(p. A4) VILNIUS, Lithuania — It was never a secret that China tightly controls what its people can read and write on their cellphones. But it came as a shock to officials in Lithuania when they discovered that a popular Chinese-made handset sold in the Baltic nation had a hidden though dormant feature: a censorship registry of 449 terms banned by the Chinese Communist Party.
Lithuania’s government swiftly advised officials using the phones to dump them, enraging China — and not for the first time. Lithuania has also embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that Beijing regards as a renegade province, and pulled out of a Chinese-led regional forum that it scorned as divisive for the European Union.
Furious, Beijing has recalled its ambassador, halted trips by a Chinese cargo train into the country and made it nearly impossible for many Lithuanian exporters to sell their goods in China. Chinese state media has assailed Lithuania, mocked its diminutive size and accused it of being the “anti-China vanguard” in Europe.
In the battlefield of geopolitics, Lithuania versus China is hardly a fair fight — a tiny Baltic nation with fewer than 3 million people against a rising superpower with 1.4 billion. Lithuania’s military has no tanks or fighter jets, and its economy is 1/270th the size of China’s.
But, surprisingly, Lithuania has proved that even tiny countries can create headaches for a superpower, especially one like China whose diplomats seem determined to make other nations toe their line.
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In an interview, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister, said the country had a “values-based foreign policy” of “supporting people supporting democratic movements.”
Other European countries declaring fealty to democratic values have rarely acted on them in their relations with China. Mr. Landsbergis’s party, however, has made action part of its appeal to domestic voters: Its pre-election manifesto last year included a promise to “maintain the value backbone” in foreign policy “with countries such as China.”
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From China’s perspective, last week’s release of a report on the Chinese-made cellphones by Lithuania’s Defense Ministry Cyber Security Center was yet another provocation. The hidden registry found by the center allows for the detection and censorship of phrases like “student movement,” “Taiwan independence,” and “dictatorship.”
The blacklist, which updates automatically to reflect the Communist Party’s evolving concerns, lies dormant in phones exported to Europe but, according to the cyber center, the disabled censorship tool can be activated with the flick of a switch in China.
The registry “is shocking and very concerning,” said Margiris Abukevicius, a deputy defense minister responsible for cybersecurity.
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Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to side decisively with the United States, a longtime ally, and other democracies, said Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the national security and defense committee. “Everyone here agrees on this. We are all very anti-communist Chinese. It is in our DNA.”
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated October 8, 2021, and has the title “Lithuania vs. China: A Baltic Minnow Defies a Rising Superpower.” Where the wording differs between the versions, the quotations above follow the online version.)