Romania

Resilient
Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts
Notable
31 85
Local Resilience & Response
Notable
39 85
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least influence) to 85 (most influence)

header1 Key Findings

Report by: Ellie Young and Andreea Brinza

 

  • Increase in limited influence efforts: Chinese state media influence has grown in Romania since 2019, due particularly to the efforts of an active Chinese embassy and increasingly aggressive online rhetoric from China Radio International Romania. Nonstate actors such as the company Huawei also attempted to influence local media narratives related to Chinese investment and activity in the country, although these efforts were mostly unsuccessful.
  • Low impact on public opinion: Chinese state media content production in the Romanian language was limited and did not appear to reach broader audiences across the Romanian mass media audience. Indeed, specific anti-US or pro-Huawei messaging campaigns appear to have backfired, and the limited survey data available indicates that favorable views on China decreased since 2016 (see Impact).
  • Embassy and state media partnerships: Beijing’s most meaningful media influence is mediated through the Chinese embassy, which has developed close relationships with news outlets such as Economistul and Curierul National, as well as the Romanian Union of Professional Journalists (UZPR). Since 2019, Chinese diplomats published 17 signed articles in news outlets across the political spectrum. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the embassy was heavily involved in coordinating sponsored press trips for Romanian journalists to visit China (see Propaganda).
  • China Radio International: China Radio International Romania represents a case in which Chinese state media has directly attempted to drive a wedge between Romania and its democratic partners. Its website has featured increasingly vitriolic content including false narratives about the origins of COVID-19. However, its audience is small (see Propaganda).
  • Strong influence on diaspora media: A handful of long-running, diaspora media publications supported by the Chinese Communist Party, including a free weekly, aim to serve Romania’s small diaspora population of about 7,000 individuals and the Chinese-speaking community in neighboring countries like Moldova. No significant independent Chinese-language media appears to exist in Romania (see Diaspora media).
  • Unsuccessful 5G lobbying: An intense lobbying effort by the Chinese technology giant Huawei, aimed at preventing passage of a law that would block it from supplying future 5G gear in Romania, was unsuccessful. Despite its best efforts to present itself as a trustworthy and independent actor, Huawei was negatively portrayed in Romanian media as closely linked to the Chinese government. The 5G law was passed in 2021 (see Propaganda).
  • Public skepticism of Chinese communism: Perhaps Romania’s most significant source of resilience to Chinese state media influence is its communist past, which has engendered popular skepticism of state-driven propaganda. The country’s independent media community and active civil society are also engaged in protecting press freedom and countering disinformation (see Resilience and response).
  • Transparency and funding challenges: Insufficient media ownership transparency—especially in the print and online sectors—combined with persistent funding challenges has left Romanian mass media vulnerable to politicization and polarization. Media regulators have responded to perceived threats of foreign influence, but such pushback has mostly occurred on a case-by-case basis rather than in comprehensive legal safeguards (see Resilience and response).
  • Broader vulnerabilities open doors for future influence: A lack of more in-depth knowledge of Chinese state media influence tools and tactics leaves the Romanian media sector vulnerable, particularly if the Chinese embassy continues deepening ties with smaller independent media and political and academic elites. Growing disillusionment with democracy may also make some portions of the Romanian population more receptive to autocratic messaging (see Impact and public opinion).

header2 Background

Romania has a status of “Free” in Freedom in the World 2022, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual study of political rights and civil liberties.1 Its multiparty political system has ensured regular rotations of power through competitive elections; however, clientelism and corruption remain systemic problems. Civil liberties are generally respected but have come under growing pressure as entrenched political interests push back against civic and institutional efforts to combat systemic corruption. The control of key media outlets by businessmen with political interests has undermined public interest reporting in recent years by an increasingly strained, but historically robust free and independent media.

Following a years-long decline of revenue streams, for print media in particular, private advertising effectively collapsed due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Media outlets have increasingly relied on publicly funded advertising and subsidies, to the perceived detriment of news objectivity.2 The media watchdog Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ) has also reported journalists’ perception that the media is losing credibility amid deepening political polarization.3

Romanian-Chinese ties have a long history (then-communist Romania was the third state to formalize relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1949).4 There is a small Chinese diaspora population of 7,544.5 The two countries have signed a bilateral investment treaty and maintain treaties on mutual legal assistance and extradition.6 Romania officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2015 and ratified its membership in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) at the last minute in 2018.

