China in the Balkans: controversy and cost
The greatest concern centers on Serbia, China’s main playground in the region.
In January 2021, 26 MEPs wrote to European Union Enlargement Committee Oliver Varheyli to warn of what they called “the growing Chinese influence in Serbia and the imminent damage to environment caused by several heavy industrial projects by Chinese companies in Serbia. “
Chinese investment projects, the MPs wrote, lack transparency and sustainability, and in addition to damage to the environment, they also have a corrosive effect on management. Serbia seems unfazed.
China’s presence in the country, the largest in terms of size and population to rise from the ashes of socialist Yugoslavia, is visible not only through its investments, loans and cultural exchanges, but also in terms of cooperation. strategic when it comes to the security sector and digitization.
BIRN journalists have identified at least 60 projects in various stages of completion by or in cooperation with Chinese actors over the past decade, worth at least 18.7 billion euros.
Between 2012 and 2021, Chinese companies invested or allocated more than â¬ 2 billion in just 16 projects in Serbia, and the China Import-Export Bank provided loans for projects worth at least 5.7 billion euros. At the same time, China donated millions of euros assistance in the form of medical and other equipment.
Experts warn of worrying level of influence over Serbian legislature, the laws being amended in accordance with the requirements of Chinese investors.
Wawa Wang, program director of Just Finance International, who has studied the international track record of Chinese companies – including state-owned enterprises – operating in Serbia, said Chinese companies are doing untold harm.
âThey cause irreversible environmental and social impacts and human rights violations no matter where their operations are based, in China or abroad,â Wang told BIRN.
Wang said the affected projects were not eligible for funding from Western investors or financiers due to political restrictions such as phasing out coal or a questionable return on investment, and would likely have been put on hold to do so. place for a sustainable and just transition in Serbia. had it not been for the interest and support of Chinese actors.
“These types of investments – all facilitated by some form of support from the Chinese government – ultimately benefit primarily Chinese enterprises and state-owned enterprises seeking overseas profit centers as China strengthens its focus. control over polluting industries in his country. “
Some details of the projects are locked behind the seal of âstate secrecyâ.
The lack of use of tools such as environmental impact assessments, or EIAs, which are essential for transparent and participatory decision-making, allows projects to continue despite potentially harmful effects on the environment. environment and local communities.
Then there are the workers. A BIRN survey in January 2021 revealed evidence of exploitation of Chinese workers in the former mining and melting basin of Bor, RTB, the only Serbian producer of copper and precious metals and which was taken over by Chinese company Zijin Mining in December 2018.
Conditions appear to be even worse for Vietnamese workers set up to build a tire factory for Chinese Shandong Linglong in Zrenjanin, about 80 kilometers north of Belgrade. Labor rights experts said the evidence collected by BIRN, including contracts and other documents as well as interviews with workers, pointed to a potential case of human trafficking.
Serbia and China are currently under review to meet their obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
âNGOs have expressed very clearly in their comments to the UN body as recently as 2019 their concerns about the way in which the Serbian state does not respect labor standards and the rights of migrants, refugees and migrant workers. The cases studied and identified by BIRN and other NGOs testify to a systemic institutional incompetence where human lives are sacrificed for the benefit of a few, in this context, Chinese companies, âsaid Wang.
In 2021, a number of Balkan and international NGOs testified before the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – a United Nations expert body that monitors states’ compliance with the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – that China fails to meet its extraterritorial obligations when Chinese companies operating in Serbia and the Balkans violate legal requirements for environmental protection.
Part of the ownership of the Smederevo steel plant, about 50 kilometers from Belgrade, is also in Chinese hands, having been bought in 2016 by the Chinese Hestil, now HBIS Group. China is also participating in the reconstruction of the Kostolac thermal power station in Serbia.
Serbia also has an increasingly deep relationship with Huawei, despite signing an agreement in Washington in September 2020 to keep the Chinese tech giant out of its 5G network.
A week after signing this agreement, Huawei opened an innovation and development center in Belgrade. Since 2012, there have been eight projects operated by Huawei. The company has a 150 million euro contract with the public company Telekom Srbija for a fixed network upgrade and has also been appointed as a partner in the development of the 5G network with the private company Telenor.
Huawei and the Serbian Interior Ministry have also entered into a partnership agreement for the introduction of Huawei’s “eLTE” wireless broadband technologies and “Smart City” public security systems, including a large surveillance network. ladder to be installed in the capital of Serbia.
As part of the âSafe Societyâ project, the Serbian Interior Ministry plans to install 8,100 biometric cameras in cooperation with Chinese partners, despite the law currently banning biometric surveillance of citizens in Serbia.