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China-Finland: Beijing’s ‘Model Relationship’ in Europe?

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China-Finland: Beijing’s ‘Model Relationship’ in Europe?

Even as Helsinki remains largely passive, China’s influencing activities in Finland draw increasing attention.

China-Finland: Beijing’s ‘Model Relationship’ in Europe?
Credit: Pixabay

China’s aggressive diplomatic interventions within the Nordic and Baltic countries have made the news lately. Besides the worsening diplomatic quarrel between China and Sweden over the now imprisoned Swedish citizen, bookseller Gui Minhai, Chinese embassies in both Sweden and Denmark have increased their pressure on local newspapers and media producers. In Estonia, meanwhile, the Chinese embassy criticized a report from the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service and even advised the institution to “to correct its wrong expressions to remove the negative impact.”

Finland, however, has notoriously remained outside of these interventions, and the Finnish embassy is known for its passive stance toward domestic developments in China. A recent study by the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC) reinforced these views by claiming that it did not find “any examples of pressure being exerted by China [on Finland]” and that China “does not seem to be exerting political influence in Finland.”

Still, discussions on China’s influence in Finland have increased during the past few years. Topics have ranged from the impacts of Chinese investments – especially the planned “Talsinki tunnel” – to the infiltration of Chinese interests into the Finnish mainstream media. The latter concern arose after Helsingin Sanomat – by subscription the largest newspaper in the Nordic countries – published a full-page ad defending China’s policy in Hong Kong, which was paid for by the Chinese government.

A few noteworthy individual cases have also grabbed headlines. The first was centered around John Meewella, a businessman based in the northern city of Oulu, where he and his Chinese partner, Kenneth Liu worked to establish connections between Finnish companies and politicians and a Chinese start-up incubator called Mini Silicon Valley (MiNiSV) in Nanjing. The duo rose to international notoriety when they arranged a meeting with Swedish Ambassador Anna Lindstedt and Angela Gui – daughter of Gui Minhai. After details of the shady meeting came into light, business communities in Oulu started to back away from Meewella and his Chinese connections.

A second prominent case has centered around Mika Niikko, member of the Finnish parliament (True Finns Party) and the chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. In January, Suomen Kuvalehti reported that Niikko was found to have obscure business dealings with a Chinese-Finnish businessman, Hang Si, with whom Niikko had established a company. Hang Si had also offered Niikko election funding, which Niikko apparently attempted to cover up later.

Suomen Kuvalehti later revealed that Niikko, together with his business partner, had invited a Chinese AI specialist, Li Deyi for a visit to the Finnish parliament. Li, besides being a researcher at the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (CAAI), is also a major general of the People’s Liberation Army and works for the PLA Academy of Military Sciences. According to The National Interest, he is “a key figure in the Chinese military’s effort to overtake the United States in the emerging field of advanced weapons.”

The cases of Meewella and Niikko fit nicely into the “elite capture” schemes usually connected to the work of the infamous United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Besides such interpersonal connections, the United Front has established its presence in Finland through various other channels as was demonstrated by The Ulkopolitist in an article examining the activities of the Finnish Association for Promoting Peaceful Reunification of China (FAPPRC).

According to the Jamestown Foundation, associations such as the Finnish one have been established in dozens of countries around the world. All the associations claim to be nongovernment bodies established by local Chinese communities, yet they are all listed as subsidiaries of the umbrella organization in Beijing, the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification, currently chaired by Wang Yang of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee. The United Front Work Department, in turn, lists the umbrella organization as one of its prominent organizations, so the connection to the very core of the Chinese party-state is barely concealed at all.

The “Peaceful Reunification” associations can be seen as visible branches of the United Front, designed to mobilize local Chinese diasporas for China’s foreign policy needs. The Finnish association details its activities surprisingly openly on its Chinese language website. The newsfeed chronicles how the members of the FAPPRC, for example, gather together to study and analyze the speeches of President Xi Jinping, and organize demonstrations – most recently against the Hong Kong democracy activists of Helsinki.

Members of the association, especially its chairman Zhu Hailun, hold frequent contacts with the Chinese embassy in Finland and with the sister associations in China. On the website of the umbrella association, Zhu boasts that the Finnish branch has “extensive influence among the overseas Chinese in Finland” and that the organization is actively promoting Chinese “participation in local politics.” Indeed, the vice-chair of the FAPPRC, Jenni Chen, holds a seat at Vantaa city council.

The cases mentioned above fit the larger picture of China’s influence activities well, although the scale in Finland is smaller and the methods used are more careful than in many other countries.

Tougher measures are not needed. Finland, after all, has the questionable honor of delivering into the lexicon of international relations the concept of “finlandization,” which describes a situation in which a smaller state voluntarily submits to the foreign policy requirements of a great power in exchange for economic benefits and nominal independence. Political and business elites of a finlandized country thus know instinctively which actions to avoid in order not to anger the bigger partner.

Although the situation is surely more complex, basic relations between Finland and China are flourishing economically while official Finland rarely, if ever, causes any trouble from the point of view of Beijing. Finland, being increasingly dependent on Chinese trade, does not want to rock the boat and China is well aware of that. Zhu Hailun even describes the relations between Finland and China as an exemplary “model of friendly relations between China and Europe.”

The ETNC report is perhaps on the right track in defining Finland as not receiving pressure from China, but to claim that there is no political influence being exerted is clearly an understatement.

Matti Puranen is a a doctoral student of Political Science  at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland as well as a contributing editor at The Ulkopolitist, a Finnish online magazine on international relations and foreign policy.