Trade relations between Romania and China have increased since 2019, but overall investment has gone down—due in part to new restrictions on the Romanian side. The current government has not prioritized ties with China, marking a clear shift from an earlier height of recent Sino-Romanian relations around 2013.7 As a result of China’ strong economic recovery amid the global pandemic, bilateral trade hit a record $7.89 billion in 2020, with a significant Chinese surplus. China also became Romania’s largest major trading partner outside of the European Union (EU) in the same year.8 Nevertheless, Romania was noticeably absent from the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in 2020 and 2021, indicating low interest in further developing the trade relationship from both political and business leaders.9

A member of the 16+1 China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) regional framework since its implementation in 2012, Romania was notably one of six countries that declined to send a head of state or government to a virtual China-CEE leaders’ summit hosted by Xi Jinping in February 2021.10

Chinese actors have continued to describe the Sino-Romanian relationship as that of “old friends.” However, while older generations retain some nostalgia for the close bilateral ties pursued by the pre-1989 communist regime, as a whole Romania has prioritized deepening its strategic relations with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU partners since joining the former in 2004 and the latter in 2007. During an August 2019 meeting between the Romanian and US presidents in Washington DC, Romania was the first CEE country to sign an MoU to restrict Huawei’s presence in its 5G network. After this, Romania also sidelined other key Chinese-backed investment proposals in thermal and nuclear energy, including a long-delayed deal for a PRC company to develop the Cernavodă nuclear power plant that was finally cancelled in early 2020.11 An emergency ordinance introduced in early 2021 halted Chinese companies’ participation in public procurement tenders in Romania, impacting future investments and signaling a strategic shift away from China.12 In April 2021, the Romanian parliament approved a bill to ban Chinese-controlled firms from participating in the development of national 5G telecommunications networks, despite significant lobbying by Huawei and the Chinese embassy.13

header3 Beijing’s Media Influence Efforts

Propaganda and promotion of favored narratives

 

Key narratives

Chinese state media and diplomatic personnel in Romania frequently highlight the historic strength of the China-Romania relationship, presenting stronger economic ties—particularly mediated through the Belt and Road Initiative or the 16+1 format—as mutually beneficial. This was exemplified by Chinese state media reporting on the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Romania in 2019.1 Content produced by Chinese state media also aims to undermine the US–Romanian relationship, and the tone of China Radio International (CRI) Romania’s content in particular has become significantly more anti-West and anti-American during the past three years, regularly portraying the United States as a country that promotes fake news worldwide; ignores human rights; exports COVID-19 to the rest of the world; and works as a principal force to undermine world peace and produce global humanitarian disasters.2

Overall, Chinese state media has limited direct dissemination, especially in Romanian, to local audiences. English-language content from CGTN, a Chinese state-run cable channel, is broadcast by major cable providers including Digi, Vodafone, Telekom Romania, INES, and Orange. English, which is more common among younger and educated urban populations, is spoken by roughly 30 percent of the Romanian population.3 Xinhua maintains a news bureau in Bucharest and Xinhua Romania has a limited audience on Twitter (about 5,400 followers as of late 2021).4 Other avenues detailed below are more significant avenues disseminating Chinese state media narratives in Romania, although their audience and impact are also limited:

Key avenues of content dissemination

CRI Romania: CRI is the only Chinese state media entity that produces content in Romanian; its Romanian-language department in Beijing produces daily content.5 Prior to 2020, CRI was a regular partner for state-sponsored media trips from CEE journalists, culminating in a 2017 BRI “year of media cooperation.”6 It broadcasts daily in Romanian over shortwave radio, although programming appears to have stopped including news updates since a slate of programming cuts were enacted in 2019.7 As of August 2022, CRI appears to have stopped broadcasting in Romanian. The outlet has focused on expanding its online and social media presence in the past three years.

CRI Romania has a significant following on Facebook (nearly 489,000 followers and 483,500 likes as of December 2021), although individual posts tend to have low engagement.8 The majority of the content shared tends to be apolitical, often focusing on softer themes such as tourism, art, or culture.

