Poland

Resilient
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Notable
31 85
Local Resilience & Response
High
48 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key findings

Report by: Ellie Young and Alicja Bachulska

 

  • Increased influence efforts: Beijing’s media influence efforts in Poland increased during the coverage period (2019–21), with Chinese diplomats and China Radio International (CRI) Poland making attempts to shape media narratives on issues such as the 2019 Hong Kong protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Limited public opinion impact: In many cases, Chinese state propaganda messaging seemed unsophisticated or poorly tailored to Polish audiences. Thirty-four percent of Poles surveyed in one poll reported that their opinion of China had declined between 2019 and 2021 and in another survey less than one-fifth expressed confidence in Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Many local news outlets used international newswires in their coverage of China, and some continued to produce original reporting—aided by correspondents based in China—that was critical of the Chinese government (see Impact and public opinion).
  • Public media cooperation: CRI Poland was a primary avenue for disseminating Chinese state media content in Polish, especially on social media, albeit to a small audience. The Polish Press Agency (PAP) and Telewizja Polska (TVP)—Polish public media entities that have become increasingly politicized under the current Polish government—signed content-sharing agreements with Chinese media groups and disseminated their stories. This content was not always clearly labeled for news consumers (see Propaganda).
  • Private media cooperation: In the commercial sector, media groups representing a variety of political perspectives increased their cooperation with the Chinese embassy, ranging from the conservative-leaning mainstream daily Rzeczpospolita to the fringe left-wing daily Trybuna. The embassy also has links with alternative forms of “new media,” including the blog Chiny to Lubię (see Propaganda).
  • Generalized, not targeted, disinformation: There was no evidence of significant disinformation campaigns targeting Polish news consumers, but social media comments supporting Chinese state media and diplomatic content bore clear signs of inauthentic behavior, and Chinese officials used their online presence to promote conspiracy theories linking the origins of COVID-19 to the United States (see Disinformation campaigns).
  • Strong influence on Chinese diaspora media: The Chinese expatriate and diaspora community in Poland is small, probably numbering fewer than 8,000 people. There do not seem to be any significant independent Chinese-language media in Poland, with most readers served by pan-European outlets or local social media accounts with ties to Chinese party-state actors.
  • Domestic political pressure on media as a threat to resilience: Poland’s resilience in the face of covert or coercive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media influence was rooted in its robust civil society, media professionalism, and generally democratic legal frameworks, as well as its small but growing community of experts on China. Poland’s communist history has also led to strong public skepticism of Communist propaganda, reinforcing the country’s resilience to foreign media influence efforts from countries such as China or Russia. Areas of vulnerability included political polarization, problematic instrumentalization of foreign ownership laws to silence independent media groups, and broader pressure on the media from the PiS government (see Resilience and response).

header2 Background

Poland has a status of Free in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.1 However, since taking power in late 2015, the populist, socially conservative PiS party has taken numerous measures that undermine the rule of law, increase political influence over public media and other state institutions, and threaten to reverse much of Poland’s democratic progress since its transition from communist rule in 1989.

Diplomatic relations between Poland and China were established on October 7, 1949.2 The two countries elevated their relationship to a strategic comprehensive partnership during a state visit by Chinese president and CCP leader Xi Jinping in 2016.3 Poland is a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), 4 the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Digital Silk Road (DSR).5 From 2019 through 2021, Chinese companies spent $920 million on investment and construction projects in Poland and notably won several major bids for road and rail construction.6 Bilateral trade grew to an annual total of almost $30 billion and China became Poland’s second-largest source of imports in 2020. 7 However, most of this growth came from the transshipment of intermediary goods, and some criticized Poland’s large trade deficit with China ($22.4 billion) as an emblem of economic dependency.8 As a founding member of the 16+1 China–Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Initiative (China-CEEC) in 2012, Poland has continued to support the mechanism despite some disillusionment with its returns over the past 10 years.9

The Polish leadership has generally hedged its geopolitical bets on China. A Polish Office in Taipei was established in 1992, and in 2018 the government signed economic, education, and scientific cooperation agreements with Taiwanese counterparts.10 The Polish government was also quick to sign a September 2019 memorandum of understanding with the United States on its “Clean Network” initiative to counter alleged security threats from high-risk telecommunications vendors such as Huawei, a PRC-based company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, in the construction of national fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks.11 The case of a Huawei employee who was arrested in Poland on espionage charges in 2019 further strained bilateral relations.12 Although Poland had not yet formally excluded Huawei from its telecommunications infrastructure during the coverage period, it appeared likely to do so in the near future. Despite these growing frictions, both public opinion and the Polish leadership seemed to remain pragmatically interested in deepening economic cooperation with China.13

