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’s objectives in North Macedonia are strategic, economic, and ideological. They are mutually reinforcing and in service to China’s ultimate goal — becoming a global power able to use its worldwide dominance to advance its own economy and society, thereby providing legitimacy for the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The strategic objective is to build Sino-centric alliances that will support China and its positions in multilateral fora. North Macedonia is a member of several international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, and NATO, where the vote of each country counts. Thus, China seeks to ensure North Macedonia’s friendship, or at least neutrality, on decisions and resolutions tabled by Western governments.
China’s economic objective is linked with North Macedonia’s geographic position, which is pivotal for the Belt and Road Initiative, and its status as a candidate for membership in the European Union. Ensuring unhindered and quick transport of goods from the biggest port in the Mediterranean, Piraeus in Athens, which is majority owned by China’s COSCO, toward Central and Eastern Europe is at the core of China’s economic interests. Moreover, even though North Macedonia’s laws and regulations are largely aligned with those of the EU, they are poorly enforced, giving Chinese companies easy and questionable means to secure deals, build their capacity, and acquire useful references to be able to penetrate the EU’s single market. 1
The ideological objective is to promote the “Chinese way” as an alternative to Western liberal democracy. China strives to present its economic ascent and technological achievements as a product of its political system, which in turn it presents as an example for North Macedonia to follow.
CCP’s methods, tools, and tactics for advancing malign influence
The CCP seeks to expand its influence in North Macedonia via an increased presence in traditional and social media, educational and cultural diplomacy, sponsored trips and training programs, COVID-19 (emergency) assistance, and economic diplomacy. The below section explains these in more detail.
Reach of influence measures
China uses these tools and methods in parallel, with different purposes, targeting different audiences. Some are meant to cultivate a friendly view of China among stakeholder groups, while some are reactive/coercive and could be used to pressure North Macedonia to “recalibrate” its positions if necessary.
The Chinese ambassador has written op-eds and given interviews in traditional and online media on issues such as China’s experience handling the pandemic and the use of technology; 2 China’s policy of promoting openness, cooperation, and the BRI; 3 religious pluralism; 4 and the role of the CCP in China’s prosperity. 5 While some of the topics are rather general and in line with China’s broader foreign policy goals, some seem to respond to particular events or Western media coverage, such as on 5G or China’s role in the pandemic.
In addition to posting information about the embassy’s activities, the embassy’s Facebook 6 page mostly shares positive content about China and occasionally posts on sensitive topics, such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the origin of COVID-19, and the war in Ukraine. In comparison with the initial period of Facebook activity, in 2022, coinciding with the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Chinese Embassy has started to post more content not directly related to China, North Macedonia, and their relations. Some posts discuss the US’s domestic developments, for example its COVID-19 response; denigrate the US attitude toward third countries, such as Afghanistan, India, or Nepal; blame the US for the escalation in Russia-Ukraine relations; and question the rationality of EU policies and sanctions. The posts, which quote Xinhua or Global Times articles and press releases of Chinese state institutions, do not raise significant interest and engagement by the audience. 7
In the absence of Chinese state media in North Macedonia and in the Macedonian language, local traditional, online, and social media are the main channels for disseminating official Chinese positions and propaganda. While traditional media generally lack an analytical approach to reporting on China-related topics, they abide by a general code of ethics, provide balanced reporting, and are wary of disinformation. On the contrary, online portals, which are unregulated, and Facebook largely contribute to spreading propaganda and disinformation from official Chinese and unofficial/unknown sources. 8
North Macedonia’s Confucius Institute at the Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje holds the monopoly on education in the Chinese language and culture. The curriculum and the teaching materials, which were developed by the Chinese government, reflect the CCP’s official positions and present its view on China, leaving no space for debate or critical thinking. Until the pandemic, teachers were usually Chinese volunteers dispatched to North Macedonia for one to two years, further ensuring ideological conformity. The total number of students which was 60 the first year (2013), increased to 562 in 2021. 9 The institute organizes occasional roundtables and scientific conferences where university professors are encouraged to present papers on Sino-Macedonian cooperation in various disciplines, giving China important policy analyses and advice, but also influence over China-related academic publications.
