How did Serbia become a dumping ground for Chinese dirty industry?
In an article detailing how, in recent years, Serbia has become a hub for dirty Chinese industry, Foreign Policy magazine says “Belgrade is vital for Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.” and warns that all this comes at a price, namely “as China takes over old industrial sites, Serbian citizens are suffering the environmental consequences.”
“The story began in China in 1978, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to open China to the world capitalist market. Deng’s economic reforms helped China, 40 years later, to become the world’s second-largest economy and lift much of its population out of poverty. However, this economic transformation which has favored rapid industrialization over environmental security has come at a high price in terms of environmental degradation and public health, ”writes the magazine and adds:
“Serbia has been a suitable partner in this effort. Thanks to its critical geography of being a hub between Central Europe and the Balkans, a region at the crossroads between Europe and Eurasia at large, the country has received a great deal of Chinese resources and attention, because Beijing needs Serbia and the Balkans to connect to European markets.
As for the type of investments China has made in Serbia over the past two years, the magazine writes: “Between 2010 and 2019, China invested 1.6 billion euros ($ 1.9 billion) in Serbia, while Chinese infrastructure loans to Serbia are estimated at over € 7 billion. The catch was that Serbia saw the Chinese as a quick and easy source of money, as Beijing was willing to take over old, debt-ridden industrial facilities that were losing money but still providing jobs and livelihoods. sustenance for working class Serbian families. While the Chinese take advantage of access to resources – for example, in 2020 the bulk of Serbian exports to China were copper from the Chinese mining complex in Bor, Serbia – the main focus of the Chinese government is to sell its surplus coal-related technology and relocate coal-related labor abroad.
In 2016, after a historic visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Serbia, Chinese company Hesteel took over a struggling steel plant in the Serbian town of Smederevo, which was once owned by US Steel. In 2018, Chinese company Zijin Mining took a 63% stake in the Bor mine, the country’s only copper mining complex, which was burdened with debt. The failure of Chinese companies to adhere to strict European environmental standards – which are hard to follow in the underdeveloped Serbian economy – has played a role.
After the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development refused to finance the construction of the Kolubara B coal-fired power plant in 2014, China took over the project. As part of a 2010 agreement, Beijing is also behind the project to modernize the Kostolac coal-fired power plant, increasing Serbian dependence on coal.
However, all of this came at a high price, namely extremely polluted air and endangered the health of people living in Serbia. The Foreign Policy article goes on to say, “However, the consequences are now being felt by Serbian citizens. Residents of Smederevo and the nearby village of Radinac, where the steel plant is located, protested against air and soil pollution caused by the steel plant owned by Hesteel. The rain of red dust is not an unusual occurrence in Smederevo. In September 2020, the city of Bor filed a criminal complaint against Zijin Mining for pollution caused by copper mining.
The Serbian Environmental Protection Agency noted in 2019 that in cities like Smederevo, air pollution is above the EU standard for around 120 days a year. Serbia has the highest rate of pollution-related deaths in Europe and ranks ninth in the world. The European Parliament also expressed concern about Chinese economic plans in Serbia, including for environmental reasons, adding another obstacle on Serbia’s path to EU membership.
“Belgrade appears to have adopted Beijing’s model of ‘toxic politics’, promoting economic growth and political legitimacy while ignoring the environmental threats the population faces. This is easily done in a political environment where Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party dominate Serbian politics as the Freedom House watchdog has labeled Serbia a hybrid regime.
At the same time, the media sphere, which is dominated by the government, is enthusiastically pushing for pro-China rhetoric and suppressing critical information on issues such as environmental risks. Serbian leaders readily embrace Chinese plans because the lack of transparency encourages patronage networks that help them stay in power. In addition, the arrival of Chinese capital corresponds to electoral cycles, allowing Serbian officials to present themselves to voters as those who allow the arrival of Chinese investments in the country ”, warns the article and adds:
“The Serbian government is trying to withhold information about the pollution, including sacking the head of the air quality department of the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency for opposing plans to amend the pollution threshold. In addition, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic publicly denounces statistics produced by international organizations such as the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution or Air Visual which rank Serbia and its capital, Belgrade, among the most polluted places in the world. world. In the town of Zrenjanin, where Chinese company Linglong is building a tire factory, in September 2020, police prevented environmental activists from attending a discussion about the factory’s impact on the environment.
“The ultimate responsibility lies with the Serbian government, not China. While it is true that environmental standards are more difficult to implement in low- and middle-income countries like Serbia, there is also a limit to how much you can bend those standards. After all, GDP and employment statistics will be of no value if Serbian citizens cannot breathe, ”the article concludes.
This article is also available in: Italiano