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This article is based on the author’s work on the Central European Institute of Asian Studies 2021 research project “European public opinion on China in the age of COVID-19. It was originally published by Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The Baltic countries received international attention for their snub of China’s February “17+1” online summit, chaired by President Xi Jinping. By sending lower-level ministers instead of heads of state, they signaled a joint Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian turn away from China’s multilateral formats. This turn, however, has not yet completely found its way into Latvian public opinion. Though Latvians on the whole demonstrate Euro-optimism and have negative responses to China when it comes to human rights and freedom, Latvia’s population still holds the most positive views of the People’s Republic of China among 11 surveyed EU member states. But if overwhelmingly pro-EU Latvians do not see Beijing as counter-leverage to Brussels and do not support Beijing on values, what accounts for their overall positive perception of China?

This article argues that there is still a belief among Latvian society that Chinese wealth could spill over into the Latvian economy via transit, export and investment. When indicating preferred Latvian foreign policy priorities towards China, 81.1 percent of respondents believe policy should be focused on “promotion of trade and investment”, and 62.1 percent of respondents share some degree of agreement over China’s capability to help the national transit sector.

A further breakdown of opinions demonstrates a clear prevalence of economic pragmatism over ideology in the Latvian public’s perceptions of the People’s Republic of China.

COVID-19 and the Perception of China

While COVID-19 has disrupted China’s image in some European countries, the novel coronavirus pandemic has not undermined the perception of China as an economic powerhouse in Latvia. In a Europe-wide study mapping national public opinion on China in the age of COVID-19, conducted by CEIAS in late 2020, Latvian respondents named the virus only as the eighth topic of importance in Latvia in relation to China. This is in stark contrast with other surveyed European countries, where the pandemic was named the number one issue. The insignificant impact of COVID-19 on the perception of China among the Latvian population could be explained by the relatively low spread of the pandemic in Latvia during the months preceding the survey. Up to the second wave in October 2020, just a handful of diagnosed infections a day were reported — often less than 10. Indeed, the low numbers even led to an official Latvian public relations campaign marketing the country as “Ahead of the curve.”

The spread of pandemic conspiracy theories has been linked with increased levels of stress and uncertainty within societies. Cross-referencing Latvian respondents’ reactions to different origin theories of the virus indirectly corroborates that the virus was low on Latvians’ priorities vis a vis China. Conspiracy theories, such as “COVID-19 was artificially made in a Chinese laboratory and spread intentionally” (35.8 percent, multiple replies allowed) and “COVID-19 was brought to China by the US military in 2019” (26.1 percent) do seem to resonate in the society. However, the more informed and weighted view that “COVID-19 jumped naturally to humans from animals” was in the lead at the time of the survey (40.5 percent), suggesting that Latvian society had not descended into COVID-19-induced stress and anxiety. Therefore, it appears COVID-19 and China’s role in it mattered less to survey respondents than Latvia’s probable gains from China’s economic growth.

A Strong Distinction Between Economy, Security, and Values

But economic pragmatism among Latvian respondents does not mean they are ignoring China’s assertiveness in the realm of international relations, or political and value discrepancies between China and the West. The study documents overall negative attitudes toward Chinese military power, the PRC’s impact on the global environment, and it’s influence on democracy in other countries. Security concerns that shape US and EU engagement with China also play a role in Latvian society, with most respondents indicating their belief that China should not be allowed to participate in building Latvia’s 5G network.

Latvian respondents also seem to be perfectly happy with their connection to Brussels — over 61 percent express trust in the EU; this means, for Latvian respondents, engaging with Beijing has nothing to do with disagreeing with EU policies. Latvian respondents also don’t show strong belief in the necessity for any geo-strategic association with China — the PRC scored the lowest points on “foreign policy alignment,” in comparison with the EU, Russia, and the US.

Furthermore, the research established no indication of value blindness among Latvian respondents. Respondents see the human rights situation in China as negative, with 8.8 percent of respondents calling it “very bad”, 17.1 percent “bad”, and 18 percent “somewhat bad” — this evaluation is a close second only to Russia. The perception of values, including respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, of course, is a layered phenomenon. It would be natural to assume that historical disregard for communism could be a factor influencing respondents’ attitudes towards China. Contrary to this prognosis, feelings on China according to respondents’ perception of Latvia’s communist past show that more than half of the respondents with negative perception of Latvia’s own communist past have neutral, positive or even very positive feelings on China.

