This is a pilot study of media representations of Chinese investments in Zrenjanin and Serbia in several select media (”Danas” national daily, “Zrenjaninski.com” website and “Zrenjaninski list”), carried out online during my research stay at the University of Amsterdam (August-October 2022) with the help of the China in Europe Research Network (CHERN) short-term scientific mission.
In my previous research, I’ve tried to prove that the increasing Chinese investments in Serbia and the Balkans were followed by increasing labor inflow and infrastructural changes. Apart from that I’ve tried to address their causes by asking whether China outsources production into the Balkans as a consequence of internal crises and external pressures before or during the Green transition.
As a consequence of both dynamics, another research question I always wanted to pose was: “Did the increased flow of both Chinese investments and labor also lead to an ideological polarization within Serbian society along the lines of pro- and anti-government forces?” Hence, it is in the present draft that I want to test this assumption, since it would also explain the public sphere’s complete pro- et contra- division over the question of China and its influence on Serbia. Hence, in this draft, I aim to paint a more complete picture by posing and answering an additional research question: “Did increasing Chinese investments polarize the public discourse on China in Serbia?”. And, if so, does it mean that the increasing Chinese investments could be taken as the causes of ideological polarization in the Serbian society? One interesting consequence – and proof – of this was almost a complete lack of media presence of researchers who focus on China, which could disrupt the “good China” vs “China threat” narratives, which will be tackled shortly below.
Based on the great impact that one particular Chinese investment — Linglong, the largest single investment in Serbia at 816.294.480€ and the first Chinese tire factory in Europe — might have unilaterally had a great impact in shifting the perception of China in the public media; after all, it was so well-connected with the Serbian government that it got not only the privileged status of a “project of national importance“, receiving subsidies and government land, but it also probably influenced the signing of a Sino-Serbian agreement on social security. And it was the site of a well-known Vietnamese labor camp, which even reached the likes of the European Parliament when the Parliament made a motion on forced labor in this particular factory. Not least, it would have not been the first scandal of the company, given its previous undertakings in the US, when it was publicly defended against accusations of espionage by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. However, the results of this pilot study have disproven this thesis. Because Linglong skyrocketed into national media attention only in 2021 and after 2020 when Sinophobia was previously on the rise, its construction in fact coincided with an already detirorated media environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, it might be precisely because of a contrasted media environment, at least on the Serbian national level, that Linglong decided to alter public opinion in more direct ways (apart from financing the Serbian footbal Super League and planting trees), and finance positively-written articles on local websites read by people in its vicinity like “Zrenjaninski.com” — which is one of the more interesting finds of this study (Section: Local news reporting – the “Zrenjaninski list” and “Zrenjaninski.com”).
Other preliminary results of the pilot study presented here, besides disproving my main thesis, nevertheless reveal how exactly China became a contested issue in public and offer valuable data regarding this chronology. The results point out that the COVID-19 pandemic and the year 2020 played a specially hard year in the history of Sino-Serbian relations, painting almost a totally negative picture of China in most titles, which even prompted the Serbian government to issue public statements condemning anti-Chinese propaganda in one of the presently analyzed media, namely, the “Danas” daily. A second, authorial analysis, revealed a complete polarization not only in terms of public discussion about China, but also among the stakeholders themselves, with the government issuing mostly positive value-statements, and civil society organizations, political parties and journalists often painting a completely gloomy picture, with little to no research being addressed as a basis in the texts. Nor is research on China given any prevalent role in Serbian media, despite the contestation. Nor was there any research on how local media reported on the issues of concern here, and it is this gap that this pilot study was hoping to have filled in.