In contrast, content on the CRI Romania website has grown increasingly anti-American during this report’s coverage period. Examples include claims that the United States ignores human rights and that the country is the largest producer of humanitarian disasters worldwide, as well as debunked conspiracy theories that the American military lab at Fort Detrick is the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.9 Because CRI is the only Chinese state media entity that publishes in Romanian, it is by far the most significant source of such misleading propaganda narratives in the country. Still, the website’s audience is small—it had fewer than 50,000 monthly viewers in early 2022.10

Since September 2021, CRI Romania’s content has been regularly shared by the minor financial outlet Curierul National under the heading “Actualitatea din China” (News from China), which is labeled as a “column produced by CCTV+.”11

Chinese embassy op-eds and news placements: The Embassy of China in Bucharest created a Facebook account in 2019. It mostly shares positive stories about China and has around 17,000 followers.12 Notably, the embassy has not embraced “wolf warrior” diplomacy, instead sticking to more traditional forms of public diplomacy.13 Since assuming her current position in 2019, Ambassador Jiang Yu has given interviews to five local publications: Piata Financiara, Libertatea, Curierul National, and Economistul; as well as Radio Romania International. Chinese diplomats have published 17 attributed articles in Romanian publications including Piata Financiara, Curierul National, Adevarul, Economistul, Financial Intelligence, and Nine O’Clock since 2019. Several of these news outlets have also published multipage special inserts in cooperation with the Chinese embassy, such as:

  • A four-page insert commemorating China’s fight against COVID-19, published on April 28, 2020, in Curierul National. This included coverage of Sino-Romanian cooperation efforts against this virus, and a translated article excerpt by Xi Jinping;14
  • A 12-page insert to celebrate the Chinese National Day in Nine O’Clock, Romania’s largest English-language newspaper, on September 28, 2020. It included articles republished from Xinhua Romania and a piece written by Ambassador Jiang;15
  • An eight-page special edition on China–CEE cooperation and what was then the 17+1 format, published by Curierul National on December 21, 2020, including a signed article by Ambassador Jiang; 16 and
  • A four-page special edition published by Curierul National on May 20, 2021, describing China’s successes in poverty alleviation, including a signed article by Ambassador Jiang.17

The Chinese embassy also appeared to play a significant role in a content-sharing agreement signed between Curierul National and CCTV+ in October 2021; the online version of Curierul National includes a section dedicated to “Special Information from the Chinese Embassy in Romania” as part of the “News from China” column. CCTV+ is labeled as the news source in small font, although actual articles are often reprints of CRI content. The column is not explicitly tagged as “advertorial” content.18 No other foreign embassies or specific countries are similarly highlighted on Curierul National’s website.

Media cooperation between Chinese and Romanian news groups: As mentioned, CRI has served as a partner for sponsored journalist visits to China from CEE countries, and Romanian journalists have participated in these trips since at least 2012. Journalists from a range of Romanian public and private news organizations including Agerpres, Mediafax, Antena 3, Digi24 TV, Economistul, Center Media West, and Radio Romania have been invited by the Chinese embassy to take part in short-term Chinese state-sponsored press trips.19 Although these media visits ended before pandemic-related travel restrictions, media cooperation between Romanian news groups and Chinese state-linked entities has deepened during this report’s coverage period. In 2019, the Romanian Union of Professional Journalists (UZPR), one of the largest professional organizations for journalists, signed a content exchange agreement with the Shanghai daily Xin Min.20 In the same year, Curierul National became a founding member of the Belt and Road Economic Information Partnership, a news-sharing platform launched in collaboration with Xinhua.21 Like Curierul National and Economistul, UZPR has a warm relationship with the Chinese embassy in Bucharest. It was notably one of several organizations that sent congratulatory messages to the Chinese embassy to celebrate the Chinese National Day—which commemorates the proclamation of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949—on October 1, 2020.22

Huawei’s lobbying and advertorial content during 5G debate: Huawei equipment is used in Romania’s existing 2G, 3G, and 4G national networks.23 The company has been present in the Romanian market since 2003 and has close business ties with all major telecom providers.24 Huawei (along with other Chinese tech companies) has also partnered with various Romanian entities on several “smart city” and surveillance pilot projects.25

Following a concerted global campaign by the US government to raise awareness about the potential national security risks of Huawei equipment, a lawmaker from the then opposition National Liberal Party (PNL) called for a public inquiry into Huawei’s presence in critical infrastructure in February 2019.26 In August 2019, the Romanian government signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States declaring that “only trusted and reliable vendors” should be used in national telecommunications networks.27 This paved the way for a 2021 law mandating that companies participating in national information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure must receive authorization by the Supreme Council of National Defense (CSAT). Although the law did not exclusively target Huawei, it effectively banned the company from supplying future 5G networks and also included a provision that all equipment from nonapproved vendors must be removed from existing telecom networks within 5 years.28

