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
While Beijing’s malign influence operations in most of Central and Eastern Europe have received widespread attention, its coercive activities in Slovenia have gone less noted. China’s main goal in Slovenia is to secure a comprehensive long-term political and security partnership with Ljubljana, using a broad set of methods and tools, particularly economic and public diplomacy. Manifestly, China’s signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, and its 16/17+1 1 cooperation format are key means of influence and have by now become a regular topic of the two countries’ political, business, and cultural dialogues. The main source of China’s leverage and influence in Slovenia is its economic appeal: It affects the behavior of businesspeople and politicians in Slovenia and contributes to China’s cultural influence in areas such as language teaching, tourism, arts, and education. Overall, China’s influence activities in Slovenia target a broad range of people and are mainly just part of any country’s normal public diplomacy and economic cooperation activities, but subtle malign influence is also increasingly being felt.
CCP’s methods, tools, and tactics for advancing malign influence
The means of influence have been most evident in the following cases:
Taiwan and Tibet: On the political front, China has used a relatively light touch, and usually only when pushing back on specific issues it sees as harmful to its national image and interests. Early in Slovenia’s post-communist transition, the Tibet issue was a major visible point of conflict, but it has gradually disappeared from official bilateral dialogues, as have pro-Tibetan activists. Taiwan, on the other hand, has raised its profile in Slovenia, although only unofficially. In its joint communiqué of May 1992 on establishing diplomatic relations with China, Slovenia recognized Taiwan as “an alienable part of Chinese territory,” which might explain why Slovenian officials unwittingly parrot Beijing’s propaganda and interchangeably use the “one China principle” and “one China policy,” without being aware of the essential nuance. The Chinese Embassy has paid close attention to Slovenia-Taiwan interactions and has always been quick to remind Slovenia of the “one China” limits, objecting to any form of quasi-official collaboration, whether political or cultural. China has convinced its Slovenian interlocutors that while it is peaceful, it is also resentful if provoked. Beijing’s diplomatic pressure in the form of protest letters has been enough to restrain Slovenian officials from getting too cozy with Taiwan.
The role of Huawei in Slovenia’s 5G networks: The decision by Prime Minister Janez Janša’s government to sign a US-Slovenia declaration on 5G security in August 2020 and its intention to categorize Huawei as a high-risk supplier was met with a strong rebuke, not only from China, 2 but also from Slovenia’s opposition politicians 3 and the business community. 4 Huawei in particular waged a vigorous campaign for public and political support. Its top representatives lobbied decision-makers 5 and launched a media blitz that included interviews 6 and paid-content pieces underscoring Huawei’s importance for Slovenia’s economy and telecommunications sector, as well as highlighting the damage its potential exclusion would cause. 7 As a result, the government’s proposal to bar high-risk vendors such as Huawei from the Slovenian market failed in parliament. 8
Chinese investments in Slovenian infrastructure projects: Among the key points of China’s interest in Slovenia is the Port of Koper, which provides not only a natural connection with the Chinese-controlled Port Piraeus in Greece, but also the nearest entrance for Chinese goods to Central European markets. 9 Nevertheless, Chinese companies failed to win either of two recent major public tenders. 10 China’s interest in investing in Slovenia’s airports has also been undermined, despite intense Chinese lobbying of both national and municipal officials. 11 As these cases show, potential economic benefits have been insufficient to overcome Slovenia’s political concerns.
Chinese acquisition of Slovenian flagship company: In 2018, Hisense, a Chinese state-owned durable-goods manufacturer, acquired Gorenje, a major Slovenian household-appliance maker. As the biggest Chinese acquisition in Slovenia, the sale gave China leverage for potential economic coercion. 12
Corrupting activities: Several malicious cyber operations that pointed to China have been detected in the Slovenian government’s networks. 13 Aside from that, in 2017, a Chinese entrepreneur tried to bribe top postal service officials to ensure that Nuctech, a company partly owned by the Chinese government, won a contract. 14 Still, although Slovenia has its issues with corruption, Slovenian officials seem to be more immune to the lure of easy Chinese money than their counterparts in some Western Balkan countries. 15
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 Friendship Groups,” National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, Retrieved June 21, 2022, https://www.dz-rs.si/wps/portal/en/Home/OtherActivities/InternationalActivity/sp/!ut/p/z1/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfIjo8zivSy9Hb283Q0N3I2CTA0CXYycfIMNjA2CfQ31wwkpiAJKG-AAjgb6XvpR6Tn5SRCrHPOSjC3S9aOKUtNSi1KL9EqLgMIZJSUFxVaqBqoG5eXleun5-ek5qXrJ-bmqBti0ZOQXl-hHoKrUL8iNqPJJDXcEAJxr758!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/
Reach of influence measures
China has primarily tried to foster a positive image and cultivate a favorable investment and trade environment in Slovenia. As in other CEE countries, the Chinese Embassy in Slovenia seeks to promote China’s official views to the Slovenian context. It treads lightly and steers away from overtly aggressive diplomacy, sporadically posting news in Chinese and English on its website and its Twitter account. Among China’s key external propaganda units, it is only the Xinhua news agency that has some impact in Slovenia; it regularly cooperates in exchanging news with Slovenia’s leading press agency, STA.