METHOD OF STUDY – DISOURSE ANALYSIS OF 4 YEARS OF REPORTING ON CHINA IN THE NATIONAL NEWS DAILY “DANAS” 2018-2022
By analyzing the title pages of 2143 news articles of the influential daily “Danas” with the tag “China” in the years 2018-2022, 155 headlines fit the criteria of proclaiming a value statement. Most of these texts have a positive or negative marker in the title, such as “China is” (a friend of Serbia or a threat and neocolonial power) meaning that it claims a certain characteristic to be part of what “China” is or is not. Take this example: “China is a friend and an investor”, a headline that came from a statement by Tomislav Nikolić, former president and head of the National council for Coordination of Cooperation with the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, which is an unusual governmental body formed in 2017, after Vučić’s election as president, and whose members include almost all Ministers of the government, have been especially prevalent in the media during the first years of his presiding over this body, which continues still today. This example, typical of the stakeholders from the Serbian government, is a usual occurence and is often associated with government officials. Others statements coming from the oppositional media and politicians include the “China threat narrative”, such as claiming that China is about to colonize Serbia or any other land, or that it has already done so.
Hence, the headlines analyzed came in the form of either a strictly positive pro-China stance or strictly negative anti-China stance on different topics. These value-statements were then categorized according to such topics on which the value-statements concerned, be it Chinese investments in specific, Sino-Serbian relations in general, gloryfing the Chinese military or using the China threat narrative – the 155 news headlines could be said to fit in these categories, and this scheme was used as a “mesh” through which value-statements on China have been categorized.
Henceforth, by ordering 155 news articles which explicitly fit said criteria, one could analyze the content of how the “Danas” daily had played a role in the polarization of public discourse, and how its dynamic changed with the context. The results are visible in the “Paw graph” below:
The graph counts the number of headlines according to our categories (China threat narrative versus positive value-statements on topics like political relations, investments and the military) per year, and shows an increase of “China threat narrative” reporting in 2020, with a corelating relation between other categories, the threat narrative being the most dominant.
On the other hand, it might be said that has left much journalism out of discussion. However, as the analysis was searching for strictly value-statements, pure news reporting without any such connotations has been rejected. Hence, what was analyzed here were mostly ideologically-charged texts based on content. Another caveat is that there was an explosion of news on China in 2020, and much of it was simply reporting on the coronavirus, which was an unknown phenomenon at the time. This also accounts for much of the objective journalism that does not fall into the scope of our analysis of China’s media representation and its ideological polarization. Also, the focus lies within rather then beyond Serbia.
Lastly, when it comes to content, it must be mentioned that the last category of the “China threat” narrative is also less diverse than are the other three (which are based on topics: investments, Sino-Serbian relations in general or the military). Unlike them, the “China threat” narrative was actually the most diverse in form of content, either overemphasizing actual problems (for example, take a typical 2020 title from 13. 08. 2020 by the right-wing movement “Slobodarski pokret”, asking “Is it true that the Zijin company is buying real-estate around Bor in order to settle in workers from China?”), or simply journalistic op-eds on the China question as a whole. Most often, these were simply op-eds on diverse topics that only had the “China threat narrative” in common. Less often, they were actual studies of opinions or reflections on the “China threat narrative” as such, making a sub-division hard (nevertheless, a sub-division will be recounted in the stakeholders/authorial analysis section, showing different authors of headlines analyzed).
China as a threat narrative in more detail
Back to the Danas national daily, according to the results of this pilot study, the year 2020 was pivotal in terms of the sheer scale of news related to the “China threat” narrative and that much is in line with the rest of the world.
While in 2018, only 7 out of 25 articles within the daily news “Danas” could be categorized as being related to the China threat narrative, in 2020, only 14 out of 45 articles could be counted as not related to the China threat narrative, which is to say, the majority of the press painted or posed questions about China in the framework of a global or local threat. In this year, there is also a unique set of texts that Ministry of interior had issued a statement against the news daily, claiming that “Danas” was, in fact, jeopardizing the foreign policy of the country with its writings.
Also, it should be taken into account that the “China threat” narrative was the dominant value-statement amongst “Danas”’s headlines, testifying to a surge of Sino-phobia since 2020. This is in line with global trends, as scholars like Matthew Eerie (head of the “China, Law and development” project which traces legal aspects of China’s globalization) note, given that the COVID-19 pandemic had brought about a global increase in Sinophobia and greatly thwarted the development of China’s Belt and Road initiative.