Huawei as well as the telecom operators Orange, Vodafone, Telekom, and the cable company Digi all lobbied heavily against the law, warning that it could hurt the development of next-generation networks.29 Cătălin Drulă, a sitting lawmaker and former minister for transportation, also raised concerns about Huawei’s involvement in a simultaneous debate to change the leadership structure of the National Communications Regulatory Authority (ANCOM) responsible for organizing the country’s 5G auctions. Drulă claimed that Huawei was attempting to organize parliamentarians to participate in “various events” connected to the 5G debate and ANCOM.30

In response to these public debates on cybersecurity and Huawei’s role in the Romanian telecom market, the company dramatically expanded its media strategy. In late 2019, Huawei organized a press trip for Romanian technology journalists, bloggers, and editors that included a visit to a Huawei 5G “Galileo” showroom in Shenzhen and interviews with Huawei leadership to discuss topics including the safety of 5G technology, Huawei’s unique ownership structure, and “the situation of Huawei in relation to the United States and Romania.”31 In 2020, Huawei invited technology journalists from Romania and other eastern European countries to virtually tour its Galileo showroom.32 Pro-Huawei advertorial content also appeared in the prominent financial publication Ziarul Financiar, under a column misleadingly titled “The Specialist’s Opinion,” on topics such as Huawei’s ownership structure, 5G, and the US–China technology competition.33 In January 2022, it was revealed that the current minister of finance, Adrian Câciu, was paid by a local public relations firm to write several pieces for Huawei’s advertorial campaign.34 In addition to Ziarul Financiar,35 Câciu’s pro-Huawei articles were also published by DCNews.ro, Wall-street.ru, and Financial Intelligence. Other friendly press reports that were presumably solicited highlighted Huawei’s numerous corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs and jobs creation programs in Romania, as well as its medical donations during the coronavirus pandemic.36

Nevertheless, Huawei’s positive messaging campaign was ultimately unsuccessful at distancing the company from domestic concerns about national security. Romanian politicians and mass media often closely linked Huawei and the Chinese embassy’s activities, and some media published op-eds from the US ambassador to Romania that countered Huawei’s claims.37

“Mask diplomacy” and false narratives on COVID-19 origins: Both state media and the Chinese embassy in Bucharest promoted Sino-Romanian cooperation during the pandemic as an example of the strength of the bilateral relations, and sought to portray China as a “reliable partner” during the pandemic—often either implicitly or explicitly in contrast to the alleged inaction of the EU and the United States early on.38 The Chinese embassy in Romania played a key role in coordinating medical donations on behalf of more than 10 provinces and cities in China, and Chinese companies such as Huawei also donated supplies.39 However, Romanian media coverage of Chinese mask diplomacy—as CCP efforts to provide international coronavirus relief are often referred to—was minimal and the public opinion impact of these efforts was similarly limited, which according to one analysis was likely due to senior Romanian officials’ reluctance to participate in photo opportunities welcoming Chinese medical supplies.40

In March 2020, the Chinese embassy organized a 17+1 video conference to share information on preventing and controlling the pandemic that included the participation of Romanian authorities. This event prompted controversy after former premier Victor Ponta, who had been out of office for several years, declared that Romania “was not interested in the experience gained by China” against COVID-19. 41 In response, the Romanian Ministry of Health issued a press release emphasizing that Romania was open to collaborating with China on the pandemic and viewed the Chinese approach to COVID-19 as the “gold standard.”42

CRI Romania frequently propagated false narratives about the origins of COVID-19 and criticized the United States’ response to the pandemic. The Chinese foreign ministry also promoted such narratives, leading the US ambassador to Romania to publish a scathing op-ed attacking Chinese disinformation related to the origins of the pandemic.43 Some CRI Romania social media posts also reported negatively on the efficacy of Western vaccines in Europe (Romania only authorized the use of Western-made vaccines);44 an EU analysis found that this was part of a wider pattern of vaccine disinformation disseminated throughout Europe by Russian and Chinese state-controlled media. 45

Many of the abovementioned paid inserts and other engagement by Beijing appear to react to negative coverage or prospective challenges, such as Huawei being cut out of the 5G network, rather than proactively setting the media agenda. It is also worth mentioning that radio, television, and social media are more significant sources of news consumption for Romanians than traditional print media, with 90 percent of Romanians reporting in 2016 that they get their news from television and 58 percent from radio.46 In these spheres, the presence of Chinese state media content and advertorial content from China-linked entities is less significant.

