Chinese “soft power” in North Macedonia
Chinese influence in North Macedonia has been growing in recent years, mainly through China’s “soft power”, but without significant Chinese investment. The positive perception of Macedonians about China is also growing. Through culture, politics and media, China is trying to present itself as an alternative to the Western system.
China is strengthening its soft power in the world and North Macedonia is among the countries where it is increasingly influential, according to recent surveys.
According to a study by the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), China has a strong influence in North Macedonia, a country that ranks third among the 17 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, after Serbia and Bulgaria. The study shows that China has increased its influence without significant effort or investment.
“The Communist Party of China has significant influence in North Macedonia”, concludes the study by CEPA, a Washington-based non-profit foundation.
Countries outside the EU more susceptible to impacts
The report finds that countries outside the EU are more susceptible to Chinese influence, particularly in the Balkan information space, while Beijing is investing in infrastructure projects across the region.
And while China’s influence in North Macedonia is growing, international relations experts believe that citizens’ perception of China is more abstract than real. According to their assessments, citizens see China as a country where delicious food is made, they are familiar with the Great Wall, Chinese New Year or Chinese philosophy. They believe that the Chinese Communist Party is cleverly using this to cover up its disrespect for human rights.
At one point in time, China achieved its best score on the global ‘soft power’ index. It ranked fourth, behind the USA, the UK and Germany, and ahead of Japan as the highest-ranking country in Asia for the first time.
“Over the last ten years, since the election of Xi Jinping as the seventh President of the People’s Republic of China, we have been trying to reshape international structures across China so that it can establish itself as a great power and present itself as an alternative in terms of the system and governance of Western countries,” comments Ana Kristinovska – author of the research “Blurring the tools and narratives of Chinese soft power” in North Macedonia.
The research was carried out by the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation and ESTIMA, an organisation working in North Macedonia.
Macedonian citizens’ perception of China has improved significantly over the past four years, according to a survey by the US-based National Democratic Institute. In 2018, 25% of respondents in North Macedonia had a positive opinion of China, while this percentage increased to 38% in 2021.
“This is a result of all the soft power building activities on the one hand, but also of the context itself in the last few years, especially the Covid-19 pandemic,” Kristinovska says.
Although the media in North Macedonia publishes little content about China, citizens’ perception of China’s economy, business and trade is positive, Kristinovska explains. Citizens look with admiration at the Chinese economic miracle, but there is a perception that North Macedonia is dependent on cheaper Chinese products.
North Macedonian citizens also have a positive perception of Chinese education and science and consider the country to be at the forefront of scientific achievement, as well as Chinese discipline, dedication and professionalism. In terms of values, citizens consider Chinese society to be very conservative.
However, given the lack of content about China in the Macedonian media, citizens are not sure whether what they know about China is correct, as they feel they are reading selective information. They have a different view of Chinese governance and political system and consider China to be an authoritarian country where human rights are not respected and democracy and pluralism are lacking.
“Macedonian citizens are very much aware that this is something that should not be seen positively, but on the other hand China is seen as a country with good governance, with effective institutions, and this is seen positively,” says Kristinovska.
As far as international relations are concerned, Kristinovska adds, there is an awareness that Chinese diplomacy is big and strong. However, the data shows that perceptions are generally neutral and that citizens do not consider Chinese diplomacy to have largely positive intentions and achievements. This perception is linked to China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
China uses various tools to strengthen its influence in North Macedonia through “soft power”, including the publication of columns and articles by the Chinese ambassador, and Chinese media content is mainly transmitted through Macedonian media outlets that have content-sharing agreements.
Kristinovska’s research shows that since 2019, the Chinese Embassy has been increasing its presence on social media, especially on Facebook.
What is “soft power”?
The concept of soft power in political theory was defined in the 1970s and analyses the ability of the state to persuade others to do what it wants without the use of force or coercion.
The influence of soft power usually comes through a country’s culture, political values and international politics as factors that determine its attractiveness in the world and its ability to shape international policy without the use of force.
In the short term, soft power is used through the publication of news, in the medium term strategic messaging is implemented and in the long term lasting relationships are built. These are all among the main tools it uses for influence.
Research has shown that influence in the country is achieved through five associations, and in particular through the Confucius Institute, which is considered one of the pillars of China’s ‘soft power’ in the country, providing scholarships, training, research, but also through the signing of Memorandums of Cooperation, conferences and trade fairs.
Translation and publishing activities are being stepped up in this direction. Since 1978, 90 titles have been translated from Chinese into Macedonian, and 50 titles since 2018 alone, of which more than half are children’s books.
“I think what we are seeing now is just the beginning of Chinese investment in this direction, and this is mainly due to the fact that China is very much learning how our region functions and how the democratic world works in general,” Kristinovska says.
The ‘soft power’ matrix
Christopher Nehring, who teaches at St Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia and has studied the impact of Chinese soft power in Bulgaria, talks about similar methods to those used in North Macedonia.
China’s influence is through direct investment in infrastructure, telecommunications, media, academic capacity and through the Confucius Institute in Bulgaria. China is presented in a positive way through cultural programmes. There are two institutes in the country, in Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo, where there are non-transparent discussions and publications on funding and propaganda, says Nering.
With the Belt and Road project, China presents itself as a positive alternative to the Western liberal model, but also as a model of socialism – an alternative to the Western model of democracy.
“In terms of cooperation with the media, a newspaper is being created which has a special section for China and the content is immediately translated from English into Bulgarian. There are several such newspapers which translate these articles and which, among other things, promote the Russian view of policy towards south-eastern Europe. “There is no criticism of Russia, we have anti-American propaganda, and they claim that Washington is to blame for the economic-political conflict between China and the US,” says Nehring.
“Sometimes,” he adds, “there are also anti-capitalist narratives in terms of the Western world and the Chinese model is promoted”. Nehrin notes, however, that despite this, China receives little public and political attention in Bulgaria, while the focus is currently on Russia.
China intends to shape the world in its own way
Daniel Brown, representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in North Macedonia, says that while China is rapidly implementing projects in the economy and infrastructure, it is also imposing its “soft power”, notably through the Confucius Institute, by promoting China’s position in the world, but also through university departments in the region.
Brown believes that the European Union and its partner countries should be cautious and aware of the ideas that China offers as different from those of the Union’s education system.
“Xi Jinping, the leader of the Communist Party of China, has said that this will be an era of challenges for China and that China is facing problems that they have not faced for a long time. How are we to understand this? I don’t want to say that there is a word for our fantasy, but it means that China has a plan to shape the world in its own way, according to its own world view, and we have to be aware of that,” Brown said.
China’s intention to shape the world in its own way should not surprise us, as every great power has the same intention, adds Kristinovska, author of a study on China’s “soft power”.
In its promotional activities, Kristinovska adds, China is willingly or unwittingly conveying the idea that its socio-political model, which is that of an authoritarian one-party state, without pluralism and freedom of expression and protection of civil rights, is a model conducive to progress and economic development.
Kristinovska, author of a study on China’s ‘soft power’, says that this is where caution is needed./RSE/