In Serbia, while reporting on Chinese investments has increased around 2018-2019, especially with the arrival of Linglong in Zrenjanin’s local news, the Sinophobic rise was also evident in 2020. Although some myths, for example regarding China’s export of convict labor have been circulating at least since the seventies, this global and local surge of Sinophobia also had a consequence of importing some of the myths.
But how relevant are the media news headlines, do they have any effect? Did any of the 155 headlines have any effect? In order to have a preliminary answer, we must acknowledge first that there are many other examples of similar Sinophobia surges which exist even outside of the media analyzed. And, in some cases – which we will underline below – the narratives that both the media and several stakeholders have shared, give us space to conclude that a mutual connection between headlines and acts of stakeholders exists beyond doubt.
For example, the old myth that China is sending convict labor abroad is precisely one of these key points and it is of no surprise then that the China threat narrative is also being used to serve another group of people – the politicians. The Serbian politicians like Sesa Radulović, a former neoliberal-turned-conspiracy-theorist and leading oppositional right-wing politician, which, in a widely-shared online text, asked the Ministry of Foreign affairs to reveal their “agreements” with the Chinese state and asked on November 13th 2019 why does the Ministry not deny accusations of sending convicts to work in Serbia). However, this does much harm to Asian workers – whose number has been rising in Zrenjanin – or other struggling people and simply creates grassroots racism as we shall see shortly. For example, local reactions to the case of 750 Vietnam workers being found in unbearable living conditions were partly very passive or even dismissive precisely thanks to such myths. So much was evident to the author of this article thanks to a talk with the locals during an informal aid mission the author was part of along with a group of activists. While giving supplies of food and medicine to the Vietnamese workers who were desperate for supplies after receiving no salaries for months, we (the group) were facing the police and angry local neighbors who were concerned that these we should not be helping the “workers” since they are actually Chinese prisoners, as they would have us believe, according to one neighbor. There are of course many other cases of political parties, oppositional portals and even more conservative-oriented civil society activists such as “Pokret ujedinjenih fantoma” or PUF, for short (“Movement of united phantoms”, an group of popular Zrenjanin locals who nevertheless achieved great media influence thanks to their support of protests against Vučić in 2017, and who sometimes expose or post videos of local problems). In a video of over 43000 views from 6 june 2021, they were filming Chinese workers in front of Linglong, addressing them as “soldiers” who were preventing them from entering the plant (n.b. only 5 days after the video was posted, other activists wanted to “go into Linglong” by car in order to “tell them that this is not Communist Party“. The car was stopped shortly before entering the plant by Linglong’s security). When an unforeseen situation or labor rights abuses happen, as they did in the case of the 750 Vietnamese workers, the true depth of the damage incurred by Sinophobia and a very counter-productive stance towards Chinese or other Asian people comes into play at a grassroots level. In this sense, basic solidarity between struggling humans is eroded, and a myth is put into place in order to enable those around the workers in questions to avoid any responsibility – which, given the time and circumstances, becomes a socially-accepted stance. Hence, views such as the ones mentioned in this paragraph might help shed light on why cases of labor rights abuses have gone unnoticed for so long and why, when it was noticed, did help take so long to come
One other very personal example is that the activist groups to which the author belong to struggled to secure medical help since even hospital staff have rejected giving aid to the Vietnamese workers or otherwise ambulance vehicles would simply not appear when called and the like, which the operators of the ambulance hotline would acknowledge as positive rather than problematic.