Disinformation campaigns

For the purposes of this report, disinformation is defined as the purposeful dissemination of false or misleading content, especially through inauthentic activity—for example, via fake accounts—on global social media platforms. One case of China-linked media content manipulation was documented in Romania during the coverage period. Following the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Communication’s release of a draft law on 5G networks for public comment, the ministry’s website was flooded with over 250 comments opposing the law and favoring Huawei’s position.47 Many messages were posted during a 72-hour span and were in nongrammatical or misspelled English or Romanian. Multiple posts also had similar wording, indicating that they were likely inauthentic.48

More widespread and potentially problematic has been the incorporation into Chinese state media content disseminated through print, online, and social media of false narratives aimed at obfuscating human rights abuses in China and discrediting the United States. For example, CRI Romania has promoted articles whitewashing human rights violations in Xinjiang and dismissing concerns about the Beijing Olympics in 2022, as well as those criticizing the United States as a democracy or defender of global human rights.49

Censorship and intimidation

No instances of censorship related to the Chinese government or its interests in Romania were found before or during the reporting period. Indeed, several journalists, including some who reported critically on local organized crime scandals linked to China or investigated Chinese company activity in Romania, reported in interviews that they received no pressure or intimidation from the Chinese embassy or other China-linked actors before or after publication.50

Control over content distribution infrastructure

All major Romanian cable and digital television companies use equipment from either Huawei, a PRC-based company with close CCP ties and a record of building censorship and surveillance systems in China and abroad, or ZTE, which is partially owned by the Chinese state. However, no companies headquartered in China or with close financial ties to the Chinese government have operational control over media content distribution infrastructure in Romania. In one development that concerned analysts at the time, the European Commission approved PPF Group’s takeover of Central European Media Enterprises (CME) in October 2020.51 CME is the parent company of Pro TV, the most popular television grouping in Romania.52 PPF Group was owned by the Czech billionaire Petr Kellner, who had close business ties with Russia and China. Kellner died in March 2021 and CME was subsequently taken over by Czech businessman Ladislav Bartoníček. Pro TV, previously owned by the US–based company AT&T, is generally regarded as a prodemocracy outlet. Neither Kellner’s political preferences nor the ownership changes appear to have impacted its general programming.

China-headquartered companies hold about a 30 percent share of the Romanian mobile market.53 Following US export-control restrictions that impacted Huawei’s global smartphone business in 2020 and 2021, Huawei’s share in the Romanian smartphone market dropped to 6 percent in 2021, with Xiaomi making up some of the gap and Chinese-owned companies’ market share remaining steady overall.54

Tiktok, a global subsidiary of the Beijing-based company social media ByteDance, was the most downloaded app in Romania in 2020.55 There have been some documented cases around the world in recent years of TikTok removing or downplaying politically sensitive content, including content that violates domestic Chinese censorship guidelines, although the company has subsequently reported correcting errors.56 A media report from June 2022 based on leaked TikTok meetings raised concern that statements made by ByteDance regarding the data privacy of US users were false, and more broadly called into question other statements the company has made regarding its policies.57 No evidence of content-distribution infrastructure control being deployed to marginalize critical content or amplify pro-Beijing content was found in Romania.

Dissemination of CCP media norms, tactics, or governance models

This study found no evidence that Romania media professionals received any trainings aimed at disseminating Chinese information control, tactics, and norms, or were otherwise influenced to adopt Chinese media governance models.

Chinese diaspora media

Romania has a small ethnic Chinese population: according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs there were 7,544 Chinese people living in Romania in 2021.58 No independent Chinese-language media exists in Romania, although the anti-CCP publication Epoch Times has a Romanian-language edition.59 Several long-running diaspora media publications have strong links to media entities in the PRC and their editorial lines tend to favor Beijing’s preferred media narratives.

Two newspapers, the Overseas Chinese Newspaper of Europe (欧洲侨报) and Romania Chinese News (旅罗华人报), are members of the Global Chinese Media Cooperation Forum, which is overseen by the Chinese state-controlled news agency China News Service. Both were represented at the 2019 10th China World Media Forum, which was jointly organized by the State Council Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, the Hebei Provincial People’s Government, and China News Service.60 Romania Chinese News describes itself as a free weekly paper with a circulation of around 5,000 that is distributed throughout Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria.61 It is owned by the Romania Huayang Media Group (罗马尼亚华扬传媒集团) and has partnerships with Chinese media organizations such as the People’s Daily Overseas Edition, Wen Wei Po, Tianjin Evening News and Phoenix Satellite TV.62