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; “Parliamentary Group of the Assembly of North Macedonia for Cooperation with the Parliament of the People’s Republic of China,” Assembly of the Republic of North Macedonia, Retrieved June 21, 2022, https://www.sobranie.mk/parliamentary-groups-for-cooperation-details.nspx?groupId=d9551985-5345-4c75-b269-523d87894785
In 2018, the 16/17+1 Coordination Center for Cultural Cooperation was established at North Macedonia’s Ministry of Culture. Despite its name, its activities (quite limited, for the time being) do not extend to any of the other CEE countries, but only to Chinese culture, aiming to further China’s soft power via events such as piano recitals, concerts, and plays.
Until the outbreak of the pandemic, the Chinese government regularly organized training trips for civil servants and occasionally companies, universities, and journalists. The trainings focus on economic topics, such as trade, investments, and tourism, and show off China’s economic advancement and technological prowess, as well as its governance model, heritage, culture, and gastronomy. While relatively few people have gone on these trips, they are a select group who tend to be current or future decision-makers, and who come home deeply impressed.
In giving development assistance, China often stresses that the funds are a sign of the traditional friendship between the two countries, disbursed without conditions. 10 This is a subtle poke at Western donors, particularly the EU, which conditions its assistance on political and economic reforms. Moreover, Chinese-funded projects are usually highly visible social and transport infrastructure and equipment, such as schools, highways, and medical equipment, whereas Western donors have recently shifted their focus mostly to “soft measures” and policy reforms. 8
Development assistance can also become a powerful means of coercion. For example, after North Macedonia’s decision to join the US-led Clean Network Initiative, China strategically suspended a grant-funded project by Huawei to build an e-education network before the extension of the network from the capital city onto the whole territory. Furthermore, a loan agreement with China’s Export-Import Bank for a highway project allows China to unilaterally terminate the project agreement and ask for immediate repayment if it deems that a policy pursued by North Macedonia is not in line with its interests. This is a standard clause in most Chinese loan agreements that has not been triggered so far. 11 But, arguably, in the past several years China has become more assertive, possibly making this clause much less hypothetical in the future.
Chinese COVID-19 assistance to North Macedonia in the beginning of the pandemic coincided with the EU’s relatively chaotic handling of the crisis and Brussels’ initial ban on exports of medical equipment and sluggish delivery of emergency aid to non-EU countries. Later, Chinese “mask” diplomacy gave way to “vaccine” diplomacy. As North Macedonia struggled to procure vaccines from Western manufacturers, China was the first country to provide a sizable number of doses.
