A Strategic Partner of China or United States Accomplice? Poland in the View of Chinese Authorities and Experts
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18 JAN 2021 Policy Paper
Relations with Poland are not an important topic in the Chinese political debate. They become an element of the official narrative only in the wider context of China’s relations with the U.S. or the EU. The participants of the debate, including the authorities, declare their will to develop relations with Poland, but believe that the obstacle is primarily the country’s close relations with the United States. They believe that this state of affairs will continue under the presidency of Joe Biden, and thus the improvement of relations is not really possible. The current deterioration is, however, in the judgment of authorities and experts, not a big problem for China.
Photo: THOMAS PETER/Reuters Photo: THOMAS PETER/Reuters

Relations between Poland and China

The narrative of China’s authorities and experts concerning Poland is taking shape parallel to the development of bilateral relations. These relations have deteriorated significantly over the last two years, after a long period of intensification which began in 2011 with the conclusion of a strategic partnership.[i] In 2018, however, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did not take part in the “16 +1” summit in Sofia, a platform for Chinese cooperation with Central European countries. Since then, the number of political contacts has decreased significantly. This was due to Poland’s concerns, similar to those of the United States, that Chinese companies may pose a security threat, which was confirmed by the detention of a Huawei employee in Warsaw at the beginning of 2019 on charges of espionage. Poland also supports the EU’s increasingly assertive stance towards China.

The last strategic dialogue at the deputy ministerial level took place in March 2019,[ii] and there was a high-level bilateral meeting in July 2019,[iii] when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Poland. Together with Jacek Czaputowicz, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, he chaired the second session of the Polish-Chinese Intergovernmental committee.[iv] Marcin Przydacz, the Polish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited China in January 2020, inaugurating the second, direct flight connection from Warsaw to the newly opened airport in Beijing.[v]

Relations between China and Poland were additionally hampered by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. A summit in Beijing of the “17+1”[vi] initiative was scheduled for 2020, to be held for the first time under the chairmanship of Xi Jinping. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland, declared his participation in the summit, which would mark his official visit to China. Formally due to the pandemic, but in practice also because of China’s deteriorating relations with the EU, the summit did not take place (even in a virtual form).

For China in 2020, Poland remained one of many European partners in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and the supply of medical equipment that was intended to increase the importance and image of China in the EU. During the first, spring wave of the pandemic, this also applied to the aid offered to China by Polish authorities and society. In the autumn of 2020, China tried to present itself as a country that had contained the pandemic in contrast to some European countries. At various levels of the political debate, the Chinese authorities have emphasised their readiness to support the Polish authorities in tackling COVID-19. However, Chinese disinformation against the EU, the neglection of the Chinese authorities from the beginning of the pandemic, and problems with the quality of medical equipment supplied by China and presented publicly as Chinese aid, caused a change in the attitude towards China in Poland. In a survey conducted in October and November 2020 for the purposes of a report on European public opinion on China during the coronavirus pandemic, over 40% of Poles expressed a negative opinion about China (less than 30% gave positive feedback).[vii] In the Pew Research Centre’s 2019 study, the results were 34% negative and 47% positive, respectively. Poles positively assess Chinese investments and, for example, cooperation with China under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, more than half of Polish respondents believe conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 being created in a Chinese laboratory.

Levels of the Narrative

The shaping of the Chinese narrative about Poland (and the information policy pursued in this context) takes place on many levels, differentiated due to the real influence on decision-making in Chinese foreign policy. It is a hierarchical process in which the Communist Party of China (CPC) formulates general concepts and then, at the level of, for example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or economic ministries, they are implemented. The supervision and control of the party (Organisational Department of the Central Committee) and state (State Council) also includes state think-tanks involved in the debate on Poland.

