China strengthens Balkan ties using Serbian universities
BELGRADE – With a Chinese university project in Hungary sparking controversy over lack of transparency and concerns about academic freedom, Beijing’s influence in higher education in neighboring Serbia continues to grow.
A strategic deal signed between Hungary and the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai in April grabbed international headlines and sparked a backlash at home.
The decision to build a campus in Budapest by 2024 using a $ 1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank has highlighted Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s close ties with Beijing and raised concerns. concerns about the long-term impact of such a project on the country’s higher education system. .
But in Serbia – where Beijing maintains close ties with President Aleksandar Vucic and has steadily deepened its ties over the past two decades – growing cooperation with Chinese universities and schools continues unabated.
Currently, three Serbian universities – University of Belgrade, University of Novi Sad and University of Nis – have signed a cooperation agreement with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, opening the door to deepening educational ties and culture between Serbia and China.
The agreements, which were signed in 2018, establish general conditions for cooperation that can strengthen over time. They include new exchanges and scholarships for students and staff, as well as increasing financial support and Chinese language courses.
Besides the agreements with public universities, Serbia also hosts two Confucius institutes, in Belgrade and in Novi Sad. Government-run entities, which offer language and cultural programs abroad, have been accused by critics of being a way for Beijing to spread propaganda under the guise of teaching and interfering with freedom of speech on campus.
Vucic has solidified its relationship with Beijing, cooperating on infrastructure, tourism and technology projects that have brought in more than $ 10 billion in foreign direct investment since 2005. But growing attention to education and culture represents a new phase of Chinese engagement in the Balkans and in Europe. more generally.
“This is a classic example of a soft power movement,” Stefan Vladisavljev, analyst at the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, told RFE / RL. “While China is still behind countries like Russia [in the Balkans], it can bring many people closer to Beijing. The idea is to make China more accessible and familiar and to leave an imprint on society as well. “
Serbia is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and one of the main cheerleaders in the 17 + 1 format, a Beijing-led forum launched in 2012 for China to engage with countries in Europe central and eastern.
But China’s close ties to Belgrade, analysts say, have allowed Serbia to function as an economic, political and economic center for Beijing to develop in the Western Balkans and serve as a showcase for the merits of Chinese initiatives, surveillance at the cooperation on the coronavirus pandemic.
“Serbia is an example of cooperation in the region and one of the countries to which Beijing wants to show what a fruitful relationship can look like,” Vladisavljev said.
Deepen the links
As Oxford University researcher Tena Prelec told RFE / RL’s Balkan service, Beijing’s growing footprint on Serbian higher education should be seen in the broader context of investment. Chinese in universities around the world as part of a larger effort to promote its culture. , language and international links.
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âChina’s desire is to shape the way it is presented globally, and I think it was only a matter of time to have a stronger presence in the academic sphere in Serbia,â Prelec said. .
But Serbia also represents a relatively safe space for development in higher education, where China enjoys great goodwill from the people, public support from the national government, and initiatives like the Confucius Institute are not. submitted to the same level of scrutiny as they currently do in the European Union, where several of its chapters have recently been been arrested.
While such programs provide new opportunities for students and faculty, Dragana Mitrovic, professor at the University of Belgrade, says these cultural diplomacy efforts are part of a larger effort by Beijing to help spread a “narrative Chinese âon world affairs. “Strengthening Chinese cultural influence is an integral part of this cooperation [with Serbia] and a goal of the Chinese government, âMitrovic told RFE / RL’s Balkan service.
Cooperation is not limited to links between universities either. Chinese companies are also getting involved in Serbian higher education.
Kragujevac, a city in central Serbia, signed an agreement in February 2020 for its local university to cooperate with Chinese company Dahua Technology, which focuses on CCTV technology.
Chinese company Linglong, which is building a nearly $ 1 billion tire factory in Zrenjanin and is the main sponsor of Serbia’s top soccer league, established a scholarship program in March 2020 for students Serbs.
A new phase
“The Chinese are diversifying their approach to education and university cooperation in the sense that they now go well beyond state institutions,” Vladimir Shopov, member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE / RL.
This type of cooperation, which Shopov says aims to develop relationships and anchor its influence in society, politics and economy, already goes beyond the traditional framework of cooperation with universities and through Confucius Institutes.
Instead, there is an increasing emphasis on working with local authorities, private companies and different Chinese organizations.
A Chinese cultural center in Belgrade, which will focus on the arts, literature and other areas of cultural engagement, is expected to open in 2021. It will be modeled after other centers in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. The Belgrade center is built on the symbolic site of the Chinese Embassy that NATO planes bombed in 1999 and will function as a showcase for Chinese art, literature and language.
âThis kind of engagement is the next logical step for Beijing’s presence in the region,â Shopov said. “China sees the way its movements are interpreted around the world and it is clear to them that they need to be more active to convey their story.”
In Serbia, China’s growing footprint has met with little resistance, but recently workers and environmentalists across the country have expressed concern about pollution from investment projects owned by Chinese companies.
The protests against environmental degradation in Belgrade on April 10 drew thousands of people and led the government to order the Zijin copper mine in the southern city of Bor to stop work for non- compliance with environmental standards.
He also ordered a Chinese-owned recycling plant near Zrenjanin to stop production due to environmental damage.
But China’s wider push in Serbian education and cultural life is about to continue.
“We are at the beginning of this cooperation, it is still something that is being developed,” Vladisavljev said. “We are witnessing the creation right now.”
Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Ljudmila Cvetkovic and Maja Zivanovic in Belgrade