For more than a decade, China has been striving to strengthen its influence beyond its own borders. Central and Eastern Europe is a region of particular concern for Beijing. Through economic investment, diplomatic relations, cultural bridge building, and especially disinformation and public diplomacy campaigns, Beijing has attempted to persuade and coerce governments, organizations and media across the region. If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to successfully strengthen its influence, it would allow China to have an increasingly powerful contribution in policy-making in European and regional institutions via member states. Tracking, quantifying and analyzing all of Beijing’s vectors of influence is essential to help the nations of Central and Eastern Europe forge sound, independent and democratic policies for the future.

As part of the #CCPinCEE project, CEPA worked closely with Omelas and 17 national experts to create a dashboard to analyze the online influence of CCP on digital environments in Central and Eastern Europe. Using exploratory data analysis, correlation analysis, and regression modeling, CEPA and Omelas were able to provide detailed insight into CCP digital influence campaigns in 17 countries, revealing critical insights into how the China is trying to build its influence, successes and failures across the region, and how democracies can respond to these influence operations.

CEPA and Omelas collected more than two dozen metrics, which were derived from both CCP-created media and national media referencing China, and tested which of these polling data best predicted China’s preference. each country towards China. To understand the extent of online influence in each country, CEPA and Omelas analyzed more than 820,000 social media posts, communication app posts and online articles from October 1, 2021 to April 1, 2022. from countries that are currently or formerly under the 17+1 initiative.

Measures with a statistically significant correlation were then used to create a weighted score, summarizing the online influence of CCP and pro-CCP narratives in each country. National experts provided valuable research, sources and commentary to ensure this dashboard incorporates key national and CCP sources. #CCPinCEE research reports written by local experts served as the benchmark for this index and were used to help weigh the scores in three main brackets: minor, certain and considerable. Each level represents the intensity of the CCP’s influence in each country.

As the map shows, Lithuania has the lowest level of influence in the region, mainly due to two factors. Firstly, Lithuania’s withdrawal from the former 17+1 (now 14+1) initiative, which prompted the other two Baltic countries to withdraw as well, and secondly, the opening of the Taiwan embassy in Vilnius, which received strong reactions from Beijing. These developments have strained and drastically reduced China’s involvement in Lithuania to almost non-existent levels.

The data reveals that countries outside the European Union are much more susceptible to Chinese influence, as China exploits “loopholes” that national governments or international organizations have failed to fill. Specifically, the CCP has a strong grip on the information space in the Balkans, as Beijing has invested in infrastructure projects throughout the region, economically linking these countries to China. One economic strategy the CCP uses to build its influence and leverage is the debt trap policy, which is evident in Montenegro.

Despite Beijing’s best efforts to strengthen its influence, the reality is that the CCP has only been successful in certain countries in Central and Eastern Europe, usually those where it already had significant influence to begin with. According to Gallup polls conducted in 2020 and 2021, public attitude towards China has largely declined. However, there has been a rise in public opinion in the Balkan countries, mainly due to the COVID-19 aid that China has provided to these countries. Poland is a particular exception, reporting an increase in public opinion toward China, but maintaining low levels of CCP influence in the media space. As the CCP has expanded its footprint in Poland in recent years, China’s favor and reach are likely to diminish given Beijing’s complicity in the war in Ukraine.

Total and Sentiment Analysis

The table below lists the total number of posts (both in domestic media and CCP-sponsored media) that reference China and the CCP in each respective country. Omelas has collected the accounts, channels, websites and RSS feeds of the top 10 newspapers and top 10 TV channels (collectively “outlets”), excluding any sports or entertainment media, in some countries, classified based on the number of visitors to their websites. We then partnered with local experts to supplement the initial list with other top outlets.

Omelas applied sentence-level sentiment analysis, scoring each post from most negative -1 to most positive +1, in regards to how China and the CCP are portrayed. Sentiment analysis conducted by Omelas ranked posts referring both positively and negatively to China and the CCP. Omelas collected engagements (likes, shares, comments, and likes) on the initial data ingestion, then updated those numbers three times within 72 hours of the initial ingestion.

North Macedonia has the highest positive sentiment analysis, largely attributed to Beijing’s recent increase in social media presence in the country. In contrast, strong negative sentiment in Lithuania is correlated with the absence of CCP-sponsored media and a tendency for more negative posts related to China and CCP issues.

While there are differences in the total number of posts, engagements, and sentiments between CCP-sponsored media and national media, the discrepancies between the overall sentiment analysis are limited.

Engagement

Analyzing commitments, we find patterns depending on whether positive or negative China coverage is gaining more traction. To calculate the total number of engagements, Omelas derived metrics using inputs such as engagement per post for CCP media, the share of total engagements in a country that went to CCP media, and the engagement ratio of positive posts to negative posts.

The number of CCP engagements per CCP post (engagements/posts) gives a measure of the number of people, on average, who digitally interact with CCP posts. The ratio of China’s positive domestic coverage engagements to negative domestic engagements (positive domestic post engagements/negative domestic post engagements) adds insight into whether China’s negative or positive national coverage gain territory.

Based on data collected by Omelas, a one-unit increase in CCP engagements per position is associated with a 0.0030% increase in CCP approval. A one unit increase in the ratio of positive to negative national commitments results in a 0.0006% increase in CCP approval. Finally, a one-unit increase in CCP engagement share is associated with a 0.000008% increase in CCP approval.

To falsely inflate engagement rates, China uses a variety of tools, such as bots, to like and share positive posts on social media. This is especially relevant in the Czech Republic. As the data shows, the Czech Republic has the highest CCP media engagement rate, with approximately nine people interacting with each CCP media post. However, it is difficult to distinguish which commitments are real and which are fabricated.

While the Czech Republic has the highest CCP media engagement rate, Albania has the highest engagement rate for positive posts, with approximately nine people interacting with each positive post. The CCP is very active in Albania, a trend that is expected to increase with multiple new Chinese-funded economic and cultural projects on the horizon.

Albania, however, is an exception. The majority of country commitments between positive and negative messages hover around 1-2. Overall, positive and negative narratives are shared equally across all 17 countries.

Methodology

For questions about methodology, sources used, or research, please see Methodology. Please contact [email protected] for any further questions.

Thanks

This dashboard was created by the Center for European Policy Analysis and Omelas with thoughtful input and cross-examination from 17 country experts. This project was made possible with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Center for Global Engagement.

Chinese influence in Central and Eastern Europe

Edward Lucas | September 28, 2022

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