In May 2019, Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic and Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi signed a three-point memorandum of understanding in the field of security. Two of the agreed initiatives came into effect in September: joint police patrols and the installation of cameras with facial recognition technology. Together with Serbian colleagues, an undefined number of Chinese police officers will be deployed in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Smederevo. According to Stefanovic, joint police patrols will aim to assist Chinese tourists in Serbia, whose number in 2019 is expected to increase by 40% – the Serbian Tourist Organization said. However, the more interesting part of the deal regards the purchase of hundreds of cameras with facial recognition technology, in the framework of Belgrade’s “Safe City” project. According to some speculations, the seller is Huawei – the Chinese telecommunications provider at the centre of several international disputes and accused by US authorities to spy on behalf of Beijing’s government. Asked about the details, such as the name of the seller and the price of the purchase, Minister Stefanovic identified the matter as “confidential”.
What is known is that this new field of cooperation between Serbia and China will probably have consequences at both local and international levels. At the local level, it will put at risk citizens’ freedoms, while for Belgrade’s foreign relations it could lead to a third pole – beside the EU and Russia – of diplomatic dependence.
What are they watching?
The introduction of facial recognition has raised the concerns of Serbian civil society. The project has not been discussed in the national parliament, neither in any public debate. Details are unknown. As announced by Minister Stefanovic, around 1000 cameras will be installed in Belgrade in 800 different hotspots. However, their exact number and locations remain a secret, as much as their purpose. In China, such technology is used to screen and monitor citizens, and in certain regions is also a way to limit people’s freedom, as for the Uyghur and Hui Muslim minorities.
In Serbia – as well as in other countries – the introduction of facial recognition could endanger citizens’ freedom for at least three reasons. “First, reports show that this technology is imprecise; this means that innocent people could be identified as criminals. Second, cameras enable continued monitoring of people and that could be an abuse. And third, it has not been explained to [Serbian] citizens how this system will work and how their privacy will be protected, as video recording in public spaces indeed collects personal data,” Sasa Djordjevic, a researcher from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, told ISPI.
Serbian NGO “CRTA” (a group active in the field of promotion of democratic principles) has launched the initiative “Where are they controlling us?” (Gde nas sve nadziru?), thanks to which signatures are being collected in order to acquire additional information from Minister Stefanovic on the location of cameras, the localization of data storage facilities and the general aim of the project.
So far, Mr Stefanovic has not been answering the questions directly, but has offered pragmatic explanations on the anti-crime purpose of the cameras.
Stefanovic’s vagueness could not but strengthen civil society’s concerns, above all in consideration of the opposition-led protests that every Saturday since last November take the streets of Belgrade and other Serbian cities. Many activists fear cameras are meant to control and monitor the participants of the anti-government “1 out of 5 million” marches – the name refers to when president Aleksandar Vucic said he would not accept protesters’ requests even if there were 5 million protesters. It is not by chance that in one of the latest editions of the protest they focused on the newly installed cameras: activists denounced the lack of transparency behind their installation – accusing the government to spy citizens illegally – and covered some of them in a demonstrative act.
A matter of legality, and politics
In August 2019, a few weeks before cameras started working, the national Law on Personal Data Protection became effective. It could be understood as a copy of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that Serbia adopted in its efforts to comply with EU standards. “Regarding the question raised on facial recognition technology, EU Member States must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation and Law Enforcement Directive when processing personal data. This acquis notably defines the requirements under which the processing of personal data by means of video surveillance is lawful,” an EU official told ISPI.
As a candidate country to EU accession, Serbia is required to adhere to EU values, norms and standards. In this case, investments and activities in the field of policing could raise EU’s concerns: “They should therefore be carefully scrutinised to ensure full compatibility with the spirit and specific provisions of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in areas such as investments. We expect Serbia to continue improving the compliance with the Common Foreign and Security Policy and to continue cooperation in the framework of Common Security and Defence Policy,” the EU official concluded.
However, cooperation between Serbia and China is of a more comprehensive nature. Belgrade’s real interest is to safeguard China’s position on Kosovo. Together with Russia, in fact, China is the most influential country to not recognize Kosovo’s independence, a position confirmed also in November 2018, when Beijing opposed Pristina’s admission to INTERPOL.