President Xi Jinping is at the top of the hierarchy, also as a leader of Central Foreign Affairs Commission (CFAC) in the CPC Central Committee. Below are members of the Politburo, especially Yang Jiechi, a State Councillor and Xi’s trusted associate, who in the past visited Poland as the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and secretary-general of CFAC. The International Department of the Central Committee of the CCP, which maintains contacts with Polish political parties,[viii] also participates in the political debate. Song Tao, its current chairman, was the deputy minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2011 to 2013, responsible for relations with Poland. Zhang Dejiang (who was in Poland in 2017), chairman of the Chinese parliament, also spoke publicly about Poland. However, he is not active in the current debate on bilateral relations, mainly due to the lack of official interactions with Polish partners in 2019 and 2020.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is located lower in the hierarchy than the International Department of the Central Committee of the CCP. Public statements about Poland are made by Minister (and State Councillor) Wang Yi, or Qin Gang, deputy minister responsible for European affairs. The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Warsaw also participates in this debate, including through interviews and articles by Chinese ambassador Liu Guangyuan, published in the Polish media. The former ambassadors of the People’s Republic of China in Poland also play a symbolic, but often important role within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the CPC.

The content of the statements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the declarations of the Central Committee of the CCP is confirmed in analytical texts published in China about Poland (which is mainly perceived as part of Central Europe and the EU). The most important analytical centres are the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the Chinese Institute of International Relations (CIIS), and Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Each is formally associated with one of the state institutions (CIIS with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and CICIR with the Ministry of State Security). A separate element of Chinese rhetoric about Poland, but within a centralised, uniformed message, is made up of texts of Chinese state media journalists, and posts on social media.

Topics of the Debate

The interest in Poland’s foreign and internal policy is not permanent and relies on China’s prevailing needs at any given time.

Compared to the countries of Western Europe, Poland is present in the Chinese public debate to a lesser extent. It is considered to be a country with little influence on China’s key interests, whether in relations with the EU, the U.S. or in Asia. It appears in the narrative sporadically when high-level visits occur, or in connection with important Chinese initiatives (such as BRI or 17 + 1). Analysis on Poland then serves the purpose of, among other things, assessing the success of these projects, including trade and investment opportunities for China. Therefore, the interest in Poland’s foreign and internal policy is not permanent and relies on China’s prevailing needs at any given time. Poland’s policy is usually defined in the Chinese debate through the prism of its membership of NATO and the EU. Independent references to Poland, its politics and history, occur in the Chinese debate mainly during inter-state interactions. It was like that in the speech of the Chinese ambassador to Poland, when, in 2018 (two months after taking office), he mentioned the strategic importance and the multitude of existing mechanisms of cooperation between Poland and China.[ix]

Despite the interest in further cooperation with Poland, the country is not treated as an important partner for China, for example in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not in the group of countries indicated as recipients of the Chinese vaccine or partners in the Health Road initiative, due to the conviction of Chinese authorities that Poland supports the U.S. in the rivalry with China.

Relations with the U.S.

Poland is treated in Chinese discourse as a “submissive victim” and not as a “declared accomplice” of the United States.

For China, relations with the U.S. are a basic dimension in the analysis of Poland’s foreign policy. It highlights the disappointment with Poland’s policy that is supposed to share U.S. concerns about China’s policy. This is emphasised in the official statements of the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs during press conferences, and by the Chinese embassy in Warsaw. It is also reflected in media comments. Similar statements regarding the U.S. and Poland are also made in direct talks with Chinese experts.