Another example of how the China threat narrative is used, this time on the opposite end of the political spectrum, might be seen in the oppositional center-left MEP Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta who wrote an open letter to Xi Jin Ping to “alert” him of “his own investments in Serbia” after media buildup on ecological destruction that followed from Chinese investments (a topic famous in activist circles, put forward by a famous ecology-oriented Facebook group called “Eko straža”/”Eco guard”, and Ćuta’s own movement “Ekološki ustanak”/”Ecological uprising”). In a plot twist, Ćuta was later accused by the government of inciting the beating up of a Chinese worker in the copper mining city of Bor where a Chinese company called “Zijin” operates. Thus, the government is using grassroots Sinophobia and anti-Chinese racism previously fostered by right-wing politicians, as a way of dealing with left-center politicians. Statements like these must be taken into account when analyzing these titles, since they show us that some common misconceptions regarding Chinese investments which are otherwise discussed only informally among activists or locals in Zrenjanin (for example), might have actually originated in acts of politicians or journalists. Also, the reverse holds true: once in the public media, value-statements – like the ones regarding ecological destruction or the China threat narrative – can themselves produce effects seen in the behavior of said politicians like Ćuta (That does not mean, however, that no ecological problems are going on – a topic on which I have lectured here for anyone who wishes to learn more about the complexity of this particular issue). This is often exacerbated by a government which often chooses to ignore problems regarding China’s investments in Serbia or labor export, making sometimes outrageous comments on China in the China threat narrative, seem more plausible than usual – or, in fact, making it seem like a voice of reason, when, in reality, research and critique are most often absent in both negative and positive value-statements and bombastic news from both sides. Hence some of the myths discussed here are commonly circulated have received more widespread coverage in oppositional media, while the government actors over-emphasize positive sides like employment, etc. in Chinese investments. Both over-exaggerations (analyzed here, in fact – datasets are available on links below) prove that their stakeholders, while having completely opposing opinions on Chinese investments, both have a lot at stake, so to speak.
Stakeholder polarization: authorial analysis of headlines
This is also reflected in the authorial analysis of the headlines within the “Danas” national daily, when one asks the question: “Who is behind which sort of value-statement”? Does the government really “like” China and are its statements actually pro-China 90% of the time and do oppositional politicians really “hate” China and are anti-China 90% of the time?
As hinted, there is a stricter polarization between different stakeholders in media representations of Chinese investments and China in general: in most cases, it is often journalists and external sources vs the government. This can be proven by a different approach. Hence, it is of no surprise that the authorial analysis of the headlines reveals a strict polarization over the question of who exactly were the authors of the statements from which the headlines have originated: 74% of all positive headlines using Chinese investments to point out China’s positive influence on Serbia came from government officials (26 headlines, out of which 6 were global actors and 1 was written by a journalist). In headlines which emphasize good relations between China and Serbia as such (e.g. without recourse to Chinese investments), the percentage is even higher – 80% government statements (out of 45 headlines, only 4 were written by journalists, another 4 by civil society organizations and political parties while only 1 came from a global source), and it should not be forgotten that emphasizing good Sino-Serbian relations has also received the widest coverage, compared to two other “positive” headline statements. Lastly, all statements alluding to positively viewing or propagating the Chinese military (3 headlines) came 100% from government officials. This could be presented as:
Major author of “positive” statements – government officials.
Propagating Chinese investments – 75% government (19 out of 26).
Emphasizing good relations between China and Serbia – 80% government (36 out of 45).
Propagating the Chinese military for Serbia – 100% government (3 out of 3).
It is important to note that this also corresponds to the ways in which other government-oriented media and even non-governmental media have been depicting China. According to research of 36000 media reports on television networks with national-frequencies and national news (RTS, Pink, Prva, Happy, portals: blic.rs, b92.net, kurir.rs, telegraf.rs and novosti,rs, dailies like Blic, Kurir, Večernje novosti and Informer) by the NGO “Crta”, China has been depicted in 25% of the reports in a positive light, while only 15% view it in a negative light (source is here). One of the reasons this pilot study did not include pro-government media was precisely that such a research was carried out on a 10-time larger sample by “Crta”. The results of its study showed that China was portrayed in positive light mostly during the 2020 pandemic, which is a completely opposite dynamic to the oppositional daily Danas (this is one of the reasons why this pilot study of national and regional media could complement already existing studies of pro-governmental media in order to paint a more detailed picture of China’s and Chinese capital’s representation in the Serbian media).
