Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. To subscribe, click here.
I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.
Beijing, Moscow, And Leaked Documents
Along with my colleagues at Systema, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit, we obtained never before reported documents and recordings from closed-door meetings in 2017 and 2019 between Chinese and Russian officials where they share methods and tactics for monitoring dissent and controlling the Internet.
Finding Perspective: China and Russia’s growing ties are no secret, but the documents provide a unique window into the practical level of cooperation under way between China and Russia when it comes to monitoring and restricting their respective Internets.
Among some of the key findings, Russian officials are seen asking for advice and practical know-how from their Chinese counterparts on a range of topics, including disrupting circumvention tools like VPNs and Tor, cracking encrypted Internet traffic, and seeking tips from China’s experience in regulating messaging platforms.
LISTEN: Beijing and Moscow’s deepening ties are no secret, but what do recently leaked Pentagon documents tell us about where their burgeoning military partnership is headed? Dennis Wilder, former Asia adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, joins host Reid Standish.
In another instance, in July 2017, Aleksandr Zharov, who served as the head of Roskomnadzor until 2020, asks a Chinese delegation to help arrange a visit for Russian specialists to China, where they could study the operations of the Golden Shield Project — the all-encompassing Internet censorship and surveillance system that helps make up what is colloquially known as China’s Great Firewall.
In turn, Chinese officials sought Russian expertise on regulating media and dealing with popular dissent, including monitoring protests led by opposition figure Aleksei Navalny.
In another 2019 exchange, officials from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) also made requests to Roskomnadzor to block a variety of China-related links to news articles and interviews that they had deemed to be “of a dangerous nature and harmful to the public interest.”
Why It Matters: Beijing and Moscow have been deepening their ties for the past decade and controlling the flow of information online has been a focal point of that cooperation since Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first trip to Russia as leader in 2013.
The documents shed new light on a pivotal time inside Russia and point to how Russia has sought to emulate China in exerting control over its people in the social media age.
For years, the Russian government has been putting in place new measures to smother freedom of speech online, but many have stumbled in practice. But in 2019, those efforts reached a zenith when a controversial “sovereign Internet” law went into force that allowed Moscow to tighten control over the country’s Internet by routing web traffic through state-controlled infrastructure and creating a national system of domain names.
While many of Russia’s measures are still a far cry from those inside China, they have continued to be more technologically advanced and restrictive, a process that has accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
Expert Corner: Who Speaks For Europe?
Readers asked: “French President Emmanuel Macron got into hot water over his comments about Taiwan. We’ve also recently seen various other — sometimes contradictory — comments coming from European Union and European officials. Why does this seem to happen when it comes to China?”
To find out more, I asked Rikard Jozwiak, RFE/RL’s Europe editor:
“It happens because there really isn’t a coherent policy toward China. It is sometimes a rival, notably when it comes to geopolitics, and sometimes a partner in areas such as climate change mitigation. And then, of course, there is economic dependence on Beijing that leads to some EU member states not wanting to be too harsh on China. EU foreign policy is made up via the lowest common denominator as all the 27 EU capitals need to green-light any move. For China, this means that you have a mishmash of interests, ideas, and fears that makes outsiders unsure about what Europe’s China policy really is.
“I also think that the EU has failed to formulate a coherent Taiwan policy and this adds to the mixed messages coming out from Europe. Macron said that Europe should not get caught up in a conflict over the island, but have he and fellow European leaders drawn up any plans on what Brussels will do if China were to attack? It’s still unclear what Europe’s red lines would be and how it would react.”
Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at [email protected] or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.
Three More Stories From Eurasia
1. The Pentagon Leaks
China approved the provision of lethal aid to Russia for its war in Ukraine but wanted any shipments to remain a secret, according to leaked U.S. government documents.
What You Need To Know: The recently leaked trove of classified Pentagon documents that contain assessments and reports from America’s intelligence agencies shows that Beijing had approved the incremental provision of weapons to Moscow, which it would disguise as civilian items.
That comes from a February 23 top-secret intelligence summary that The Washington Post reported was gathered by U.S. agents eavesdropping on discussions by Russia’s secret service. The Russians said China’s central military commission wanted the shipments to remain secret.
Among other revelations, a separate file in the trove of leaked documents said Beijing would consider a “significant” Ukrainian strike with American or NATO weapons on Russian territory as an escalation of the conflict that would merit sending arms to Russia.
The timing is notable. A public U.S.-led campaign over a potential Chinese arms transfer accelerated in late February, and shortly after that document circulated within the U.S. government NBC News reported that the U.S. information about the plan to obtain lethal aid from China was “gleaned from Russian officials.”
