GROWING CHINESE INFLUENCE IN REPUBLIKA SRPSKA: Publicly Giving 200 KM, Secretly Earning Millions

By 2023, according to data from the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina (FIPA), citing the “China Global Investment Tracker” research, Chinese investments in Bosnia and Herzegovina exceeded $3 billion. According to data from the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chinese investments are higher in Republika Srpska than in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Written by: Milkica Milojević

According to FIPA, investments and loans from China have dramatically increased since 2019.

In Republika Srpska, not only Chinese builders and bankers have arrived in the last 5 years but also Chinese language teachers, sinology professors, and traditional Chinese medicine doctors. The Confucius Institute at the University of Banja Luka is responsible for this.

A small ceremony was recently held at the Confucius Institute, located in the building of the Faculty of Political Sciences in Banja Luka. Two sinology students at the Banja Luka Faculty of Philology received scholarships of 200 KM per month from the powerful Chinese company “Shandong”.

This company is constructing the Banja Luka – Prijedor highway. The project is worth around 300 million euros, and the contract between “Shandong” and the Government of Republika Srpska has been kept secret from the public for years.

On the other hand, the contracts for scholarships were handed out to students of the Chinese language personally by the director of the Banja Luka branch of “Shandong”, Mingha Vang, in front of TV cameras.

Kompanija Sandung foto Milkica Milojevic ringier 1 scaled

Awarding of scholarships, photo: Milkica Milojević

Secret Contracts and Public Promotion

The Chinese state-owned company for road and railway construction, “Shandong”, has long been present in Serbia, and in 2018, it opened a subsidiary in Banja Luka named “SDHS-CSI BH” Ltd. In the same year, it signed a concession agreement with the Government of Republika Srpska for the construction of the Banja Luka – Prijedor highway.

This contract was only recently published after several judgments from the District Court in Banja Luka. However, the contract was published without a crucial part: the one relating to the “financial model”, or the expenditure of money.

The same company has recently expressed interest in building a fast road from Sokolac to Bijeljina, and as stated by director Mingha Vang, “there are also long-term plans for the reconstruction of railway lines in Republika Srpska”.

The fact that these plans are realistic is evidenced by the ongoing negotiations between the Government of Republika Srpska and the “China Railway Engineering Corporation”. It was officially announced that their European representation from Warsaw will relocate to Banja Luka because “Republika Srpska has great potential”.

The Chinese Corporation for Roads and Bridges, CRBC, recently signed a Memorandum with the Government of Republika Srpska for the construction of a 15-kilometre road from Foča to Šćepan Polje. According to the statement of the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Radovan Višković, the project is worth about 100 million euros. Details, of course, are not known, and judging by previous “Chinese projects”, they will not be disclosed.

While Višković was negotiating with Chinese builders behind closed doors, a public lecture on “The Belt and Road Initiative in the Balkans” was held at the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka, preceded by the promotion of selected stories by Petar Kočić translated into Chinese in the form of comics.

All of this has taken place in the last month.

These current events reflect the way Chinese influence is spreading in Republika Srpska. Public efforts are made to promote the Chinese language and culture, as well as Chinese foreign policy, expressed through the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Confucius Institute is responsible for this aspect of the work, while on the other hand, business projects worth hundreds of millions of euros are characterized by significant lack of transparency.

How Confucius Came to Banja Luka

The story of Confucius in Banja Luka begins in 2017 during the summit of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe and China, known as the “16+1 Initiative”. At that time, the headquarters of the Confucius Institutes Hanban gave consent to the State University of Technology in Tianjin and the University of Banja Luka to jointly establish the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka.

As warned by political scientist Miloš Popović, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University in 2019, Hanban, which licenses Confucius Institutes worldwide, operates under the baton of the leading group for external propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party.

Since 2004, when this mission began, over 1200 Confucius Institutes have been opened in more than 120 countries.

Konfucija Institut Banjaluka foto Milkica Milojevic ringier 1 scaled

Photo: Milkica Milojević

As stated by the director of the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka, Ljiljana Stević, a Confucius Institute was opened in Belgrade as early as 2006 and was among the first in Europe.

Although a Confucius Institute was opened in Sarajevo in 2015, the Chinese felt it wouldn't hurt to have their own centre of influence in Banja Luka.

At the opening of the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka in 2018, the honorary guests were the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and the then Ambassador of China to BiH, Chen Bo.

It is important to know the language of an economic powerhouse

Since then, the institute has been promoting Chinese culture, art, tradition, and philosophy, with a focus on the Chinese language.

