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19 August 2022

China’s surveillance tech spreads in Serbian cities

A draft law would cement the presence of Chinese technology, putting Belgrade on an increasingly authoritarian path.

By Daniel Clarke and Sebastian Shehadi

Eight years ago, when Aleksandar Vučić was just prime minister of Serbia, a criminal was on the loose following a hit-and-run in Belgrade. Weeks later the perpetrator, one Marko Milić, was tracked down and arrested in China thanks to the Chinese authorities’ world-leading biometric cameras, developed by the tech company Huawei. This somewhat absurd incident has played a surprisingly significant role in shaping contemporary Serbian politics. 

Following Milić’s arrest Vučić, who has been president since 2017, became utterly “fascinated with China’s surveillance capabilities”, explains Bartosz Kowalski from the University of Łódź, in Poland. In fact, so enamoured of facial recognition technology were he and his interior minister at the time, Nebojša Stefanović, that they quickly signed a memorandum of understanding with Huawei in 2014. The aim: to develop similar capabilities across Serbia. Three years later, that was transformed into a partnership to develop “smart city” solutions in Serbia, a softer way of saying that thousands of smart cameras would be installed in Belgrade and Novi Sad, explains Maja Bjeloš, from the Belgrade Security Forum.

“The police installed smart cameras without legal basis,” she adds. “In other words, their move was illegal. After Russia, Serbia was the first country in Europe to have state-led biometric surveillance en masse.” Serbia is a candidate to join the EU but began the surveillance programme in spite of a European Parliament vote to ban use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement in public spaces. The issue threatens to complicate Belgrade’s relations with Brussels still further.

An archived document on Huawei’s website states that its cameras in Belgrade have features including automatic number plate recognition, behaviour analysis, facial recognition and loitering detection. According to Dobrica Veselinović, a Serbian opposition politician and outspoken critic of Vučić, bodycams, cameras mounted on vehicles and handheld devices will soon be procured for law enforcement agencies. All this data is stored on OceanStor, Huawei’s centralised platform, for up to a year, according to Huawei’s document.

The archived document claims that its solution provides “better analysis of vehicles and suspects, shortens investigation time, improves arrest and apprehension rates, deters organised crime, and reduces overall crime rates”. However, Huawei is not just exporting surveillance technology but the ability to create a new, more totalitarian citizen-state relationship.

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“Smart cameras are being introduced in a [Serbian] context that is becoming increasingly authoritarian and oppressive towards citizens and dissenters,” says Bjeloš. For this reason, there are fears that the technology will be used against opponents of the current regime, not criminals.

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When the Serbian government realised that its installation of Huawei cameras had no basis in Serbian legislation, and was out of line with the laws on data protection, the Ministry of Internal Affairs drew up, in 2021, a draft law on biometric surveillance: the Law of Internal Affairs.

The move attracted a serious backlash from the EU and digital rights groups in Belgrade such as Hiljade Kamera (Thousands of Cameras), a community website set up to map facial recognition cameras across Serbia. As a result the Serbian government withdrew the draft law but did not renounce it. The public backlash only grew stronger in 2021, after it was leaked that the Serbian and the Russian interior ministries had created a “working group for countering colour revolutions“ (so-called because of the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia respectively) and that the Serbian police were looking for special training on cyber-security from Russia, explains Bjeloš.

Smart cameras in Belgrade, mapped by Hiljade Kamera

In an effort to keep the Law of Internal Affairs alive, the Serbian government has started consultations with rights groups like Hiljade Kamera, who want a ban on any biometric surveillance. But, as Veselinović explains, “there is a general feeling that this process is a smokescreen and that the ministry will try to push forward similar legislation”.

Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party has a majority in parliament, so there is strong feeling that it will push the law into existence in the coming months, says Bjeloš.

Serbia is joining a cohort of iIliberal governments that employ surveillance tools to maintain the security of the regime, explains Kowalski. The trend was exacerbated by the pandemic, since many more cameras were deployed with the stated aim of checking people’s temperatures, as Vučić explained to the Serbian public. The pandemic also resulted in the establishment of Belgrade’s Fire Eye laboratory for Covid-19, in cooperation with the Chinese biotech company BGI Group. The company has been accused of sharing genetic data with the Chinese army and was blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce for allegedly carrying out genetic surveillance of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. It denies both accusations.

“China is [all too happy to assist in] authoritarian promotion, as it expects its partners to maintain a stable environment conducive to its economic interests,” says Kowalski.

While Chinese technologies have facilitated the degradation of Serbian democracy, it is important to note that the phenomenon is, first and foremost, home-grown. Vučić has simply found in China a willing, enabling partner. Under his mandate, which began in earnest a decade ago, Serbia has become much closer to Beijing.

The country is now arguably China’s closest ally in Europe, a regional hub for its Belt and Road Initiative and a back door into the EU market. But Beijing’s economic relationship with Serbia is just as much about political partnerships, and vice versa. China needs friends in Europe, and Serbia needs a counterweight to Brussels.

The Serbian government greatly appreciates China’s international objection to the independence of Kosovo, which Serbia regards as part of its territory. Meanwhile, Serbia remains the only country in Europe that has not criticised China’s persecution of the Uyghurs. For these reasons, the Serbian government seems all too content to remain in the EU waiting room, where it can juggle the two powers.

Belgrade’s disillusionment with the EU stems from the partially justified view that Brussels is reluctant to enlarge the bloc and provide the Balkan region with economic support. On the flip side, the Serbian government enjoys the fact that China is a less strict and moralising investment partner than the EU: Beijing has thrown money at the country with abandon over the last five years. That said, Serbia still receives the vast majority of its foreign investment and funding from the EU.

Chinese investment into Serbia has revolved around Huawei. The company has opened two research and development centres in Belgrade, while kitting out Serbia’s security services with surveillance technology. More than 8,100 Huawei facial recognition CCTV cameras will soon be introduced across Serbia, predominantly in Belgrade.

As Chinese investment in Serbia grows, security-related projects have an increasingly prominent position, primarily when it comes to domestic security and cooperation in “law enforcement and surveillance technology”, explains Kowalski.

Veselinović, one of Serbia’s strongest critics of biometric surveillance, said that, despite the best efforts of Serbian civil society, “further international support might be required” if the Law of Internal Affairs is redrafted and put through parliament. If the EU and the US do not sit up and take notice, biometric surveillance could be, via Belgrade, one of China’s best-selling exports to the Balkans. 

[See also: Six months of war in Ukraine have changed the world]

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