China can shape domestic debates and narratives only so far in Slovenia’s vibrant media landscape. 16 Beijing has tried public diplomacy to repair its tarnished image over its initial handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. 17 However, even though the public welcomed Chinese donations of personal protective equipment, the Slovenian government’s indirect purchase of China-sourced equipment, which turned out to be of poor quality, scotched the idea of China as a white knight. 18
Beijing also uses the 16/17+1 initiative to advance its interests in Slovenia, consistently depicting it as indispensable for Slovenia-China engagement. 19 But 16/17+1 has borne little fruit, even though the Slovenian government treats China as its priority market outside the EU and continues to see 16/17+1 as a transparent and results-oriented mechanism, which has undeniably boosted the two countries’ exchanges. Slovenia’s trade deficit with China has been increasing at an alarming rate, 20 while China has failed to win public contracts in Slovenia. The changed geopolitical landscape has soured the public’s view of China in many countries 21 and Slovenia’s behavior toward Beijing has cooled. Janša opted not to participate in the 16/17+1 summit last year and openly supported the recent declarations of the G7 and NATO identifying China as a key challenge. 22 Echoing the EU, Slovenia’s revised foreign policy strategy has defined China as a “systemic and strategic competitor,” reflecting the government’s reserved stance toward China in the political domain. 23
Prior to the pandemic, Slovenia had seen some of the world’s biggest spikes in Chinese tourism, which is why China has become Slovenia’s most promising outbound market. 24 Furthermore, the 16/17+1 mechanism has brought Slovenia new opportunities for expanding a vast range of cultural and academic exchanges. The Centre for Cooperation with China was established at Koper’s Science and Research Centre in 2017 to serve as a regional international think tank and advance the goals of the Belt and Road Initiative. 25 Academic links have notably grown, especially in science and technology. 26 Chinese studies have also considerably grown, owing foremost to the accredited university-level program in Sinology at the University of Ljubljana. Since 2009, the promotion of Chinese soft power has become one of the central tasks of the Confucius Institute, strategically established at the School of Economics and Business. In general, the institute has been well-received as a valuable and benign partner within the university and the business school in particular. With its generous financial backing from China, the institute could be an indirect way for Beijing to wield influence and restrict academic freedom, but it has so far operated without controversy and has not raised any alarm bells. Overall, academic freedom in Slovenian schools is alive and well, despite a growing unease about the potential consequences for crossing red lines that might anger China. 27
Target audiences and populations
Pressure by Chinese actors is a fact of life in Slovenia’s diplomatic, political, and economic spheres. While the visits of Chinese figures to government agencies make the news, informal meetings behind the scenes are seldom disclosed. Influence activities rise to the surface only when China feels the need to defend its interests. China has vigorously defended interests of Chinese major investors and companies and has continuously strived to prevent Slovenia from getting too cozy with Taiwan.
Chinese actors have engaged in both direct lobbying and media and funding campaigns to shape government and public opinion. The forms of pressure have also been indirect. China’s carrots and sticks have been economic appeals that influence the behavior of economic and political elites and pressure from Beijing that encourages pre-emptive self-censorship and constricts decision-making processes.
In summation, China has significantly extended its presence in Slovenia over the last few years. However, while Beijing’s increased economic weight has brought more opportunities to exert political clout, its influence has been relatively modest. With a relatively small media and social media presence, Chinese actors have steered away from overtly aggressive diplomacy and have treaded softly. Chinese pressure usually becomes obvious only when Beijing pushes back on specific issues it sees as harmful to China’s national image and interests. The Chinese acquisition of Gorenje is increasingly seen as a success story, and Huawei has managed to capture the Slovenian market and to win the trust of key decision-makers. At the same time, fear of China’s economic retaliation has discouraged a more united political front in support of Taiwan. Yet, to the surprise of many, Chinese ambitions to invest in Slovenia’s strategic infrastructure have been watered down. Evidently, the Slovenian government has in general put political considerations over China’s economic appeal, which will in any event continue to serve as the main axis in Slovenia’s overall China policy orientation.
