China as an Example: Media Promotion of the Undemocratic Value System
One of the significant negative influences in North Macedonia that most frequently is entirely overlooked, is the influence of China. This influence becomes even greater in conditions of great corruption in the country, decreased trust of the citizens in the institutions and their ability to deal with the issue and somewhat of an institutional chaos stemming from the abuse of democratic values and structures
Author: Professor Mirjana Najchevska,PhD, legal state and human rights expert
Unlike the Russian influence in North Macedonia that, to a large extent, penetrates thanks to the linguistic similarities, the religion and the wider knowledge of the citizens of North Macedonia about Russian culture, art, and history, Chinese influence is related to something completely different.
Namely, the ordinary citizens know little about China, have limited information about the political events, including everyday life and problems faced by the Chinese people, and therefore, become an easy target of one-sided and powerful propaganda that manages to infiltrate North Macedonia with partial information or information without context and, above all, with insufficiently analyzed information.
In a situation with limited information and knowledge, it is quite easy to mix up Chinese propaganda with the simple promotion of one’s own “different” way of resolving issues and to perceive it as one of the options for development instead of unacceptable civilization values.
Researching Chinese influence in North Macedonia has been featured in the last few years (with a large gap from previous times). One of the few research organizations that pays special attention to Chinese influence on the Balkans, especially in North Macedonia is Estima (Understanding the tools, narratives and impact of China’s “soft power” in North Macedonia).
Chinese influence through Macedonian language media can be grouped in a few clusters.
One of the elements that fascinate the citizens of North Macedonia when it comes to China, is the firm-hand policy applied by the state in dealing with the fight against corruption and the abuse of official position, but also the crime not related to the official positions.
With unhidden gratification, media often publish headlines and contents about court proceedings and imposed most severe sentences (including capital punishment) on the politicians in China who “were caught” abusing a given position:
AA (Anadolu Agency) in Macedonian language has published the following headline: China’s ex-justice minister sentenced to death for corruption.
He was accused of “taking advantage” of his position between 2005 and 2021, including accepting bribes of about 16.76 million dollars and “bending the law for personal gains”, specifies the article.
This kind of fascination was much more conspicious in the period 2010-2015 than today:
• Two officials executed for corruption in China (2011)– makfax
• Ex-member of the Chinese Politburo accused for corruption (2013)– Faktor
• Current Chinese President, like no other predecessor is determined to deal with corruption in the country, taking the approach – I will not take pity on whoever I strike. These are some of the officials that he sacrificed. (2015) – off.net.mk
• China: 10,000 civil servants shot for corruption in the last 12 years (2015) – Faktor
Although this kind of news is less frequent in the upcoming years, that does not imply its full absence. In a different context and with somewhat different packaging, similar messages were transmitted promoting the firm-hand concept. What is conspicious is that the capital sentence is being imposed for various kinds of offences: from arson, poisoning, human trafficking, to corruption, as can be seen by numerous examples from 2014, 2014, 2016, 2016 and 2017.
The uncritical promotion of these kinds of content is entirely opposed to the EU-orientation of North Macedonia, but also with its years-long membership in the Council of Europe, including the ratified European Convention on Human Rights, which explicitly bans capital punishment.
The following years, a group of more influential Macedonian media whose production is indexed by Timе.mk news reader, decrease the amount of news related to this topic, from 8 in 2018, 19 in 2019, 18 in 2020, 22 in 2021 and none in 2022.
In absence of any correlation with human rights in these articles, and civilization development of the penal system including international agreements related to banning capital punishment, these kinds of articles can only serve to encourage the idea of its return and regression from the already accepted values within the UN framework, above all, the Council of Europe’s.
Reflections of such articles have long-term influence and they bounce back, over and over again, on the social networks:
FB status with 451 likes and 176 shares
Tweet still shared on the social networks
Slightly less than in the previous period, media are still contributing to building the myth about China’s relentless fight against corruption.
A1on.mk has shared:
Today, China’s anti-corruption authorities announced that an investigation against the former Chinese Minister of Justice, Fu Zhenghua, was initiated.
Numerous communist officials and businessmen have already fallen since President Xi Jinping launched the operation “Clean Hands” in 2013, targeting the Army, the commercial sector and the political environment.
