part III: China's Belt and Road grip reaches the Baltics