In Serbia, Xi emphasizes close ties with an ally who shares mistrust of the United States

China and Serbia proclaimed an “iron friendship” and “shared future” during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Belgrade on Wednesday, underscoring the close political and economic ties between two countries that share mistrust of the United States.

Mr Xi arrived in Serbia on Tuesday, marking the 25th anniversary of a 1999 plane crash involving the US Air Force during the Kosovo war and destroying the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Three Chinese journalists were killed in the strike.

On Wednesday morning, Xi appeared briefly with the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, before a cheering crowd of people, some of whom told Serbian media they had been bused in by the ruling party, gathered outside the Palace of Serbia, the former headquarters of the now defunct government of Yugoslavia which now houses the offices of the Serbian government.

“The iron friendship between China and Serbia has withstood the test of international storms and tribulations,” Xi told Vucic in a meeting, according to a report by Xinhua, China's official news agency. “It has a deep historical foundation, a solid political base, wide-ranging common interests and a solid basis in public opinion.”

The leaders later signed an agreement declaring their intention to “deepen and elevate the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Serbia” and to “build a new era of community with a shared future,” local news outlets reported.

Unlike his last visit to Central and Eastern Europe in 2016, during which he faced noisy protests in the Czech Republic, Xi received a uniform and enthusiastic welcome in Belgrade, with authorities reportedly arresting potential protesters and mobilized state workers to applaud him. .

Sara Markovic, a Belgrade filmmaker, said in a telephone interview that her father, Dejan, 63, a practitioner of the banned Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, and five fellow followers of what Beijing calls an “evil cult” were taken into custody before Mr. Xi's visit. The six detainees and two family members, arrested at the same time despite having no links to Falun Gong, were all released without charges soon after Mr. Xi left Serbia on Wednesday evening, Ms. Markovic said.

A police arrest warrant said Ms Markovic's father was suspected of “endangering people under international protection”.

Ms Markov said her father had no intention of protesting the Chinese leader's visit and was arrested because “our government wants to please the Chinese in every possible way” and “behaves like the CCP”, a reference to the Party Chinese Communist. .

China routinely requires that foreign governments hosting a visit by Mr. Xi remove protesters and even posters linked to Falun Gong or affiliated organizations such as the Shen Yun dance troupe. Most European governments refuse, but Serbia has gone out of its way to show what Vucic described on Wednesday as “reverence and love for him” for the Chinese leader.

China is Serbia's largest foreign investor, and increasingly close economic ties have helped expand a relationship forged before the collapse of Yugoslavia, whose capital was Belgrade, in the early 1990s, through a shared mistrust of of Western and Soviet power.

The 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing came at a time when Xi's government is seeking to establish stable relations with the United States and Western Europe. He was expected to visit the site of the bombed embassy, ​​which he visited during his last trip to Serbia in 2016 and which is usually a mandatory stop for Chinese officials visiting Belgrade. But he had not appeared there before leaving Belgrade on Wednesday evening for his next stop, the Hungarian capital Budapest, the only other truly China-friendly European capital.

His decision to leave out the site of the former embassy, ​​now a Chinese cultural center that features a black marble tombstone-like plaque mourning the “Chinese and Serbian martyrs,” suggests a desire to avoid reigniting anti-American passions that at the time of the 1999 bombing led to angry protests by tens of thousands of Chinese around the US embassy in Beijing, some throwing bottles and rocks.

He did not ignore the bombing entirely, but he avoided anti-Western bombast.

“We should never forget this,” Xi said in a statement published Tuesday by Politika, a Serbian newspaper, recalling that “25 years ago today, NATO flagrantly bombed the Chinese embassy.” He said China's friendship with Serbia was “forged with the blood of our compatriots” and “will remain in the shared memory of the Chinese and Serbian people.”

Beijing's underlying suspicions about Western intentions and NATO's role persist, a point that has emerged in Chinese official and media commentary on the anniversary. But Xi refrained from the outrage expressed in Beijing by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“The Chinese people will never forget this barbaric atrocity committed by NATO and will never accept such a tragic history being repeated,” Lin Jian, a ministry spokesperson, told reporters in Beijing.

Serbia, which still harbors deep resentment over the defeat of the Christian Serbs by the Ottoman Turks in a battle in 1389, shares with China a vision of itself as a righteous force that has been harmed by hostile foreigners.

Serbia and China are also bound by mutual support for each other's territorial claims: China's to the breakaway island of Taiwan and Serbia's to Kosovo, a former Serbian land that declared an independent state after China's bombing campaign. BORN.

“Just as we have clear positions on the issue of Chinese integrity – that Taiwan is China – so they support the territory of Serbia without any reservations,” said Vucic, who was Serbian information minister under President Slobodan Milosevic during the Kosovo war. on Wednesday.

China, Xi said, “supports Serbia's efforts to preserve its territorial integrity vis-à-vis Kosovo.”

Public opinion has soured dramatically against China in much of Europe, particularly in former communist countries in the east, due to the war in Ukraine. But Serbia, which, like China, has close ties to Russia, has remained solidly pro-China and still looks to China for billions of dollars in investments.

But like almost all European countries, Serbia has an ever-widening trade deficit with China, a gap that Vucic hopes can be narrowed by a new free trade deal that he said Wednesday will allow Serbia to export 95 percent of its goods. free. While Serbia has few products that China needs, Vucic said Serbian farmers would benefit from new Chinese contracts for plums, plums and blueberries.

Vucic was one of only two European leaders, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to attend a meeting in Beijing in October to celebrate Xi's Belt and Road infrastructure program. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and dozens of other foreign leaders also attended.

Belgrade was decorated with Chinese flags and placards paying homage to the “beloved Chinese friends”. Crowds thronged the streets to welcome the Chinese leader, an expression of affection that opposition politicians say was artificially manufactured by authorities, who they said ordered street cleaners and other state workers to skip work and to applaud Mr. Xi.

Serbia's state television station even stopped broadcasting the Eurovision Song Contest, a hugely popular event watched by millions across Europe, to make way for coverage of a welcoming ceremony for Mr. Xi at Belgrade airport.

Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan and Alisa Dogramadzieva from Belgrade, Serbia.

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