DEBATE: Growing Chinese influence in North Macedonia, while the citizens are dreaming of China as an economic giant
The direct investments in the economy, infrastructure, telecommunications, media, the academic cooperation with universities and the operations of the “Confucius” institutes are strategic instruments of the Chinese influence, not only in North Macedonia, but in other countries as well. Macedonian media do not report enough on the Chinese “soft power” in the country, while the citizens create an abstract, idealistic perception of China. These were the concluding remarks of the panel discussion titled “Understanding the tools, narratives and influences of Chinese “soft power” in North Macedonia”, organized by the Conrad Adenauer Foundation and the ESTIMA Association.
Ana Krstinovska from ESTIMA presented the research “Understanding the tools, narratives and influences of Chinese “soft power” in North Macedonia” at the event, stressing the fact that according to the Global Soft Power Index, China in 2022 holds the 4th place in the world in the general placement, following the USA, Great Britain and Germany.
This year’s research on the presence and the portrayal of China in the media showed that Chinese influence in the country is quite strong, while Macedonia can be ranked in the 3rd place of 17 Central and Eastern European countries.
Unlike other countries in the region, there is no specific evidence of direct Chinese influence in the form of funding or through the ownership structure of a any media outlet In addition, the social networks used in China (Weibo, WeChat) are practically unknown to the Macedonian citizens, stresses Krstinovska’s research.
Nevertheless, in the debate, the Member of Parliament from VMRO-DPMNE, Antonio Miloshoski, warned about the current penetration of TikTok, especially among young people in the country.
ESTIMA’s research was implemented with semi-structured interviews conducted with pre-selected individuals, focus groups and a survey questionnaire to identify the key messages that China wants to impose and those that resonate with the Macedonian public.
In one of the dimensions of appearance of China’s “soft power”, the category “news management” is present through the Macedonian media where the Chinese ambassador writes columns and articles, noticed in some printed and online media in the country.
Krstinovska pointed out that in the second dimension of “soft power”, which is the category “sending strategic messages”, China acts through cultural offers within the framework of cooperation with twin towns or through activities implemented by the Confucius Institute, by translating and publishing books, television programmes such as “Ni Hao” broadcasted on Telma and activities of Chinese companies (Huawei).
Book publishing on the rise
At the panel, Ana Krstinovska mentioned that the number of translated books from Chinese into Macedonian language has increased dramatically in the last few years. From 1978 up to date, a total of 90 Chinese titles have been published in the country, and 50 of them were published from the beginning of 2018 up to date. Half of the translated books are, in fact, children books.
In the third dimension of the presence of “soft power” – in the category “building relations” – including not just the activities of the Confucius Institute, but also the offer of Chinese scholarships, training available through the programme on development of human resources, research projects implemented jointly by both China and our country, memoranda of understanding and the agreements for cooperation and organization of various events – conferences, fairs etc.
“In the last few years, China became more active in implementing joint research projects up to the point that today North Macedonia has more bilateral projects with China than it has with any other country in the world (“a total of 40 in the last 5 years”) Krstinovska’s research notest.
Business, trade, investments most notable
Regarding the response of the Macedonian public towards the tools and tactics applied by the Chinese “soft power”, 163 respondents were surveyed, out of who 135 via electronic questionnaire, 20 via focus groups and 8 via semi-structured interviews.
The first associations of Macedonian citizens for China is business, trade, investments and other economic topics. In this area, China mainly has a positive reputation. As regards governance, although the fact that China is not a democratic, but a one-party and authoritarian country is quite negative, citizens tend to think that China is well governed, with operational and efficient governing processes. In relations to media and communications, the belief that Chinese media are strictly controlled by the state is widespread among the citizens.
The surveyed citizens pointed out that the most positive perception about China lies in the field of culture and heritage. Quite positive was the perception of surveyed persons regarding education and science, while Macedonian citizens deem Chinese society as traditional and conservative. The research showed that in international relations, the reputation of China was neutral, and citizens do not think that China is so much in the business of helping other countries, nor does it invest efforts in environmental protection.
The research concluded that there was a consensus that the cooperation with China was not sufficiently utilized up to date, thus did not bring about specific economic benefits. Macedonian citizens, however, are still hopeful and expect that China can help the country overcome its economic difficulties.
The focus itself on the positive aspects of the cooperation with China, without discussing the Chinese share or influence in some disputable projects as is the case with the motorway project etc. leave the impression that the Chinese model is, in actual fact, what is the basis of Chinese success and that we think that its recycling in our country might lead us to similar results, which is indeed the wrong impression that can influence our understanding of democracy and the values that we advocate, Ana Krstinovska warned.
Daniel Braun from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation stated that the research of Chinese “soft power” is not a desire to confront China, but a wish to discuss the topic. He added that China is capable nowadays to enable infrastructure projects, and it is present in education through the promotion of its departments that secure its “soft power”.
China plans to influence the world in its own way and we must be aware of that, said Daniel Braun from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The Member of Parliament, Antonio Miloshoski, who is also Chair of Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee, believes that comprehensive attention should be devoted to Chinese influence in our country, starting from the use of the Chinese application TikTok, followed by the work of the Confucius Institute and all the way to the economic relations that were developed with this Asian country.
“China is preparing for a greater conflict”, stressed twice Antonio Milososki adding that China deems that time has come for remodelling international order in a way suitable to China.
I think that the least we can do is be careful. Those with more competence and instruments in the area of intelligence, data collection and national security should also be careful and monitor the activities of PR China. It was mentioned that Macedonia might not be a country of strategic interest for China to have such an approach, but I still think that the Chinese potential is quite big – economic, diplomatic, cultural and financial, stated Antonio Milososki.
In the panel discussion, Christopher Nehring gave an interesting presentation on the manner in which Confucius institutes are a tool and strategic instrument of Chinese public diplomacy. As a journalist and a member of the Southeast European Media Programme of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Nehring emphasized that although at first glance this institute seems harmless, still the security services in Germany are monitoring it.
The main purpose of the Confucius Institute is to disseminate an impeccable outlook of China. There are two such institutes in Bulgaria, on the University “St. Kliment Ohridski” in Sofia and on the University in Veliko Trnovo. Christopher Nehring paid special attention on the propaganda publications available at these institutes, but also on the Russian connection of the staff working for them in Bulgaria.
When talking about accessible publications, Nehring mentioned that China is promoting itself as a model versus liberal democracies, while the Chinese Covid-19 policy is promoted as a successful response to the Coronavirus and economic stagnation. The description of the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre in Beijing in the Chinese publications available in Bulgaria is promoted as “a conflict that was crucial for stabilizing Chinese society”.
Confucius Institute in Bulgaria with Soviet and Russian “elements”
Christopher Nehring also mentioned that the publications accessible in the Confucius Institute in Bulgaria are pro-Chinese, pro-Russian, anti-USA, anti-capitalistic and praise the Chinese Communist Party, Мао and Deng Xiaoping.
In addition, he had noticed that the staff employed in both Confucius Institutes in Bulgaria were persons educated in Moscow in the course of the 1970-ties and 1980-ties, and some of the employees were connected with the Bulgarian Secret Service in the 1980-ties during the communist regime. Nehring added that that was not the case in Bulgaria only.
His address pinpointed that the Bulgarian universities and China had concluded over 200 cooperation agreements. What was a real dilemma however, was how will China benefit from the work of these two institutes and the established links and connections in the future.
This article has been produced within the project Fact-Checking the Progress of North Macedonia towards the EU, implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation. The article, originally published by Truthmeter,, is made possible by the support of the American non-profit foundation NED (National Endowment for Democracy). The content of this article is the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, NED or their partners.