On the other hand, the dominant China threat narrative came at 46% mostly from global sources (33 out of 71 headlines), followed by local journalists at 38% (27 out of 71) and 14% headlines came from civil society organizations and political parties. Only once did the Serbian government address the China threat narrative, and that was via a set of statements exclaimed in order to counter it, in the form of a warning. In other words, there are two clear groups of stakeholders when it comes to media representation of China’s influence in the media on the example used: the government on the one side, and journalists, civil society organization and political parties and global sources, on the other, testifying to how much opposition exists between the two, and meaning that issue is at best, contested almost completely.
The “China threat” narrative sub-divided according to actors
Global sources – 46% (33 out of 71)
Journalists – 38% (27 out of 71)
Civil society and political parties – 14% (10 out of 71)
Government – 1,5% (1 out of 71)
Local news reporting – the “Zrenjaninski list” and “Zrenjaninski.com”
One of the reason that the national daily “Danas” was chosen as a main source of analysis was also because “Zrenjaninski list”, a widely-read Zrenjanin news weekly which comes from the hometown of the largest and most contested Chinese investment – Linglong – has scant available online resources, with only 9 texts available online, out of which 5 report objectively on protests and civil society opposition to the factory, while the other 4 follow the actions of the factory in planting trees, etc. On the other hand, it can be said that Zrenjaninski list obviously chose to objectively report on local conditions strictly and thus avoided ideological or wider social questions of Chinese investments and its influence which are of concern here. Nevertheless, it was the first to report on local uprisings against the factory (https://listzrenjanin.com/krivicna-prijava-tuzba-zatim-prvo-okupljanje-protiv-fabrike-guma-linglong-2/). Also, one of the reasons why a focus on an oppositional national daily was important was because most media in Serbia, including local media, are often sanctioned by the government, and there are little to no “free media” in Serbia, which is a fact widely discussed by both journalists and social scientists, the consequences of which the next analysis will show.
On the other hand, with these obstacles in mind, a supplementary analysis of 217 headlines was nevertheless carried out of a local online website called “Zrenjaninski.com” with the tag “Linglong”. This is adding a local perspective when it comes to the biggest Chinese investment in Serbia: China’s first European tire factory called Linglong, also a site of the infamous Vietnamese labor camp containing 750 people, on which I previously wrote a string of texts during the last 3 years.
The results of this analysis are visible in the “inverted paw graph” below:
While their website had problems of its own (the texts were not categorized primarily by year, but randomly, which called for additional work), based on our previous scheme, 55 value-oriented headlines were chosen over the same period of 2018-2022. Also, this website is a widely shared local website with information on local affairs. It is interesting here for several reasons: firstly, it did feature both government pro-China propaganda, but then later on became paid by the Linglong company to advertise it in paid articles labeled as “Marketing”. This is one of the most interesting findings of this study – that a Chinese company is using local news outlets to better its and China’s image even when in reality cases of abuse continue to happen – in this sense, one can say that they are literally investing in ideology. More interestingly, “Zrenjaninski.com” also seems to share news directly from China, that is Linglong’s achievements (such as the opening up of one of its tire-testing parks in China) which are of no local relevance, but are related to the company.
What is interesting here is that this website showed some differences in comparison to the Danas daily, mostly in terms of its complete absence of the anti-Chinese Sinophobic surge of 2020 (similar to what could be supposed for the “Zrenjaninski list”) and it’s reversal of the China threat narrative: here, paid news articles by the company were dominant along with government officials’ statements (41 headlines), with the China threat narrative claiming secondary place (only 14 headlines – a ratio that is basically reversed from what we see in the national media, leading us to note the differences in the ways in which Chinese investments are reflected upon locally vs nationally. Local news are mostly influenced by local events and offer little place for reflection, and are prone to be closer to the company or at least expect to have more struggles in negative or tentative reporting on the company’s issues due to their proximity to its owners and laborers. On the other hand, a similar polarization of authors, which we will note soon, does exist. Unlike the “Zrenjaninski list”, the “Zrenjaninski website” did go into criticisms of Linglong, reports on activist’s views and that of different sociologists and civil society or political organizations, which will be noted shortly. Hence, it offered a glimpse into a similar polarized structure of headlines, now on a local level that is similar in fact, to the national level.