President Andrzej Duda was one of 11 state leaders representing their countries at the China-CEEC meeting in February 2021; six countries sent only foreign ministers in what was widely viewed as a snub to Beijing.14 Duda also made headlines as the only elected head of state from the European Union (EU) to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. In a face-to-face meeting with Duda, Xi hailed relations with Poland as a “true, trusting, and sincere friendship,” vowing to expand imports from Poland and encourage Chinese investment in Polish logistics infrastructure.15

The Chinese expatriate and diaspora population in Poland is small; as of January 2021, the Polish Office for Foreigners recorded 7,100 Chinese nationals with residence permits.16 Until the pandemic emerged in 2020, there was also a relatively small population of Chinese and Taiwanese students (roughly 1,000 each) studying in Poland.17

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

In early 2020, Chinese state media increasingly worked to proactively shape public discourse surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese government’s public health response. A media analysis conducted in the first half of 2020 found that Polish audiences were generally receptive to Beijing’s early pandemic “charm offensive,” with government officials and public health experts praising the efficacy of lockdowns in China and responding positively to Chinese donations and sales of medical supplies.1 CCP messaging first focused on shifting blame for mismanagement of the initial outbreak of COVID-19 from the Chinese government to the United States. Beijing later sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to discredit the United States and highlight its perceived decline as a global power, while simultaneously portraying China as a responsible international partner.2

A content analysis of CRI Poland’s commentaries related to COVID-19 and China by the research group MapInfluenCE found that a majority of the texts surveyed mentioned the United States’ decline and its “Cold War mentality,” while roughly a third argued that China was being unfairly stigmatized or was a victim of fake news. Ten percent of the analyzed commentaries referenced a debunked conspiracy theory linking the origins of COVID-19 to the US military’s biological laboratory facility at Fort Detrick. In terms of more positive messaging themes, a significant proportion of commentaries mentioned China’s good practices in responding to the pandemic (35 percent), its contributions to international cooperation (41 percent), and its aid to developing countries (23 percent).3

The Chinese state media narratives on COVID-19 represented a refining of the CCP’s long-term propaganda strategy to “tell China’s story well” and actively shape global discourses, but the 2019 prodemocracy protests in Hong Kong had triggered an earlier, catalyzing shift toward this more aggressive global media strategy. Local media analysts noticed a significant evolution in Chinese state media tactics across Central and Eastern Europe in response to the Hong Kong protests and Beijing’s related crackdown.4 In Poland, then ambassador Liu Guangyuan published more frequent op-eds in the left-wing daily Trybuna and the conservative-leaning mainstream daily Rzeczpospolita on the topic of Hong Kong. Signed articles by the Chinese ambassador—first on Hong Kong, but then on other topics as well—also began to appear in the widely read online news portal Onet.5

As in other countries, Chinese state media strongly promoted the benefits of bilateral and multilateral economic cooperation as a path toward “win-win” development, particularly through the 16+1 China-CEEC framework and the BRI. Chinese diplomats and state media sought to tailor this messaging for local audiences by repeatedly highlighting alleged synergies between China’s 2021–25 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) and Poland’s post-pandemic recovery plan, dubbed the Polish Order (Polski Ład), although this messaging was skeptically received.6 After assuming his position in September 2021, the new Chinese ambassador to Poland, Sun Linjiang, emphasized the same point in his first published opinion piece.7

There was a notable gap in Chinese state media coverage in Poland. Huawei and its potential security risks to telecommunications infrastructure, including 5G networks, were a major headline topic in 2019, especially following the high-profile arrests of a Huawei Poland sales executive and a senior Polish cybersecurity expert on accusations of espionage. However, while Chinese diplomats and state media published a variety of content opposing the exclusion of Chinese companies from 5G development,8 they were silent on the topic of the arrests. Local and international journalists drew comparisons between the Polish Huawei arrests and the high-profile case of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei chief financial officer whose 2018 detention in Canada caused serious diplomatic friction between Ottawa and Beijing.9 But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson downplayed any link between the two cases when asked about the outstanding espionage case three years later.10 Although there was some critical commentary in the CCP-owned English-language tabloid Global Times,11 more localized media outlets such as CRI Poland did not discuss the scandal.