“It is important to know the language of a country that is potentially the second, and possibly even the first, economic power in the world. It is important to know the customs and rules of doing business in China. That's why we organized a course on the Chinese language and Chinese business etiquette for employees in the Office of the President of Republika Srpska”, says Ljiljana Stević.

The Confucius Institute also organizes Chinese language courses for children, youth, and adults. Currently, there are 10 Chinese language teachers working in Banja Luka, some of whom are locals, mostly trained in Belgrade, and others are professors and students who come from China and stay in Republika Srpska for one to two years.

Chinese scholars stay on the student campus as guests of the University of Banja Luka. Although they are volunteers, they receive allowances for their work.

“So far, around 200 participants have attended our Chinese language courses, from kindergarten children to adults. We organize optional classes in five primary schools in Banja Luka, as well as in Banja Luka Gymnasium, where a Confucius classroom was opened in 2000. We also work with high schools in Srbac and Doboj”, says Ljiljana Stević, adding that the courses for children and students are free.

“This is a gift from the university to the community”, says Stević.

Ljiljana Stevic direktorica Konfucijevog instituta Banjaluka foto ustupljena fotografija

Ljiljana Stević, photo: Provided photo

Salaries at the Expense of the Citizens of Srpska

As is the practice elsewhere in the world, the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka operates within the university framework. It has offices and a classroom at the Faculty of Political Sciences, and it uses the facilities of other faculties for its events. The domestic staff of the institute consists of employees of the University of Banja Luka.

At the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka, three Chinese nationals are employed, including the Chinese director Shen Li, and their salaries are paid by the University of Tianjin. Four local employees are paid by the University of Banja Luka.

“Our annual budget for projects is around $100,000, which is provided by partners from China. The salary costs for the four of us exceed that amount, and this is provided by the University of Banja Luka”, says Director Stević.

The University of Banja Luka is a public university and is financed mostly from the budget of Republika Srpska and other public revenues, meaning that these salaries are covered by the citizens of Srpska.

However, both at the Confucius Institute and at the Rectorate of the University of Banja Luka, it is emphasized that the community also benefits from them.

“We support the Rectorate in its international activities, and we have strengthened the university. We have translated works by Petar Kočić, Stevka Kozić Preradović, Ranko Preradović, and some other writers into Chinese. We also work in other ways to promote the Serbian language and culture in China”, says Stević.

Beijing via Banja Luka

The support of the Confucius Institute was crucial for the establishment of the Sinology Department at the Faculty of Philology in Banja Luka in 2022. The department currently has 4 sinology professors, one lecturer from China, and 23 students.

“We hope that there will be many more students, and our ambition is to establish Asian Studies at the University of Banja Luka”, says Stević.

As early as 2011, the Sinology Department was opened at the Faculty of Philosophy in Pale, also part of the public University of East Sarajevo. This study group enrols between 10 and 15 students annually.

So, there are more and more speakers of Chinese in Republika Srpska, and there are also more and more people who, even if they don't know Chinese, travel to China through the Confucius Institute.

As stated in the publication issued on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka, thanks to them, not only the best sinology students and participants in Chinese language courses, but also university professors, and delegations from the Government of Republika Srpska and the City of Banja Luka have visited Beijing and Tianjin.

Even Belgrade native Mina Đorđević, one of the two sinology students in Banja Luka who received a scholarship from the company “Shandong” mentioned at the beginning of our story, hopes to soon travel to China.

“I want to continue my education in China and work there. I enrolled in Sinology in Banja Luka because I didn't succeed in Belgrade; there is fierce competition there. In fact, it is easier to reach China through Banja Luka than through Belgrade today”, says Mina Đorđević.

Why Activists Sued the Government of Republika Srpska

The contract for the construction of the Banja Luka – Prijedor highway is now at least partially accessible to the public because non-governmental organizations and journalists have sued the Government of Republika Srpska.

“The problem lies in the fact that this is a concession agreement. According to media reports, ‘Shandong’ was granted a 30-year concession for this highway, and Republika Srpska has committed to compensate the concessionaire if they do not collect as much revenue from tolls as planned. The point of concessions is precisely for the concessionaire to assume the risk, but here all the risk is borne by Republika Srpska, which guarantees the investor the profitability of this project. For this reason, it is important for the public to receive all information about what Republika Srpska has committed to in this agreement”, explains Srđan Traljić, spokesperson for Transparency International in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

TI Bosnia and Herzegovina has obtained two judgments in this case, and they have sued the Government of Republika Srpska for the third time because they insist on the publication of the “financial model” of the contract, which is still secret.

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