Dear reader,

In this newsletter: Preparing for post-Merkel era in European China policy, threats against China researchers in Slovakia, Poland as China‘s new horse in the race in CEE, the aftermath of the Vrbětice affair, and much more.


Preparing for the post-Merkel era. As European policy on China undergoes transformation, Berlin’s policy deserves the most attention. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been stubbornly following her line on China policy, trying to separate the overall interest in deepening ties with Beijing and the more conflictual aspects of the relationship in face of growing Chinese assertiveness. At the most recent bilateral government consultations with China last week, Merkel again made no mention of the recent Chinese countersanctions and expressed her support for the ratification of the controversial investment agreement CAI.

However, on these issues, Merkel seems to be increasingly swimming against the current. The German Greens, who have exhibited remarkable growth in recent polls, are set to achieve significant gains in autumn elections in Germany, promising crucial changes in Berlin’s policy on China but also Russia. German Bundestag, where concerns over China have been rising, also recently passed updated legislation on 5G, which might make it more difficult for Chinese Huawei to be involved. On the European level, more defensive measures are being drafted to offset some of the asymmetries in China-EU ties, without naively hoping for China to take the initiative. Most importantly, the European Commission has suspended its political efforts to secure the ratification of the CAI agreement according to the latest news. While this is a tactical move rather than strategic withdrawal, the fate of the deal now hands in the balance.

As described by our analyst Filip Šebok for 9DashLine, we are thus slowly observing a protracted demise of the status quo in EU-China relations, and Merkel‘s eventual departure might be the most important impulse in this direction. However, we should not underestimate the staying power of the interests of the German export-oriented industry in increased ties with China, which will not simply disappear with the change in the government.

The evolution of Germany’s policy will surely be also closely followed in the V4 capitals. While the bilateral economic ties with China often color the local debate, Central European nations' exposure to the Chinese economy is mostly mediated via Germany. Therefore, the V4 capitals would be best advised to follow developments in Germany very closely.

Threats against Slovak China researchers. Our partner organization CEIAS including MapInfluenCE analyst Matej Šimalčík were targeted with unacceptable personal attacks by Ľuboslav Štóra, the Slovak director of the Confucius Institute at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava and a former director of the Chinese ZTE company in Slovakia. The threats were prompted by the research undertaken by Matej on the links between Slovak universities and their Chinese counterparts, where he pinpointed potential security and ethical issues. After medialization of the affair, Štóra claimed that his response was not meant to be serious, and issued an apology. Currently, there are three Confucius Institutes in Slovakia, two in Bratislava and one in Banská Bystrica. In Czechia, there is a Confucius Institute at the Palacký University in Olomouc and at the private University of Finance and Administration in Prague. In recent years, the Confucius Institutes have been under growing scrutiny as direct agents of the Chinese government, with concerns revolving especially over their impact on academic freedom. Across the West, we have seen many universities discontinuing their cooperation with Confucius Institutes — for example, all of them have been closed in Sweden.

  • Poland as a new horse for China in CEE? There has been a noticeable uptick in high-level meetings between Poland and China in recent months. By our count, we have seen two calls between the foreign ministers of the two countries, one call between President Andrzej Duda and President Xi Jinping as well as a recent online get together between Wang Yang, the head of Chinese consultative body CPPCC, and Tomasz Grodzki, speaker of the Polish Senate, just since the beginning of this year. The conspicuous stress on relations with Poland seems to hint at a new iteration of Chinese strategy, where it chooses to pursue its interests in the region by awarding the mantle of a key player to specific countries. As the biggest CEE country, Poland is a natural pick and it is not the first time we are seeing this strategy in action. Yet now, for China, it is as important as ever to inject positive energy into the struggling China-CEE cooperation, with several countries reconsidering their participation. However, while Poland may be interested in deepening ties with China, especially in terms of the burgeoning rail transit and logistics cooperation, Warsaw‘s strategic ties with the US will make China’s outreach difficult. This will be a tough ask for the new Chinese Ambassador in Poland, as the outspoken Liu Guangyuan, known also for his public sparring with his American counterpart on Twitter, will be soon leaving the post.

  • The follow-up to Vrbětice leaves a lot to desire. The past weeks have shown an unprecedented level of Russian aggression inside and outside of its borders including towards Czechia after the revelation of GRU‘s involvement in the Vrbětice affair. However, the European response has been weak and fragmented. While several European countries from the CEE have expelled Russian diplomats, none of the old EU Members have taken practical measures to punish Russia for its malign activities, which has once again exposed the gap between the eastern and western part of the EU in their views of Russia. At the same time, as accurately described by former Slovak diplomat Tomáš Valášek, the Czech government was limited in its ability to initiate a coordinated response on the lines of the joint reaction to Skripal affairs due to a mix of domestic and external factors. The circumstances of the Vrbětice affair, especially the role of Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hamáček and his planned visit to Moscow still leave a lot of questions to answer. According to a so far uncorroborated bombshell report in Czech media, Hamáček wanted to visit Moscow to exchange a muted reaction to Vrbětice for a delivery of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and an agreement on holding the Biden-Putin summit in Prague. While the account of these events remains contested, it is nonetheless certain that it will continue to move the domestic politics in Czechia in the run-up to the October elections.

  • Interested in what China’s investment in CEE actually looks like? MapInfluenCE analyst Tamás Matura provides the numbers in his newest project (read here).
  • In its efforts to establish closer cooperation on the China challenge, the Biden administration would be wise to consider European public opinion, argues Matej Šimalčík (read here).
  • China is increasingly tapping into alternative media to spread its narratives to local audiences, argues Filip Šebok, analyzing recent examples from Czechia and other V4 countries (read here).

  • Ivana Karásková and Tamás Matura joined a discussion on what the realistic policy on China should entail from the Central European perspective, hosted by European Council on Foreign Relations (watch here).
  • Matej Šimalčík talked about Chinese disinformation at an online panel hosted by Political Capital (watch here).

  • You could listen to Pavel Havlíček speaking on the latest developments in Czech-Russia relations in both Polish and Russian in his recent video and podcast appearances (listen here and here).

  • Matej Šimalčík provided a quick legal analysis of the recently published contract over the purchase of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine by Slovakia (read here).

  • Pavel Havlíček argues that the EU needs to step up its game on Russia in the aftermath of the Vrbětice affair for Visegrad Insight (read here). 

  • It is the Hungarian government that is mostly driving the cooperation with China, seeking to bolster domestic support, argues Tamás Matura commenting on the plans for Fudan University to establish its campus in Budapest (read here).

Do you like our newsletter? Is there something you would like us to improve or is there something we are missing? Hit us up with your suggestions. Feedback is always welcome!

Best regards

Filip Šebok
Project Manager of MapInfluenCE

Newsletter editor: Filip Šebok

Contributions from: Pavel Havlíček

@MapInfluenCE and #MapInfluenCE








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