China’s Belt and Road Initiative causes environmental damage in Serbia

Back end of 2015Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, then Prime Minister, was a guest on the national television channel RTS. Asked by host Olivera Jovicevic why the Chinese are interested in investing in Serbia, Vucic responded with his typically forceful manner: “It’s because they have their interests. This is because they have to shut down part of their forge factories and part of their steel plants. Guess it’s because of the clean air, which I don’t know enough about, to be honest with you. And why should I worry about this? “

Six years later, these words carry special weight. Serbia, a major link in China Belt and Road Initiative , imports environmentally damaging economic projects from China while adopting the Chinese political model in which the elite sacrifice environmental security and public health in the name of economic growth and to stay in power.

The story began in China in 1978, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to open China to the global 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.

Back end of 2015Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, then Prime Minister, was a guest on the national television channel RTS. Asked by host Olivera Jovicevic why the Chinese are interested in investing in Serbia, Vucic responded with his typically forceful manner: “It’s because they have their interests. This is because they have to shut down part of their forge factories and part of their steel plants. Guess it’s because of the clean air, which I don’t know enough about, to be honest with you. And why should I worry about this? “

Six years later, these words carry special weight. Serbia, a major link in China Belt and Road Initiative , imports environmentally damaging economic projects from China while adopting the Chinese political model in which the elite sacrifice environmental security and public health in the name of economic growth and to stay in power.


The story began in China in 1978, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to open China to the global 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.

Today, China suffers from widespread pollution of the air, water and soil. For starters, China is addicted to coal in power generation, still accounting for half of the world’s consumption of coal. In 2020, China has built three times as many coal-fired power plants as the rest of the world combined. Through 2018, per capita carbon dioxide emissions have increased six-fold since 1978. In 2019, China emitted more greenhouse gases than the whole developed world combined. Pollution exacerbates the problem of the scarcity of fresh water. As a result of land pollution, more than 20 percent of agricultural land in grain-producing regions does not meet soil quality standards.

The Chinese Communist Party is torn between the desire to maintain economic growth as a source of internal legitimacy and the risk of environmental degradation, with all the economic, health and political risks that this entails. The latter becomes an obstacle to the political stability of the regime while environmental protests become common. Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the phenomenon “toxic policy” in his latest book.

To alleviate these challenges, the Chinese leadership is taking action, including at the international level. Indeed, one of the reasons behind the Chinese Belt and Road project, there is the externalization of pollution and environmental degradation to poorer and more distant countries in urgent need of financing of infrastructure and socio-economic development. economic, whose environmental risks will be ignored by governments. This is already happening in East Africa, where Chinese projects are improving regional coal-related infrastructure but increasing the region’s dependence on coal and the environmental risks that accompany coal consumption.

Serbia has been a suitable partner in this effort. Thanks to his critical geography to be a hub between Central Europe and the Balkans, a region at the crossroads between Europe and Eurasia at large, the country has received a large amount of Chinese resources and attention, as Beijing needs Serbia and the Balkans to connect to European markets.

Between 2010 and 2019, China invested 1.6 billion euros ($ 1.9 billion) in Serbia, while Chinese infrastructure loans to Serbia are estimated exceed 7 billion euros. 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. subsistence for working Serbian families. While the Chinese take advantage of access to resources – for example, in 2020 most of the Serbian exports to China was copper from the Chinese mining complex in Bor, Serbia, the main objective of the Chinese government is to sell the surplus its coal technology and relocating coal-related labor overseas.

In 2016, after a historic visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Serbia, the 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 63 percent of the Bor mine, the country’s only copper mining complex, which was in 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 refusal of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to finance the construction of the coal-fired power station Kolubara B in 2014, China took over the project. As part of a Agreement 2010Beijing is also behind the Kostolac coal-fired power plant modernization project, increasing Serbian dependence on coal.

However, the consequences are now being felt by Serbian citizens. Residents of Smederevo and the nearby village of Radinac, where the steelworks are located, have demonstrationair and soil pollution caused by the steel plant owned by Hesteel. Red dust rain down is not an unusual event in Smederevo. In September 2020, Bor city filed a criminal complaint against Zijin Mining for pollution caused by copper mining.

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 as a hybrid diet.

At a time, the media sphere, which is dominated by the government, enthusiastically pushes for pro-China rhetoric and suppresses critical information on issues such as environmental risks. Serbian leaders willingly embrace Chinese projects because non-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.

Serbian government is working hard hide information on pollution, including the dismissal of the head of the air quality department of the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency for opposing plans to change the pollution threshold. Besides, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic publicly denounces statistics produced by international organizations such as the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution Where Visual aerial which make Serbia and its capital, Belgrade, one of the most polluted places in the world. In the city ​​of Zrenjanin, where Chinese company Linglong is building a tire factory, in September 2020, police prevented environmental activists from attending a discussion on the factory’s impact on the environment.

In some cases, the reluctance of citizens was too strong for the government to suppress. In April, thousands of people collected in Belgrade for environmental demonstrations. The protests showed that environmental issues could temporarily unite left and right against the government. A few days later, the underground Jama ore mine owned by Zijin Mining and the Chinese plastic recycling plant FeitianSuye in the village of Perlez were temporarily closed by the government for environmental reasons.

It is too late to claim victory. Zijin Mining has already obtained a mining permit for the Cukaru Peki copper and gold mine, from the end of 2021. In August, Hesteel will restart one of Smederevo’s two blast furnaces after halving production last year due to COVID-19. With the Serbian presidential elections in 2022, Vucic needs Chinese capital, both in terms of investments and lines of credit, for his campaign.

Ultimate responsibility belongs to the Serbian government, not to China. While it is true that environmental standards are more difficult to implement in 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 of no value if Serbian citizens can no longer breathe.


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