Key avenues of content dissemination

CRI Poland: CRI opened a Warsaw office in 2006 and officially maintains two journalists there.12 CRI Poland is the only Chinese state media entity that produces content in Polish, though content from the official Xinhua news agency is also translated and reprinted by public and private Polish media groups. CRI began broadcasting in Polish in 1968 and continues to do so for an hour each day via shortwave radio (6020 kHz and 7305 kHz).13 However, its radio news programming is minimal.14 A more significant vector for content delivery is CRI’s Polish website, which was started in 2003 and hosts print, video, and audio content.15 CRI Poland also set up a Facebook page in 2012, and the platform has since labeled it as “China state-controlled media.”16

CRI Poland’s social media activity is robust. It is a regular source of content that downplays Chinese human rights abuses,17 or that is aimed at promoting anti-West and anti-US sentiment. Such recurring narratives are interspersed with softer, positive stories focused on China and other countries. CRI Poland posts multiple times a day on Facebook and had more than 320,000 followers as of February 2022.18 That count represented an expansion of more than 25 percent from September 2021, when the @redakcjapolska account had just under a quarter of a million followers. This rapid growth, combined with low engagement rates on individual posts, raises some suspicions about the authenticity of its followers.19

Similarly, CRI’s Polish website promotes positive state propaganda talking points on topics such as Xinjiang,20 the Beijing Olympics,21 and COVID-19.22 While some articles can be described as more objective news reporting, others, particularly the mostly unattributed pieces posted to the Commentaries section, replicate more blatantly misleading narratives, including the false claim that COVID-19 originated in Fort Detrick,23 or a February 2022 assertion that the United States was the main instigator of the crisis in Ukraine.24 The website also features short video content in Polish that attempts to present a benign and friendly perspective on China, including some videos that feature a young, female presenter who speaks fluent Polish.25 A media analysis of CRI Poland’s messaging on COVID-19 and China found that CRI commentaries often selectively cited Russian or other foreign media sources to bolster their claims. The same analysis noted that the average number of total monthly visits to the Polish CRI website was less than 50,000, and that more than 45 percent of the website traffic had been referrals from the CRI Esperanto webpage, suggesting inauthentic activity.26

Diplomatic communications in print, online, and social media: Liu Guangyuan, then the Chinese ambassador to Poland, joined Twitter in March 2020 and almost immediately engaged in a highly public debate with US counterpart Georgette Mosbacher. Both sides accused the other of politicizing the pandemic and spreading disinformation. In an interview with the Global Times, Liu said that in information battles with US diplomats, “we do not shoot first, but we must shoot the last gunshot. We will not hold back until we gain complete victory.”27 Liu and Mosbacher’s exchange was noted by media analysts but did not gain wider traction among the Polish public.28

The Chinese embassy played a significant role in disseminating Chinese state propaganda narratives regarding the pandemic. For example, in February 2020, the embassy held a press briefing on COVID-19,29 and later sent a 30-page document to Polish journalists titled “Facts Refuting American Myths about the Coronavirus and China.”30

During the coverage period, the Chinese embassy increased its engagement with print and online media outlets. The 70th anniversary of Sino-Polish diplomatic relations was the occasion for a media blitz in 2019 that included a special insert published in the niche English-language magazine Polish Market.31 However, an advertorial insert published in the print version popular daily Rzeczpospolita in December 2018 sparked some pushback from readers who saw it as an overt example of authoritarian propaganda. Since then, Freedom House was not able to find evidence of any mainstream media outlets publishing inserts from Chinese state media.32 Ambassador Liu wrote on a variety of topics during his 2018–21 tenure, ranging from the Chinese state’s actions in Hong Kong to 5G and the BRI. Liu published at least 27 signed articles in Polish news outlets and was interviewed at least eight times from 2019 to 2021.33 His replacement, Sun Linjiang, has had a smaller media presence to date. Ambassador Sun did not have a personal Twitter account at the time of writing and published a handful of signed articles in Trybuna and Onet after taking office in September 2021.34

The Chinese embassy in Warsaw appears to have close ties with the fringe left-wing outlet Trybuna, which has published diplomatic op-eds as well as dozens of translated—and frequently unattributed—articles from CRI and Xinhua.35 A social media influencer who runs the blog Chiny to Lubię (“China, I like it”), which had more than 17,500 followers on Facebook as of September 2021,36 has also frequently published interviews with embassy staff or covered embassy events.37 Alongside CRI Poland’s content featuring the Polish-speaking presenter “Oliwia,” the embassy’s cooperation with freelance journalists represents a creative use of online and social media (or “new media,” in the terminology of Chinese state media strategists) to spread Beijing-friendly content.38

