Cooperation between Bulgarian academic institutions and their Chinese counterparts is a generic phenomenon. The overwhelming majority of universities in Bulgaria have established ties of varying levels with China’s academia, primarily in the form of academic and student exchanges, joint research, and publications. Confucius Institutes (CIs) have been additionally enmeshed in the Bulgarian secondary and tertiary education domain, as they operate alongside two universities, maintain classrooms around the country, and conduct local outreach. For its part, China’s telecommunications company Huawei has developed research initiatives with universities in Bulgaria and funded scholarship programs for students and young professionals. Thus, although Beijing’s political and economic activities in the Southeast European country are circumscribed (not least due to Sofia’s lack of a concerted strategy for engaging with China, and prioritization of the EU and NATO framework of relations) there has been relatively greater room for the development of public diplomacy initiatives in bilateral ties. Interactions in the sphere of higher education facilitated by limited security screening and vigilance have opened up an avenue for actors at the subnational level to advance their cooperation with China, which otherwise remains more limited at the political and business level.
Mapping the scope and nature of Bulgarian-Chinese academic links on the basis of a standardized questionnaire submitted as part of freedom of information requests to all public universities in Bulgaria, as well as the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, shows that cooperation is usually structured via the conclusion of memoranda and contracts. While the signing of such agreements is ubiquitous, it does not necessarily entail a significant intensification and sustainability of academic interactions. Instead, memoranda with Chinese institutions in tertiary education can resemble Chinese pledges of economic investments, a large majority of which remain unrealized. For instance, academic engagements between Bulgarian and Chinese universities based on contractual terms have intensified particularly since the 2010s and tend to be bounded within a certain timeframe (such as representing one-off events) that is not always subject to renewal. Moreover, contractual ties are often couched within larger project initiatives advanced by national or multilateral organizations, such as Bulgaria’s National Science Fund and the EU’s Erasmus+ educational program.
The types of activities most commonly conducted between Bulgarian and Chinese academic institutions and receive the bulk of funding streams include joint research and publications, academic visits, and conferences, as well as student exchanges. Apart from Sofia University, which has attracted the largest number of Chinese students as the biggest and most highly ranked Bulgarian university, the majority of the rest of the fee-paying Chinese students in Bulgaria are enrolled in arts institutions. The National Academy for Theatre and Arts in Sofia and the Academy of Music, Dance, and Fine Arts in Plovdiv have, respectively, admitted 22 and 33 fee-paying students from China in the period between 2010 and 2021. Some dual study programs have also been established. For instance, the University of National and World Economy maintains a dual bachelor’s program in Economics with Tianjin Foreign Studies University, as well as a dual master’s degree program in International Business and Governance in cooperation with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The University of Ruse conducts a dual bachelor’s program in computer science and technologies jointly with Shanghai Second Polytechnic University.
The range of Bulgarian-Chinese academic cooperation activities coupled with laxer security screening rules and the absence of specific provisions in Bulgarian academia regarding cooperation with tertiary education institutions from authoritarian states has occasionally implicated Bulgaria’s universities in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-related projects. For instance, the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Geodesy co-founded with the Beijing University for Civil Engineering and Architecture the Belt and Road Architectural University International Consortium. The Institute for Population and Human Studies of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences is part of the Alliance of International Science Organizations, connected to the BRI. Sofia University has signed a memorandum with the Belt and Road Science and Innovation Network at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and the University of Librarian Knowledge and Information Technology cooperates with the International Silk Road Academy of Sciences. In 2018, the office of the Bulgarian-Chinese Center of Shanghai Jiao Tong University was officially launched at the University of National and World Economy. The Center was announced as being part of the BRI and receiving financing from the Chinese government within the frame of the 16+1 platform. Another educational initiative couched within the BRI is linked to the establishment in 2021 of the LuBan workshop at the Agricultural University in Plovdiv as part of the Bulgarian university’s cooperation agreement with the Tianjin Agricultural University and the Tianjin School of Economics and Trade. The Agricultural University in Plovdiv has also participated in the meeting of the China-CEEC Association of Provincial Governors.
Apart from involvement in BRI projects, another security challenge stems from the fact that of the 141 contracts and cooperation agreements disclosed by Bulgarian universities in their FOIA responses, 24 are concluded with Chinese universities that pose a very high, high or medium security risk, according to the ASPI China Defense University Tracker.
The research profile of Bulgarian universities further shapes the type and depth of interactions with Chinese academic institutions. Bulgaria’s military academies conduct the least (if any) cooperation with China, while more intensive ties are developed by universities specializing in the sphere of humanitarian studies (primarily linguistics), the social sciences, and agricultural science. In contrast, cooperation in STEM subjects is more limited and tends to be confined to joint research projects that the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences implements with Chinese counterparts in the areas of chemistry, energy and environmental protection, material and biomedical science. The resulting content of the work produced in cooperation with Chinese partners can lead to a pro-Beijing bias. For instance, a publication based on a conference conducted by the University of National and World Economy and Shanghai Jiao Tong University presents in an uncritical manner the Belt and Road Initiative’s alleged benefits for Bulgaria and Central and Eastern Europe.
