April 17, 2024

Classic Cleavages in a New Light:  Chinese Informational Influence in the Baltics

Raimond Klavins/Unsplash

On 10 April, the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) organised a presentation of the report Classic Cleavages in a New Light: Chinese Informational Influence in the Baltics. The presentation was conducted by Dr Konstantinas Andrijauskas, Associate Professor of Asian Studies and International Politics at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University and Associate Expert at the Easter Europe Studies Centre in Lithuania, Bret Schafer, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Tomas Jermalavičius, Head of Studies and Research Fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security.

The report was produced by the Eastern Europe Studies Centre (Lithuania) in partnership with the Latvian Institute of International Affairs (LIIA) and the ICDS, with support from the US National Endowment for Democracy.

The presentation began with a brief introduction to the Chinese informational influence in the US, which is characterised by strong confrontational rhetoric coming directly from Chinese diplomats and officials. The informational approach of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) follows a ‘friend vs enemy’ narrative, which then implies the utilisation of a ‘carrot-and-stick’ strategy. While generally encouraging an anti-American (and anti-Atlanticist) narrative, the PRC tends to spread ‘pro-Kremlin neutral’ discourses when it comes to the war in Ukraine. This informational influence is exerted by fake local news outlets in Western countries that spread Chinese and Russian-related propaganda.

ESTONIA: In Estonia, the spreading of China-friendly narratives is still at its beginning. Despite Estonian respondents seeming less enamoured of the PRC’s economic power than anticipated, half of them believe that the economic and trade disputes between the US and China should not affect Tallinn’s ties with Beijing. Concerning Chinese technology, the report achieved mixed results. The values-related informative narrative of the PRC is rejected by the majority of respondents in the northernmost Baltic country; nonetheless, there is a strong unanimity among Estonians on the position that Estonia should not interfere in China’s domestic affairs. The two main cleavages in perceptions of China run along ethnolinguistic and ideological lines. Indeed, Russian speakers and conservatives are two of the most vulnerable demographic groups in Estonia to the pro-Chinese informational influence.

LATVIA: Concerning the pro-Chinese narratives, geopolitical issues are the ones that show a stronger ethnonational cleavage between Russian speakers and Latvian speakers. In general, it can be stated that the majority of Latvians agree that their country should not interfere in China’s domestic affairs, as well as that China provides opportunities for the development of many nations, including Latvia. Furthermore, the groups that are most vulnerable to the Chinese narratives are the ones who attest themselves to anti-establishment leanings: there is an inverse correlation between trust in the government’s foreign policy and openness to China. Usually, anti-establishment sentiments are more prevalent among the Russian-speaking population.

LITHUANIA: Concerning the southernmost Baltic country, the report affirms that Lithuanians appear to recognise the PRC’s great power credential, to believe in Lithuania’s economic dependence on Beijing, and to be guided by a sense of economic pragmatism towards the latter. While resisting the PRC’s narrative as a peaceful country, Lithuanians tend to criticise their country’s review of its bilateral relationship with China. Nonetheless, people in Lithuania disbelieve that the PRC is a truly benevolent, respective, and constructive great power.

In conclusion, the research demonstrates that the confidence of Baltic societies in their government’s ability to implement foreign policy and their receptiveness to the Chinese narratives are strongly tied. The Russian-speaking communities and the conservative respondents in the Baltic region tend to be particularly receptive to the PRC’s political and normative narratives. More generally, people in all three Baltic countries seem to separate economic issues from political ones and often to be more undecided on political matters than on economic ones. With vulnerabilities running along ethno-linguistic lines, as well as the perception of a socio-economic threat, Russian propaganda emerges as a significant factor in fostering a pro-Chinese stance within these communities. In practical terms, despite their similarities (e.g., general agreement on avoiding interference in Chinese domestic affairs), each Baltic country presents its idiosyncrasies, thus a “one size fits all” approach in countering China’s disinformation and misinformation would not be appropriate.

Download and read the report: Classic Cleavages in a New Light: Chinese Informational Influence in the Baltics



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