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Image by Armen Meymarian, available at Flickr.com under CC license

05:22 pm | 9. October 2019

Searching for Clarity

As Europe seeks to grow smarter in its engagements with China, here is the first in a series of online cases providing real examples of how experts and researchers can assess parties and partnerships with basic due diligence. 

By David Bandurski

News headlines across Europe in recent years have reported growing engagement with China across a wide range of sectors, at local, regional and national levels, and involving widely varying actors. Whether it is Italy signing up to Xi Jinping's "Belt and Road Initiative," Hungary upgrading rail lines with Chinese loans, Greece boosting cooperation with Chinese ports, or Poland's leading technical university setting up a new Confucius Institute – stories of Chinese engagement are unfolding everywhere. 

But the facts surrounding these varied partnerships, engagements, investments and other connections can be astonishingly vague. At times, the facts are unclear even to the partners involved on the European side. Investments may be directed through apparently private companies whose links to the Chinese state are hidden or ambiguous. MOU partners in "people-to-people" exchanges may only nominally be professional associations or academic projects.

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Coverage at Belt & Road News last month reports on a discussion held at Charles University in Prague about the digital economy. 

In many cases, basic skepticism and scrutiny of news stories and press releases can bring a greater level of clarity, and much-needed transparency. In this post, the first in an ongoing Echowall series on basic online research methods, we look at a recent news story about a seminar held at Charles University in Prague and attended by China's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Zhang Jianmin (张建敏). 

The story, also covered by China Daily, the official English-language newspaper of the Information Office of the State Council, informs us that a workshop about the digital economy was held last month at the Czech-Chinese Center of the Charles University, dealing with such issues as big data, cloud computing, mobile payment and on-line shopping. It quotes the executive secretary of the Czech-Chinese Center, Milos Balaban, as saying: "As China is now taking the lead in many aspects of digital economy, its policies especially on 5G and artificial intelligence are relevant to corresponding industries in the Czech Republic and other countries."

Little else is reported about the exchange held at the Czech Republic's largest and oldest university, but another partner and participant in the event mentioned in the article is the "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center." The article quotes Sun Jiping, the center's executive director-general, as saying that "in an era of globalization, the development of digital economy relies heavily on cooperation and companies need to learn from each other."

Often news stories like this can give us a better understanding of the Chinese parties involved in engagement in Europe. 

 

Withholding judgment with regard to the nature and substance of this event, or its value as a form of engagement, what else can we know about those involved? Often news stories like this can give us a better understanding of the Chinese parties involved in engagement in Europe. So who is the Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center? At first glance, it would seem to be a business or professional association, or perhaps an academic or other research center, and probably located in the city of Shanghai. But let's have a closer look. 

If we begin with the obvious, a Google search for "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center" in quotation marks (looking for the full organization name), we come up only with search results about the Prague event. That in itself should strike us as unusual. It is possible that the organization is new, or that it has not yet been particularly active overseas, but for an organization engaged in international exchange – and attending an event alongside the Chinese ambassador to the Czech Republic – we would generally expect to turn up a bit more in an unlimited search.

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A Google search for "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center" in quotation marks turns up few helpful results. 

With no helpful English-language results from our initial search, such as a working link to an English or Chinese-language website for the organization (which might offer "About Us," contact, address, and so on), our next step should be to determine, if possible, the organization's Chinese name. 

We can do this by conducting approximate searches using combinations of possible fragments of the organization's name as provided in the English news coverage. Words like "Shanghai," "innovation" and "cooperation" in the right combinations might yield Chinese-language search results that are helpful. In this case, our first attempt is to combine the phrase "digital silk road" (数字丝绸之路) and "innovation and cooperation center" (创新合作中心). 

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A Google search using approximate phrases for the Chinese organization in order to find the official Chinese name. 

Immediately, we get the results we are looking for. The Chinese name of the organization seems to be shanghai shu si chanye chuangxin hezuo zhongxin (上海数丝产业创新合作中心). In fact, our approximation has yielded not just a Chinese name, but a Chinese-language version of the report that started us off on our search – about the seminar in Prague dealing with the digital economy. 

Having the Chinese name of the organization now enables us to search the name in quotation marks to see if we can turn up more concrete information.

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Google search in Chinese for the name of the partner organization. 

The search does not result in an official website that can help provide us with essential information about the "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center." But there are news links that prove helpful. The first link is an online press release from a "green" technology company that representatives from the Center apparently visited.

The press release explains that the Center is "supported by the National Development and Reform Commission, and started and setup by the NDRC." The NDRC is China's macroeconomic management agency situated under the State Council. 

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A company press release identifies the "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center" as being a body under the NDRC. 

A simple sequence of searches has taken us from a simple news story about an exchange held at Charles University in Prague to a clearer view of one of the Chinese partners or participants involved. It turns out that the "Shanghai Digital Silk Road Industrial Innovation and Cooperation Center" – which might, without such scrutiny, seem to be an independent organization – is an entity closely connected to a government agency, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), although the details regarding its formation and its exact significance remain unclear.

None of these findings suggest, of course, that there was anything amiss with the Prague event. Nor do they enable us to draw any other conclusions about the event without further information. But they do add just a bit more clarity, and basic research queries like this one can often assist scholars, researchers and potential partners in introducing a basic level of transparency to exchanges between China and Europe, and can point to further questions that need to be asked. 

9. October 2019
Author
David Bandurski

An expert on Chinese journalism and communication, Mr. Bandurski is currently a part-time researcher at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Heidelberg. He is also co-director of the China Media Project, dividing his time between Germany and Hong Kong. Mr. Bandurski’s books include Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a work of reportage about urban development in China, and Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong University Press).