“The cooperation has extended to the military area and not just at a public security level. China has donated to Serbia military equipment and has held joint military trainings. In other words, Serbia does not seat on two chairs anymore, but three – the EU, Russia and China,” as Sasa Djordjevic, the Belgrade-based researcher, affirmed. Yet, Russia and China’s increased strategic convergence makes analysts wonder about the extent of Russia’s ignorance of China’s activities in the Balkans, especially as these activities mimic the military cooperation framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), de facto jointly led by China and Russia in an effort to coordinate militarily with Central Asian countries.
Cooperation in the field of security is something completely new for the relations between Serbia and the People’s Republic of China. So far, Beijing has been investing in the Balkans in several infrastructural projects connected to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Serbia being the main recipient of Chinese foreign direct investments ($10.6 billion) in the region. Serbia is in fact located in a strategic position for Chinese development projects: the “X Pan-European Corridor” passes through the Balkans and connects Central Europe with Greece, where Chinese shipping company COSCO already owns two-third of Athens’ Piraeus port. Moreover, China is planning to build the Belgrade-Bar motorway on Montenegro’s seaside and the Belgrade-Budapest railway: two infrastructural projects that will facilitate the entrance of Chinese companies into European markets.
But Beijing has been investing in energy too. The steel mill in Smederevo – a small town 50 km east from Belgrade – has been bought in 2016 for €46 million by Hesteel Group, a Chinese state-run steel manufacturer. Thus, other than assisting Chinese tourists – that are actually not that many in Smederevo – joint police patrols might be there mainly to monitor the mill, especially as its exports in 2018 amounted to €749 million, making it the biggest Serbian exporter.
As a matter of fact, China’s BRI infrastructures around the world have not been exempted from violent protests, which came as far as to take the form of terrorist attacks. These events further stressed the notion that security investments along the BRI need to cease relying on China’s partners as exclusive agents of securitization. Thus, national police forces and private security companies started to adopt a joint operations framework. While, at first, private security forces were Chinese, they soon differentiated as Chinese companies also started hiring Russian and Israeli forces. The limit to the action of these security providers mainly lied within their scope. In fact, as private security companies are called to operate on the territory of foreign states, their authorization only extended to the areas of construction projects.
In a sense, the joint police patrol framework could represent an effort to widen the security net around Chinese-financed projects. Formally, these patrols were launched to support the work of national law enforcement agencies in protecting Chinese nationals that for tourism or work reasons were in China’s partner countries. It is clear that despite being a novelty for Serbia, joint police patrols have become a well-established method of Chinese engagement abroad. In the Balkans, for instance, Croatia in July 2019 hosted the second round of joint police patrols with China. Italy and China’s cooperation in this regard, in contrast, dates back to 2016. It was the first experiment of this kind in Europe and has now reached its third round with Chinese police in Milan, Rome and Venice and Italian officers active in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The aim of these Italian-Chinese joint police patrols was mainly to ensure the safety – and concurrently increase the flux – of Italian and Chinese tourists visiting the two countries.
Serbia, China’s new ‘Trojan Horse’?
The Serbian case adds complexity to this framework, as it is locked in a wider set of cooperation agreements between the two countries. Not only did Serbia adopt the much-contested Huawei facial recognition surveillance technology, but joint police patrols were also negotiated a year after a visa-free travel agreement between the two countries in 2017, which allegedly aimed to facilitate the increase in the number of Chinese nationals visiting the country. According to China’s “win-win” rhetoric, Chinese ambassador to Serbia, Chen Bo, stressed that this project results from a shared vision of the Chinese and Serbian governments and that it “reflect[s] the two governments’ idea of governance in the interest of the people”.
However, the idea of governance that Serbia acquires from China is that of an authoritarian country, which strengthens control over its citizens. In the latest report by Freedom House, Serbia was declassed from “free” to “partly free” because of “the deterioration in the conduct of elections, continued attempts by the government and allied media outlets to undermine independent journalists through legal harassment and smear campaigns, and President Aleksandar Vučić’s de facto accumulation of executive powers that conflict with his constitutional role.” As a matter of fact, the two ruling parties – the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) – have a special relationship. Last June, a delegation of SNS members went to Beijing for a “study visit”. President Vucic, who is also the chief of SNS, told the Serbian delegation “they have much to learn [from CPC]” and “to work like they do; I will explain details at the [party’s] executive board”.
In conclusion, this increased cooperation is bound to strengthen Beijing's presence in the Balkan nation – formally defined as a “technological hub” – allowing it to sell its technology and get closer economically to Europe. On the other hand, it seems that Vucic’s Serbia has once again compromised its European orientation, opting for a security approach that recalls that of authoritarian China.