“Following the HBIS Group’s purchase of the steelworks and a number of reforms to production and management processes, the Smederevo Steelworks has become Serbia’s largest exporter and an employer of 5,000 workers. The problem of the quota [for the EU] represents a major challenge for the steelworks and has a negative impact on its work. We expect the quota problem to be resolved as soon as possible, in order to prevent it from having a negative impact on the healthy development of the steelworks” – Ambassador Chen Bo
China’s new ambassador to Serbia, Mrs Chen Bo, returns to the country after having served here in the ‘90s, and it’s no surprise that she continues the practice of her predecessors by conversing with her interlocutors in Belgrade in excellent Serbian. In this interview for CorD magazine, she talks about the changes she’s noticed in Serbia, but also about the new policy of economic cooperation between China and Serbia, which has only intensified with the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative. Talking about the fear of economic downturn for China, Ambassador Chen Bo says that it is a reflection of the “trend of protectionist thinking” adding that she believes that, when it comes to relations with the European Union, this is “just one murmur” in cooperation. This murmur in communication is being monitored with interest in Serbia, given that it has based its economic recovery on foreign investments, which are increasingly coming from China, but also on the economic partnership with the EU. That’s why the fate of steel exports from Smederevo, which is now the property of China’s HBIS Group, was among the unavoidable issues.
Your Excellency, it was noted when your arrival in Belgrade was announced that you would be returning to Serbia for a third time, having already served on two different occasions at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Belgrade. Now that you’re returning as an ambassador, what are your new first impressions?
I am particularly joyed to be working in Serbia again; I feel simultaneously happy and responsible after having assumed the position of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Serbia. Serbia is a country where I’ve studied and worked, the first country I resided in for a long time after China, and it has a special place in my heart. When I came back to Serbia, I noticed the changes taking place – lots of tall cranes, lots of cars in traffic, new projects, constructions of new factories; a vibrant scene. After suffering, Serbia has returned to the path of prosperity and development, which makes me very happy. I feel deeply that Serbia hasn’t changed in some sense – it is still hospitable, open and inclusive, full of friendly feelings towards China and the Chinese people. I am ready to dedicate myself exclusively to deepening the traditionally friendly relations between our two countries and to be a “bridge” and envoy of our two peoples.
The Western Balkan region has experienced a lot of turbulence, with many problems remaining unresolved, but viewed in general terms this is a relatively stable period for it and will open the door to a period of rapid development of the economy
The start of your mandate in Serbia was marked by the laying of the foundation stone for the construction of a large factory for manufacturing tyres in Zrenjanin, which is being opened by Chinese company Sandong Lindong. Are you satisfied with this major company’s decision to start doing business in Serbia?
I am of course pleased, as the ambassador of China, that such a large project of a Chinese company is being implemented in the Republic of Serbia. In recent years, under the personal leadership of President Xi Jinping and President Aleksandar Vučić, on the basis of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), cooperation between China and Serbia has yielded tangible results.
The project to construct Linglong’s tyre factory is the embodiment of mutually beneficial and winning cooperation between our two countries. The investment in this project is worth nearly a billion U.S. dollars. Jobs are being created for 1,200 workers. The construction of one of the most modern factories for the production of tyres in Europe will not only promote employment and improve the standard of living for citizens in Zrenjanin and the surrounding area but will also contribute to Serbia’s economic and social development. At the same time, by investing in Serbia, Linglong has found a home that suits it best for its further development in Europe and has established a good platform for growth and improving its overall competitiveness on the European market. I believe that in the future there will be more projects such as the Smederevo Steelworks, the Mine in Bor and the Linglong Rubber Factory.
Considering your familiarity with Serbia and the region, having arrived in Serbia after serving as ambassador in Sarajevo, do you believe that the Western Balkans – which is presented as an unstable region – can continue to be interesting to other Chinese investors?