However, Poland is treated in Chinese discourse as a “submissive victim” and not as a “declared accomplice” of the United States. This was particularly evidenced by the Chinese reaction after the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Central Europe in 2019. It was described as anti-Chinese and calculated to “pull” Poland from the group of Chinese partners. At that time, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs assessed it as interference in the internal affairs of other countries, but did not specifically mention Poland in the statements.[x] This position was also presented by Cui Hongjian from CIIS, who judged that Central Europe is an arena of “struggles between great forces”, with the U.S. is trying to turn security cooperation into economic cooperation.[xi] This was also the case in January 2019, when a Huawei employee was detained and then arrested in Poland on accusations of espionage. The statements of the spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs[xii] and the Chinese embassy in Warsaw were neutral towards Poland, emphasising the need to provide Chinese nationals employed in Poland with consular protection. Such tactics towards Poland were also confirmed by the statement of the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw after the conclusion of the 5G declaration by Poland and the U.S. during the visit of Vice-President Mike Pence in September 2019. The Embassy indicated that “(...) China and Poland are important partners for each other. They have the will, conditions and potential to deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields (…)”.[xiii] The issue of Poland maintaining equal criteria for all vendors during the 5G procedures was also emphasised by Wang during his visit in 2019. Global Times, the party daily, suggested, for example, that “Poland is becoming a U.S. partner”, adding, however, that China should “( ...) let Warsaw understand that it is a partner of the United States. Beijing should not (...) torment Poland, but let her know that it has to pay for the acts committed”.[xiv] The comment by CASS experts published two days earlier directly suggested that “(...) Poland will suffer a political and economic loss if it decides to follow the U.S. path in the Huawei case”.[xv] Other analysts pointed out that “Poland’s rapprochement with the U.S. does not have to mean distance from China,”[xvi] thus indicating that they understand the Polish necessity to develop relations with the United States, but believe that this does not mean severing contacts with China.

At the start of 2020, work on new Polish 5G regulations (following the recommendations of the European Commission), which will probably result in a legal framework that prevents Huawei from participating in the construction of the Polish 5G network, received no response from China. Neither was there any comment from Chinese officials on statements of Polish politicians, more or less directly indicating Poland’s readiness to accept U.S. accusations against Huawei. This was most likely due to two elements: the relatively low importance of Poland, and the fear of completely discouraging the Polish authorities. Too harsh a position could determine the shape of Polish legal solutions regarding 5G. Hence, the emphasis was placed on, among other things, Huawei’s campaign highlighting the company’s social activities in Poland.

For Chinese experts, one of the most controversial postulates of Polish foreign policy is to increase the U.S. military presence in Poland, partly as an element of strengthening NATO’s Eastern Flank. Although Chinese partners admit during direct talks with Polish analysts that this is understandable from Poland’s perspective, Chinese studies (approved by the authorities) suggest it is an attempt to provoke Russia, which is an important partner for China in its rivalry with the United States. One of the experts wrote that Poland may become “a bridge in the U.S.-Russian rivalry,”[xvii] referring to, among other things, the military cooperation agreement signed between Poland and the U.S. in 2020. In the same context, Poland’s policy towards the U.S. is described by analyst Song Chaozhu, a graduate of the Central Party School.[xviii] It presents the intensification of relations between Poland and the U.S. and the related deterioration of contacts between Poland and China as elements of the Polish authorities’ attempts to strengthen Poland’s position in the international arena.

The importance of Poland’s membership in the EU, and relations with other Member States

Poland is currently not present in the Chinese debate on, for example, Brexit, or as a country influencing the shape of EU ‘policy in general or towards China specifically. This was different two or three years ago, when Chinese experts even indicated the possibility of Poland replacing the UK among the five most important EU countries in their analysis and statements.[xix]

In Chinese discourse on the European Union, there is a strong tendency to interpret its actions through a “concert of powers”, the domination of the two largest countries (Germany and France),[xx] with a great misunderstanding of the details of the functioning of the EU and the competences of its institutions. EU policy is perceived as the result of the relations between these two countries, and Central Europe (as a whole) is treated as a weaker link, but important due to its connections with the EU’s “core” (mainly German) economy.

