This report is a part of #CCPinCEE, a series of reports published by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) analyzing Chinese influence efforts and operations across the nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
Goals and objectives of CCP malign influence
China seeks closer relations with Albania as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s mega-project to expand the reach of Beijing’s influence overseas, making it a central actor in the Western Balkans and ultimately across Europe. 1 To this end, Beijing pursues a long-term strategy in Albania that passes through four overlapping phases.
In the first phase, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to consolidate an expanding presence in the local economy by pushing Chinese exports and investments. The aim here is to make Albania’s economy increasingly dependent on China, especially in sensitive industries, ultimately allowing Beijing to influence Albanian politics. In the second phase, Chinese state actors focus on building the necessary foundations to allow China to exert political influence on Albanian political and business leaders, making China a significant political actor in the country. Even though the Chinese approach to Albania initially focused on the economy, Beijing’s efforts to move on to a new stage of engagement with Tirana have revealed the political dimension of China’s business model and its objective to make Albanian policies align with Beijing’s interests. The third phase of China’s strategy is to reach out broadly to Albanian society, from the bottom up and from the top down. The objective of this phase is to foster a positive image of China in Albanian communities, to promote Beijing’s political and economic model, and, above all, to shape local narratives about the Tirana-Beijing relationship. The fourth and final phase focuses on Chinese authorities’ efforts to gain a higher public and media profile, introduce new coverage angles and content, and influence local perceptions to a much greater extent.
CCP’s methods, tools, and tactics for advancing malign influence
China has inserted itself into Albania’s economy and politics via major investments in air transportation, energy, agriculture, and mining, creating new avenues for leverage. 2 Beijing’s economic influence in Albania derives from lending, investment, and trade, entailing collaborations with key economic players and networks. 3 Those relationships in turn create dependencies through which China gains systematic influence. According to the Bank of Albania, Chinese FDI accounts for 2.27% of all FDI in Albania, compared with Serbia, where Chinese FDI stands at 15.7%, and North Macedonia, at 3.37%. 4 In addition, in 2020 China became Albania’s third largest importer. It exported $47.5 m and imported $13.1 m worth of goods and services from Albania in November 2021, for a trade surplus of $34.4 m, 5 according to Albania’s statistics agency.
Beijing also carries out a granular cultural strategy 6 via the language-focused courses at the University of Tirana’s Confucius Institute and a planned Chinese cultural center in Albania’s capital. The center will have a much wider offer of activities and will focus on cultural interaction, making it an excellent tool for Chinese authorities to build links to cultural and civil society groups. China also organizes study trips, academic exchanges, and cultural events to cultivate relationships with specific individuals and institutions.
China has gradually established a framework for media interaction and cooperation to spread Beijing’s narratives through traditional and social media. 7 In 2019, Chinese and Albanian state-owned radio and television companies struck up a deal allowing Albanian public television to broadcast some Chinese programs free of charge. 8 More informal cooperation happens through Chinese-funded trips, trainings, exchange programs, and donations to Albanian media professionals.
In the context of Beijing’s multilayered approach in Albania, Chinese state actors are also expanding their formal and informal cooperation with municipalities across the country, mainly via a twinning project. Tirana and Beijing have been “twinned” since 2016, with five other cities in Albania developing such ties. Under this policy, Beijing uses sister city links and local authorities to influence the central government.
Sources: The World Factbook 2022, (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2020), https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/; World Bank, The World Bank Group, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/home; “Friendship Groups,” Parliament of Albania, retrieved June 27, 2022, https://parlament.al/Strukture?kategori=1002&strukture=1041
Reach of CCP tactics
While Albania’s embrace of Chinese investments has made China Albania’s third-largest trading partner, giving Beijing clout in the Albanian market and control over resources that confer a competitive advantage, Albania has resisted becoming China’s second economic hub in the region. 9 The Albanian government excluded China from its investment plans in the Port of Durrës as well as from its 5G network. In fact, China’s attempts to further its economic influence in Albania have hit various political roadblocks because Albania is anchored in traditional Western institutions and alliances.
While cultural diplomacy used to play second fiddle to economic diplomacy, it has become one of China’s most powerful tools. This change has borne significant fruit; interest in the history and culture of China, especially in the Chinese language, has grown among young Albanians who are learning the Chinese language at the Confucius Institute.
China’s media policy — to increase coverage of China-related news and to produce China-friendly content — is succeeding, and it has won over many young Albanians. A study in 2020 counted more than 1,000 China-related articles published in the country over five years. Nearly half, 47%, portrayed China in a positive light, 38% were more negative, and 15% were deemed neutral. 10 This increase in China-related content is thanks largely to Beijing’s strategy of collaborating with local analysts and columnists. So, too, is the change in focus: Articles that praise China’s political and economic model and its management of the COVID-19 pandemic have replaced articles about Chinese suppression of Uyghur Muslims, a sensitive issue for a Muslim-majority country like Albania. When China invests in local media and analysts, neutral or negative reports vanish.
