22 December 2020

China – from „soft power” to „smart power” through mass-media in Central and Eastern Europe

Stelian Teodorescu

As everyone already knows, the „soft power” concept was firstly introduced by Joseph Nye, in 1990, and it talks about the “ability to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion or payment”.

Image source: Mediafax

J. Nye explained the distinction between “hard power” and “soft power” and he was also the first to set the “soft power” theory. The “smart power” concept (“the ability to combine “hard power” and “soft power” in a successful strategy) became popular after the Clinton and the Obama administrations’ members started to use it.

It became quite clear that a country can get “soft power” through three resources: culture, internal values and foreign policies – when they are seen as being legitimate and lead to moral authority, prestige and, eventually, to creating the sought-after partner image.

Thus, analyzing China’s economic activities and the investments made in countries in South-East Europe, we can state that all of these are contributing to country’s reputation in the region; but, in fact, re-imposing the economic force of the Asian giant is somewhere between the “soft power” and the “hard power”, the first contrasting with the second because, as I was saying, the latter comes from diplomacy, culture and history.

 Given the context, we must be extremely attentive, when needed, with identifying the smooth connections between the “soft power” and the “hard power”, especially if we become aware that the hard power is no longer defined through the use of military methods, but through other means as well, like the economic ones or, as proved lately, by the mass-media, to influence the behavior or impose one’s interests in other environments, including the political one.

Imposing a type of power is often aggressive (constraint), being quicker and more effective when appealing to mass-media in the political and social plan to take action over another identity which has also a smaller military and/or economic power.

We can underline here the presentation, on December 9th, of a study written by Vladimir Shopov, an expert in foreign relations and member of the European Council for Foreign Relations, a study according to which China has a significant position in the mass-media field in South-East Europe, Beijing increasing now its presence in the mass-media in the entire region.

For the study “Getting on the Radar: China’s Rising Media Presence in South-East Europe”, V. Shopov has made 40 interviews in eight countries, between September and November 2020, with different “media experts, journalists, political analysts and researchers, university lecturers, diplomats, politicians and business people”, the author using also researchers in the field for it.

According to some analyses in the international environment, it is important that, in this region, China has created a media cooperation framework increasingly intense, both with the public media institutions and the private ones. Although “the focus is more on economy and businesses”, the activities will quickly reach the mass-media as well, to include the so-called positive policy of Beijing, all of this departing from what is happening, but lacking a “critical content”.

Thus, we can say that the news is focused on the Chinese economic projects, although the Chinese companies do not talk too much to the media. The report, published in collaboration with the Foundation Konrad Adenauer, is highlighting the aspects related to China’s involvement in the field in CEE, including in each country in the Western Balkans, mentioning that the news agency Xinhau from China has official collaboration agreements with similar agencies from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), North Macedonia and Serbia, where is often organizing study visits in China for the journalists in those specific states. Such visits are organized also for those in Croatia and Montenegro, despite the lack of extended collaboration contracts.

For example, the free delivery of media content, such as documentaries "on China's system of government", was made in Albania under a 2019 agreement, with the media here reporting mainly on bilateral relations with China, conducting interviews with Chinese officials, while the Chinese embassy in Tirana encouraged young people to write about China's management of the pandemic.

Unlike the Xinhua correspondents from Albania, in BiH they are engaged in activities that go beyond journalism, like teaching certain classes in universities.

“An important mass-media actor is the regional media Kina-Danas, focused on China”, whose activity dates back in 2014, reflecting the Beijing agenda and working as a regional mass-media entity, meanwhile in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Agency Telegraph is often distributing the Xinhua photo content. Another Chinese news source, “Economic Daily” is presenting for years in Sofia, meanwhile the news website “24 Hours” has created a section entirely based on Chinese sources and content, called “Focus China” and also interesting is that there are different websites in this country which are presenting Beijing’s views.

The official collaboration of Croatia with the Chinese mass-media is considered weak and “the main cooperation platform are the annual study visits for the Croatian journalists”. The increased number of reports from the local media about China is focused on individual projects or the relations between China and the US. The bi-weekly newspaper “Globus” has a supplement on China and there are unofficial reports on the failed attempts of the Chinese companies to acquire the Croatian mass-media organizations.

