This story was produced by Meta.mk as part of the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
One of the most noticeable forms of Chinese “soft power” in North Macedonia, a country bidding for and European Union membership while already being part of NATO, is its influence in the field of higher education.
Chinese influence in higher education in North Macedonia is focused primarily on the several public universities, as a result of ongoing cooperation, student exchanges and various agreements and memoranda of understanding. The champions of this cooperation are Ss. Cyril and Methodius University (UKIM) from Skopje, Goce Delčev University from Štip, and University of Information Science and Technology “St. Paul The Apostle” from Ohrid.
Meanwhile, available data indicates that the number of students from North Macedonia who went to study in China is increasing, along with the number of students studying the Chinese language through the Confucius Institute in Skopje. The research paper ”Understanding the tools, narratives and impact of Chinese “soft power” in North Macedonia” by think tank ESTIMA and Konrad Adenauer Foundation notes:
Probably the most important and long-term strategy for anchoring China’s soft power in North Macedonia is the opening of the Confucius Institute in Skopje, at the oldest and most renowned public university, Ss. Cyril and Methodius in 2013.
This research has also shown that China has been providing scholarships for Macedonian students for more than 20 years:
Initially starting with 1-2, at present the number of scholarships reaches approximately 10 per year and, according to the words of an education ministry representative, they are always used up. Scholarships are provided in cooperation between the Macedonian Ministry of Education and Science and the Chinese Ministry of Education, specifically the China Scholarship Council. Occasionally the Chinese Ministry of Commerce or the Confucius Institute provide additional opportunities to study or travel in China.
In their analysis “The Chinese Non-business Influence in the Balkans,” the European think tank Blue Europe stresses that Chinese influence in the Balkans is constantly growing, especially in the institutions dealing with culture, education, policies, and journalism directed towards making the Balkan countries dependent on China.
On April 11, 2023, in order to acquire additional data on the Chinese influence on Macedonian higher education, Meta.mk used the Law on Free Access to Public Information (FOIA) to request data from 21 state and private universities, as well as from the Ministry of Education and Science (MES). Journalists received responses from 17 entities within the deadline proscribed by the law, while four higher education institutions did not respond at all.
Confucius Institute only at UKIM
The Ministry of Education and Science (MES) explained that the cooperation in the field of science and technology is based on the Agreement on Scientific and Technical Cooperation between the Macedonian and the Chinese governments signed on March 7, 1995.
This agreement enabled the implementation of scientific and research project activities between both countries but also opened an opportunity for concluding direct Memoranda of Understanding between Macedonian universities and counterparts in China.
“In 2020/2021, 38 projects applied on the call for scientific and technological cooperation, while the Joint Science and Technology Cooperation Commission between the RN Macedonia and PR China decided to fund 20 joint Macedonian-Chinese projects,” the MES informed Meta.mk.
The data on concluded agreements that the universities gave Meta.mk, shows that state universities are most involved when it comes to cooperation with China. Among them, UKIM is the only one that had established a Confucius Institute therein. They informed Meta.mk that the Confucius Institute had 10–15 attendees over 18 years of age of the courses in the Chinese language who also participated in a two-week summer camp in Chengdu within the period 2015–2019.
According to another ESTIMA research paper “Understanding the tools, narratives and impact of Chinese “soft-power” in North Macedonia,” the number of students of Chinese language attending the Confucius Institute within UKIM increased from 60 in the first year to 562 in the academic year 2020–2021, along with the establishment of the Confucius classrooms in different cities countrywide. ESTIMA noted:
The Institute provides free-of-charge lessons in the Chinese language for various types of audiences, starting from preschool children to adults, including university students and professionals from different companies working with China.
Besides hosting the Confucius Institute, UKIM has also been developing Macedonian Studies programs with Chinese universities. One such project, which they consider as most important, led to establishment of the Department of Macedonian Language, Literature and Culture at the Foreign Studies University in Beijing.
“The selected lecturer who delivered online lessons this year will soon travel to Beijing in order to perform physical teaching from September 2023,” the UKIM spokesperson explained to Meta.mk.
UKIM has signed five other cooperation agreements with Chinese universities, however, it didn't provide data regarding the number of other university staff members who have traveled on study visits to China.
Other state universities cooperate with China too
Significant cooperation with China is realized by the Goce Delčev University from Štip, the biggest city in the eastern region of North Macedonia. According to the information Meta.mk received through a free access to public information request, Štip University has signed four agreements, memoranda or other documents for cooperation with Chinese universities, research centers or with the Chinese government.
Regarding the student exchange, three students from Štip University attended a two-week study visit in China as part of the program “Huawei Seeds for Future.” This program has been pointed to as tool of influence in 2021 paper by Central European Institute of Asian Studies.
Significant cooperation with China was accomplished by the University of Information Science and Technology “St. Paul the Apostle,” situated in Ohrid, the southwestern part of the country. In the period from 2015 up to date, a total of nine agreements for projects were implemented with Chinese universities.
Apart from these, a donor agreement with Lanzhou Jiaotong University for equipping a computer laboratory of the University in Ohrid was implemented in 2019. In 2018–2019, a project for co-funding a joint Macedonian-Chinese scientific research project titled “How best universities manage innovations?” had been implemented.
Private universities cooperate with China occasionally
According to data from the State Statistical Office published on July 3, the majority of the nearly 54,000 university students in North Macedonia attend public universities. Still, 22.3 percent or about 12,000 students attend private tertiary educational institutions.
Meta.mk received replies from most of the private higher education institutions in the country, showing that they cooperate significantly less with China.
The South East European University from Tetovo signed only one agreement with the Lanzhou Jiaotong University for the exchange of students and teaching staff, participation in transnational projects as well as an exchange of good practices back in 2018. Only two members of their academic staff have been on a study visit in China so far.
In 2016, University Europa Prima from Skopje was the partner institution in the organization of the Cinematography Festival of Central and Eastern Europe in Ningbo, as part of the festival for cinematography of Southeast Europe.
MES: 40 students in Master's and PhD programs in China in the last eight years
The MES informed Meta.mk that 40 Macedonian students completed their Master’s and PhD studies or attended a year-long specialization in China to learn Chinese language and literature in the period from 2015 to 2023. Additional information on undergraduate studies was not provided.
Every year this ministry announces on its website a call for awarding scholarships to Macedonian students on the basis of a note received from the Chinese Embassy in Skopje. They also publish several other calls for scholarship opportunities offered to Macedonian students by Chinese universities or research centers.
In addition, the Chinese Trade Ministry sponsored a Master's and PhD Study Program on state universities in China for Macedonian students in the academic year 2022–2023 for a duration of one to three years. A year before that, a call for awarding three scholarships for graduate public health studies by Vanke School of Public Health within Tsinghua University was published.
Data received from the MES, as well as from the universities, indicate that Chinese influence in the Macedonian higher education has been increasing over the last few years. Education and science are among key seven categories that the Global Soft Power Index uses to identify main soft power narratives by measuring the level of impact on public opinion. In 2022 it increased China's ranking to fourth in the world, after USA, UK and Germany.