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03:46 pm | 21. October 2019

Untangling People-to-People Ties

In the second installment of our ongoing series offering real examples of how experts can assess Chinese parties and partnerships with basic due diligence, we look more closely at a new initiative between China and Romania. 

By David Bandurski

Earlier this month at Echowall, we looked at how official news stories from Chinese state media on exchanges between China and Europe can, if subjected to basic scrutiny, reveal basic facts about the tools and tactics of China's engagement at various levels – affording a level of transparency to connections that are often astonishingly opaque. 

This week, using slightly different tools and techniques – none requiring complicated work or specialized knowledge of China – we look at the launch of a new "Silk Road Community Building Initiative" in Romania, which has recently (like other former Soviet satellite states) been celebrating the 70th anniversary of relations with the People's Republic of China. 

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An official Chinese news story in September 2019 talks about a new initiative to promote the Belt and Road Initiative in Romania. 

The story that begins our search is a news release from China's official Xinhua News Agency. For those not familiar with Xinhua, this is China's official news agency, a ministry-level institution directly under the government, tasked with reporting news from China and across the globe in Chinese and other languages. Like other state media operated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xinhua's primary agenda – made clear in policy documents and official speeches, and in its "About Us" introduction – is to serve the interests of the CCP in carrying out what it calls "news and public opinion work," ensuring that media coverage and public opinion are favorable to the leadership.

This particular English-language Xinhua News Agency story informs us that on September 23 China and Romania jointly launched a program called the "Silk Road Community Building Initiative." According to Xinhua the initiative, which comes under the "framework of the Belt and Road Initiative," centers on "cultural and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation in areas concerning people's livelihood."

As in the case of our previous "Guanxi Matters" post, we have an official news story indicating that these are "local" exchanges undertaken by civil society. The initiative, we are told, was "launched by the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE) at the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in April." The story quotes Xu Lüping, a representative of CNIE, as saying that she hopes the new initiative will "help enhance bilateral non-governmental exchanges, local livelihood and the foundation for stronger China-Romania friendship."

The talk of "bilateral non-governmental exchanges" suggests the initiative is happening at the local level as a push by civil society. This perception is strengthened by quotes from Romanian sources, including Cornel Lozneanu, executive vice president of the Romania-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who apparently told Xinhua that he thinks the new "Silk Road Community Building Initiative" will "pave the way for easier and quicker and more useful cooperation among our organizations."

The talk of "bilateral non-governmental exchanges" suggests the initiative is happening at the local level as a push by civil society.

 

The sense that this new initiative is sub-national and non-governmental is furthered by Valeriu Tabără, the president of the Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences, a public institution, who is quoted in the Xinhua story as saying that the new initiative "proves that the Belt and Road [Initiative] means more than asphalt roads, it's about humans and their interactions at all levels."

So here we have an ostensible non-governmental exchange called the "Silk Road Community Building Initiative," being undertaken by the "China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE)," coordinating with Romanian organizations. 

Time to take a deeper look at the "China NGO Network for International Exchanges." 

A quick search for the group in double quotes – instructing the search engine to look only for the full name – brings up an entry from the Union of International Associations listing CNIE as having consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Right away we can see that this Chinese "network" is active on economic and social work at the UN.

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Screenshot from the Union of International Associations website showing CNIE as having consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). 

Another top result in our initial search provides an introduction to the China NGO Network for International Exchanges. However, there is no indication that the group is anything other than what its name suggests: a network of bona fide civil society groups in China. 

We are told that CNIE was founded in 2005 "as a coalition of NGOs," with the goal of promoting "the purposes and principles of the UN Charter." "At present," says the introduction, "CNIE has 31 member organizations, which are all national social organizations with extensive domestic and international influence, active in conducting international exchanges and participating in events organized by international NGOs."

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At first glance, then, CNIE does seem to be a civil society organization, and a January 2019 post from China Development Brief (CDB) appearing in our original search also refers to "[c]ivil society organizations such as the China NGO Network for International Exchanges." 