- At the moment, the 16/17+1 format includes China and the following CEE countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
“Embassy Spokesperson’s Statement on the US Secretary of State Pompeo’s Anti-China Remarks and 5G Security Issue.” Embassy of the PRC in Slovenia, August 13, 2020. http://si.chineseembassy.org/eng/xwdt/t1806289.htm
- Vodušek, V. “V Levici menijo, da gre pri izjavi o varnosti omrežij 5G…,” Topnews.si, August 13, 2020. http://topnews.si/2020/08/13/v-levici-menijo-da-gre-pri-izjavi-o-varnosti-omrezij-5g-za-krinko-za-ekonomsko-vojno-proti-kitajski-s-katero-poskusajo-zda-ohraniti-svoj-primat-v-svetu-milan-brglez-sd-pa-da-nekateri-tudi/
“Slovensko-kitajski poslovni svet zaskrbljen nad informacijami o vladnih načrtih glede Huaweija,” Dnevnik, October 13, 2020. https://www.dnevnik.si/1042940904 ; “Slovensko-kitajsko sodelovanje,” RTV SLO, November 12, 2020. (24 min). https://4d.rtvslo.si/arhiv/tocka-preloma/174731953
- The Commission for the Prevention of Corruption. “Lobiranje,” 2000. https://erar.si/lobiranje/; “Direktorica Akosa Tanja Muha priznava…,” Nova24tv.si, December 7, 2020. https://nova24tv.si/slovenija/l-direktorica-akosa-priznava-da-se-je-sestajala-s-predstavniki-podjetja-huawei-na-kpk-pa-opozarjajo-da-niso-prejeli-zapisa-o-lobisticnem-stiku-med-navedenim-organom-in-interesno-organizacijo/
- Gole, N. “Politični pristop ne bo povečal varnosti omrežja v Sloveniji,” Delo, May 15, 2021. https://www.delo.si/sobotna-priloga/politicni-pristop-ne-bo-povecal-varnosti-omrezja-v-sloveniji/; Tekavec, V. “Gašper Cotman, direktor projektov in vodja poslovnega razvoja v Huawei Technology Slovenija.” Dnevnik, August 3, 2021. https://www.dnevnik.si/1042970395; Varga M. “(INTERVJU) Direktor projektov v Huawei Technologies Slovenija.” Večer, September 24, 2021. https://www.vecer.com/slovenija/verjamemo-v-moc-inovacij-in-digitalne-tehnologije-10253276
- “Huawei: Izločevanje ponudnikov zavira proces uvajanja 5G tehnologije v Sloveniji.” STA, October 6, 2020. https://o-sta.si/27974/huawei-izlocevanje-ponudnikov-zavira-proces-uvajanja-5g-tehnologije-v-sloveniji; “Izključitev enega ponudnika 5G opreme bi pomenila višje stroške, nižjo produktivnost in občutno izgubo BDP,” STA, January 20, 2021. https://o-sta.si/28591/-izkljucitev-enega-ponudnika-5g-opreme-bi-pomenila-visje-stroske-nizjo-produktivnost-in-obcutno-izgubo-bdp
- “MPs vote down bill that would bar Huawei from market,” STA, February 4, 2022. https://english.sta.si/2997760/mps-vote-down-bill-that-would-bar-huawei-from-market
- “Chinese remain very interested in the Port of Koper,” Port of Koper, May 17, 2016. https://www.luka-kp.si/en/news/chinese-remain-very-interested-in-the-port-of-koper/ ; Hreščak, A. “Lobiranje: Na drugi tir se lepijo kot muhe na med,” Dnevnik, March 9, 2017. https://www.dnevnik.si/1042765139
- “National Review Commission rejects Chinese complaints over railway project,” The Slovenia Times, December 24, 2020. https://sloveniatimes.com/national-review-commission-rejects-chinese-complaints-over-railway-project/
- Maribor’s former mayor and his circle of influential advisors went to great lengths to attract Chinese investors. Nevertheless, their aspirations have raised many eyebrows, which is why the ambitious plans to transform the Maribor airport into a hub for Chinese tourists failed to materialize (Rak, P. “Mahanje z juani.” Delo, February 1, 2018. https://old.delo.si/mnenja/komentarji/mahanje-z-juani.html ; “Former Chinese lessee of Maribor Airport to sue the state,” STA, February 25, 2019. https://english.sta.si/2731618/former-chinese-lessee-of-maribor-airport-to-sue-the-state ; “A. Bratušek v odzivu na napoved kitajskega najemnika…,” MMC RTV Slovenija, February 25, 2020. https://www.rtvslo.si/gospodarstvo/a-bratusek-v-odzivu-na-napoved-kitajskega-najemnika-tozba-je-neutemeljena/515403).