What’s less clear is if the transfers are taking place or if the public pressure on China has worked.
Reports based on trade data show private sales of small-scale weapons from China to Russia, and senior Ukrainian officials have said their forces are finding a growing number of components from China in Russian weapons on the battlefield.
Whether Chinese covert efforts are under way or not, defense cooperation between China and Russia is set to grow. A large portion of the Chinese delegation for Xi’s Moscow summit in March were defense officials, and Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu was in Russia on April 16 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
2. Lula’s ‘Peace Club’
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wrapped up a state visit to China, where he sought to position himself as a peace broker in the ongoing war in Ukraine while attempting to elevate Brazil’s global status and boost economic ties with Beijing.
The Details: As I reported here, a key piece of Lula’s outreach is courting political backing for his proposal that Brazil and other developing countries, including China, form a “peace club” to broker a deal to end the war in Ukraine.
Analysts, however, remain skeptical about the chances of Lula’s peace proposal, which is unlikely to gain support from Kyiv and its backers given China’s close ties with Russia and past comments from the Brazilian leader that Ukraine should cede Crimea — which was forcibly annexed by Moscow in 2014 — as a means to reach a deal.
Beyond the diplomacy push from Lula, the visit allowed him to shore up Brazil’s economic and political ties with China, as he left Beijing with a slew of new agreements.
But as Carlos Solar, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told me, Lula is still hedging his bets, having already made a trip to Washington to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden and made moves to position Brazil to be a regional power in Latin America.
“[Lula] needs this frenzy of deals in China and talks with Xi in part to show his public that he’s still an influential guy around the world,” Solar said. “But when you look more closely, you can see that he is putting his eggs in different baskets.”
3. Frustrated By The Taliban, Interested In Afghanistan
Frustrated by the Taliban’s reluctance to take action against an array of militants, including a strengthening Islamic State group, Afghanistan’s neighbors have resolved to come up with a joint strategy to counter security threats emanating from the country.
What It Means: Top diplomats from Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan attended an April 13 conference that focused on ensuring regional security in light of the situation in Afghanistan.
Russia and China are among the few countries that have kept their diplomatic missions in Kabul since the Taliban retook power, but lingering frustrations with the group as a partner have been boiling up.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it was ready to work more closely with Afghanistan’s neighbors and the international community, and Beijing also expressed hope that the Taliban would continue working actively to meet Afghans’ interests and the international community’s expectations for an open and inclusive political structure.
China has a growing interest in the country’s resources — having secured rights for mining and oil and gas exploration — but security concerns have kept those projects mostly on paper for the time being.
Still, the cash-strapped Taliban is hoping that it can draw in more Chinese interest, recently floating progress on a potential $10 billion investment from the China Petroleum Economics and Information Research Center (CPEIC) in Afghanistan’s lithium deposits.
Few details beyond a Taliban press release were offered, but even if something is inked, realizing the project — and others with China — is still a distant prospect due to the country’s tough security situation.
Across The Supercontinent
A New Case In Pakistan: A Chinese man has been arrested in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province after an angry mob accused him of blasphemy and tried to enter a camp near the construction site of the Dasu Dam, the biggest hydropower project in Pakistan, which involves both Chinese and Pakistani workers.
Police filed a blasphemy charge against the Chinese man, RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reported.
Internal Review: Hikvision’s human rights investigator admits the company’s Chinese police contracts in Xinjiang explicitly target Uyghurs as a group.
The Chinese surveillance giant has repeatedly denied reports that the company is complicit in human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, but documents obtained by technology trade publication IPVM show otherwise.
Brussels To Beijing: The EU lodged a protest with China after police detained veteran rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his activist wife, Xu Yan, ahead of an April 13 meeting with its diplomats in China, Radio Free Asia reports.
Macron In China: Looking to catch up on Macron’s trip to China earlier this month? Listen to the last episode of Talking China In Eurasia, where guest Rikard Jozwiak explained why the French president thinks he can split China and Russia and where he fits among Europe’s large groups of actors looking to engage and pressure Beijing.
One Thing To Watch
China’s economic growth is exceeding expectations. GDP grew 4.5 percent year on year in the first quarter. Strong growth in exports and infrastructure investment, as well as a rebound in retail consumption and property prices, are said to be driving the recovery.
That momentum looks set to continue, but economists have warned that consumption and the property sector might struggle to maintain strong growth, while exports could be threatened by weaker demand in developed economies.
That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.
Until next time,
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