Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How Serbia Became China’s Dirty-Energy Dumping Ground

Belgrade is vital to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. But as China takes over old industrial sites, Serbian citizens are suffering the environmental consequences.

By , a Ph.D. researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
A pedestrian walks over a bridge in Belgrade as heavy fog and air pollution dominate the sky over the Serbian capital Belgrade on Jan. 16, 2020.
A pedestrian walks over a bridge in Belgrade as heavy fog and air pollution dominate the sky over the Serbian capital Belgrade on Jan. 16, 2020. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Back in late 2015, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, then prime minister, was a guest at the national TV broadcaster, RTS. When asked by the host Olivera Jovicevic why the Chinese are interested in investing in Serbia, Vucic replied in his typically forceful fashion: “It is because they have their interests. It is because they have to shut down part of their forge factories and part of their steel mills. I guess it is because of clean air, of which I do not have enough knowledge, to be honest with you. And why should I be concerned about that?”

Six years later, these words have special weight. Serbia, a major link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative , is importing environmentally damaging economic projects from China while also embracing the Chinese model of politics in which the elite sacrifices environmental safety and public health for the sake of economic growth and to stay in power.

Back in late 2015, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, then prime minister, was a guest at the national TV broadcaster, RTS. When asked by the host Olivera Jovicevic why the Chinese are interested in investing in Serbia, Vucic replied in his typically forceful fashion: “It is because they have their interests. It is because they have to shut down part of their forge factories and part of their steel mills. I guess it is because of clean air, of which I do not have enough knowledge, to be honest with you. And why should I be concerned about that?”

Six years later, these words have special weight. Serbia, a major link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative , is importing environmentally damaging economic projects from China while also embracing the Chinese model of politics in which the elite sacrifices environmental safety and public health for the sake of economic growth and to stay in power.


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.

Today, China is suffering from widespread air, water, and soil pollution. For starters, China is addicted to coal in energy production, still accounting for half of the global consumption of coal. In 2020, China built three times as many coal power plants as the rest of the world combined. By 2018, carbon dioxide emissions per capita had increased sixfold from 1978. In 2019, China emitted more greenhouse gases than the entire developed world combined. The pollution exacerbates the problem of freshwater scarcity. As a result of soil pollution, over 20 percent of farmland soil from grain-producing regions do not meet soil quality standards.

One motive of the Chinese Belt and Road project is outsourcing pollution and environmental degradation to poorer, distant countries whose governments will ignore the risks.

The Chinese Communist Party is stretched between the desire to maintain economic growth as a source of domestic legitimacy and the risk of environmental degradation, with all the economic, health, and political risks it entails. The latter is becoming a hindrance for the regime’s political stability as environmental protests are becoming common. Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, called this phenomenon “toxic politics” in his latest book.

To alleviate these challenges, the Chinese leadership is taking steps, including internationally. Indeed, one of the motives behind the Chinese Belt and Road project is outsourcing pollution and environmental degradation to poorer, distant countries with a dire need for infrastructure financing and socioeconomic development, whose governments will ignore the environmental risks. This is already happening in East Africa, where Chinese projects are upgrading the regional coal-related infrastructure but increasing the region’s dependency on coal and environmental hazards that accompany coal consumption.

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 amount of Chinese resources and attention, as Beijing needs Serbia and the Balkans to connect itself 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 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 labor 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, 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 nontransparency 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 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.

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.

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

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

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.

Vuk Vuksanovic is a Ph.D. researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science; an associate at LSE IDEAS, the school’s foreign-policy think tank; and a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. He previously worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia and as a political risk consultant in Belgrade. Twitter: @v_vuksanovic

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