In Kosovo, as China is not recognizing the statehood of this province it creates an “extremely limited space for interaction”, but the Beijing liaison office, although barely visible, is intensifying its activities. The local reports are focused mainly on the relations between Serbia and China and the non-recognition of Kosovo by Beijing.

In Montenegro, the Chinese mass-media is freely offering media content to the local mass-media, the Montenegrin events being covered by the Xinhua correspondents to Belgrade.

Reporting on the developments in China is increasing also in North Macedonia, although “most of the news is related to economy, developing or possible bilateral projects” and often is just translations of Western mass-media.

In 2016, China’s State Council Information Office signed a collaboration agreement with Serbia’s Ministry of Culture, which intensified “media collaboration at the institutional level”.

News items in Serbia on China are often very positive, with “all projects … presented as investments while in most cases they are being funded via loans”, the report notes. Reporting on Chinese embassy activities is mainly managed by the Serbian state, and “critical outlets are visibly kept at a distance”.

Unlike other parts of the CEE, like the Czech Republic, there are not proofs that the communication methods from the SEE region are directly owned by Chinese entities. However, there are at least five different methods China uses to influence the media fields and project its power in South-East Europe.

The Twitter, Facebook and Google emails are forbidden in the continental China, but these are omnipresent communication means used by Beijing in many parts of the world. Lately, an increasing number of ambassadors from China have connected toTwitter just to send messages to a large audience. As for the SEE region, Xinhua has a Romanian Twitter account, @XHRomania, which dates back in 2015.

The CEE China Institute, founded in Budapest, is, also, present on social media and has a Facebook page, as well as Twitter and Linkedin accounts. The number of likes and followers on its Facebook page is impressive, the Institute covering 18 countries, including China. It is noteworthy that the Facebook page of the Albanian-Chinese Friendship Association has a great experience, with 659 members since September 2019, and the Facebook page of the Chinese-Romanian Association (CHINARO) is also doing pretty well, having 2000 followers and likes, starting with November 2019.

One tendency that needs to be taken into account is the gap between elites and society as a whole. A recent study in Greece established a distinctive pattern of how China is portrayed in the national media. Pro-government media tend to be more friendly with China because: it presents more positive news in relation to China; has a more positive tone in the transmission of stories related to China; it would focus on Sino-Greek relations to a greater extent than the pro-opposition media. A similar conclusion emerges from an associated study conducted in Hungary: media sources considered to be close to the government is publishing much more positive news about China, while the opposition media publish more negative news.

Since the outbreak of protests in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019, Chinese embassies in the EEC have approached numerous EEA press briefings with offers to publish interviews with embassy staff promoting the "official exposure" of the protests. Apart from the Visegrad-4 states and the Baltic countries, similar articles were seen in the media in Northern Macedonia, BiH and Montenegro. It is interesting to note that several identical phrases were found in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Northern Macedonia, and in Slovak articles, indicating a coordinated effort to direct the discourse to the official Chinese narrative.

Therefore, it is important that, in addition to the work-related documents, the China-EEC Institute sponsored a survey of China's image in the EEC, including in the EEA region. Although the thematic scope of the exercise was quite narrow and anticipated a positive outcome, some of the conclusions are encouraging for the Chinese authorities and companies active in south-eastern Europe. The survey shows that Albania seems to be the best-informed nation in the region (50%), followed by Serbia (44%), Montenegro (37%), Romania (31%), Northern Macedonia and BiH (26%), Slovenia (21%), Croatia (16%) and Bulgaria (11%).

It is truly remarkable that, unlike the increasingly unfavorable provision in other parts of the EU, the EEA countries are treating China in a much friendlier way. The key reason for Beijing's significant influence in EEA countries was their expectation that Beijing could help the region emerge from underdevelopment and catch up with economically advanced European states.

China’s increasing presence in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), including here South-East Europe as well, did not go unnoticed and is provoking an intense debate on the nature of its influence in the entire region. Now, the international analysis environment is looking for answers to some key questions: What’s the future “soft power” projection of Beijing in the region? Can we talk about “smart power”? How are the “soft power” efforts helping China to reach its objectives in South-East Europe, including the Western Balkans here as well? What else would it be necessary for future researches on the “soft power” and “smart power” capacities of China in the entire region?

Translated by Andreea Soare