In an article detailing how, in the last few years, Serbia has become a hub for dirty Chinese industry, Foreign Policy magazine says that “Belgrade is vital to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative” and warns that it all comes with a price, namely “as China takes over old industrial sites, Serbian citizens are suffering the environmental consequences.”
“The story began in China back in 1978, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to open China up to the global capitalist market. Deng’s economic reforms enabled China 40 years later to become the world’s second-largest economy and pull large swaths of its population out of poverty. However, this economic transformation that prioritized rapid industrialization over environmental security came at a heavy price in terms of environmental degradation and public health,” the magazine writes and adds:
“Serbia has been a suitable partner in that effort. Thanks to its critical geography of being a linchpin between Central Europe and the Balkans, a region at the crossroad between Europe and wider Eurasia, the country received a large number of Chinese resources and attention, as Beijing needs Serbia and the Balkans to connect itself to European markets.”
As for the type of investments, China has made in Serbia in the last 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 to exceed 7 billion euros. The catch is that Serbia perceived the Chinese as a quick and easy source of cash, as Beijing was willing to take over old, debt-ridden industrial facilities that were losing money but still provided employment and livelihood to Serbian working-class families. While the Chinese profit from getting access to resources—for example, in 2020 the bulk of Serbian exports to China has been copper from the Chinese-owned mining complex in Bor, Serbia—the main goal of the Chinese government is to sell the surplus of its coal-related technology and relocate coal-related labour forces abroad.
In 2016, after a landmark visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Serbia, China’s Hesteel took over a troubled steel mill in the Serbian city of Smederevo, at one point owned by U.S. Steel. In 2018, China’s Zijin Mining took a 63 percent share in the Bor mine, the country’s only copper mining complex, which was burdened by debt. The fact that the Chinese companies did not adhere to the stringent European environmental standards—which are difficult to follow in the underdeveloped Serbian economy—played a role.”
After the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development turned down financing construction of the coal-powered plant Kolubara B in 2014, China took over the project. As part of a 2010 agreement, Beijing is also behind the modernization project of the Kostolac coal power plant, augmenting Serbian dependency on coal.
However, all this came at a high price, namely extremely polluted air and jeopardized 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. The inhabitants of Smederevo and the nearby village of Radinac, where the steel plant is located, have protested air and soil pollution caused by the Hesteel-owned steel mill. Red dust raining down 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 of the year. Serbia has the highest rate of pollution-related deaths in Europe and ranks ninth in the world. The European Parliament has also expressed concern about Chinese economic projects in Serbia, including on environmental grounds, adding another obstacle in Serbia’s path toward EU membership.”
“Belgrade appears to have embraced Beijing’s “toxic politics” model, favoring economic growth and political legitimacy while ignoring the environmental threats facing the population. This is easily done in a political environment where Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party dominate the Serbian polity to the extent that the watchdog organization Freedom House qualified Serbia as a hybrid regime.
At the same time, the media sphere, which is dominated by the government, enthusiastically pushes for a pro-China narrative and suppresses critical information on issues like environmental risks. Serbian leaders gladly embrace Chinese projects as lack of transparency encourages patronage networks that help them stay in power. Moreover, the arrival of Chinese capital corresponds with electoral cycles, enabling Serbian officials to promote themselves to voters as those who enable the arrival of Chinese investments in the country,” the article warns and adds:
“The Serbian government is working hard to conceal information on pollution, including firing the head of the air quality department at the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency for objecting to plans to change the pollution threshold. In addition, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic publicly denounces statistics produced by such international organizations as the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution or Air Visual that find Serbia and its capital, Belgrade, to be among the most polluted places in the world. In the town of Zrenjanin, where the Chinese company Linglong is constructing a tire factory, in September 2020, the police prevented environmental activists from attending a discussion on the plant’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-income and middle-income countries like Serbia, there is also a limit to how much you can bend these standards. After all, GDP and employment statistics will be worthless if Serbian citizens can’t breathe,” the article concludes.
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