#CCPinCEE | Chinese influence in Serbia
Chinese influence in Serbia spreads through various means, directly through the activities of the Chinese government, or more visibly in tandem with domestic politicians. Although it is not easy to classify a wide range of tools, the most outstanding and successful ones were economic cooperation between Serbia and China, activities of the Chinese Embassy, bilateral visits, “mask and vaccine diplomacy” and cooperation with the Serbian media. Other less important spheres of influence are culture, sports and technology.
The main channel of Chinese influence in Serbia is through preferential loans granted by Chinese banks to finance infrastructure projects, for which Serbian politicians present China as a white knight. These deals are often opaque, with no public explanation of how or why Chinese companies are chosen to work on them. Since 2009, Serbia and China have agreed on infrastructure projects worth more than $7.5 billion, financially linking Serbia to China for more than a decade. The total amount of the loan agreements and certain aspects of the contracts raise the specter of corruption, in particular because the average project costs are higher than in similar cases elsewhere in Europe. Apart from infrastructure loans, China has significantly increased its investments in Serbia over the past decade, exceeding $2.2 billion since 2009. Although this is only a fraction of the more than 17 billion euros that EU countries have poured into Serbia over the same period, making the bloc the biggest investor, China has become the biggest investor from Serbia in 2021, with more than 700 million euros. The short-term economic benefits of the influx of Chinese capital are indisputable, but the potential long-term consequences are questionable. Chinese investments have been mainly in export-oriented industries, which means that most profits will go to Chinese companies and Serbia’s share will be limited. There are also serious concerns about labor practices and the environmental impacts of these projects.
The Chinese Embassy plays an important role in promoting Chinese influence in Serbia. Ambassador Chen Bo meets regularly with senior Serbian officials, including President Aleksandar Vučić. His statements emphasize the role of China and Chinese companies in the economic development of Serbia, echoing a narrative pushed by national officials. She is also present at construction sites when Chinese projects are presented as a boon for Serbian infrastructure and regularly attends press conferences when Chinese projects are announced or promoted. Besides the work of the Chinese Embassy, officials from Beijing regularly visit Belgrade.
Efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have further strengthened China’s influence. As elsewhere, Beijing reached out to politicians, who in Serbia were far more receptive than their counterparts in some other countries. China-Serb friendship has reached new heights during the pandemic, including among the general public, in turn opening up new possibilities for the spread of Chinese influence.
Although Chinese influence in Serbian media is difficult to identify, there are key examples of Chinese interference. China Radio International has its own Serbian output as well as Serbian radio stations that broadcast CRI content. But the second, more important feature is the promotion of pro-CCP media in Serbia. Chinese media funding in Serbia is not as visible as the reach of its content, the direct influence comes from promotional editorials and articles that appear in some mainstream media. It is fair to say that the media plays an important role in creating a “China-loving” nation, but the reasoning is twofold: direct interference by Chinese media and close political relations with the ruling majority in Serbia. .