China and the World

Powder keg politics

Xi Jinping’s Serbian trip rekindles bitter memories

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic during a welcoming ceremony at Belgrade's airport "Nikola Tesla", Serbia

Xi touches down in Belgrade

Mentions of Belgrade will stir different memories from China’s leaders. Before China opened its doors to the wider world in 1978 many of Beijing’s decisionmakers visited Yugoslavia because Tito’s economic reforms were deemed a potential model to follow. The communist country’s subsequent break-up amid the awful conflicts of the 1990s were chilling for China’s ruling party, however, and only reinforced their warnings about the dangers of separatism. Then during the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999 the Chinese embassy was hit, igniting a short-lived explosion of anti-American fury among the wider population.

The memory of the embassy attack made Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia the highlight of an otherwise uneventful tour that included stops in Poland and Uzbekistan last month. In particular, netizens were interested in the message that Xi conveyed when he paid homage to the three victims of the embassy bombing in 1999. In fact he was the first Chinese leader to visit the site, laying wreaths at a new memorial engraved with the epitaph “Honour Martyrs, Cherish Peace”.

His trip rekindled debate on the bombing, which Washington blamed on an outdated map. Netizens preferred another theory: that the Serbians had gifted Chinese agents pieces of an American F-117 stealth fighter shot down six weeks before, and that Bill Clinton’s administration had ordered that the embassy be destroyed to prevent the aircraft wreckage being shipped back to China.

“We won’t forget this national shame,” was a recurring comment on the weibo accounts of a number of China’s state-owned newspapers.

“You get hit in the face if you’re not strong enough. Now we have our J-20,” added another, referring to China’s own stealth fighter.

(In a delicious irony, Beijing test-flew the J-20 in January 2011 when former US defence secretary Robert Gates was visiting Beijing. Gates recalls in his memoir Duty that he regarded the flight as a provocation and confronted Hu Jintao during their meeting. But the American says that the Chinese president was as stunned by the news of the test flight as he was. According to Gates, it was the “best example” that Hu “did not have strong control” over his own military. Interestingly, he says that Xi Jinping was also present at the meeting and witnessed first-hand how his predecessor had been undermined.)

Back in the present day, the Chinese delegation’s other efforts in Belgrade won less fanfare, including a $52 million bid from Hebei Iron and Steel for a lossmaking Serbian steel plant. The Serbian government bought the factory in question from US Steel in 2012 for $1 to avert closure and the plant posted a net loss of $113 million last year. That left analysts and netizens alike reckoning that Hebei Steel had paid over the odds for an unnecessary asset. Others cast it as another example of cheque-book diplomacy. “China’s M&As are never based purely on commercial decisions as there is always a political agenda behind them,” one commentator told Sina Finance.

Such criticism was dismissed as “unprofessional populism” by the thin-skinned Global Times. “Besides buying resources and technologies, overseas M&A sometimes helps circumvent trade barriers,” it said in an editorial. “Hebei Steel must have its own strategic thinking and the development of the China-Serbia friendship is certainly not its priority.”

Meanwhile, Xinhua news agency said both countries had agreed to upgrade their existing diplomatic relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” and that Serbia was also pledging to promote Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in the Balkans.

An earlier agreement for the Chinese to build a high-speed train line between Belgrade and Budapest was also confirmed. The new railway is forecast to open in 2018. Perhaps Hebei Steel’s new Serbian plant might make sense after all…

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