Meanwhile, influence operations sought to amplify positive views of China and its role in North Macedonia during the pandemic. The Chinese Embassy, via its official Facebook account and the private accounts of its employees, showcased positive stories on China’s handling of the pandemic. It also sponsored content in traditional media through op-eds presenting the official Chinese Communist Party positions and, by using opaque language, contributing to confusion over whether the equipment received from China was entirely a donation or a purchase. Some of the supposed donations were actually procurements, most notably Chinese-made ventilators purchased with EU funds. 12
Some internet portals followed a global trend of revising recent history and promoted speculation about the origin of the virus, as well as China’s constructive role during the pandemic, as opposed, especially, to the US. 13 These efforts, which were subtly aimed to undermine the West’s credibility, help account for the increase in China’s favorability rating from 25% in 2018 to 39% in 2021, alongside a 5% drop for the EU. 14
In the past decade, China has used agreements easing access to the Chinese market, visits by Chinese business delegations, promises by Chinese and Macedonian officials, and joint B2B events to create the impression that closer cooperation between the two countries would lead to increased exports to China, investments by Chinese companies, and more Chinese tourists in North Macedonia. So far, though, there have been no commercial investments, the trade deficit has climbed, and diplomacy has been brazenly transactional, with China calling for scrapping visas as a precondition to hosting more Chinese tourists. 15
Target audiences and populations
China’s approach has been predominantly state-centric and oriented toward maintaining good relationships with officials and high-ranking bureaucrats. Chinese diplomats and company representatives use a variety of incentives, including trips to China, donations, and gifts, to win over decision-makers. In the case of the highway construction agreement, the incentive was bribery, which led to the indictment of four former top officials, including the prime minister. 16 Allegations of wrongdoing and abuse of public funds also surrounded the procurement of 200,000 Sinopharm vaccines, and the state anti-corruption commission launched an investigation that is ongoing. 17 In both cases China’s lack of transparency exacerbates North Macedonia’s widespread and high-reaching corruption. Moreover, the country lacks a coordinated China policy and institutional capacity for nuanced understanding of China’s interests and actions, leaving an opening for Beijing to approach individual institutions on specific issues.
Journalists are vulnerable to China’s methods because of the precarious situation of media in general: North Macedonia has too many outlets for its size, leading to brutal competition for marketing revenues as the main funding source. 18 A further lack of public debate, interest in, and critical approach to China-related content and propaganda, combined with North Macedonians’ low media literacy, further enhances the vulnerability of the media sector. 13
As already noted, China’s main channel for influencing academia is the Confucius Institute, but Chinese academic institutions also mount ad hoc initiatives. For instance, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts 19 have agreed on formal cooperation, and Wuhan University engages Macedonian university professors to deliver online lectures on Sino-Macedonian cooperation.
As in any democracy, North Macedonia’s policy choices draw their legitimacy from citizens’ support, usually expressed at elections. China’s rising public approval has coincided with better ratings for the Levica party, which advocates for a strategic partnership with China. 20 If Levica were to become part of some future ruling coalition, it could push for closer ties with Beijing, at the expense of cooperation with Western countries and Western-sponsored reforms.
Photo: The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikola Dimitrov received today the newly appointed Ambassador of the PR of China to the Republic of North Mace October donia, Zhang Zuo, 28 October, 2019. Credit: Republic of Macedonia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
China’s presence in North Macedonia generally fits into the broader pattern of Chinese activities in the Western Balkans and CEE region. One salient difference is that the country remains outside the EU, which provides a more fertile ground for China’s influence for several reasons. First, the country is not bound to implement EU legislation and initiatives aimed to set stringent rules and limit China’s presence, especially in critical industries. Second, North Macedonia’s weaknesses in areas such as good governance and rule of law sometimes make the so-called “Chinese model” more attractive to political elites. Hence, Chinese projects are often marred by a lack of transparency and tainted with a suspicion of corruption. Third, with the current (lack of) EU accession prospects and especially after the pandemic, China is often portrayed as an alternative foreign policy partner despite the lack of tangible results in the bilateral cooperation. Such efforts, largely supported by Chinese propaganda and influence operations, have helped to boost North Macedonians’ views of China in recent years.