Partnerships with Polish public media: Chinese state media entities have signed cooperation agreements with public print and broadcast media in Poland. A content-sharing agreement between the PAP and Xinhua was signed in 2017,39 and the PAP sometimes posts content branded as “Xinhua Silk Road” that is noticeably replete with terminology found in CCP propaganda.40 Other articles cite reporting from Xinhua in their text but are less clear about directly labeling the pieces’ origins.41 Also in 2017, designated as the year of China-CEE media cooperation, the state-owned Polish broadcaster TVP signed a cooperation agreement with Chengdu Radio and Television that included coproduction of a documentary on the New Silk Road (also known as the BRI) focusing on enhanced linkages between the sister cities of Łódź and Chengdu.42 A TVP board member said the project was chiefly directed at Chinese audiences and emphasized Poland as a successful example of the developing transit links between China and Western Europe—a strategic priority of the BRI.43

Adoption of Chinese state media narratives by Polish opinion makers: Some Polish journalists, politicians, and academics known to be relatively friendly toward Beijing have echoed CCP talking points, and they have at times been quoted in Chinese state media, creating an appearance of Polish support for Chinese government positions.44 The editor in chief of Rzeczpospolita, for instance, has been open about his positive opinion of CCP leaders, calling Xi Jinping a “great reformer,”45 and the outlet has published friendly interviews with Chinese officials.46 While Rzeczpospolita was criticized for platforming Chinese state propaganda when it published a one-off advertorial insert in 2018, the newspaper has also published pieces that would be viewed unfavorably by Beijing, including an interview with Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu.47

Prior to 2020, journalists from Poland regularly participated in subsidized press trips to China—including those organized via the 16+1 China-CEEC framework—that were sponsored by either the Chinese state or Huawei.48 By and large, these trips and others for members of Polish civil society did not yield significant media coverage back home. However, following one visit to Xinjiang that took place in the first half of 2019, a member of the nonprofit group Dom Polski (Polish House) was cited in a Xinhua English-language article under the headline “Foreign Scholars Impressed by Stability, Prosperity in Xinjiang.”49

Among politicians, left-wing lawmaker and head of the Sino-Polish Parliamentary Group Andrzej Szejna has often praised the CCP’s governance. Szejna was also a vocal opponent of excluding Huawei from the Polish market and “starting a trade war with China,”50 and has said in interviews with CRI Poland that Chinese politics are “human-centered” and “a good proposal for Poland and Europe.”51 He has been criticized by Polish media for spreading Chinese propaganda.52

Chinese state links to Polish publishing house: Since 2012 the Marszałek Publishing Group (MPG), which is the largest publisher of China-related books in Poland, has been owned by the Chinese state-owned Anhui Publishing Group,53 and its catalogue only covers topics that are approved by Chinese state censors—including translations of books by Xi Jinping.54 Because other sources of Polish-language translations of Chinese texts are limited, the nature of MPG’s ownership and editorial line serves as an important vector for spreading pro-CCP narratives in Poland, although critical texts on Chinese politics, economics, and history, translated from other languages exist as well.

Several other avenues for Chinese state media influence in Poland also exist, but their reach and impact are likely more limited. China Central Television (CCTV) is available in Chinese via free-to-air broadcasts, while the English-language China Global Television Network (CGTN) can be accessed via satellite services. In addition to the two journalists working for CRI Poland, the Polish Foreign Ministry has documented five other Chinese state media journalists working in the country.55 Apart from the embassy’s outreach to friendly media and thought leaders, some Polish journalists also reported being solicited by Huawei to write favorable pieces in both public and private outlets.56 A think tank expert on Sino-Polish relations said she was asked leading questions when contacted by China Daily to comment on the CCP’s centenary celebrations in June 2021.57

Disinformation campaigns

No significant disinformation campaigns were found to have targeted or reached news consumers in Poland during the coverage period. For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—via fake accounts, for example—on global social media platforms. Although researchers have reported some anecdotal evidence of inauthentic follower growth and behavior on Chinese state media accounts, there have been no forensic social media analyses or in-depth studies measuring such activity in Poland. CRI Poland has repeatedly been the focus of suspicious activity. For example, a recent Polish-language video promoted on CRI Poland’s Facebook page attracted a relatively high amount of engagement (126 likes within three days of posting), but many of the accounts that interacted with the post appeared to be fake.58

Censorship and intimidation

There were no reported instances of the Chinese embassy in Warsaw or other Chinese state-linked agents attempting to censor journalists in Poland during the coverage period. However, the chief Beijing correspondent for Polish public radio (Polskie Radio), Tomasz Sajewicz, has described multiple instances in which he was physically blocked by security forces or officials from reporting on news stories in China.59

In September 2019, when the controversial right-wing YouTube channel Idź pod Prąd (Against the Tide) organized a peaceful protest against a Chinese embassy event to raise awareness about CCP censorship of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, it was disrupted by counterprotesters who may have been embassy employees.60 A freelance journalist affiliated with the same group has claimed that she was banned from attending an embassy press event during Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Poland after previously writing articles critical of the CCP.61 Apart from this, no journalists reported any efforts by Chinese state-linked actors to block such reporting, and in practice Polish journalists covered a variety of topics in ways that were contrary to Chinese state media narratives, including environmental degradation in China, forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and national security concerns related to Huawei’s presence in Poland. In fact, as noted above, the Chinese embassy offered only very limited responses to local controversies such as the arrest of the Huawei employee on espionage charges in 2019.