The Western Balkan region has experienced a lot of turbulence, with many problems remaining unresolved, but viewed in general terms this is a relatively stable period for it and will open the door to a period of the rapid development of the economy, which follows recovery, while the business environment will continue to improve.
I’ve noticed that there are ever more Chinese companies, but also other foreign companies that invest in the Western Balkan region, especially in Serbia. There is still a great difference between the level of economic development of the Western Balkan countries and EU member states, while these differences actually represent the potential for cooperation and development.
Companies are the main bodies of the market and are the most sensitive to the situation on the market. We believe that ever more investors will have a positive view of the development potential of the Western Balkan countries.
Recently, at the 21st meeting of leaders of China and the European Union, a joint statement was issued that clearly shows that China and the European Union will continue to open up to each other and to work together against protectionism
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić recently called on Serbs living in Kosovo to wait until his meeting with the President of China before deciding to withdraw from all of the institutions there. What is China’s position regarding current events in Kosovo?
The position of the People’s Republic of China on the issue of Kosovo is clear and consistent. China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia, understands Serbia’s justified concern over the issues of Kosovo, supports the resolving of this problem through dialogue and values the efforts that Serbia has exerted towards that end.
Do you think the “fear of China” that followed the arrival of Chinese investment in Europe has now abated?
The so-called “fear of China” is essentially a reflection of the trend of protectionist thinking. Recently, at the 21st meeting of leaders of China and the European Union, a joint statement was issued that clearly shows that China and the European Union will continue to open up to each other and to work together against protectionism. The “fear of China” theory is just a murmur in cooperation between China and the European Union, and we are convinced that the shared victories of the two represent the main melody of this cooperation.
What was achieved in that regard at the recent meeting of President Xi Jingping and European leaders Macron, Merkel and Juncker? Speaking on that occasion, President Xi highlighted four principles that should form the basis of global governance. To what extent can these principles impact on the current situation in the world and the Western Balkans?
In the current international situation, there are many factors of instability and uncertainty, while protectionism is on the rise. China and Europe, as two important international powers, are prominent participants who shape the process of global multi-polarisation and economic globalisation. During his visit to Europe in March, President Xi Jinping met with European leaders and achieved an important consensus on the decisive preservation of multilateralism and the instilling of stability, security and predictability in a world full of uncertainties. President Xi Jinping also presented an important concept for improving global governance, specifically by supporting justice and rationality, mutual consultations and understanding, mutual assistance on the same road, as well as common benefits and shared victories. He also presented China’s positions and views on global governance. I believe that provided all parties exert efforts together, positive changes will come for the world, including the Western Balkans.
At the start of your term in Serbia, you spoke about the “steel friendship between China and Serbia”. This also provides an association with the major business undertaking of purchasing the Smederevo Steelworks, which is now owned by China’s HBIS Group. Have the operations of this steelworks been hampered by the European Commission’s decision not to exclude Serbia from the so-called export quotas for steel and other products from Smederevo?
Following the HBIS Group’s purchase of the steelworks and a number of reforms to production and management processes, the Smederevo Steelworks has become Serbia’s largest exporter and an employer of 5,000 workers who live and work in peace. Serbia’s iron and steel industry have been revived, and its stable work is of great importance to the development of the Serbian economy. The problem of the quota represents a major challenge for the steelworks and has a negative impact on its work. We expect the quota problem to be resolved as soon as possible, in order to prevent it from having a negative impact on the healthy development of the steelworks
The Serbian Academy of Science and the Arts was visited recently by a delegation from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. What effects has this visit had and what is the level of cooperation like in the academic community?
This was the first time in many years that the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences had visited the Republic of Serbia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić received the delegation led by President Bai Chunli. On this occasion, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Serbian Academy of Science and the Arts signed an agreement on scientific and technological cooperation. The Chinese side invited the Serbian side to join the Alliance of International Science Organisations in the Belt and Road Region (ANSO) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ President’s International Fellowship Initiative (PIFI) programme, while it is also ready to promote bilateral cooperation in the field of the research and development of natural products and new medicines, sustainable agricultural development, information technology, etc. Cooperation in the field of scientific research is still in its infancy, but it is believed that – following this visit – bilateral cooperation will intensify in this field.
