Chinese President Xi visits Serbia and Hungary in bid to boost economic ties

Workers hang on ropes to install a giant Chinese national flag on a skyscraper that is a symbolic gateway leading into the city from the airport, in Belgrade, Serbia
Workers hang on ropes to install a giant Chinese national flag on a skyscraper that is a symbolic gateway leading into the city from the airport, in Belgrade, Serbia Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved
By Amandine Hess
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Xi Jinping's state visit to Serbia takes place on the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy by NATO in 1999.

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Chinese and Serbian flags were hoisted all over Belgrade on Tuesday for the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Coming after a stop in Paris, Xi's state visit to Serbia coincides with the 25th anniversary of the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which was hit by a US Air Force strike during NATO's Kosovo campaign in 1999.

The bombing was eventually acknowledged by Washington as a mistake, but it remains a sore point in Sino-American relations.

A Chinese flag is placed near flowers on a monument at the site of a former Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, May 4, 2024.
A Chinese flag is placed near flowers on a monument at the site of a former Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, May 4, 2024.Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

"To some extent, the memory [of the bombing] is kept artificially alive, so that it can be solicited whenever it is deemed necessary, to pile on the pressure when they need it," says Sven Biscop, Professor of European Foreign Policy and Security at the University of Ghent.

But the visit is about more than a historical memory. In recent years, Beijing has invested heavily in Serbia; Chinese capital owns factories and mines, builds roads, and is financing the construction of a railway line between Belgrade and Budapest. Chinese locomotives will soon replace the older socialist-era trains currently running there.

As it continues to invest in Serbia, China is widely accused of causing pollution and environmental degradation.

"In countries like Serbia, ecology takes second place to the economy," explains Mijat Lakićević, economic analyst at Serbian economics magazine Novi Magazin.

Meanwhile, a Chinese tyre factory is also facing accusations of human trafficking and exploiting Vietnamese and Indian workers.

Billboard showing Chinese President reading: "Welcome President,"and billboard reading: "Nobody was hurt in my shift today," in front of Zelezara Smederevo steel mill, Serbia.
Billboard showing Chinese President reading: "Welcome President,"and billboard reading: "Nobody was hurt in my shift today," in front of Zelezara Smederevo steel mill, Serbia.Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.

Beijing's gateway to Europe

Xi's next stop is Hungary, whose government has cultivated close ties with Beijing and Moscow, where he will visit from 8-10 May.

Hungary is the first member of the European Union to join China's Belt and Road development programme and is seen by many in Europe and China alike as Beijing’s gateway to the European continent.

"For the Chinese, it is now very important to relocate at least part of their production plant from China to Europe to stay and produce within the limits of the European Union," Tamas Matura, analyst and founder of the Centre for Asian Studies of Central and Eastern Europe said, "probably because of the increasing level of protectionism in Europe."

Construction is underway for a battery factory for electric vehicles built by China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) in Debrecen, Hungary.
Construction is underway for a battery factory for electric vehicles built by China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) in Debrecen, Hungary.Denes Erdos/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

On the other hand, Brussels is advocating for protectionist measures to limit China's economic ambitions in Europe. 

The European Commission has opened investigations into Chinese subsidies to electric vehicles and solar panels, accusing them of distorting competition.

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