Nevertheless, such bias is more likely to be evident in separate publications, advanced by specific authors, and is not necessarily reflected in the overall curriculum. In the political science and international relations programs of Sofia University and the University of National and World Economy, there is a predominant focus on Bulgaria, the Balkans, and European studies, supplemented by a secondary emphasis on North America and regional affairs (particularly the Middle East). Yet, the study of China and the wider Indo-Pacific region figures only sporadically and is, instead, more permanently incorporated into linguistic courses or separate analytical centers (such as the China studies program and the Center for Eastern Languages and Cultures at Sofia University or the Europe-China research center at the University of National and World Economy).
Confucius Institutes have additionally spearheaded Bulgarian-Chinese cultural and education ties. Two Confucius Institutes operate alongside Sofia University and St. Cyril and Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo, while Confucius classrooms are maintained elsewhere, such as in South-West University ‘Neofit Rilski’ and Ruse University. The Confucius Institutes in Bulgaria have further expanded their local reach through conducting language courses across the country, establishing partnerships with primary and secondary schools, provision of scholarships, and the organization of festivals and exhibitions, which are usually supported by local and national authorities. Chinese-language instruction in Bulgaria is thus generally reliant on the personnel and materials provided by Confucius Institutes. In tertiary education, however, research, teaching, and student exchanges in the area of Chinese linguistics are also based on Bulgarian academics’ own scholarship and cooperation with universities from China, most notably Tianjin Foreign Studies University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Financing and issues of registration, specifically related to the operation of the Confucius Institute at Veliko Tarnovo University, raise concerns. Veliko Tarnovo University was the only academic institution that declined to answer the questionnaire contained in the freedom of information request on the grounds that the Confucius Institute represents a third, extraneous party to the request, and that questions about funding affect the interests of the Institute, therefore leading to the latter’s refusal to respond. Yet, such an explanation contradicts Veliko Tarnovo University’s own statement in its annual reports that the Confucius Institute is financially and administratively incorporated into the university. The lack of transparency about the activities and funding provided by the Confucius Institute thus adds another layer to the complicated financial history of Veliko Tarnovo University, which was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2016.
Last but not least, Huawei has also established cooperation with Bulgarian universities. The Chinese company’s push to lure students, and young professionals, and build research links with Bulgarian academic institutions is facilitated by a relatively more amenable environment that Bulgaria provides for Huawei’s operations. Although the Bulgarian government joined the US-led Clean Network program, which restricts the use of Chinese telecommunications equipment in the construction of 5G, there has not been a sustained domestic debate in Bulgaria regarding the regulatory parameters and security risks involved in the development of 5G. Hence, this has made it possible for one of the country’s biggest telecommunications providers, Yettel (formerly known as Telenor), to build its 5G networks with Huawei technology.
In the sphere of education, the Chinese company has forged partnerships with a number of Bulgarian universities. As part of its cooperation with Huawei, Technical University Gabrovo has advanced the ICT Talents Training-Huawei SFTF Scholarship Program in Bulgaria. Students from the University of Economics in Varna have visited the Beijing Culture and Language University and the Huawei R&D Center in Shenzhen within Huawei’s Seeds for the Future scholarship program. The University of Librarian Knowledge and Information Technology has concluded a memorandum with Huawei Technologies Bulgaria on cooperation for talent promotion and the university has participated in the ICT Talents Training – Huawei SFTF scholarship program. In 2017, ‘Paisii Hilendarski’ Plovdiv University and Shenzhen Polytechnic opened a joint center for professional training in telecommunications and informational technologies, facilitating annual visits and training courses conducted by academics from the Chinese educational institute and specialists from Huawei. For its part, the Technical University of Sofia established a Huawei ICT Academy and installed Huawei equipment in the university’s Cybersecurity and Prevention Laboratory.
Overall, the vast majority of Bulgarian universities maintain ties to their Chinese counterparts, whereby opportunities for publications, joint projects, and academic exchange fuel an appetite for further expansion of bilateral collaboration. Yet, the limited vigilance exercised by Bulgaria’s higher education institutions and the authorities alike in relation to cooperation with Chinese academia can lead to the accumulation of security risks. Bulgaria’s Higher Education Act does not contain specific prohibitive clauses regarding financing from foreign sources, particularly foreign authoritarian states. More generally, containing the corrosive cultural-informational influence of China is not a subject of domestic debate, and rules regulating the registration status of Confucius Institutes have not been debated and devised. Instead, the most recent legislative changes tend to focus on administrative reform, such as procedures for the conduct of joint programs among universities, the development of academic staff, and curricula creation.
Thus, although the attraction of Chinese academia is not likely to overtake the appeal of Western educational institutions among Bulgaria’s students and university faculty, a more robust regulatory framework can offset future challenges to research and financial freedom emanating from the continued development of collaboration with China’s tertiary education sector.