Chinese commercial activities in the European Union have a long history stretching for decades. It started with the first caravans of Chinese immigrants opening shops of low quality and cheap Chinese products in nearly every EU city. This was followed by a period of ‘gold fever’ that presented China as a new ‘El Dorado’ and the Chinese state as at least naïve and keen to be exploited by clever Westerners.
Finally, there was the new ‘Silk Road’ dream, or better yet, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, which brought both Chinese products and capital into the heart of the EU.
Chinese capital met the European industry – thirsty for money and markets – and Chinese investments targeted structurally important areas, such as the Piraeus port in Greece.
During this period, Chinese trade and economic activities were welcomed by Europeans without reservations. Even European conservative leaders like the then UK Prime Minister David Cameron were all mesmerised by China and the benefits of trade with this Asian giant.
This permitted the building of a powerful pro-China lobby in EU, which (much like a spider web) captured EU member states public opinion.
Business people, academics, scientists and politicians were regularly invited to conferences and on professional trips to China where officials propagated the new ‘Chinese miracle’.
A questionable flexibility
Because of this, many EU countries applied a questionable flexibility in the market of ‘golden visas’ acquired by Chinese citizens. Chinese businessmen invested, practically without control, in real estate markets, pushing prices to unrealistically high levels which ultimately proved detrimental for the local communities. Investments in Airbnb systems provoked deep changes in many European cities as well though it is still too early to calculate the catastrophic results. What is certain, however, is that these types of investments are violating tourist laws and tax payments are being avoided.
The impact of this Chinese presence in politics and on the societies in Central Asia, in South Asia and in Africa, was not taken into account. The fact that the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is designed to establish Beijing-centred trade routes was of little concern.
Even on the question of human rights, many EU governments prefer to ignore that China has one of the most repressive systems in the world and that any dissent, any attempt to secure freedom or an independent life, is severely punished
Even on the question of human rights, many EU governments prefer to ignore that China has one of the most repressive systems in the world and that any dissent, any attempt to secure freedom or an independent life, is severely punished. For instance, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, entire populations like the Uyghurs, Tibetans or the Kazakhs are imprisoned or forcibly sent to so-called re-education camps.
European societies reacted softly to the attempts of Chinese secret services against refugees for political, ethnic or religious reasons, in France, Sweden and elsewhere.
But Chinese, like every nouveau riche, did not control their avidity.
And the question now is not trade, competition or human rights. It touches upon security!
National security matters
At the core of this dispute is China’s tech giant Huawei, and particularly the threat to national security that its systems represent for Europe.
Several European countries, France, Germany, United Kingdom and the Czech Republic, have questioned Huawei’s activities ahead of auctions to build their 5G networks this year. As reported by the Reuters news agency, Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, faces intense scrutiny in the West over its ties to the Chinese government and concerns its equipment could be used by Beijing for spying.
Precisely, the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NCISA) warned in December that the country’s network operators should not use any software or hardware made by Chinese telecom equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE because there is a security threat associated with these companies’ products.
On January 14, after an employee of Huawei was arrested on spying charges in Poland, the country’s internal affairs minister, Joachim Brudziński, called on the European Union and Nato to take a “joint stance” on the Chinese company, saying that a discussion was needed on whether to exclude Huawei from some markets.
Huawei faces intense scrutiny in the West over its ties to the Chinese government and concerns its equipment could be used by Beijing for spying
On January 28, it was France’s turn to sound the alarm. France’s European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau warned that Europe must act as one on the Chinese company Huawei.
And just a few days ago, Norway’s intelligence service PST issued a warning about the Chinese telecoms giant. On February 4, the head of PST, Benedicte Bjornland, said during the presentation of a national risk assessment report for 2019: “One has to be attentive about Huawei as an actor and about the close connections between a commercial actor like Huawei and the Chinese regime.”
Face the problem in depth
The realisation by the European countries of the threats an uncontrolled cooperation with China contains could probably help to clarify the situation in other sectors as well.
In April 2018, the Reuters news agency reported that the European Union and the Italian authorities were investigating Chinese-owned firms. There were allegations that they were run by criminal gangs avoiding paying import duties and value-added taxes (VAT) on goods shipped through Greece’s port of Piraeus. Greece’s Financial Crime Unit announced its own investigation of tax fraud as well.
At the port of Piraeus, workers and employees denounced repeatedly the breach of labour laws by the Chinese ‘owners’.
It is necessary to scrutinise the Chinese activities in EU countries and apply severely the law. The question is whether the EU is ready to do so.
The rejection in the name of competition rules by the European Commission of the proposed merger between the French Alstom and the German Siemens that favours Chinese firms, it is a proof that there is still much to do.
The EU must be ready to repulse any attempt against its own interests which is the interests of European citizens.