A series of regular public opinion polls suggests that China’s investments in image-building have paid off handsomely. From 2019 to 2020, the share of respondents to the national Albanian Security Barometer survey who said China had a positive influence on Albania’s security more than doubled, from 23.5% to 54.9%. 11 In 2022, with the question somewhat changed, 76.6% said they did not think China represented a threat to the security of Albania, compared with 19% who said it did. 12
Target audiences and populations
Chinese authorities’ efforts to influence Albania’s political and business elite to further Beijing’s foreign policy goals follow a common and predictable pattern. 13 China’s soft-power attempts are mostly directed at key leaders in business, politics, government, academia, media, and nongovernmental organizations. The most vulnerable to China’s narratives are older Albanian intellectuals, who had many contacts with Beijing in the Mao-Hoxha years. 14 The memories and legacy of this period predispose this group to welcome China’s presence in Albania and help create a pro-China older generation. Even though this group does not influence political decisions, its clout in specific parts of Albanian society, including academia, gives it the power to push forward Tirana-Beijing cooperation. Post-1999 Albanian leaders’ education and training in Western institutions make them less vulnerable to Chinese manipulation, although that could change. 15
Some popular politicians in Albania have also vilified the West and have turned to China. Specifically, President Ilir Meta and former Prime Minister Sali Berisha have leveled political, diplomatic, and personal attacks against the US ambassador in Tirana. Both men wield influence over a wide base of supporters. Albanian local personalities who see their political interests in an alliance with Beijing instead of the West can function as local mouthpieces for Chinese interests. 16
Chinese authorities have also worked to identify citizens who would be more vulnerable to the Chinese Communist Party’s narratives circulating in the Albanian media. 17 Specifically, they seek out those who have lost out amid uneven economic development and modernization, are disillusioned with local politics, or are frustrated with the mixed results of integration with the West. Overall, however, much of the public does not seem particularly vulnerable, even if polls register some success for China’s slow-and-steady influence operations.
All in all, there is no doubt that China’s structured strategy in the context of the 16/17+1 initiative has played a central role in building closer contacts between Tirana and Beijing. It has made headway among specific societal groups in Albania, providing alternative versions of political, economic, and geopolitical realities. However, China still sells better in other countries of the region, such as Serbia and North Macedonia, than in Albania. Albania remains anchored in its traditional pro-Western orientation, trying to avoid any kind of political penetration that could lead to overreliance on Beijing.
- Vladimir Shopov, “Decade of Patience: How China Became a Power in the Western Balkans,” European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/publication/decade-of-patience-how-china-became-a-power-in-the-western-balkans/
- Wouter Zweers, Vladimir Shopov, Frans-Paul van del Puten, Mirela Petkova, and Marteen Lemstra, “China and the EU in the Western Balkans. A Zero-Sum Game?”, Netherland Institute of International Relations, August 2020, https://www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/china-and-the-eu-in-the-western-balkans.pdf
- Member of the civil society in Albania in discussion with Bledar Feta, November 12, 2021.
- National Bank of the Republic of North Macedonia, ‘Direct Investment in the Republic of North Macedonia:
- “Foreign Trade in Goods – November 2021,” Instat, December 17, 2021, http://www.instat.gov.al/media/9369/press-releasess-nentor-2021.pdf
- Plamen Tonchev, “China’s Soft Power in South-East Europe,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Sarajevo, April 23, 2020, https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/sarajevo/16005.pdf
- Vladimir Shopov, “Getting on the Radar: China’s Rising Media Presence in South-East Europe”, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Media Programme South East Europe, November 2020, https://www.kas.de/documents/281902/281951/%E2%80%9CChina%E2%80%99s+Rising+Media+Presence+in+South+East+Europe%E2%80%9D.pdf/0beb5c40-b6dd-7292-5cc3-fd8a5c1be824?version=1.1&t=1607417514942
- Li Xia, “Albania and China Sign Agreement on Broadcasting of TV Programs,” China.org.cn, October 20, 2019, http://www.china.org.cn/world/2019-10/20/content_75320400.htm
- Heather A. Conley, Hillman, Jonathan E. Hillman, Maesea McCalpin, and Donatienne Ruy, “Becoming a Chinese Client State – The Case of Serbia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://www.csis.org/analysis/becoming-chinese-client-state-case-serbia
- Vladimir Shopov, “Decade of Patience: How China Became a Power in the Western Balkans,”European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/publication/decade-of-patience-how-china-became-a-power-in-the-western-balkans/
- Arjan Dyrmishi, “Albanian Security Barometer – National Survey 2020,” Center for the Study of Democracy and Governance (CSDG) and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, November 2020, http://csdgalbania.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Security_barometer_2020_ENGLISH-WEB.pdf
- Arjan Dyrmishi, “Albanian Security Barometer – National Survey 2022,” Center for the Study of Democracy and Governance (CSDG) and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, May 2022, http://csdgalbania.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/ASB-2022-ENG.pdf
- Anne-Marie Brady, and Hiromichi Higashi, “Are We Real Friends? Albania-China Relations in the Xi Era,” University of Prague, September 17, 2019, https://sinopsis.cz/en/are-we-real-friends-albania-china-relations-in-the-xi-era/
- Ibid; Albanian academician in discussion with Bledar Feta, November 10, 2021.
- Albanian political analyst, in discussion with Bledar Feta, November 5, 2021.
- Albanian member of civil society, in discussion with Bledar Feta, November 8, 2021.