How does one explain such a contradiction? Possibly, the answer lies in the perception of China as a strong capitalist actor in reality and a communist power only rhetorically (as distinct from the USSR). As put by Editor-in-Chief of LTV News Service Guntis Bojārs in a series of articles after his visit to the PRC, “China has communists, but no communism.”

Different readings of communist ideology aside, values do matter to the Latvian public. “Advancing human rights and democratic reforms in China” is not named among the top foreign policy priorities for Latvians, but is still deemed important by 46.5 percent of respondents.

Ethnolinguistic Factors — Divisive, but not Decisive

China is still seen as the promise of economic development among both Latvian-speaker and Russian-speaker respondents in Latvia. Latvian and Russian speakers alike report that their attitude towards China either did not change (51.6 percent and 55.5 percent, respectively) or even improved (19.3 percent and 23.8 percent, respectively) in the age of COVID-19. Although the data on attitudes towards China according to voting preferences shows significantly more negative views among the electorate of the Latvian nationalist political union National Alliance (Nacionālā Apvienība) (very negative 21.7 percent; negative 36.7 percent) than among the Russian-speaking constituents of the Latvian Russian Union (Latvijas Krievu Savienība) (very negative 3.1 percent; negative 6.1 percent), most respondents of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in Latvia believe that China could help Latvia’s transit sector. Although differences in attitudes transpire in value-based perceptions — e.g. China’s influence on democracy in other countries is perceived significantly more negatively among Latvian speakers — the attitude disparities between linguistic communities seem to lessen once pragmatic cooperation comes into play. Latvian- and Russian-speaking communities are somewhat divided on foreign policy alignment — significantly more Russian speakers believe in policy alignment with Russia, whereas Latvian speakers express trust in the US. So how do they ultimately end up sharing optimism when it comes to China’s opportunities for the Latvian economy?

First, Latvian speakers see over-dependence on Russia — the devil they know all too well — to be a major problem for Latvian sovereignty. China, although not perfect, is perceived as a viable alternative to the “bear to the east.” This rationale largely coincides with the Latvian and wider Baltic official position of the mid-2010s, when the countries decided in favor of joining China’s Cooperation with Central and Eastern European Countries (now referred to as “17+1”) in 2012 and the Belt and Road Initiative in 2016.  

A large number of Russian speakers see China as a potent economy and are not intimidated by its political system. Additionally, those Russian speakers who are against foreign policy alignment with the US appreciate Beijing as a counterweight to Washington, ultimately sharing the opinion of the pro-US Latvian speakers — namely, that Latvia needs to further explore economic cooperation with China. Thus, coming from different political positions, the two linguistic communities meet in the shared belief that China is a promising economic partner.

Future Baltic Trends — Common Path Regardless of Minute Dissimilarities

Is the economic pragmatism of the Latvian population representative of joint Baltic sentiments, or is Latvia an outlier? While this survey research has not yet been extended to include Lithuania and Estonia, one can speculate based on official statements, public discussion, and the level of securitization of China in the media. By these metrics, Lithuanian attitudes would fall on the China-pessimist side of the spectrum. Estonia is also looking for ways to engage with China “either bilaterally or alongside the European Union,” but is trying to find a sophisticated way to pivot away from “17+1” without burning bridges with China altogether. The Latvian position certainly has more commonalities with the Estonian than the Lithuanian one.

However, differences between the Baltic countries are not expected to last, as the same external factors exist for all three nations: the unmet expectations of economic cooperation with China, the traditions of anti-authoritarian value policies, and the reliance on the US for security. After all, even during the negotiation of the EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, the Baltic states were skeptical precisely because the process had lacked coordination with the United States.

In light of these developments, it can be expected that not only will the Baltic countries put China’s cooperation formats on the back burner, but that they will also move more towards the China-critical side of the spectrum within the EU. The coordinated demonstration of disinterest in China’s Cooperation with Central and Eastern European Countries (“17+1”) during the February 9 online summit, and the joint Nordic-Baltic exploration of opportunities brought by ASEAN serve as signals of this unavoidable dynamic.