Control over content distribution infrastructure

Huawei has been present in the Polish telecommunications infrastructure market since 2006, and most Polish telecom operators use Huawei equipment.62 Polish legislators have drafted an amendment to the country’s existing cybersecurity law that would include new mechanisms to assess and exclude “high-risk” vendors from the Polish market, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has promoted the idea of “European 5G realism.”63 Although Huawei’s share of the Polish mobile market fell after US export controls affected its global sales in 2019, Chinese companies still made up almost 30 percent of smartphone sales in Poland in the fourth quarter of 2020.64 TikTok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, was one of the 10 most downloaded mobile applications in Poland in 2019, 2020, and 2021.65

There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.66 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding data privacy of US users was false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.67 Nevertheless, there was no evidence in Poland during the coverage period of control over content-distribution infrastructure being used to marginalize critical content or amplify pro-Beijing content.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

There was no evidence during the coverage period that Polish media professionals received trainings aimed at disseminating Beijing’s information-control tactics and norms or were otherwise convinced to adopt CCP-style media governance models.

Chinese diaspora media

The Chinese expatriate and diaspora community in Poland is small, probably numbering fewer than 8,000 people,68 and until the pandemic a significant proportion of the community was made up of students. There do not seem to be any significant independent Chinese-language media in Poland. A sizable Chinese community can be found in the village of Wólka Kosowska near Warsaw, and the most influential Chinese-language print media outlet is the Polish edition of European Times (欧洲时报), which was established in 2016 with a stated mandate to “tell China’s story well.”69

A number of other Chinese-language media in Poland—including “new media” (新媒体) outlets—were highlighted at the 2019 World Chinese Media Forum, jointly organized by the State Council Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Hebei Provincial People’s Government, and China News Service, a state news agency.70 They included European Youth News (欧洲青年报), a weekly paper funded by the United Front–linked Polish Chinese Youth Federation (波兰华人青年联合会),71 and the digital outlet Chiny w Polsce (波兰壮阔, Bolan Zhuangkuo), which is active on the Chinese social media platforms WeChat and Weibo but did not have a working website at the time of writing.72 Both European Youth News and a newspaper called Polish Global Weekly (波兰环球周报) are members of the Global Chinese Media Cooperation Union (世界华文媒体合作联盟), an organization overseen by China News Service.73 Polish Global Weekly has a free print circulation of around 3,000 and an online version.74 It cooperates with the Polish Overseas Chinese Federation and the Polish Fujian Association, and in 2011 it signed a content-sharing agreement with Zhejiang News Network (浙报集团).75

Finally, an online forum called “Portal internetowy dla Chińczyków w Polsce” hosts information on tourism, visa procedures, government regulations, job recruitment, and other topics relevant to Chinese diaspora members in Poland, including some commentary on current affairs.76 Based on a brief review by Freedom House, none of the news sources listed above published content that contradicted or was critical of official Chinese state media narratives.

