BELGRADE -- With a Chinese university project in Hungary drawing controversy over a lack of transparency and concerns about academic freedom, Beijing's influence in higher education in neighboring Serbia continues to grow.
A strategic agreement signed between Hungary and Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University in April made international headlines and sparked a backlash at home.
The decision to build a Budapest campus by 2024 using a $1.5 billion loan from a Chinese bank put a spotlight on Prime Minister Viktor Orban's close ties to Beijing and raised concerns about the long-term impact of such a project on the country's higher-education system.
But in Serbia -- where Beijing enjoys a close relationship with President Aleksandar Vucic and has been steadily deepening its ties over the last two decades -- growing cooperation with Chinese universities and schools continues unabated.
Currently, three Serbian universities -- the University of Belgrade, the University of Novi Sad, and the University of Nis -- have signed a cooperation agreement with Shanghai's Jiao Tong University, opening the door to deepening educational and cultural bonds between Serbia and China.
The agreements, which were signed in 2018, set up broad terms for cooperation that can grow deeper over time. They include new student and staff exchanges and scholarships, as well as growing Chinese financial support and Chinese-language classes.
In addition to the agreements with public universities, Serbia also hosts two Confucius Institutes, in Belgrade and Novi Sad. The government-run entities, which offer language and cultural programs abroad, have been accused by critics of being a means for Beijing to spread propaganda under the guise of teaching and to interfere with free speech on campuses.
Vucic has cemented relations with Beijing, cooperating on infrastructure, tourism, and technology projects that have brought in more than $10 billion in foreign direct investment since 2005. But the growing education and cultural focus represents a new phase of Chinese engagement in the Balkans and Europe more broadly.
"It's a textbook example of a soft-power move," Stefan Vladisavljev, an analyst at the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, told RFE/RL. "While China is still trailing countries like Russia [in the Balkans], this can bring a lot of people closer to Beijing. The idea is to make China more accessible and more familiar and leave an imprint on society as well."
Serbia is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative and one of the main cheerleaders of the 17+1 format, a Beijing-led forum launched in 2012 for China to engage with Central and Eastern European countries.
But China's strong ties with Belgrade, analysts say, have allowed Serbia to function as an economic, political, and economic hub for Beijing to expand across the Western Balkans and serve as a showcase for the merits of Chinese initiatives, from surveillance to cooperation on the coronavirus pandemic.
"Serbia is a poster child of cooperation in the region and one of the countries that Beijing points to when it wants to show what a successful relationship can look like," Vladisavljev said.
As Tena Prelec, a researcher at the University of Oxford, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Beijing's growing imprint on Serbian higher education should be seen in the wider context of China investing in universities across the globe as part of a broader effort promote its culture, language, and international ties.
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"China's desire is to shape the way it is presented on a global level, and I think it was only a matter of time for having a stronger presence in the academic sphere in Serbia," Prelec said.
But Serbia also represents a relatively safe space to expand in higher education, where China enjoys a great deal of goodwill among the population, public backing from the national government, and where initiatives like the Confucius Institute don't face the same level of scrutiny that they currently do across the European Union, where several of its chapters have recently been shut down.
While such programs offer new opportunities for students and faculty, University of Belgrade professor Dragana Mitrovic says these efforts at cultural diplomacy are part of a larger effort by Beijing to help spread a "Chinese narrative" on global affairs. "Strengthening Chinese cultural influence is an integral part of this cooperation [with Serbia] and a goal of the Chinese government," Mitrovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Cooperation isn't limited to ties between universities, either. Chinese companies are also becoming involved with Serbian higher education.
Kragujevac, a city in central Serbia, signed an agreement in February 2020 for its local university to cooperate with the Chinese company Dahua Technology, which focuses on video-surveillance technology.
The Chinese company Linglong, which is bilding a nearly $1 billion tire factory in Zrenjanin and is the leading sponsor of Serbia's top soccer league, created a scholarship program in March 2020 for Serbian students.
A New Phase
"The Chinese are diversifying their approach to education and academic cooperation in the sense that they are now going well beyond state institutions," Vladimir Shopov, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL.
This type of cooperation, which Shopov says is designed to develop relationships and embed its influence across society, politics, and the economy, is already moving beyond the traditional scope of cooperation with universities and through Confucius Institutes.
Instead, a growing emphasis is being put on working with local authorities, private companies, and different Chinese organizations.
A Chinese cultural center in Belgrade that will focus on arts, literature, and other areas of cultural engagement is slated to open in 2021. It will be modeled after other centers in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania. The center in Belgrade is being built at the symbolic site of the Chinese Embassy that NATO planes bombed in 1999 and will function as a showcase for Chinese art, literature, and language.
"This type of engagement is the logical next step for Beijing's presence in the region," Shopov. said "China sees the way its moves are interpreted around the world and it's clear to them that they need to be more active about getting their story across."
In Serbia, China's expanding footprint has faced little resistance, but recently workers and environmentalists across the country have voiced concerns over pollution from investment projects owned by Chinese companies.
Protests over environmental degradation in Belgrade on April 10 drew thousands and led to the government ordering the Chinese-run Zijin copper mine in the southern town of Bor to halt work for failing to comply with environmental standards.
It also ordered a Chinese-owned recycling plant near Zrenjanin to stop production because of environmental damage.
But China's broader push into Serbian education and cultural life is poised to continue.
"We are at the beginning of this cooperation, it's still something that is being developed," Vladisavljev said. "We are witnessing the inception right now."