But the site link for CNIE at the bottom of the online entry pictured above offers our next lead to follow – noting that the link does not come up anywhere in the first 100 results from our Google search (a common problem).

The link to the official website of the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE) immediately provides something valuable to our search, a Chinese name for the organization (中国民间组织国际交流促进会). However, a search in quotation marks for the Chinese name of the network does not seem to indicate much else aside from the apparent fact, once again, that this is a super-network of civil society organizations.

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The "About Us" section of the CNIE website tells us that it is a "national non-profit social organization vested with independent legal person status" (是具有独立法人资格的全国性非营利社会团体). It claims 265 non-profit members in China, and it networks with international organizations.

What now? 

There is another simple method we can use to try to determine the background of the China NGO Network for International Exchanges." We can conduct a "WhoIs Search" of the domain name "cnie.org.cn" to see who or what organization or body has registered the web address, and even possibly find other associated information such as e-mail addresses and other contacts.

This does not always yield results, as the "registrant" (the person or group operating the site) can in some cases opt to disguise this information. But it can sometimes cut right to the heart of the matter. Researchers might try the "WhoIs" search engine at DomainTools, or at Whois.net, or just try a basic search for "WhoIs Search" to find others who offer the free service. 

Always make sure along the way to keep a careful record of the searches you have made, saving screenshots and/or exporting results to PDF. Here is the "WhoIs Search" for cnie.org.cn

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The result here is immediately significant. We can see that the site was registered in January 2006. We can see again the name of the organization in Chinese (中国民间组织国际交流促进会). But the most important information, which you can see at the bottom of the image, is the name of the registrant: the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party (中共中央对外联络部). This is the Party organization responsible for the Party's foreign relations with other political parties globally.

Researchers who wish to make full use of the information from this "WhoIs Search" and dig deeper might try a search in quotation marks for the e-mail address listed for the registrant. As search results from services like "Website Informer" will make clear, this address is also significant – making a connection with other official websites. 

But we need not continue any further with our search to understand the nature of CNIE. This key partner in Romania's new "Silk Road Community Building Initiative" is operated by the International Liaison Department, which reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

There is plenty of reliable scholarship available to help explain the role of the International Liaison Department in China's overseas influence operations. This recent report from the Hoover Institution lists the department as one of the "principle bodies involved in China's overseas influence activities."

This key partner in Romania's new initiative is operated by the International Liaison Department, which reports directly to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

 

At the Jamestown Foundation last month, John Dotson looked at the role of the International Liaison Department and the United Front Work Department in the context of the Xi Jinping era. In a 2016 article for the Center for Advanced China Research (CACR), David Gitter and Julia Bowie wrote that the department (sometimes called simply the "International Department") is "an important and yet often overlooked organ of the Party’s power and influence."

"While the department was once reserved for diplomacy with other foreign communist parties," the authors wrote, "the ID has re-identified itself over the past 20 years as a flexible and alternative channel to traditional state-to-state diplomacy. The department’s core objective is to use party-to-party contacts to help safeguard the country’s interests and facilitate state-to-state relations. Part of this work includes helping rectify foreigners’ 'incorrect ideas' on the Party and country, including on issues of sovereignty."

Finally, readers might turn to the February 2018 report from the Mercator Institute for China Studies and GPPi on China's growing political influence in Europe, which describes the International Liaison Department as a key actor in influence efforts in Central and Eastern Europe, including the so-called "17+1" grouping. 

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Screenshot of February 2018 report from MERICS and GPPi called "Authoritarian Advance." 

As we stressed in our last "Guanxi Matters" post, these findings do not necessarily suggest anything improper about this new initiative in Romania. They do, however, refute the framing of the initiative by Chinese state media as something non-governmental, as an example of deepening people-to-people ties. And they raise basic and important questions for experts and policy-makers in Europe about the tactics China uses to push various forms of engagement. 

One of the most basic questions, certainly, is why China's Party-state works with seeming consistency across Europe to dress down as "local" and "non-governmental" what are demonstrably government-led exchanges and initiatives. The examples abound, as we will show in future posts. 

21. 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).