Following the HBIS Group’s purchase of the steelworks and a number of reforms to production and management processes, the Smederevo Steelworks has become Serbia’s largest exporter and an employer of 5,000 workers who live and work in peace
To conclude, we would ask you how your country will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and whether you are also planning something to mark this occasion in Serbia?
Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, from 1949 to the present day, China has gone through a remarkable 70 years. From a poor country with a GDP not reaching even 20 billion U.S. dollars to the world’s second-largest economy, worth 13.3 trillion dollars, and with over 30% of contributions to world economic growth over many consecutive years.
However, China is still a developing country; our GDP per capita is less than 10,000 U.S. Dollars, ranking us around 70th worldwide. We will organise a series of events to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. However, our most important task is to summarise the experience gained during these 70 years of development, to identify existing problems and challenges, and to define new directions of development. On this occasion, the Chinese Embassy will organise a series of events, such as exhibitions and seminars, while this year’s National Day reception will be bigger than in previous years. Serbian friends from various circles are welcome to participate actively in the activities organised by our embassy.
The Second Forum of International Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eighth Meeting of the Heads of Government of China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe both took place recently. What were the results of these two events?
From 25th to 27th April, the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held in Beijing. A round table of leaders organised within the scope of the forum included, alongside China, the participation of 40 heads of state, government officials and representatives of international organisations. At the Second “Belt and Road” Forum of International Cooperation, the total of 6,000 foreign guests included the participation of 150 countries and 92 international organisations. Participants agreed in principle that the Belt and Road Initiative represents a path of opportunities (possibilities).
The forum included the determining (setting) of the goal of jointly constructing all aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative in a high-quality way, while consensus was reached on establishing a global partnership for mutual interconnectivity and communication, while more fruitful results were also achieved. Between the last forum and this one, 283 tangible results were achieved. A conference of entrepreneurs was also held under the auspices of the forum, during which Chinese and foreign enterprises signed agreements to cooperate on projects worth in excess of $64 billion.
Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, from 1949 to the present day, China has gone through a remarkable 70 years. From a poor country with a GDP not reaching even 20 billion U.S. dollars, to the world’s second largest economy, worth 13.3 trillion dollars
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić responded positively to an invitation to participate in the forum and met with President Xi Jinping. The leaders of our two countries consider bilateral cooperation in all areas to be progressing steadily, and that mutual political trust has been strengthened. Serbia is an important country within the framework of the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative. It was concluded that the two sides should deepen their mutually beneficial cooperation in order to contribute to the well-being of the peoples of our two countries.
The Eighth Meeting of the leaders of China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe was held on 12th April. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić also participated in the event and met with Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. Premier Li Keqiang used this opportunity to state that the Chinese side is ready to continue stimulating cooperation with the Serbian side in the fields of the economy and trade, the construction of infrastructure and other areas, and that it supports Chinese companies in investing in Serbia and participating in infrastructure construction projects in Serbia.
It can be said that this April was a “fruitful” month, with China and Serbia having signed several cooperation documents during these two events, such as the “Plan of Bilateral Cooperation Within the Framework of Joint Construction of the Belt and Road Initiative”, an agreement on financing the construction of sections of Highway E763, construction of the section of the railway between Novi Sad and Subotica, an agreement on cooperation on projects in the fields of constructing railways, highways, an industrial park, investments, financing and other areas.
Serbia is a country where I’ve studied and worked, the first country I resided in for a long time after China, and it has a special place in my heart
We believe that ever more investors will have a positive view of the development potential of the Western Balkan countries
Cooperation in the field of scientific research is still in its infancy, but it is believed that – following this visit – bilateral cooperation will intensify in this field