Analysis of the Narrative: Visit of the President of China to Serbia: Exclusively positive reporting by the pro-government media and “warming up” of hostility towards the West

May 2024.

As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

Visit of the President of China to Serbia: Exclusively positive reporting by the pro-government media and “warming up” of hostility towards the West

In early May 2024, the Serbian media highlighted the visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, to Serbia. Xi Jinping paid an official state visit to Belgrade on May 7 and 8, marking the first visit in eight years. After five years, Xi arrived on official visits to European countries, choosing three destinations – France, Serbia and Hungary.

During the two-day visit to Belgrade on May 7 and 8, a series of meetings of the Serbian and Chinese state leadership and business delegations were held and a large number of agreements were signed. According to available information, Serbian and Chinese representatives have signed almost 30 agreements and memoranda of understanding in the fields of economy, technology, culture and political cooperation. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed on May 8 the Joint Statement between the Republic of Serbia and the People’s Republic of China on deepening and raising the comprehensive strategic partnership and building a Serbia-China community with a shared future in the new era.

In the domestic media, the visit of the Chinese President was the dominant focus, while at that moment, there were also numerous positive interpretations of the effects of Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade. The pro-government, as well as the pro-Russian media, reported entirely positively on the meetings of the Chinese delegation with the President of Serbia and state officials while promoting the previously solidified narratives about the “steel friendship” between Serbia and China, as well as the two presidents. At the same time, some media outlets, in an anti-Western tone, tried to contrast the relations between the West and China with Serbia.

It is also noticeable that in the latter period in May, the signed agreements between Serbia and China did not capture significant media attention from the pro-government media, nor did they continuously report on their content. In addition, only a few days later there was a visit by the First lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmitri Kuleba, which was incomparably less covered in the media compared to the visit of the Chinese President.

“Historical visit,” “steel friendship between Serbia and China,” “message to the West”

The pro-government media wrote superlatively about the official interstate meeting between President Vučić and Xi, emphasizing the “historical significance” of the visit, as well as the fact that China represents “the biggest friend (of Serbia) in the world” – as suggested by an Informer interlocutor. The leading pro-government tabloid Informer wrote that “China’s geopolitical protection (of Serbia) means”, that it is a country that “no one can not accept…(and) steel friendship (of Serbia and China) has been forged.” The Informer conveyed illustrative statements of top state officials about how “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia is historic in every sense,” emphasizing that China perceives Serbia as a friendly country and that Serbia “doesn’t need to make excuses for that to anyone.”

This media also dealt with the criticism of certain actors directed at the account of the agreements reached between Serbia and China, drawing parallels with the (negative) attitude of the West towards Serbia along with anti-Western accusations. The statements in Informer are suggestive – “once again the rule has been confirmed – the better for Serbia and the people, the worse for NGOs and their Western sponsors.”

Portal Alo indicates that the date of the Chinese president’s visit was chosen symbolically, on the day of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which signalled to the West “that Xi and the Chinese people will (never) forget.” The portal Srbin.info also wrote similarly, highlighting the potential of stronger cooperation between Serbia and China within the framework of possible membership in BRICS, as opposed to Western integration.

Pro-Russian media in Serbia also reported in an extremely positive tone on the visit of the Chinese president, with an even sharper focus on anti-Western criticism. The domestic service of the Russian state media Sputnik points out that “President Xi was given an incredible welcome…it is a display of the relationship between the two countries, not only because of the many years of mutual support and respect, but also because of the cooperation that will grow more and more in the future.” Sputnik‘s interlocutors pointed out that from the Chinese side, Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia is allegedly one of the main topics, and that the Chinese “characterize cooperation (with Serbia) as steel and sincere friendship.”

As expected, the visit and the series of signed Serbian-Chinese agreements, whose deeper presentation and analysis were, however, absent in the previously mentioned media, were used as an occasion for anti-Western narratives and highlighting the supposedly negative aspects of the relationship between the West and Serbia, as opposed to the Serbian-Chinese “friendship”. Sputnik‘s headline “NATO hit a nerve in the middle of Belgrade: the West’s futile game in Serbia is now exposed to the end” is illustrative, after which it is suggested that “the laughable attempt of the Euro-Atlantic public to humiliate the politically grandiose and economically significant visit of the President of China to Belgrade, exposed the hopeless and barren totalitarianism of the Western agenda in Serbia”.

Another domestic portal of the Russian state media – Russia Today – came to the fore, in the context of reporting on Serbian-Chinese agreements, with the sensationalist statement that “Serbia has a Eurasian alternative,” adding that Belgrade “said that it will remain faithful to its previous cooperation with Beijing”. The statement also conveyed that “the steel friendship of China and Serbia has taken deeper roots in the hearts of the two peoples…(the two countries have) provided each other with solid support in matters concerning essential interests and major concerns.”

On the other hand, the texts of the Western media, as well as the pro-Western media in Serbia, which wrote about the potentially problematic aspects of the agreement with China, were severely criticized, with RT‘s claims that “it is more than obvious why the arrival of the leader of a traditionally friendly country caused so much anxiety of part of the Serbian media scene.”

However, RT went a step further compared to numerous other pro-government and pro-Russian media, analysing in more detail the contents of the Joint Statement signed by Presidents Vučić and Xi Jinping. It is emphasized that this is “a step that can be compared to BRICS membership,” with the interlocutors claiming that such an agreement is reserved only for important foreign policy partners of China and that Serbia is the first European country to sign it.

The scope of the agreements signed between Serbia and China

In recent times, Sino-Serbian relations have undoubtedly strengthened significantly, with China becoming one of Serbia’s most important, if not the most important single non-Western partner. President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Serbia, one of his stops during his European “tour,” attests to the growing geo-economic and geo-strategic importance of Serbia for the Chinese political and economic elite.

The Joint statement signed by Presidents Vučić and Xi Jinping hints at the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership and the development of a community with a shared future, which nominally represents an elevation of relations above previous declarations on strategic partnerships signed in earlier years. It should be noted, however, that China’s foreign policy approach categorizes strategic partnerships with different hierarchical levels concerning the framework signed with Serbia.

In terms of content, the Joint document reiterates previously promoted general principles of cooperation in the international context, mutual support for territorial integrity and sovereignty, adherence to international law, and the promotion of a multipolar international order.

Efforts in the implementation of projects under the innovative Belt and Road Initiative, now entering its second decade, are also emphasized. Despite Serbia being one of the most significant participants in the Belt and Road Initiative in the Balkans, the projects have faced numerous controversies in previous years, including issues of transparency, which continue with certain agreements concluded with China, amidst broader global challenges facing the initiative, which has experienced slowdowns.

Regarding trade exchange, the Joint declaration highlights active efforts towards implementing the Free Trade Agreement between Serbia and China, set to come into force in July. However, it is important to note that the full effects of the signed trade agreement may only materialize over five to seven years. Economists have previously estimated that it will result in asymmetric effects, as the Serbian economy may not offer much to the Chinese market. Illustratively, last year’s exports to China were four times smaller than imports, and the three largest exporters from Serbia to China are Chinese companies.

Regarding specific arrangements and documents agreed upon during the visit, the list includes a wide range of areas where deeper cooperation is planned. However, the majority of signed documents are memorandums of cooperation, which are non-binding. This implies that their full implementation depends on extensive follow-up, making it challenging to assess their qualitative effects on the Serbian economy overall. Notably, one agreement out of nearly 30 signed during the visit sparked controversy among the public, as it was signed by the Minister for European Integration and pertains to Chinese support for Serbia’s European integration process.

Author: Igor Mirosavljević