China condemned money worshipping, extreme individualism and corruption
A limited number of media explain or suspect the goals behind this ”relentless fight against corruption” (for example,Kajgana):
Monitors believe that Xi’s proclaimed anti-corruption campaign is used to eliminate his political opponents and other party-fractions. In the last decade, the anti-corruption bodies have investigated more than 4.7 million people.
Even less media publish analyses related to such undertakings where penalizing is put in context of current political events in North Macedonia, i.e., in context of data collected by international human rights protection organizations. For example, Okno pays attention to the side events of moment:
China punished more than one and a half million officials in the last five years as part of the governmental anti-corruption campaign. According to Amnesty International, China has executed “thousands”. The exact number is a state-secret. The upward trend of penalized officials shows just how much corruption remains persistent in the “socialism with Chinese features”.
The firm-hand method causing so much satisfaction is not put only in context of the fight against corruption, but also in the resolution of everyday problems and challenges faced by society. “Motika”, for example, published a short text about that titled: How China deals with computer-addicted teenagers?”
The name of the camp is “Centre for Mental Growth of Chinese Teenagers”. Parents simply take their children there, while the methods applied are military. The teenagers who spent 10 hours per day playing video games before coming to the camp, will not even see a computer, not to mention Internet or a video game in the next three or more months, says the text.
Even more drastic is the text published on BloombergAdria (in Macedonian language):
China sanctioned officials for “ugly” drawings in textbooks
None of these articles questions the human rights and freedoms issue, their violations or the approximation of the regulations of the State (China) within the framework of the internationally recognized standards. Lately, in some media (for example the text titled ”Chinese autocracy in crisis” republished by Nezavisen (Independent), articles can be identified recognizing Chinese autocracy which is an essential part of China’s activities in North Macedonia.
Frequently, the firm-hand policy is compatible with the concept of a special kind of democracy in China, based on such a policy of a one-party system.
Faktor (Factor) promoted that very concept with the article titled “REPORT FROM CHINA: Democracy the Chinese way!” To secure credibility, the article starts with an alleged statement of an unknown Chinese intellectual:
We want harmony and stability, not chaos and arguments”. I heard this sentence from a Chinese intellectual who speaks perfect English, has visited numerous foreign universities, has been a lecturer there, has read tons of books and absolutely knows the definition of “democracy”. However, he says, in the communist regime that China is living, democracy would be destroying the current harmony. The Communist Party of China that has been running the country for decades, is the biggest political party in the world with 80 million members. But as a percentage of the overall population in China, the party has 6 percent support of the Chinese. I personally realized that influential people living and working in China are dedicated to the success of this kind of a political system.
This is grounded with a very clear message (also from an unknown intellectual):
Economic life is still determined by the political context. Thus, an intellectual notes: If you are not against the State and party, you can run your business and nobody will do anything to you.
Similar is the article published in Denehsen (Today) titled “JINPING: Real democracy in Hong Kong started with its return to China“.
Once returned to its motherland, inhabitants of Hong Kong became masters of their own city. The real democracy in Hong Kong started at that moment, stressed Xi, says the article.
The second element opening a channel for great influence in North Macedonia is the admiration for the growing economy of China. This segment also deals with partial information and always beyond any kind of context of the protection of human rights or specific work-related rights (unions, right to strike, court protection).
Unanimously, the media publish information related to China’s economic growth. This is also true for specialized media/portals such as the portal Bankarstvo (Banking), that publish data taken from World Bank or other relevant sources.
The conclusion disseminated is that China’s economic growth is undobtedly evident and even in pandemic conditions, China did not stagnate unlike many other countries.
Macedonian media disseminate information related to China’s economic growth, but also statements, positions and opinions of Chinese politicians. For example, the medium Faktor published under the title “CHINESE ECONOMY CONTINUES TO GROW – it is resilient to all challenges; the whole world will benefit from the development of China” writes:
According to economic experts led by the economic guidance of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, China remains a strong supporter of globalization and multilateralism while dealing with renewed protectionism and global economically opposed winds…
Chinese President continuously repeats that China’s determination to further open itself to the external world remains resolute. Last November, calling such opening “trademark of modern China”, Xi in the keynote speech of the opening ceremony of the Fourth CIIE said “we shall not change our determination to open more, with a higher standard; we will not change our commitment to share development opportunities with the rest of the world; and we will not change our devotion to economic globalization which is more open, more inclusive, more balanced and more beneficial for all.