For Chinese experts, joining the EU in 2004 was an element of Poland’s strategic goal of “returning to Europe”.[xxi] They emphasise that Poland and other Central European countries have engaged in a “game of interests” in the Union. According to China, Poland’s disputes with the European Commission (for example, with regard to the rule of law and the migration crisis[xxii]) result from a two-pronged approach to EU membership. On the one hand are the opportunities for economic development and financial benefits, and on the other, the fears of the current Polish authorities about the EU encroaching on Poland’s sovereignty.[xxiii] In talks with Polish analysts, Chinese experts single out Poland’s dispute with the EU over the rule of law. They comment on it as a confirmation of the validity of Chinese accusations against Western democracies, which that demand China introduce the rule of law when they themselves have problems in this regard. Some Chinese experts also view Poland’s policy in the EU through the prism of its opposition to the Franco-German concept of building a “two-speed” Europe.[xxiv]

In Chinese discourse, Polish eastern policy in the EU is perceived as focused on maintaining the EU’s stance towards the regimes in Russia or Belarus. An example is Poland’s support for the Belarusian opposition, a position which is supposed to result directly from its hostility towards Russia.[xxv] These protests are assessed by Chinese analysts as the equivalent of the “colour revolutions,” which the Chinese authorities have long accused the U.S. and EU countries of inspiring (also in relation to the situation in Hong Kong). These opinions are also repeated in ordinary Chinese entries on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), explaining Polish involvement in Belarus as inspired by the United States. There also appear (though rather sporadically) theories explaining Poland’s eastern policy as an attempt to regain the former Polish lands.

Bilateral relations and regional cooperation

Relations with Poland are not an important topic of economic debate in China.

During his visit in 2019, Wang Yi referred, among other things, to “mutual trust” and the importance of Poland for the history of Sino-American relations (including negotiations in Warsaw in the 1970s).[xxvi] In a telephone conversation with Duda in March 2020, Xi also recalled the slogans of cooperation between Poland and China as part of the “community for a common future.”[xxvii] A conversation between Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Morawiecki in April 2020[xxviii] had a similar dimension. The Chinese party warned the Polish authorities that it attached great importance to the safety, health and interests of Chinese citizens abroad during the pandemic. This was repeated in the statements of the embassy in Warsaw, in which China emphasised, among other things, the “objectivity and impartiality” with which the Polish Ministry of Health was tackling coronavirus, appreciating, among other things, no discrimination against Chinese citizens at airports.[xxix] Liu Guangyuan, the Chinese ambassador, spoke in a similar vein in an interview for the daily Rzeczpospolita, and again at a special press conference in February 2020.[xxx] On the other hand, LOT’s suspension of flights from China has become a contentious issue, which was criticised by Liu in the interview mentioned above, and by others.

Relations with Poland are not an important topic of economic debate in China. In this context, it focuses mainly on the EU as an organisation that has competences in trade and investment, and thus an impact on the situation of Chinese companies in Poland and the EU. The main element of Chinese assessments of economic cooperation with Poland (apart from the participation of Chinese companies in tenders for, among other things, the construction of roads in Poland) were transport issues, including the launch of new rail connections between China and the EU, which for China was one example of the importance of Poland’s participation in the BRI.[xxxi] Chinese experts repeat the Chinese authorities’ statements about China’s readiness to facilitate Polish imports and change the balance of trade volume, but they do not go beyond usual formulas of “goodwill gestures,” and do not include attempts to reduce certification requirements or raise exports limits in, for example, the food industry.

It seems, however, that assurances about cooperation were only symbolic, in line with Chinese rhetoric, which inscribes the perspective of cooperation in the “17 +1” and “Belt and Road” initiatives.[xxxii] The pursuit of cooperation between Poland and China was supported, for example, by the CIIS analysis, in which the authors, when assessing the effects of the pandemic on the image of China, indicated that “Central European countries were better oriented towards cooperation with China than those from Western Europe”.[xxxiii] However, this did not change the fact that, in Chinese political discourse, the importance of Poland within the “17+1” initiative is being reduced in favour of Hungary, unlike two or three years ago.[xxxiv]