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

  • Guaranteed press freedoms and robust civil society: Poland’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship.1 A commissioner for human rights, or Rzecznik Praw Obywatelskich, safeguards fundamental rights and freedoms. The National Broadcasting Council (Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji) aims to protect freedom of speech as well as media autonomy and pluralism in radio and television.2 Because Poland is a member state of the EU, Polish citizens are also guaranteed freedoms of expression and information under Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.3
  • Historically robust media ecosystem, civil society watchdogs, and media professionalism: Poland’s media sector is pluralistic and still mostly privately owned, although the PiS government has drastically increased its control over public media outlets since taking power in 2015.4 A variety of civil society groups research and monitor media freedoms, and many have actively pushed back against recent threats, such as COVID-19-related restrictions on access to information, a new social media law that could be used to censor online content, and the controversial “Lex TVN” (see Vulnerabilities below). The nongovernmental Council of Media Ethics (Rada Etyki Mediów), established by the Association of Polish Journalists (Stowarzyszenie Dziennikarzy Polskich, or SDP), tracks instances of unethical behavior in Polish media. The SDP also operates a separate press freedom monitoring center, maintains a foundation that provides financial and legal support for journalists, and collaborates with international journalism groups.5
  • Government and civil society research on disinformation and foreign influence: The national research institute NASK studies emerging threats in cyberspace and has done some work on combating disinformation in general.6 As public awareness of the dangers of disinformation has grown, a number of civil society groups including the Panoptykon Foundation have published materials aimed at educating journalists and the public on how to address the problem.7 Nongovernmental groups such as Info Ops Polska and the Center for Propaganda and Disinformation Analysis (Centrum Analiz Propagandy i Dezinformacji) have focused on researching and countering the Russian regime’s information operations,8 while other groups such as the nonprofit fact-checking group Pravda Association have prioritized addressing misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.9
  • Updated foreign direct investment screening rules to protect strategic sectors: Updates to the Polish foreign direct investment control law that entered into force in July 2020 limit foreign direct investments from agents outside the EU and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in strategic sectors of the Polish economy, including energy, medicine, information technology software, and transportation. Based on the EU’s Regulation 2019/452, the Polish rules expand the categories of protected sectors and seek to safeguard Polish enterprises affected by the pandemic against possible foreign takeovers.10 Polish lawmakers are also considering a draft amendment to the Act on the National Cybersecurity System and the Public Procurement Law, presented in September 2020; the measure would create a mechanism to assess and exclude “high-risk” vendors from the public procurement process for national telecommunications networks. Although not directly aimed at excluding Huawei, the draft amendment was influenced by a 2019 memorandum of understanding on 5G signed by the Polish and US governments, and it would implement recommendations put forward by a 2020 EU Toolbox on 5G.11

China-specific resilience

  • Skepticism of CCP propaganda in light of close US ties and history of communist rule: Poland’s past experiences with communism and its strategic alignment with the United States and the EU are commonly believed to serve as a significant source of resilience in the face of Chinese state media influence,12 although other recent polling data (see Impact below) contradicts this notion. In keeping with a warming of bilateral ties between Poland and China that peaked around Xi Jinping’s visit to the country in 2016, a study of Polish media coverage of China between 2010 and 2018 found that the majority of articles surveyed were neutral on China (58 percent), and a significant portion—including articles discussing economic and trade relations or local cooperation—were positive (39 percent).13 A follow-up study published in June 2021 found that Polish media had increasingly portrayed China through the prism of Sino-American strategic competition since 2019. A significant portion of China-related media discourse was adapted from international press agencies or news sources in the United States or Western Europe. While some media outlets uncritically offered space to diplomatic commentators promoting Chinese (or US) government talking points (see above), in general China remained a marginal topic for Polish media coverage, possibly reflecting a lack of interest from writers and readers.14
  • Popular support for pushback against CCP human rights violations: Both conservative Catholic and liberal or left-wing parties in Poland have condemned human rights violations in China, and the Polish foreign minister supported the EU high representative’s declaration on the deterioration of human rights in Hong Kong in January 2021.15 There is also popular support for a variety of minority groups that are persecuted by the Chinese state. In Warsaw, local activists have continued to maintain and add to the “Tibet Roundabout,” a street-art exhibit installed in 2009 to commemorate a visit by the Dalai Lama.16 In the summer of 2021, the prominent feminist activist Maja Staśko cowrote a report on forced labor in Xinjiang that included interviews with Uyghurs living in exile in Europe, and it was accompanied by a public campaign to boycott goods made in Xinjiang.17 Polish media also reported on a case in 2021 in which the Warsaw Court of Appeal blocked the extradition of a Swedish citizen and Falun Gong practitioner who was arrested in Poland after being flagged by an Interpol notice. The court argued that the man would be at risk of human rights violations if sent to China.18 A small but visible Falun Gong community in Warsaw regularly protests outside the Chinese embassy. The media outlet Epoch Times, which was founded by Falun Gong practitioners and is highly critical of the CCP, has a Polish edition with an active social media presence.19
  • Growing community of academic and media experts on China: The PAP and Polskie Radio have correspondents based in China. While a limited portion of the PAP’s reporting on China is pulled from Xinhua newswire material, much of its coverage features on-the-ground reporting from correspondent Andrzej Borowiak, including commentary on Chinese state media narratives surrounding the CCP centennial in July 2021.20 The PAP has also covered Chinese and other foreign state media narratives in a section titled Media Review.21 There is still a dearth of Chinese-language skills among Polish journalists, but in recent years several journalists have developed expertise on particular topics related to China, and there appears to be a growing appetite for high-quality, nuanced coverage of the country. In particular, the journalist Sylwia Czubkowska has reported on China-related technology news and stories involving Huawei and the legislative debate on 5G in Poland.22 Another example is Maciej Kalwasiński, who specializes in economic analyses of the Chinese market and its impact on Poland.23  Polish journalists have not shied away from critical coverage of Chinese government activities in Poland, including media influence. For example, a journalist who was invited to a closed-door press briefing organized by the Chinese embassy and a Polish public-relations firm, with the aim of presenting a “Chinese point of view,” published a candid report on his experiences in 2019.24 More recently, Polish media coverage has compared Chinese and Russian foreign influence efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.25 A number of academic and civil society research groups—including China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE), China Watch, and MapInfluenCE—contribute to cutting-edge media analysis in Poland and track Chinese influence trends across the CEE region more broadly. Foreign policy experts from the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), the Eastern Studies Center (OSW), and the Asia Research Center (OBA) are regularly consulted by government officials and journalists. Domestic fact-checking groups such as Demagog or Panoptykon have published interviews with local China experts and debunked certain false narratives related to China, particularly those concerning COVID-19.26