- “China uses state-owned Hisense’s purchase of appliance giant Gorenje to exert influence in Slovenia,” The German Marshall Fund, 2018. https://securingdemocracy.gmfus.org/incident/china-uses-state-owned-hisenses-purchase-of-appliance-giant-gorenje-to-exert-influence-in-slovenia/
- Anže Voh Boštic. “Kiberkriminal v Sloveniji (1),” Podčrto.si, January 4, 2015. https://podcrto.si/kiberkriminal-v-sloveniji-1-od-spletnih-prevar-do-vohljanja-tajnih-sluzb/
- A Chinese entrepreneur offered illicit payments to several influential employees of the Post of Slovenia to ensure that the Chinese partially state-owned security inspection products company, Nuctech, gets selected in a public tender bid “Kitajka podkupovala, da bi uspela na razpisu Pošte Slovenije,” Delo, July 7, 2017. https://old.delo.si/novice/kronika/kitajka-podkupovala-da-bi-uspela-na-razpisu-poste-slovenije.html).
- Damir Marusic, “Corrosive Capital in the Western Balkans: An Analysis of Four High Impact Chinese Investments,” Center for Private Enterprise, May 20, 2021. https://euagenda.eu/upload/publications/cipe-damir-report-20210520.pdf
- Citizen D. “Huawei captures Balkan’s hearts and minds,” European Digital Rights (EDRi), February 10, 2021. https://edri.org/our-work/huawei-and-balkans/
- Shunqing Wang. “Enotnost in znanost sta ključni pri spopadanju s pandemijo,” Dnevnik, August 30, 2021. https://www.dnevnik.si/1042971939/mnenja/odprta-stran/enotnost-in-znanost-sta-kljucni-pri-spopadanju-s-pandemijo ; “Cooperation far outweighs differences between China, EU: Chinese FM,” Global Times, December 2, 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1208714.shtml
Nina Pejič, “Twists and Turns; Chinese-Slovene Relations in the Pandemic Era,” In “China’s Engagement in CEEC”, AIES, 2021, p.108-110. https://www.aies.at/download/2021/Chinas_Engagement_in_Central_and_Eastern_European_Countries.pdf
- Wang Jiamei. “BRI an essential platform for cooperation with Slovenia in post-coronavirus era,” Global Times, May 18, 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202005/1188736.shtml
- “China.” Spirit Slovenija, 2020, https://www.izvoznookno.si/drzave/kitajska/poslovno-sodelovanje-s-slovenijo/
- Bertram Lang. “What Europe Thinks … About Dealing with China,” Internationale Politik Quarterly, March 30, 2021. https://ip-quarterly.com/en/what-europe-thinks-about-dealing-china
- “Janša sees China as NATO’s key challenge,” STA, June 14, 2021. https://english.sta.si/2912116/jansa-sees-china-as-natos-key-challenge
- “Strategija zunanje politike Republike Slovenije,” Ministrstvo za zunanje zadeve, December 2021. https://www.gov.si/assets/ministrstva/MZZ/Dokumenti/strateski-in-programski-dokumenti/strategija_ZP.pdf
- Sienna Parulis-Cook. “The Southeastern Europe Chinese Tourism Boom,” Dragon Trail, January 8, 2020. https://dragontrail.com/resources/blog/chinese-tourism-southeastern-europe ; “Kitajski turisti v Sloveniji lani s skoraj 160.000 prenočitvami,” Dnevnik, February 5, 2020. https://www.dnevnik.si/1042921522
- The Center relies on the funding provided by the EU and has no direct China relationship (Centre for Cooperation with China, SRC Koper, 2022. https://www.zrs-kp.si/index.php/research-2/csk/).
- Among the most prominent results of bilateral scientific cooperation is in the field of supercomputing, which resulted into a Slovene-Chinese virtual laboratory for high-performance computing; “Unveiling the Slovene-Chinese Laboratory for Supercomputing,” University of Ljubljana, May 30, 2018. https://www.uni-lj.si/news/news/2018061808174349/. Another important collaboration project is in the field of mineral wool: University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering has signed an agreement with Guangdong University of Petrochemical Technology to transfer the knowledge to the Chinese academic and business environment, establishing an experimental laboratory in the AMIMRI, creating a PhD program on studying mineral wool technology, partnering on research studies and creating patents; “Kitajcem prodali znanje o mineralni volni,” Delo, September 21, 2020. https://www.delo.si/gospodarstvo/novice/kitajcem-prodali-znanje-o-mineralni-volni/
- On an institutional level, faculties, libraries and museums have frequently faced pressure to comply with Chinese demands, especially on the matter of “one China” policy. On an individual level, academics and researchers have often opted to avoid sensitive topics or soften public criticism of Beijing; Saša Istenič, “Is it OK to say Taiwan?” The Asia Dialogue, January 5, 2016. https://theasiadialogue.com/2016/01/05/the-1992-consensus-in-the-international-arena/).