The Overseas Chinese Newspaper of Europe publishes in English, Chinese, and Romanian. It has a biweekly print circulation of 20,000 across 20 surrounding countries, as well as a website and accounts on Facebook, and Twitter.63 The paper prizes its long-standing cooperation with a number of mainland media groups and has published interviews with major Chinese leaders including Li Keqiang, the premier, and CCP leader Xi Jinping.64 Freedom House found that Overseas Chinese Newspaper of Europe’s coverage of politically sensitive topics in China such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang largely aligned with Beijing’s preferred media narratives. The paper publishes reprints of articles from other overseas Chinese media outlets as well as state-controlled media such as Xinhua and Global Times.65

header4 Resilience + response

Underlying media resilience

Romania has a relatively free and independent media landscape, democratic regulatory framework, and active civil society engaged in protecting press freedom and countering disinformation—all of which form a foundation for resilience to problematic media influence linked to Beijing. Factors of particular importance include:

  • Established legal and regulatory framework for protecting press freedoms: Both transparency of media ownership and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the Romanian Constitution.1 Broadcast media is regulated by the National Broadcasting Council (CNA).2 In past years, CNA regulators have been sensitive to perceived threats of foreign influence, although the body has also been criticized as heavily politicized with weak enforcement powers.3 Because Romania is an EU member, press freedoms are protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.4 In the absence of a national Press Law, the Romanian Press Club (whose membership is made up of media owners and journalists) has an Ethics Code and a Council of Honor to oversee professional norms. The Convention of Media Organizations (COM) has adopted a separate self-regulatory “Unique Code” of professional standards.5
  • Active press freedom community: Several nongovernmental organizations in Romania play a watchdog role in monitoring media freedom and advocating for protections. CIJ and ActiveWatch-Media Monitoring Agency are two of the most significant such groups , although they have suffered from funding issues.6 During the pandemic, civil society groups played a critical role in pushing back against restrictions on the flow of information imposed by the Strategic Communication Group (GCS)—a government authority established to centralize pandemic response efforts—as well as an effort to temporarily permitting government authorities to block “[online] content [that] promoted fake news about the COVID-19 trends and the prevention measures” during a two month state of emergency imposed in March 2020, which was overseen by the GCS and enforced by ANCOM.7
  • Awareness of disinformation and investment in media literacy: Public awareness about the dangers of state-sponsored disinformation, and civil society efforts to improve media literacy have grown and are likely to continue expanding.8 In 2021, the central government earmarked 40 million euros for public information and awareness campaigns to combat disinformation, although the initiative was criticized for a lack of transparency and improper implementation.9 Partly in response to the explosion of disinformation related to the pandemic, the EU has expanded its efforts to track and counter disinformation, including an online disinformation database that tracks cases across the EU.10 Domestically, organizations such as Veridica, Check Media, CIJ and Active Watch have rolled out public media literacy campaigns that include units on foreign media influence and disinformation.11  Although Russia is the primary source of foreign disinformation in Romania, awareness of China’s role in this space is growing. In one survey conducted in March 2021, 14.8 percent of respondents thought that China was a significant source of propaganda and disinformation in Romania, behind Russia (24 percent) and the EU (18.5 percent), and ahead of Hungary (9.2 percent) the United States (9.2 percent), and Germany (3.3 percent).12

