People split over effects of Chinese investments

Helen Mihelson
, reporter
Photo: Shutterstock

Talking about Chinese investments and Estonia, the possibility of China helping finance the construction of the Tallinn-Helsinki undersea tunnel has been paid the most attention. Use of Huawei equipment in 5G networks has also raised pulses lately.

True, Estonia picked a side in the latter dispute last month when it signed a 5G networks security agreement with USA. Using Chinese money and builders to construct the tunnel would require a national spatial plan which decision has not been made yet.

The state has rejected recent applications for a spatial plan, claiming they have not included all the necessary information.

“We are in favor of the idea of having a tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn in principle,” said Heddy Klasen, adviser for national spatial plans for the Ministry of Finance. “But the ministry needs more information to take a more specific stand in the matter.”

More information is needed to evaluate potential risks and expenses.

What about the Estonian people’s perception of potential risks associated with Chinese investments? A survey ordered by Postimees and carried out by pollster Kantar Emor shows that there is no one prevalent position in society. At least for the time being.

“Attitudes toward Chinese investments are polarized,” says Aivar Voog, survey expert for the pollster.

Indeed, the question seems to split people down the middle. Just 4 percent more people tend to see Chinese investments as a positive thing (35 percent) compared to those who rather see them as negative (26 percent). Every fourth person questioned said they did not feel strongly either way.

“Chinese influence has been more prevalent as a topic recently that could explain people’s more critical attitudes compared to five years ago,” Voog said.

Junior research fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute Frank Jüris says that answers ranging from one end of the spectrum to the other demonstrate a general irresolution.

“The survey demonstrated that our people are not informed when it comes to potential dangers from China. China is rather seen as a place of endless economic opportunities, while people do not really think about the risks, said the institute’s China expert.

“People do not understand these dangers yet, while they are very real indeed – they should not be overdramatized, but one must be aware and consider them,” Jüris says.

Looking at survey results in more detail, Chinese investments are seen as positive by middle-aged people, residents of major cities and voters of the ruling Center Party.

Attitudes are far less enthusiastic among Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) voters and entrepreneurs. While every other non-ethnic Estonian rather finds Chinese investments to be a positive development, Estonians are more critical.

Frank Jüris said that economic relations with China could have political consequences in the big picture. “The greater one’s dependence on China, the more powerful the country’s economic levers for achieving its political goals,” he says.

This is reflected in past experience from Sweden and Norway but also Estonia.

When President Toomas Hendrik Ilves met with the Dalai Lama in Estonia in 2011, despite warnings from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese market became all but inaccessible for Estonian dairy producers. Restoring friendly relations took five years,” Postimees wrote in September.

“We could see political steps that have a splitting effect and infringe on our sovereignty,” Jüris says. “If we fear missing out on investments or worsening economic relations and engage in self-censorship or try to please China, it is a clear threat to our sovereignty.”