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Polish state efforts to undermine media pluralism and independent journalism: Both domestic and international investigations have reported on the PiS’s past use of computational propaganda tactics and its efforts to exploit media polarization for political ends.1 During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists in Poland faced restricted access to information, increasing pressure from strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), and instances of violence and arbitrary arrests in the course of reporting on protests.2 According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Journalism Society (Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie), individuals or entities connected with the state filed 187 SLAPP suits against independent media outlets and journalists between 2015 and 2021, including 58 criminal cases.3 Private media that are critical of the PiS government have also faced verbal intimidation and financial pressure, and there are concerns that the government will increasingly abuse data protection regulations to reduce access to information and crack down on online speech.4 Defamation remains a criminal offense, and international media watchdogs have warned against a proposed social media law that was ostensibly designed to protect freedom of expression on social media, but could be used to censor political content that is unfavorable to the ruling party.5
  • Strong media polarization and politicization: While there are rules limiting political involvement in the media, in practice the ruling PiS party has worked to increase its control over public media—especially broadcasters—since taking power in 2015. The pluralism of the Polish media sector belies its high degree of polarization. Media ownership is relatively transparent,6 but the country does not have regulations governing media cross-ownership, and some critics have argued that the existing antimonopoly watchdog, the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK), has failed to prevent the government’s ongoing efforts to control commercial media, which are mostly foreign-owned.7
  • Use of foreign ownership laws to silence critical media groups: After President Duda accused German-owned media groups of being a front for foreign influence during his 2020 reelection campaign, the government announced new legislation to “repolonize” the media sector and limit foreign influence, and a state takeover of the independent Polska Press in December 2020 raised serious concerns among media watchdogs.8 A controversial bill that was introduced in 2021, widely known as the “Lex TVN,” was presented as a means of restricting foreign ownership of media in Poland. The measure’s supporters in the PiS specifically promoted it as an effort to protect media companies from “corrosive” control by foreign powers like Russia and China,9 but in effect it targeted the television station TVN, which is owned by the US media company Discovery and has been critical of the PiS government.10 The bill passed the lower house of parliament in August 2021 but was vetoed by President Duda in December of that year.11

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Although the footprint of Chinese state media in Poland has grown over the past few years, its actual impact should not be overstated. Media coverage of China in Poland remains fairly diverse and independent. Nevertheless, reporting on China and bilateral relations is often overly simplistic. In 2019, the research group MapInfluenCE found that Polish media coverage of China consistently exaggerated expectations of the economic benefits to be derived from the bilateral relationship, particularly during the peak of Sino-Polish relations leading up to Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016.1 Since 2019, the reporting on China has become somewhat more skeptical, particularly with regard to national security concerns surrounding topics such as Chinese investment and 5G.2

Polling from the Pew Research Center in 2019 found that while 47 percent of Polish respondents had a generally positive view of China, only 18 percent expressed confidence in the Chinese president.3 According to survey data compiled by the Sinophone Borderlands project in 2021, 41.5 percent of respondents viewed China negatively and 34 percent said that their views had worsened since 2019. The pandemic affected Polish public opinion on China, despite Beijing’s strong efforts to counter such fallout. Nearly half (48 percent) of those surveyed subscribed to the conspiratorial belief that Chinese authorities had intentionally spread the coronavirus, with 45.9 percent asserting that China had gained economically from the COVID-19 pandemic. Although a majority (70 percent) of respondents reported finding Chinese culture attractive, a comparable proportion (67.7 percent) also indicated awareness of and concern over the regime’s poor human rights record. Declared opinions about Poland’s communist past did not seem to affect respondents’ views on China: those who viewed Poland’s communist history negatively and those who viewed it positively had a similar proportion of negative feelings toward China (43.6 percent and 43.2 percent, respectively).4