The admiration of the Macedonians for the Chinese economy does not correspond with the direct participation of Chinese investments or specifically with the economic presence (which can be seen from the official data, for example, of the Central Bank of North Macedonia). A great upswing in this area however, is constantly being hinted at.
The first association of the Macedonian citizens for China is business, trade, investments and other economic topics. In this area, China mainly enjoys a positive reputation.
Even from the official websites of the ministries in North Macedonia one can see that Macedonia invests a great deal of trust in the cooperation with China regardless of the large number of negative practice experienced, especially with the economic deals with China.
For example, the portal Sloboden pecat (Free Press) published:
The Urban transport public enterprise “Skopje” states that procurement of spare parts is made difficult because they cannot be procured from potential suppliers, bearing in mind the fact that original spare parts for “Yutong” vehicles almost do not exist and even the equaivalent parts to the spare parts can hardly be found as too expensive, with an unrealistic price for the quality offered.
Glasot na Amerika (Voice of America) in Macedonian language, under the title “What are the challenges of Chinese investments in North Macedonia?”, analyzes:
Seven years since the beginning of its construction, the motorway Ohrid-Kicevo is not completed. The loan from the Chinese Exim Bank, instead of the initial 561 million Dollars, reached more than 772 million Dollars or approximately 600 million EUR with the accompanying Annexes. Even if the new works deadline is met, that would mean a three and a half year delay in terms of the initially agreed conditions.
Quite often, the pompously announced joint projects are not concluded with implementation. That however, does not diminish the enthusiasm with the announcement of every new possible investment by China. On the contrary, again and again, ardent messages are communicated for some kind of big and future cooperation. For example Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia) states:
In the post-pandemic era, the relations between China and North Macedonia will constantly prosper, with closer contacts between the people, more practical exchanges and cooperation in various areas, stresses Zhang Zuo, Ambassador of PR China in our country for the interview for “Nova Makedonija”. As he puts it, China is ready to work with Macedonia and make use of significant opportunities provided by the “Belt and Road Initiative” and to promote practical cooperation in various areas such as trade, infrastructure, agriculture, culture, education and healthcare.
Very rarely do research findings from this area find their place in the media. They are almost not mentioned and information about the possible effect of this kind of Chinese influence hardly reaches the citizens, especially about the democratic development of the country.
For example, the policy paper titled “Hustled into a Dead End: The Delusional Belief in Chinese Corrosive Capital for the Construction of North Macedonia’s Highways“, of the Institute for Democracy in Skopje points out:
It raises serious concerns over North Macedonian authorities’ resilience to corruption and their willingness to ignore the rule of law and execute projects of this kind in opaque and non-inclusive manners. It appears China’s way of working is opposite from the political and economic model and liberal values North Macedonia strives to achieve through its alliances (NATO) and prospective membership in the EU.
The enthusiasm did not diminish even after discovering with the eavesdropping scandal the deals related to corruption of Chinese investments in North Macedonia (data from the study “Place of North Macedonia in China’s Strategy for the Western Balkans”, supported by the Foundation Konrad Adenauer).
Criticism of the “West”
The third element through which very strong Chinese multilayer influence is displayed in North Macedonia is the criticism that China is directing towards the Western European countries and the USA.
In conditions of civic fatigue stemming from the long and completely uncertain process of EU association, ongoing attacks from the neighbouring countries (EU Member-States) and the internal disputes that clearly draw a line of imbalanced international support, the criticism that China is directing towards the Western European countries, and especially towards the USA (usually as part of a developed propaganda facility) is landing on fertile soil.
For example, in the newspaper Nova Makedonija, one can read:
China’s modernization will be performed in harmony with nature. The Beijing Government offers an alternative to Western development. Apart from meeting people’s growing needs for a better life and nice environment, the Chinese way to modernization offers other countries a new, alternative way towards prosperity… Stressing the fact that modernization is a concept shaped by the Western developed nations, he said that the Western model sees profit as a priority instead of the environment.
This implies quite explicitly that Western democracies do not consider the environment in their development plans, nor do they think about the welfare of people. Such conclusions are opposed to the pollution related data, waste-management and especially the ambience air in the Western democracies and in China (that are part of many reports related to environmental protection). For example, according to EPI (Environmental Performance Index), China is on place 160 of 180 countries covered in the research).
Even more drastic is the situation with transmitting China’s criticism of the USA. The statements of official China referring to the USA are usually reported without any comments or without analyzing the problems thereof.
