Eco-monsters & eco-fighters: China's investments in Serbia's heavy manufacturing industry as seen through an environmental lens

Tena Prelec / 26 Jan, 2021

In the past couple of years, China has become one of the key investors in heavy industry in Serbia. Chinese increased presence in the country has brought about a great deal of controversy and its largest investments have been accompanied by an increase in pollution levels, sparking great concerns among the local populations. Is the health hazard real or perceived, and who is to blame? The paper seeks answers to this question and analyses the ways by which environmental concerns, governance issues, and a ‘closed’ government are interlinked.

In the second half of the 2010s, China has become one of the foremost investors in Serbia. Some of its largest investments, linked to heavy industry, have been accompanied by a manifest increase in pollution levels, sparking great concerns among the local populations and turning many citizens into environmental activists. Is the health hazard real or perceived, and who is to blame? Making use of interviews with activists and experts, as well as of official documents and government responses, the paper analyses the ways in which environmental concerns, governance issues, and a ‘closed’ government are interlinked. In contrast to the myth of China as a ‘bad investor’, it is argued that the foremost responsibility lies with the institutions of the recipient country, allowing for such environmental abuses to occur.

​The paper analyses two main case studies: the copper smeltery located in Bor (taken over by China’s Zijin Mining in 2018) and the steel mill in Smederevo (acquired by the Hesteel Group in 2016). Spontaneous civic activism has arisen in response to the environmental and health hazards in both cases. The perception of finding themselves caught between two fires – an investor looking to maximise its interests, and a government allowing citizens’ health to suffer in return for economic gain – has sparked widespread anger among the population. This helps explain why environmental activism is joined with anti-government sentiment: the voices of the activists are not neutral, nor they could be, as the two are interlinked. The cases examined thus illustrate the issues connected with the Chinese investments, but also specific modes of resistance to the dominant conception of power in Serbia. 

​The problems characterising the case studies presented in this paper are reflected in several other Chinese investments in Serbia (such as the coal-fired plant in Kostolac and a tire factory in Zrenjanin), and beyond Serbia, too (e.g. the Chinese-funded expansion of a heavily polluting coal-fired powerplant Tuzla, in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina). They are not, therefore, isolated cases. The designation of most of these deals as ‘Projects of National Interest’ situates investors above the laws others have to abide by, and allows authorities to decline most Freedom of Information requests. It is argued that the specific mix of environmental and governance concerns unpacked in this study should be much more front and centre in the policy of EU conditionality and value-based democratic assistance than it is at the moment. These issues should, furthermore, be viewed within the host of clientelistic and kleptocratic practices that both the EU and the new Biden administration in the US have vowed to fight against.