For example, out of 41 positive headlines on Chinese investments in the city – mostly around those focusing on Linglong – the company itself is the source of their majority – 22 out of 41 texts or 53%, while the government accounts for 18 and civil society and political parties account for 1.
Therefore, here the company is the major leader of positive stances towards itself and China, while the government, unlike the national level, takes second place at least in the case of the “Zrenjaninski website”.
On the opposing side, the China threat narrative was led by civil society organizations (8 out of 14), with only 2 headlines by journalist, 3 by the company and 1 by the government, mostly condemning the status and problems of the Vietnamese workers case, where 750 people were found living in horrible conditions in a cold factory hall belonging to one of Linglong’s cooperants, on which Linglong simply stated that they are not employed directly by the company on August 25th 2022, almost six months after the case. This case in 2021 was especially controversial for the company, of which traces could actually be seen on the “Zrenjaninski.com” website. For example, shortly after the case with the Vietnamese workers, a company-sponsored text appeared on this website, with the headline: “Respecting labor rights and the environment at the Linglong factory”.
So far, both datasets (available on the links below) show a strict polarization between government and non-government stakeholders. When it comes to government sources, the relationship between Serbia and China, or China as such, is presented in an overall positive light, while the opposite is true for civil society organizations, oppositional political parties, journalists and global sources. In non-governmental sources there is a clear domination of the China threat narrative in the “Danas” national daily vs company news regarding investments in the local “Zrenjaninski.com” website. On the other hand, the China threat narrative is often employed to political ends by both left-center and right-wing politicians, while causing grass roots racism on the ground and is counter-productive when it comes to expressing solidarity with Chinese or other Asian workers. Needless to say, this pilot study could be a welcome addition to existing studies on public opinion that focus less on particular outlets and more on the global aggregate, meaning other studies like this could complement them, while the criteria set here as a scheme of how to categorize public discourse on Chinese investments could further be used in the future for similar analysis of other national or local daily or weekly news portals or media, providing a clearer picture of how Chinese investments are represented differently by geographical location and regional divergences, which could complement this pilot study well in the future.
One of the previous assumptions of this author has been that the coming of Linglong might have caused a shift in the media representation of Chinese capital in Serbia, but this has proven not to be true. Also, it has been proven hard to analyze local daily’s while differences between local and daily media had to be taken into account and compared in order to paint a clearer picture, which the author hopes the article did.
 On the other hand, it is interesting to note that even in 2018, “Danas” was translating even Chinese authors like Mo Zhixy (Chinese change) which is a pseudonym for the dissident Zhao Hui who lives and works in Guangzhou, and wrote an article called “New Chinese totalitarianism”.
 Matthew, Eerie, BRI vs. COVID-19/Research brief No. 5/2020, Oxford University 2020, p. 1 https://cld.web.ox.ac.uk/files/erie_2020_rbpdf
 “Chasing Ghosts: Rumours and Representations of the Export of Chinese Convict Labour to Developing Countries”, Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman, The China Quarterly / Volume 210 / June 2012, p. 399. http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0305741012000422
 Recorded in November 2021.
 For the case, look here: Matković, Aleksandar (2021) Unfree Labor, from Hanoi to Belgrade : Chinese Investment and Labor Dispatch in the Case of 750 Workers from Vietnam. In: Značaj institucionalnih promena u ekonomiji Srbije kroz istoriju. Institut ekonomskih nauka, Beograd, pp. 114-134. ISBN 978-86-89465-67-9, https://aleksandarmatkovic.wordpress.com/2021/12/23/3008/. For a list of my writings on Linglong, consult the reading list on my blog (descriptions are momentarily in Serbian even when the texts are in English): https://aleksandarmatkovic.wordpress.com/2021/08/23/kina-reading-list/.
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