For example, MKD.mk features an article titled “China: American democracy is a tool for mass destruction“. The article, inter alia, states:
For a long time, democracy has been used as a “mass destruction tool by the USA to interfere in other countries”, said the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs giving an online statement thereby accusing the USA for “encouraging colourful revolutions” abroad.
With no additional comment, this shared information not only implies directly that “Western” democracy is fake and serves for subduing other countries, but is also puts it directly in context of North Macedonia with the clear association of the Colourful Revolution and an open attempt to devalue the democratic background.
Similar is the case with this article published by MKD.mk:
On the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, China called the USA to “immediately stop violating human rights and undertake efficient measures to prevent further deterioration of the human rights situation in the country”.
Adding that “American soldiers were killing and torturing unselectively innocent people in the military operations overseas”, while “the USA imposed one-sided enforced measures that seriously violate international law in certain development countries brought about severe human rights offences and humanitarian crises”, the Chinese representative called the country to “undertake specific measures to stop further deterioration of the human rights situation”.
This kind of articles without taking into consideration the events surrounding human rights in China and without elementary comparison of the state of affairs of human rights in both countries or revealing the response provided by the USA regarding the claimed accustaions, is spreading direct Chinese propaganda directed towards devaluing many researches and reports on the condition of human rights in both countries, putting into relative terms the human rights standards adopted by both countries, as well as distracting the attention from the great human rights violations in China itself.
Similar effect was achieved with the publication of the Chinese perception of the visit of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of China in 2022 on the portal Kumanovski Muabeti (Kumanovo Conversations):
In discussion with the UN Commissioner, Xi said that China – for the purpose of jointly promoting international human rights protection to serve people from every country – was prepared to get actively involved in the human rights dialogue and the cooperation with other parties, on the basis of equality and mutual (cooperation) in order to build consensus and diminish differences.
Stressing the fact that countries differ in history, culture, social order and level of economic and social development, Xi said that they must promote and protect human rights in compliance with the national reality and the needs of its people.
Here, nevertheless, it is not noted that China has not ratified several very important UN documents from the field of human rights (including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), followed by the inability of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct conversations with citizens and organizations without the presence of representatives of the authorities during her last visit of China, and, of course, the findings of this report whose publication China tried to stop openly. Contrary to this, Macedonian media publish:
The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in discussion with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that the human rights of the Chinese people are protected like never before and that China successfully opened the road to human rights development in compliance with the trends and national conditions.
The spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said that the United States of America ”made a fortune” from the conflict in Ukraine. Europe is paying the price of that conflict, especially from a viewpoint of inflation of the energy price, he said.
This kind of “information” appear even more after Russia’s military aggression of Ukraine.
For example, the portal MAKFAX, under the title “Beijing: International community must respond to USA pressures” states the following:
Chinese authorities believe that it is necessary for the international community to unite against the “reckless” pressure of the USA and its interference in the internal affairs of other countries, specifies today’s announcement published on the website of the Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
The case referred to is the visit of the American Speaker of the US House of Representatives of Taiwan. Therefore, it would be appropriate to provide some context about the China-Taiwan relations, otherwise only China’s claim that the USA is meddling with the internal affairs of sovereign states prevails.
Even in terms of the specific problems related to the China-Taiwan conflict (that is becoming an identity conflict in the last decades) our media frequently publish direct products of the Chinese propaganda machinery:
Is the War Inevitable? China Found a Way to Conquer the USA in Taiwan
If someone thinks that China “was shamed” by allowing Pelosi to fly to Taiwan regardless of its own frightful warnings, then such a conclusion would be incorrect. Beijing undertook the initiative to interpret the incident, and now most of the countries in the world (without the US allies in NATO and the Anglosaxon countries) agree with the Chinese authorities that Washington brought the situation in the region to a dangerous point with its provocative trick.
These kind of articles fall within the wider context of articles spreading Russian propaganda. The article published in the portal MKD.mk can also be seen in this respect:
Russia and China together creating an honest world order
Lavrov stated that the key allies, China and Russia, are moving towards a new world order beyond the “illegal sanctions of the West against Moscow”.
“The parties noted the counterproductive nature of illegal sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States of America and its sattelites”, stated Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Unlike many other countries, China refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The American authorities accused Beijing for “signalling preparedness” to help Russia, both in military and in economic sense. American President, Joe Biden, compared Russian invasion of Ukraine with the Chinese violent suppression of the student protests that took place on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The uncritical publishing of propaganda contents produced by Chinese party media, enhances the Russian support rhetoric and builds distrust towards Europe, especially towards the USA.