China-specific media resilience

  • Public skepticism of Communism propaganda and CCP media influence: Perhaps the strongest source of resilience to Chinese state media influence comes from Romania’s communist history. Younger generations in particular bear a strong opposition toward communism and a healthy skepticism of CCP propaganda. A study of select Central European and Western Balkan countries found that Romania was one of the most resilient countries towards foreign influence (tied with the Czech Republic).13 Media coverage of PPF Group’s bid to purchase CME in 2019 as well as Huawei’s efforts to lobby ANCOM showed a popular awareness of the possible risks of non-Western influence over domestic media organizations and regulators. Growing awareness about the risks of Chinese media influence more generally could also strengthen Romania’s resilience capacity: for example, the Romanian group Expert Forum has established a program called China Watch to monitor Chinese influence in the CEE region with funding from several American sources that work on countering authoritarianism.14
  • Political leadership not prioritizing closer ties to China: Much of China’s declining influence in Romania should be attributed to the impact of domestic political leadership. The PNL has prioritized its ties with Romania’s democratic partners since taking power in 2019, in contrast to the previous ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) that was friendlier toward Beijing. Amid increasing US–China tensions, Romanian politicians have been careful to signal their support for the United States to both domestic and foreign audiences. This affected the limited success of China’s pandemic public health diplomacy in Romania, especially compared to successes in neighboring countries. Romania’s strategic partnership with the United States also influenced a heavily politicized debate over securing national 5G networks. Even though Romanian media coverage of Chinese economic and technological issues is generally positive and apolitical, during the 5G debate Huawei’s lobbying efforts were closely and critically covered, and the nominally privately owned company was accurately portrayed as being closely aligned with the Chinese government.
  • Diverse, critical sources for China coverage: Coverage of China in Romanian media is largely comprised of translated stories from international and independent media organizations such as Reuters, the Associated Press (AP), Agence France-Presse (AFP), the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), Bloomberg, and the New York Times. This reporting, although sometimes truncated, covers a range of topics including politics, economics, technology, and human rights, and Romanian media have also republished foreign reporting on China’s foreign media influence and information operations. There also exist several strong sources of investigative journalism, including groups that have published reports on Chinese entities linked with domestic corruption cases. For example, a 2018 report by the investigative journalist Cǎtǎlin Tolontan detailed the “Shanghai case,” which involved human trafficking, and accusations of corruption involving a Chinese national in Romanian copper mining.15 RISE Project published a report on a smuggling case involving a China Tobacco factory in Parscov Commune, Buzau County, and organized criminal groups in June 2021. 16 In general, Romanian media reporting on China’s role in combating the COVID-19 pandemic was balanced across a range of views. One media study noted that the Romanian edition of the US–funded, independent outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was particularly active in highlighting the propaganda motives behind China’s so-called “mask diplomacy” early in the pandemic, and that because of the country’s closer ties with the United States. and EU, criticism of China from Western actors directly impacted China’s image in Romania during the pandemic.17

header5 Vulnerabilities

  • Lack of local China expertise, foreign correspondents: Romanian mass media has a dearth of foreign policy expertise, and no foreign correspondents from either public or independent Romanian media are stationed in mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Additionally, the pool of independent media experts working on China is small to nonexistent.
  • Problems in journalistic professionalism and sustainable funding for independent media: Public media in Romania is widely seen as being politically controlled, and independent media has faced significant funding problems since the 2008 financial crisis, with problems further exacerbated by the pandemic. Observation of professional norms is inconsistent across different newsrooms.1 For example, although clearly signaling ads and paid content is required under advertising laws and strict advertising guidelines are set by the audiovisual law, it is common practice for print and online media to not separate editorial content from advertising.2 In practice, a lack of sufficient regulation and professionalization has contributed to a broader journalistic culture of self-censorship, especially in public media, as well as a blurring of lines between editorial and commercial content.3
  • Legal and regulatory gaps: Romania has no limitations on foreign ownership in the media sector, and it lacks a strong and independent media regulatory body to oversee and educate media workers on interactions with foreign state media. The CNA only oversees broadcast media, while print and online news sources (the latter of which has become increasingly popular during the pandemic) have no national regulatory authority. Similarly, the national Audiovisual Law only regulates media ownership in television and radio and does not target cross-ownership.4 In recent years, increasing bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining disclosures under the country’s freedom of information act, as well as inappropriately applied data protection regulations, have restricted journalists’ access to public information.5 Although libel is not a criminal offense in Romania and in general press freedoms are protected by the judiciary, both Romania and the EU more broadly lack consistent protections against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits.6
  • Chinese government cultivation of ties among political and academic elites: One potential vector for Chinese state influence is the embassy’s relatively successful cultivation of political and academic ties. The Chinese embassy is a long-standing patron to pro-China associations such as the Romanian-Chinese House (headed by the local businessman Nicolae Dumitru) and the United Front-linked Romania-China Friendship Association, the local chapters of which provide a useful mechanism for engagement with subnational-level political stakeholders.7 Academic exchanges could also grow as a vector for influence; Romania has four active Confucius Institutes as of February 2022,8 and in recent years the two countries have launched multiple joint education programs, including a degree program in Chinese medicine and a China-Romania Agricultural Science and Technology Park.9 Upon the 71st anniversary of the founding of the PRC, in 2020, the Chinese Embassy in Bucharest published a wide-ranging list of congratulations sent by “friends from all walks of life,” demonstrating the successes of its efforts to cultivate political and academic elites.10 Nevertheless, one analysis argued that such lists reinforce the reality that “China’s constituency in Romania remains specific rather than mainstream,” and noted that efforts to cultivate contacts in other political parties including the ruling PNL have been unsuccessful.11

header6 Impact and Public Opinion

Chinese state media narratives had limited reach in Romanian mass media and do not noticeably influence public opinion. According to one analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), Beijing “has not invested much to preserve its image in Romania” in recent years.1

