The rise of Chinese influence in the Balkans started during the worldwide financial crisis around the year 2009, mainly to spread cooperation between Europe and Asia and, in return, increase the trade relations between the continents. Chinese financial investments are not based on conditionality, they have a “no strings attached” approach, which makes them attractive to the Balkans, who are seeking to receive capital, increase the employment rate, and close the development gap between them and the rest of Europe. However, Chinese loans are overridden with corruption, human rights violations, and lacking transparency. Meanwhile, the EU conditions its loans with several requirements and bureaucratic hurdles to avoid such misconduct (Stanicek & Tarpova, 2022). In Serbia, China has mainly invested in the infrastructure sector – building and renewal of roads, bridges, and railways. An important strategic investment in this area is the Belgrade-Budapest railway, which is part of the Chinese New Silk Road strategy and would open a new path for Chinese products in Europe through the Western Balkans (Dimitrijević, 2017). However, China has also branched out in its investment – through its state-owned companies, China bought or invested in several companies in Serbia, among which are steel, tire and mineral extraction companies (Markovic Khaze & Wang, 2021).
This economic partnership soon evolved into a political one. The Serbian government officially defines its relationship with China as a comprehensive strategic partnership needed “for closing the development gap with the rest of South-East Europe and the EU” (Zweers et al., 2020, p. 28). In 2017, Serbia introduced a visa-free regime for Chinese citizens (Hartwell & Sidlo, 2017). Moreover, the partnership is more than warm, which can be seen in the narratives on China in Serbian media. However, it is important to note that the Serbian Ministry of Culture and China’s State Council Information Office signed an agreement on media cooperation, reducing critical views on China and instead praising its authoritarian government and political system. In return, China helps Serbia spread the narrative that Kosovo is part of Serbia and blocks Kosovo from becoming a member of the United Nations.