A1on.mk republished an article titled “China and Russia pose serious problems to the USA” taken over from the Chinese newspaper Global Times (without specifying that the medium is Chinese) according to which:
The strategic partnership between Russia and China is of key importance for providing peace and security on the Euroasian continent. They can play a constructive role in sustaining global order and justice, states the newspaper “Global Times”.
As a sign of solidarity with other peoples, Moscow and Beijing persistently promote multipolarity and greater democratization of international relations, by resolutely opposing Washington’s attempts to impose its ideals on everyone and to cause a new Cold War, specifies the newspaper.
Similar is the article published by TRTBalkan
Putin said that geopolitical tensions strengthened the role of Russian-Chinese partnership as a stabilizing factor.
On his side, Chinese President, Xi Jinping, said that Beijing is ready to enhance its strategic cooperation with Russia and to be global partners “for the sake of both countries and in the interest of global stability”.
Chinese and Russian influence are complementary, thereby creating an assumption for the need of general defence from a common enemy (the West).
For example, Kanal 5 under the title: ”Russia and China published a joint announcement against NATO and the independence of Taiwan” quotes the announcement:
“Russian side is reiterating its support for the Chinese policy, thereby confirming that Taiwan is an integral part of China and opposing any form of independence”, specifies the announcement.
Stopping NATO enlargement towards Russia’s neighborhood is the main requirement of Kremlin in the dispute with the West regarding Ukraine.
Such a manner in transmitting statements of Russian and Chinese leaders, in fact, creates the impression of NATO as the aggressor instead of the two countries – China and Russia – trying to conquer new territories beyond their borders.
One can notice that the media are uncritically publishing statements of Chinese politicians using the same phrases as those of the Russian politicians. The medium Sloboden Pecat (Free Press) quotes the statement of the Spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreig Affairs, Wang Wenbin:
In the new year, China is ready to work with Russia on strengthening strategic ties and deepening practical cooperation as to contribute to the advancement of democratization of international relations, establishing more fair and rational international order and facilitating the setting up of a community with a common future for mankind, said Wang.
In recent years more information on and about China can be noticed in some media that (un)willingly become spokespersons of the Chinese government.
Frequently these articles represent an open condemnation of NATO, condemnation of US policy, support for Russia, and a straightforward propaganda content depicting China as the a progressive leader and protector of human rights and the front-runner of development in North Macedonia and the region…
Some media go even further and participate in direct production contracts for promotion of China as part of the programme supported by the Chinese government. For example, the production of the programme “Nihao” on TV Telma, acknowledges at the very end of the programme ”We are grateful to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of North Macedonia”, which can be interpreted as a programme sponsored directly from PR China. The programme (promoted also on FB) consists of interwined cultural, current affairs and sheer party-propaganda contents that promote the Chinese value system.
Although frequently called “soft influence” which is not that obvious, the impact of China in North Macedonia cannot be undermined. Chinese propaganda contents is becoming more widespread and steady and often represented as an alternative value system accepted by North Macedonia in the last 30 years.
First to suffer from such influence are the human rights – both the general understanding of the value system packaged in the human rights concept and the individual handling of violations of specific rights i.e., their minimization. This is especially dangerous in a situation of extreme mistrust of the citizens of North Macedonia in the institutions (in particular in the overall judicial system) and midst an unsuccessful fight against corruption of the government. One such influence can quite easily lead to abandoning the human rights principles and embracing authoritarian solutions disguised as efficient fight against corruption and/or introducing order and security in the country.
Second to suffer is democracy and the orientation of North Macedonia towards the democratic systems of the EU Member-States. One-sided transmission of criticsm, accusations and opinions of Chinese politicians beyond the context of the global, political and legal predicament of China compared to EU Member-States and the USA, and without balanced representation of the counter-arguments of this criticism, creates the impression that the Chinese model is an equally desired alternative for North Macedonia quite easily.
Third significant element being open for Chinese influence (especially in the current moment of Russian aggression of Ukraine) is that a backdoor entrance is gaping for an even bigger Russian impact. Presenting Russia and China as countries that offer an alternative, minimizes the negative perception of the Russian aggression of Ukraine and introduces it as part of a global conceptual restructuring effort justifying the aim it wants to accomplish.