“Are you sleeping well? You should be in very big stress, when you are walking down the street …” Slovakian academic Matej Šimalcík had never heard of Ľuboslav Štora before he opened his email on March 30, but he was familiar with the organisation Štora represented. “Be Patient. Big Brother is watching you,” read a second mail, sent the next day, and signed off as “Director, Confucius Institute in Bratislava”, the capital of Slovakia. As executive director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, much of Šimalcík’s time is spent researching China’s ties with the region. Indeed, the email was in response to a report he had co-authored on Chinese institutions’ finances and influence in Slovakia. But he was still shocked to see the signature at the bottom. “It is worrying, because it is not like an anonymous attack – I get plenty of those. It’s coming from a place of power, someone is holding an official position with them and a Chinese semi-governmental organisation,” said Šimalcík, who shared the emails with the Post. EU again drops plans related to China’s Hong Kong measures The Confucius Institute in Slovakia did not respond to requests for comment. While the Chinese government denies that Confucius Institutes are foreign missions, they have strong links with official channels . “They are being run and administered by the propaganda department of the Communist Party of China. To distinguish whether it’s the party or the government is splitting hairs,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. The exchange was an isolated incident – for which Štora later apologised and passed off as “a joke” – but is also seen as part of a wider pattern of behaviour in which China has been accused of trying to muzzle criticism in Europe. Beijing-linked entities are “trying to punish researchers who reveal findings that cast the government in an unflattering light”, said Alexander Dukalskis, an international relations expert specialising in authoritarianism and Asian politics at University College Dublin. It was common in the past for China-focused scholars to face private difficulties linked to their research, such as visa denials, problems accessing information or even having their friends in China contacted, Dukalskis said. “Lately the strategy appears to be more public: attack researchers in state media or via embassies, sanction a few, and hope that the rest are scared off,” he added. In March, the Chinese ambassador to France was summoned after the embassy called French researcher Antoine Bondaz a “petite frappé” – roughly translated as “little creep” – in a row over French parliamentarians visiting Taiwan. At the time, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian criticised the embassy’s statement, saying: “There is no place in Franco-Chinese relations for insults and attempts at intimidation against elected officials and researchers.” Three days later, the ante was upped significantly when Beijing slapped sanctions on Europe’s premier China-focused think tank, the Berlin-based Mercator Institute of China Studies, in retaliation for EU sanctions on officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang . China also targeted the German researcher Adrian Zenz, who has extensively documented the alleged abuses in Xinjiang , and Swedish academic Björn Jerdén. Europeans find China’s sanctions over Xinjiang vague, ‘regrettable’ Also on the list was the entire European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, which has since had witnesses pull out of planned appearances for fear of the consequences. “Some of the Chinese speakers we invited withdrew their confirmation because they were worried that they would equally face sanctions if they cooperate with a sanctioned body,” the body’s co-chair Hannah Neumann said. In the days that followed the sanctions, a group of European think tank directors sent an open letter decrying Beijing’s “targeting independent researchers and civil society institutions”. One signatory, who wished to remain anonymous, said they had been warned by both Chinese embassy officials and researchers that there “will be costs and consequences for those who soil the good name of China”. “There is an uptick in this sort of intimidation. Chinese embassies appear to have been tasked by Beijing to systematically follow up to discuss their concerns and worries about the recent interactions between China and the EU,” said the source. A high-profile Brussels think tank cancelled an event due to be held with a Chinese counterpart in the week of the sanctions for fear that it would “descend into awkwardness”. “We would have had to make strong statements, they would have had to make strong statements – it is not a conducive time for constructive dialogue,” said a senior staffer, who did not want to be named. It all amounted to an effort to reshape the narrative on China in Europe, where Beijing’s reputation has taken a battering in recent years, said Tsang from SOAS. “I don’t think there is a policy in Beijing to go out and interfere with academics in Europe or elsewhere. The policy is to send Chinese officials and insist that they make sure that the ‘correct narrative’ is being presented about China. This is what Xi Jinping calls ‘telling China’s story well’,” Tsang said.