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China builds a new symbol in the Balkans — at the site of a NATO bombing

Chinese Cultural Center in Belgrade (Ljiljana Sundać/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The NATO air campaign had been in full swing in Yugoslav skies for more than a month as the Western military alliance tried to end the deadly assault by Serbian forces on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

But on May 7, 1999, the NATO bombardment escalated and set off a series of events that still bind Beijing and Belgrade together more than 20 years later.

Five NATO bombs from U.S. jets hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, setting the building ablaze as dramatic scenes of employees covered in blood and dust escaping from the wreckage unfolded.

Chinese officials and politicians close to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic quickly appeared at the site to denounce NATO and protests began outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that turned violent after the compound was attacked.

At least 20 people were injured and three killed in the bombing, including two Chinese journalists who were killed by a bomb that hit the embassy’s sleeping quarters.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the site of the bombed former embassy is being transformed into an expansive Chinese cultural center set to be one of the largest in all of Europe. It will house classrooms, a Confucius Institute, exhibitions, office space for Chinese and Serbian companies, and also accommodation for diplomats and other visiting delegations.

Once opened, it will serve not only as a potent symbol of China’s growing presence in the Balkans, but also of the perceived tragedy and humiliation suffered by Beijing and Belgrade at the hands of the West.

“That’s why this place brings such symbolism. It’s not only a vision of the future for relations between Serbia and China — it’s also about lamenting the past together,” Stefan Vladisavljev, an expert on Beijing’s role in the Balkans and program director at Foundation BFPE, a Belgrade-based think tank, told RFE/RL.

As China rapidly extends its reach in the Balkans, its growing influence is unmistakable in Serbia. While Chinese ties date back to the Yugoslav era, the relationship between the world’s most populous country and Belgrade has expanded under the rule of President Aleksandar Vucic, who was first elected in 2017. Billions of dollars in Chinese investment have also flooded into Serbia in recent years, funding mines and factories across the country as billions more in infrastructure loans have built roads, bridges, and new facilities.

In moves that have also caught the attention of Washington and Brussels, the Serbian government has also purchased drones and missile-defense systems from China and bought thousands of Huawei surveillance systems that have facial-recognition capabilities.

But China’s presence is also growing in more subtle ways that the new cultural center will look to build upon. Serbian universities have inked cooperation agreements with their Chinese counterparts and the Balkan country is home to two state-run Confucius Institutes. The Serbian government also recently reached an agreement on direct flights with China.

“We should look at [the center] as not only a hub for China’s presence in Serbia, but also as a hub with the potential to spread the influence of Chinese companies and culture across the Balkans,” Vladisavljev said.

The Ties That Bind

Unanswered questions in the bombing’s aftermath would fuel speculation that the strikes were targeted, but NATO and U.S. officials have strenuously denied that it was deliberate and no clear evidence otherwise has since come to light. China would go on to receive $28 million in compensation from Washington for the bombing but the reputational damage appears irreversible, with many in China and Serbia still viewing it as an intentional strike.

Those events have also helped lay the symbolic foundation for the new Chinese cultural center.

The building’s sleek design and shiny edifice sits at a location redubbed Serbia-China Friendship Square and the center features a statue of Chinese philosopher Confucius with a monument and plaque to those killed during the embassy bombing not far from the entrance.

Serbian and Chinese officials still hold an annual commemoration ceremony on May 7 at the site and it has become a regular stop for visiting Chinese dignitaries, including Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a 2016 state visit to Belgrade. Prior to the pandemic and China’s strict lockdown measures that have limited travel for Chinese citizens, the monument would also be visited by busloads of Chinese tourists during Balkan tours.

In addition to honoring those killed in the bombing, the events of 1999 have been a springboard for Beijing’s ties with Serbia. China supported Belgrade rhetorically and at the United Nations during the Kosovo War, opposing NATO airstrikes alongside Russia even before the embassy bombing. Beijing has also not recognized Kosovo, which formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Ties between the two countries received a jumpstart with the launch of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a new era of investments and engagement with Serbia was paved by the construction of the Pupin Bridge across the Danube in Belgrade, a project mainly financed with a $217 million loan from China’s Export-Import Bank.

The bridge has become an emblematic monument to China’s newfound place in Serbia and was officially opened during a 2014 visit by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The successful project also delivered a soft-power boost to China, with many Belgrade residents referring to it as the “Chinese bridge,” despite it being named after Mihajlo Pupin, a heralded Serbian physicist who lived and earned his accolades in the United States.

“Soft power always follows hard power and economic power is undoubtedly part of China’s hard power,” Nenad Stekic, a research fellow at the Institute of International Politics and Economics, a government-funded think tank in Belgrade, told RFE/RL. “In the eyes of Serbian people, all Chinese activities here — including hard investments — will be better perceived if they are complemented by the soft component of China’s cultural power.”

While corruption and environmental scandals have followed many Chinese investment projects around the world and hurt Beijing’s image on the ground, polls show that China is largely well received in Serbia.

In an August survey, the Belgrade-based Institute for European Affairs found that 79.4 percent of respondents see China positively, which the researchers said was partly attributable to perceptions around Chinese deliveries of vaccines during the pandemic and sustained economic investment in Serbia.

‘Waiting For Xi’’

Despite not yet being officially opened, the Chinese cultural center in Belgrade appears to be in full swing.

The building is administered by the Chinese Embassy — which did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment about its opening date and its operations — and both foreign and local staff are coming and going regularly. The plaza around the center features a collection of restaurants and cafes and an affiliated Chinese-themed hotel nearby, which also hosts a recently opened upscale Chinese restaurant.

The center was originally slated to open in 2019 to correspond with the 20th anniversary of the embassy bombing, but was delayed due to construction setbacks and the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 3, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Chamber of Chinese Companies, which is housed within the center and already hosts several firms. But the official opening date has still not been made public.

Local analysts and China-watchers have speculated that Chinese and Serbian authorities are waiting for a state visit to Belgrade from Xi to officially launch the center.

In 2019, Vucic announced that another visit from Xi was in the works for early 2020, but this never came to fruition amid the pandemic and the Chinese leader’s international isolation, which saw him not leave China for nearly three years.

But Xi made his first trip abroad to Central Asia in mid-September and with travel back on the agenda, Vladisavljev says Serbian diplomats are likely in overdrive pushing for another visit by the Chinese leader to Belgrade.

“Even if there are already companies and people going in and out, there is a saying in Serbia: It’s not open until Vucic has opened it,” he said. “And Vucic is waiting for Xi.”