Can China become Serbia’s “Big Brother”?

Stefan Vladisavljev

14. February 2019

Can China become Serbia’s “Big Brother”?

At the end of January 2019, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, Nebojsa Stefanovic, announced that one thousand cameras would be installed on 800 locations in Belgrade due the improvement of security of citizens and fight against criminal.

News about the introduction of cameras has lead to the questions among the public: whether those cameras are set up to really improve security or could it be about possibility to achieve complete control over the actions of citizens. Special criticism was directed by the experts who are dealing with the topic of security and data protection because of the possibility of endangering the privacy of citizens; for example, by face recognition software which allows citizens to be tracked.

While video surveillance can contribute to the reduction of law violations and criminal cases, it could also endanger the privacy of citizens. Question is how it happened that Serbia (in this particular case, Belgrade) wants to introduce such a sort of technology? During the announcement of the project, Minister Stefanovic did not specify who is the supplier of video surveillance equipment. But, based on the previously signed contracts, we can conclude that it is the Chinese company Huawei.

First Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2014 by Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia and Huawei, respectively the Huawei president for the region of Central and Eastern Europe, Jum Lu. Conclusion that Huawei is the partner can be also driven from the statement of Minister Stefanovic from September 2017, when he announced the beginning of cooperation on a strategic project “Safe City” during the visit of Special Envoy of the President of China, Meng Jianzhu. Strategic cooperation agreement with Huawei was signed in February of 2017 and the agreement was made about the introduction of eLTE technology in order to improve public safety and to achieve better data exchange in order to increase the security of citizens. The existence of cooperation with Huawei in the area of security surveillance can also be proven by the agreement signed by Minister of Finance, Sinisa Mali, during the visit of delegation of the Republic of Serbia to Beijing in September 2018.

On the official site of Huawei, “Safe city” is described as the project that will contribute to the improvement of event security, such as sport events. Also, that it had already, during the first phase of the project, helped solving of the criminal cases and that it will advance the technology used by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in general.

What can be concluded is that the presence of Huawei is well accepted to the extent that even the representatives of Government in Serbia are promoting it. However, while Serbia continues with signing of the new ones and starts with the implementation of the old agreements, Huawei’s presence is less accepted in some other countries with significant presence of Chinese telecommunications company.

Currently the greatest opponent of Huawei activities are the United States and its active campaign to ban Huawei’s participation in the construction of the new infrastructure, which will enable so-called 5G network. In their action, the United States have the support of the group called “Five Eyes”, that includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. So far, three out of five members have banned the participation of Huawei in the build-up of 5G network: the United States, Australia and New Zealand, while Canada and the United kingdom are seriously considering to follow that way, too.

The United States have also made an open pressure on Germany to ban Huawei’s participation in the creation of this network. However, Germany has rejected the possibility to do it, stating that guaranties that the collected data will not be misused are necessary, but that in this moment it does not reject the possibility of participation of this Chinese company in the establishment of 5G network.

The reason for banning Huawei is its’ closeness to the Chinese state apparatus. The possibility of the misuse of data, or simple – espionage, creates fear that the collected data will be submitted to China. How serious this charges are show the cases of Canada, but Poland too. In both states, the representatives of Huawei were arrested and accused for alleged espionage. Counter-intelligence services have, allegedly, submitted evidences about the abuse of position and the collection of the sensitive data, which lead to the arrest of the employees at the end of 2018 in Canada and the beginning of 2019 in Poland. Chinese company had firmly dismissed the charges. While the use of diplomatic instruments was initiated in relations with Canada and the United States, in order to release the representatives of Huawei, the employee of Huawei in Poland got fired by its company, which completely distanced from its actions.

One more state in which Huawei faced serious accusations for the misuse of its position is the Czech Republic. It traditionally did not have bad relations with China and it is interesting that Czech President, Zeman, has the agreement with Huawei that the company will provide necessary communication’ equipment for the needs of President and its personnel. Nevertheless, at the end of 2018 accusations that the Huawei technology presents the security risk arrived from the Czech Republic, too.  Huawei did not remain silent on these accusations, so at the beginning of 2019 it declared the possibility of suing the Czech Republic for the charges for which there were no concrete evidences.

Largest supplier of telecommunication equipment on the world, Huawei, is one of the main victims of the raging trade war between the United States and China. Beijing’s official position is that the charges and bans, which the Chinese company faced with, are not based on evidences and represent pure political act. What remains as a fact is that Huawei is in an uneasy position in a moment when the world is preparing for the greatest improvement in telecommunication’ infrastructure in the form of introduction of 5G network.

While the West is in a, less-or-more open conflict with Huawei, relations with Serbia are on a very good level. However, it remains the question whether the signed agreements and the technology, which will be introduced, pose the potential risk for the national security of Serbia and its’ citizens. It is a fact that Serbia has already several times turned to China for help in the field of international relations (China condemned formation of the Army of Kosovo) as the younger brother would address to the older one, the big brother. The way that new technologies would be used in Serbia will show whether China will be the ‘big brother’ of Serbia on the internal affairs, too.

This text was written as part of the project “Comparative analysis of the approach towards China: V4 + and One Belt One Road” which BFPE is implementing in a cooperation with Prague Security Studies Institute (Czech Republic), Institute of Asian Studies (Slovakia), HAS Center for Economic and Regional Studies, Institute of World Economics (Hungary) and Center for International Relations (Poland).

The International Visegrad Fund (IVF) supports the project.