Specifically, CRI Romania’s increasingly aggressive anti-US content does not appear to have had a noticeable effect on weakening public support for closer military and political ties with the United States, EU and NATO.2 Chinese state media messaging on 5G was similarly unsuccessful in opposing the passage of a law to protect Romanian telecommunications infrastructure, and also failed to push back on the widely held perception that Huawei’s activities were linked with the Chinese state. Indeed, inferences drawn from the limited available polling data shows that positive popular views on China have declined since 2016.

According to a 2016 INSCOP poll, 53.2 percent of Romanians reported positive feelings toward China, compared to 77.1 percent that had positive feelings toward the United States.3 In response to a slightly different survey question asked in January 2022, 50 percent of respondents indicated that they had trust in the United States, compared to 17.2 percent expressing trust in China. This poll was repeated five times between November 2020 and January 2022. Although responses rates varied, in the later iteration trust in China never exceeded a November 2020 high of 20.1 percent.4

At the same time, data from other recent surveys indicates that some of Romania’s population may be friendlier to China and more receptive to Chinese state messaging that promotes an alternative to the so-called Western model of democracy. A May 2020 poll by the Social Research Bureau (BCS) found that 43 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of China.5 Although polling methodology and size were different, this represents a 10 percent decrease from responses to a similar question asked in 2016.

Political polarization has also fostered growing conservatism and traditionalism in Romania, and widespread dissatisfaction with democracy contributed to the rise of the antiestablishment Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) in the 2020 parliamentary elections. More generally, there also appears to be greater public openness to autocracy, with one 2021 survey by the research group Globsec finding that 30 percent of respondents thought that “the Chinese regime could be a role model for Romania.”6 In the same survey, 50 percent of respondents said that they did not consider China a threat, possibly indicating a low level of public awareness of Chinese state influence tools and tactics.7 Against this background, researchers will need to be vigilant for signs that Chinese state actors’ public opinion work—including its co-option of elites or pursuit of closer ties with conservative media outlets—are more successfully leveraging societal vulnerabilities. Indeed, Globsec noted that in Romania, “since Chinese influence is being much more limited [than Russian influence], it is also much less monitored.”8

header7 Future trajectory

The following are key areas researchers, media experts, and Romanian officials and journalists should watch for related to Beijing’s media influence in Romania in the coming years.

  • More media cooperation with China: The media sector continues to suffer financial difficulties exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on the success of paid content such as Curierul National’s “News from China,” more media outlets may sign content-sharing partnerships with Chinese media or increase the publication of paid and advertorial content promoting Chinese state media narratives. It is also possible that cash-strapped journalists’ organizations or schools could seek to boost their economic ties with Chinese partners.
  • Delayed government response to foreign disinformation and propaganda: Academic and civil society researchers are likely to expand their coverage of Chinese influence tactics, including research on propaganda and disinformation. Nevertheless, it is likely that despite growing awareness from civil society, Romanian institutions will be slower to take measures to limit Chinese influence—as they have been for Russia.
  • Hardening of “anti-West” Chinese state media narratives: Observers should watch to see if Chinese state media and diplomatic actors’ messaging turns more antagonistic or negative following recent strategic losses on issues such as 5G, the declining prestige of the 16+1 framework, and the failure to manifest significant bilateral investment projects. CRI Romania’s increasingly anti–US content production during the reporting period, although still niche, may be a harbinger of future Chinese state-sponsored efforts to “drive a wedge” between Romania and its democratic partners.

On Romania

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    83 100 free

More from BGMI

Front pages of the China Daily (left), the Beijing News (center), and the Global Times (right) featuring reaction to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, which took place on April 15, 2019.

Recommendations

Recommendations for media, governments, civil society, donors, and tech companies.

The title screen of a program called “How Xi Jinping Pursues Happiness For People” from the CGTN archive is seen as it plays on a computer monitor in London.

Methodology

More on the research, country selection, and scoring for Freedom House’s BGMI report.

Kuala Lumpur – July 5, 2019 – People take part in an event in front of the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur in solidarity with the Uighur community in China and to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the riots in Urumqi that left nearly 200 people dead.

Acknowledgements

Learn more about BGMI's authors, researchers, reviewers, advisors, and donors.