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Visiting Europe, Xi Jinping brings up an old grievance – The Economist – 06.05.24

In marking the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, Mr Xi is sending a message to America.


THE POPULATION of Serbia is less than one-third of Beijing’s. China’s trade with the Balkan country is less than one-fortieth of that with Germany. Yet for China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, Serbia is important. It is a rare close friend on a continent where wariness of China has become the norm. It also happens that the country’s capital, Belgrade, witnessed a seminal moment in the evolution of West-despising Chinese nationalism.


Twenty-five years ago American bombs hit the Chinese embassy there, killing three people. On his first visit to Europe since 2019 Mr Xi has been holding talks with Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, hoping to persuade him and his allies that China and its high-tech products are good for them. On May 7th and 8th, in Serbia, Mr Xi will use the anniversary of the bombing to make another point: that the Western-led order is bad and must be changed.


The world has changed dramatically since Mr Xi’s previous visit to Europe. A pandemic has swept it, keeping Mr Xi from venturing abroad for more than two and a half years. (Even in 2023, after China lifted its draconian “zero-covid” restrictions, Mr Xi seldom left the country.) Russia—China’s “no limits” partner—has mounted an all-out invasion of Ukraine, plunging Europe into its biggest security crisis since the cold war.


Under President Joe Biden, America has ramped up a tech war with China aimed at curtailing its access to cutting-edge kit. The European Union has begun talking of a need to “de-risk” its relationship with China. Amid accusations that China is dumping underpriced goods on Western markets, calls for retaliation have been growing in Europe and elsewhere.


In France Mr Xi sought to offer reassurance. He hopes Mr Macron’s vision of “strategic autonomy” for Europe might dovetail with China’s push for a “multipolar” world that is less in thrall to America and more accepting of China’s worldview (he got an earful from Mr Macron nonetheless, not least over trade and Ukraine). For Mr Xi’s propagandists, the trip to France served another purpose. It helped to show that, for all the friction with the West, China’s president gets red-carpet treatment even from its pre-eminent members: his country has become far too powerful to shun.

 

Mr Xi’s message in Serbia will also be one that is aimed in part at his audience at home. It will make two points that he considers crucial: that American alliances are not merely defensive but threatening, and that the China whose embassy was wrecked on May 7th 1999, triggering protests across the country, is a far stronger power today (its economy is more than 16 times bigger). America had better not mess with China again, Mr Xi would like it to be known.


Apology not accepted


Never mind that America calls the bombing a mistake, has apologised repeatedly for it and has paid compensation. The anniversary still resonates among Chinese, many of whom reject America’s insistence that its precision-guided missiles hit the wrong target as a result of an error caused by outdated maps and faulty databases. The attack was part of a NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia aimed at stopping its atrocities in Kosovo. America says its aim had been to destroy nearby offices involved in military procurement. They still exist, unscathed, displaying the same name: Yugoimport.


To understand Mr Xi’s choice of Serbia as the fulcrum of his European tour, visit the site of the former embassy. Mr Xi did so when he was last in Serbia, in June 2016, to pay homage to the three Chinese journalists who were killed there. He also laid a foundation stone for a new building to house a Chinese cultural centre—the embassy having moved elsewhere.


Today the huge eight-storey edifice, with a statue of Confucius in front of it, makes a bold architectural statement of China’s soft power in a dreary-looking district (and, Chinese nationalists would be delighted to hear, towers over the neighbouring embassy of their nemesis, Japan). Its white outer cladding is perforated with different-sized apertures that, from a distance, form a pattern like a traditional Chinese painting of mountains.


For Chinese tourists in Serbia (they can visit visa-free), the building and a monument next to it to those killed in the bombing are a magnet. An agricultural scientist in his 40s from Harbin, in China’s north-east, recalls joining the anti-NATO demonstrations that erupted in 1999—the most extensive street protests in China since the Tiananmen Square unrest of 1989 (although unlike that pro-democracy upheaval, these had the Chinese government’s blessing and stopped when the government wanted). The unrest, says the visitor, saw young Chinese who had once worshipped the West, “thinking the foreign moon is rounder”, turn their anger against it. Demonstrators splattered American and British embassy buildings with paint, smashed their windows and set fire to the home of an American diplomat in Chengdu.


At that time Mr Xi was the deputy Communist Party chief of Fujian province. Since 2012, as the country’s leader, he has encouraged the kind of nationalism that took hold in China after the bombing. Last year China’s state news agency published a poem on its social-media account to mark the anniversary of “America’s inhumane act”. It concluded: “Justice will surely overcome evil!/The blood of the martyrs will not be shed in vain!/Rest in peace, dear ones./We will never forget.”


China’s commemorations of the bombing help to reinforce a view promoted by the country’s state-controlled media that NATO is an aggressor. Chinese officials echo Russian arguments that NATO’s expansion has threatened Russia’s security. While insisting that China is neutral in the conflict, they strongly suggest that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was understandable.


Serbia is similarly sympathetic towards Vladimir Putin. The country is not a member of NATO, nor of the EU (though it is a half-hearted applicant). Its autocratic leader, Aleksandar Vucic, provides Mr Xi with the kind of fawning praise that he is used to at home. In an interview in February with Chinese state television, he recalled a meeting with Mr Xi in 2016. “I realised that I was talking to a guy that was much, much, much smarter and much better prepared,” Mr Vucic said. Crucially for Mr Xi, Mr Vucic is full-throated in his support for China’s position on Taiwan. “Taiwan is China.


And it’s up to you, what, when, how you’re gonna do it. Full stop,” he told the interviewer, implying that Serbia would not oppose a Chinese attack on the island.


Both in Serbia and in Hungary, the final stop on Mr Xi’s European tour, the Chinese leader will seek to show that good relations with China can pay dividends. Hungary, which is both an EU and a NATO member, shares a lot of Serbia’s worldview. Both countries are proud participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure-building project (China is helping to build a high-speed rail link between Belgrade and Hungary’s capital, Budapest). They are dotted with Chinese investments totalling billions of dollars. In return, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, digs his heels in when the EU tries to censure China on human-rights issues.


It is unlikely that Mr Xi expects more converts to his cause in Europe as a result of his trip. But showing support for the friends he has will be noted elsewhere in the world. China’s struggle with the West also involves a contest for support in the “global south”. Many of the world’s poorer countries share Serbia’s and Hungary’s eagerness for Chinese railways and factories. Mr Xi may be losing Europe, but he has plenty of other places to win. ■



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