- European Commission Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, North Macedonia 2021 Report, (19 October 2021), 5. https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/north-macedonia-report-2021_en
- Zuo, Zhang, “China supports the fight against coronavirus using digital technology,” Denesen, April 18, 2020, https://denesen.mk/ambasador-dzang-dzuo-kina-se-zalaga-za-borba-protiv-koronavirusot-so-digitalna-tehnologija/
- Zuo, Zhang, “China continues to promote the creation of an open system for exchange and mutual benefit,” Faktor, July 22, 2020, https://faktor.mk/kineskiot-ambasador-zuo-za-faktor-kina-prodolzuva-da-ja-promovira-izgradbata-na-otvoren-sistem-za-sorabotka-i-zaednichka-korist
- Zuo, Zhang, “The meaning of harmonious religious pluralism in China,” Premin, March 26, 2020, https://preminportal.com.mk/nauka-kultura/nauka-i-religija/22881-znachenjeto-na-harmonichniot-sozhivot-na-verskiot-plualizam-vo-kina-2
- Zuo, Zhang, “China’s moderate prosperity means a better future for the world from all aspects,” Opserver, October 1, 2021. https://opserver.mk/kolumni/dzhang-dzuo-umereniot-prosperitet-na-kina-vo-site-pogledi-oznachuva-podobra-idnina-za-svetot/
- In terms of social media, Chinese state entities are only present on Facebook, which is the most widely spread social network in North Macedonia, accounting for around 97% of all social media website visits in 2021. Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1165984/market-share-of-the-most-popular-social-media-websites-in-north-macedonia/
- Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in North Macedonian, https://www.facebook.com/chinaembassynmk.
- Stojanovska, Suncica (2022), “Learning Chinese – is it exotic, a need or an influence gateway?”,Nezavisen, May 12. https://nezavisen.mk/uchenje-kineski-od-egzotika-preku-potreba-do-porta-za-vlijanie/
- Ana Krstinovska, “China’s Aid in the Western Balkans: Supporting Development, Undermining Good Governance,” Association for International Affairs, February 2022, https://chinaobservers.eu/chinas-aid-in-the-western-balkans-supporting-development-undermining-good-governance/.
- Gelpern et al, “How China Lends: A Rare Look into 100 Debt Contracts with Foreign Governments,” Center for Global Development /AidData, March 31, 2021. https://www.cgdev.org/publication/how-china-lends-rare-look-into-100-debt-contracts-foreign-governments.
- “Bujar Osmani: We are waiting for a European donation of ventilators which are now in Turkey and China,” Faktor, March 26, 2021, https://faktor.mk/bujar-osmani-chekame-evropska-donacija-vo-respiratori-koi-se-vo-turcija-i-kina
- Krstinovska. 2020.
- Data comparing National Democratic Institute – NDI surveys in 2018 and 2021: “Western Balkans between East and West: Public Opinion Research in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia,” 2018, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/Download%20Report_1.pdf; “Public Opinion Research: Democracy, Geopolitics, Disinformation.” 2021, https://www.ndi.org/publications/north-macedonia-public-opinion-research-democracy-geopolitics-disinformation
- To compare, Albania has scrapped visas for Chinese tourists and still has not seen any significant increase.
- “The court accepted the indictments in the cases ‘Tarifa’ and ‘Traektorija’,” MKD portal, November 13, 2017, https://www.mkd.mk/makedonija/politika/sudot-gi-prifati-obvinenijata-za-tarifa-i-traektorija-peshevski-i-janakievski?page=4; Ana Krstinovska, “Exporting Corruption? The Case of a Chinese Highway Project in North Macedonia,” CHOICE, November 6, 2019, https://chinaobservers.eu/exporting-corruption-the-case-of-a-chinese-highway-project-in-north-macedonia/
- Irena Stojkova, “The Anti-corruption Commission is finalizing its investigation into the procurement of vaccines,” 24 News, December 16, 2021, https://www.24.mk/details/antikorupciska-e-pri-kraj-so-istragata-za-nabavka-na-vakcinite.
- Trpevska et al, “Hotspots in North Macedonia’s media sector. Long wait for the key reforms,” RESIS – Institute for social development research, December 2021, https://resis.mk/en/istrazhuvachki-proekti-i-publikacii
- “Program of the Fifth High-Level Think Tanks Symposium of China and Central & Eastern European Countries,” Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, October 2018, http://manu.edu.mk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Programa-Simpozium-161-24-10-2018.pdf
- Levica’s electoral program for the 2020 parliamentary elections, https://levica.mk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Levica-programa-A4-final-za-net-12.06.2020-1.pdf