Historical issues

Historical policy and attachment to European and Western values are also important elements of Chinese debate on Poland. Participants in the debate about Poland repeatedly point to these aspects as enabling Polish membership of the EU and NATO.[xxxv] Kong Tianping from CASS described the transformation of Poland and defined it as a state that achieved “political stability, economic prosperity and social harmony”.[xxxvi] Historical issues are often commented on in posts published by Chinese citizens on social media, usually when information from Poland appears on the internet in China (on sites such as Sina Weibo, QQ and Toutiao). Opinions posted there are often controversial referring to unverified or even demonstrably untrue information. One of the main historical themes, which regularly appears in entries, is the attitude of Poland during the Versailles conference after the First World War.[xxxvii] Users recall a story in which Poland did not allow the adoption of pro-China resolutions in the League of Nations. In addition, they accuse Poland of recognising the puppet and pro-Japanese government of Manchukuo in 1938 and, according to the author of one entry, not withdrawing that support until 1942.[xxxviii] The history of Poland is therefore seen in this context as one of the elements informing its present foreign policy. The issues of historical politics and conflicts with other countries are analysed in this debate, sometimes appearing in relation to Ukraine[xxxix] or Israel.[xl]

Conclusions

The Chinese debate on Poland is incoherent and dependent on changes in China’s foreign policy, mainly towards the U.S. and the EU.  

The Chinese debate on Poland is incoherent and dependent on changes in China’s foreign policy, mainly towards the U.S. and the EU. Thus, Poland is perceived as a country affected by U.S. rivalry with China, but still capable of making independent decisions on important issues such as 5G.

Poland is hardly present in the narrative of Chinese authorities and experts, which is based on the low importance of Poland in Chinese foreign policy. The database of Chinese academic publications lists, under “Poland”, approximately 1,800 records in connection with Chinese foreign policy and international relations spanning several decades (for Germany there are 8,000 results, and for Hungary there are 1,000). As this debate is centrally controlled, it gives a significant picture of the current problems in relations between Poland and China. The negligible number of media publications, and probably the weak presence of the topic of political relations with Poland in Chinese social media (which, however, is difficult to measure), additionally shows that Polish topics do not arouse great emotion in Chinese society. Recognition of Poland is growing, but it is still limited to stereotypes (such as Chopin and Curie-Skłodowska) and specific areas (theatre and computer games) at a lower level. In this context, Polish policy does not excite Chinese audiences, even if they are often inspired by the authorities.

The development of the current situation in the EU, including the tightening of its policy towards China, as well as Biden’s maintenance of competition with China, will make it virtually impossible to return to the situation as it was before the rule of Donald Trump. Although China is still waiting for the decisions of some EU countries (including Poland) regarding Huawei’s participation in the 5G network, the lack of a clear response shows that it has practically come to terms with the loss of this part of the market. In this context and given the negative attitude of China towards elements of the global system important for Poland (such as respect for international law), no improvement in this situation should be assumed. Cliches and stereotypes present in the debate on Poland are not a threat in the sense that they result not so much from a negative attitude as from China’s negligible interest in Poland.

China’s actions towards Poland will focus on maintaining the elements of cooperation (trade and investment). China will be waiting for the possibility of change, which may come about either via a return to the pre-2019 policy of engagement, or a deterioration in the economic situation of Western countries to a degree that will force them to tighten cooperation, and not confront China. In both cases, changing EU or the U.S. policy would require the failure of their development plans (such as technological) without cooperation with China, and at the same time maintaining a positive economic condition of China, which is currently not entirely certain. BRI and “17 +1” will lose importance in the context of the economic and political impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic. Thus, the role of Central Europe in Chinese policy will be smaller. On the other hand, China’s rivalry with the U.S. will increase, including through cooperation with Russia. Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that the threats to Poland formulated in some Chinese media after the possible exclusion of Huawei from the construction of the 5G network will in fact be acted upon. These could take the form of a political signal (similar to the detention of Canadian citizens)[xli] or economic sanctions (as was the case against Australian companies).[xlii] It is worthwhile for Poland, in supporting the common policy of the EU, the U.S. and NATO, to simultaneously develop more communication channels with China in order to clarify the disputed issues. The low rank of relations with Poland reduces the likelihood of a sharp reaction from China, but it also makes the influence of Poland on China’s policy smaller than that of, for example, the Netherlands or Spain.