Although the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to broadly more negative Polish views on China, public opinion still supported closer trade and investment ties. For example, 67.5 percent of respondents to the Sinophone Borderlands survey agreed that China was an important economic partner for Polish development, and 57.5 percent believed that Chinese investments could revitalize the Polish economy, despite limited evidence that past Chinese investments had benefited Poland. Survey respondents were more divided on Chinese investments in public infrastructure (34.8 percent against versus 31.3 percent in favor), and a significant majority (70 percent) supported the use of European-made equipment over Huawei equipment in Poland’s future 5G deployment—reflecting growing skepticism of Chinese involvement in at least some strategic sectors of the economy.5

Beijing’s “mask diplomacy,” characterized by the highly publicized distribution of medical supplies to other countries during the pandemic, had a limited degree of success in engendering positive responses. The Polish president was quick to praise China’s efforts to contain the epidemic in March 2020 and was commended at home for “decongesting communication channels” and accelerating the delivery of medical equipment from China. However, senior government officials avoided taking part in joint ceremonies welcoming COVID-19 aid, and appeared careful not to lend their support to Beijing’s public relations efforts.6 When asked which foreign entity had helped Poland the most during the early stages of the pandemic, 35 percent of survey respondents said “China,” and 59.3 percent said it was the EU.7 According to a different survey conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations, Polish public opinion on Chinese aid related to COVID-19 declined between 2020 and 2021. In the first year of the pandemic, 5 percent believed that China or Russia would be the most significant source of foreign aid during Poland’s recovery from the pandemic. Only 1.8 percent of respondents gave the same answer in 2021.8

  • 1Agnieszka Ostrowska, Great Expectations: China’s Image in Polish Mainstream Media and Among Elites.
  • 2Ivana Karásková, Alicja Bachulska, Tamás Matura, and Matej Šimalčík, Careful or Careless? Debating Chinese Investment and 5G Technology in Central Europe.
  • 3“Opinion of China—Poland,” Pew Research, updated March 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/database/indicator/24/country/pl; “Confidence in the Chinese President—Poland,” Pew Research, updated March 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/database/indicator/69/country/pl.
  • 4Adrian Brona, Richard Q. Turcsányi, Matej Šimalčík, Kristína Kironská, and Renáta Sedláková, Polish Public Opinion on China in the Age of COVID-19: Desirable Partner versus a Source of Concern (Bratislava: Central European Institute of Asian Studies, 2021), https://ceias.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/PL-poll-report.pdf.
  • 5Adrian Brona, Richard Q. Turcsányi, Matej Šimalčík, Kristína Kironská, and Renáta Sedláková, Polish Public Opinion on China in the Age of COVID-19: Desirable Partner versus a Source of Concern.
  • 6Bartosz Kowalski, “China’s Mask Diplomacy in Europe: Seeking Foreign Gratitude and Domestic Stability,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, April 8, 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/18681026211007147.
  • 7Adrian Brona, Richard Q. Turcsányi, Matej Šimalčík, Kristína Kironská, Renáta Sedláková, Polish Public Opinion on China in the Age of COVID-19: Desirable Partner versus a Source of Concern.
  • 8Susi Dennison and Jana Puglierin, “Crisis of Confidence: How Europeans See Their Place in the World,” European Council on Foreign Relations, June 9, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/publication/crisis-of-confidence-how-europeans-see-thei….

header7 Future trajectory

The following are key areas to watch for related to Beijing’s media influence in Poland in the coming years:

  • More covert Chinese media influence tools and tactics: Researchers should watch for the growing use of automated “bot” networks to promote the social media accounts of CRI Poland or Chinese diplomats, as well as potential Chinese cooperation with Polish public-relations agencies with the aim of tailoring Beijing’s message for Polish audiences.
  • Closer alignment with other state media influence campaigns: Media experts should track narrative alignments and divergences between Chinese and Russian state media, including the use of one regime’s sources to legitimize the viewpoints of the other. Some evolving examples of this sort of cooperation emerged ahead of and during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, and appears to have resulted in significant online backlash against CRI Poland in particular.1
  • Chinese state media use of friendly local voices to legitimize counternarratives to critical international coverage: Local leaders and opinion makers should be concerned about the possibility of inadvertently becoming mouthpieces for Chinese state propaganda, as exemplified by the Polish academics who were cited by Xinhua to praise Chinese government policies in Xinjiang.

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