Chinese Students Choose to Study in 'Totally Different' Serbia

Growing numbers of Chinese students have been moving to cities like Belgrade to study as Serbian language and culture programmes become more popular – even though the lifestyle is not at all like home.

Yutong Guo sits on a bench on a warm evening in Student Park in Belgrade, flipping delicately through her Instagram - from the local street market photos to the artsy photos she made during her time here. 

She smiles excitedly as she talks about how the Serbian capital has inspired her to create more photography, collages and colourful, dynamic art.

Guo, who is originally from Beijing, decided to study photography at the University of Arts in Belgrade. Although her first time out of China has been daunting and she had trouble buying basic supplies like shampoo at first, she has grown to enjoy the artistic culture of the city.
“When I received the list of colleges where I could do an exchange programme, I chose the University of Arts in Belgrade because I am crazy about Emir Kusturica and the Yugoslav Black Wave,” said Guo, 20. 

“I have learned a lot about film-making from these movies and I really wanted to come here to learn how Yugoslavia and Belgrade were like,” she added.

Guo is part of a growing trend of Chinese students choosing to live and study in Serbia. While several decided to come to Belgrade, universities in Novi Sad and Nis have also been popular choices – although the numbers arriving are still small.

According to the Serbian Ministry of Education, during the current university year, there have been ten Chinese citizens studying in Serbia under a bilateral agreement and programme of educational cooperation.

Both students and experts say the reason for this influx of Chinese students could be due to the growing amount of Chinese influence in the region.

Li Xuxing is originally from the Eastern port city of Qingdao and plans to stay in Serbia indefinitely. 

“I think the strengthening political ties between China and Serbia is the reason why Chinese students are coming here because, for Chinese people, we read a lot about our governmental policies on this country,” said Li Xuxing, 32, originally from the north-eastern city of Qingdao. 

Xuxing taught Chinese at the Confucius Institute in Nis before moving to Italy for a year. He realised he missed his friends in Serbia and decided to come back, this time to Belgrade where he plans on pursuing a PhD in Dramatic Arts, Media and Culture at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts. 

“Most of them [Chinese students] are coming here because in the future, the business [between the two countries] will be growing and they will need a lot of people who can speak Serbian,” he said.

Although he said learning the language was difficult and he was only able to communicate using body language at first, he managed to teach himself Serbian and is now fluent.

The reason he came was primarily to learn about both the differences and similarities between the two countries.

“I think coming to a former Communist country is the most attractive part for Chinese students,” said Xuxing. 

“In China now, Serbian cultural and language centres in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are becoming quite popular,” he added.

Visa-free policy

Chunyang Wang taught Serbian for two years in Beijing before deciding to come study at the University of Arts in Belgrade.

The two countries’ shared history is complicated. Although there were Chinese students coming to study in the former Yugoslavia decades ago, Beijing and Belgrade then found themselves at odds ideologically.

“There was a divergence in what they thought Communism should be and so then the number of Chinese students started to be less and less to the point where there weren’t any Chinese students at all during Yugoslavia,” said Sunnie Rucker-Chang, a US-based professor who co-wrote a book about the growing Chinese community in Belgrade. 

In the late 1990s, many residents from a small, working-class village in eastern China relocated to the Blok 70 neighbourhood of New Belgrade. The existence of large Chinese populations in places like Blok 70 makes it easier for newer Chinese communities to emerge, according to Rucker-Chang. 

Experts said the amount of money Chinese students receive to study in Serbia also plays a factor in their decision to come to the south-east European country.

“One situation is where the Chinese government is primarily funding the students all the way. Another situation is where the Chinese government funds part and then there are matching funds that the Serbian government kicks in,” said Rucker-Chang. 

Many universities in Serbia, like the University of Belgrade and the University of Novi Sad, have cooperation agreements with Chinese universities which enable their students to come and study in Serbia.

“More Chinese students will come to Serbia to study because Serbia and China now have a visa-free policy,” said Lijuan Gao, a Project Management student from Ningbo University. 

Ningbo University, located in eastern China, is one of 15 Chinese universities that have a cooperation agreement with the University of Novi Sad, where Gao is currently studying. 

The visa-free policy between China and Serbia was announced by both governments in 2017.

For Guo, who was repeatedly turned down when trying to get a visa to study in the US, Serbia was a relatively easier alternative. 

Different lifestyle

Yutong Guo came to Serbia because she was interested in Yugoslavian film. 

Students interviewed by BIRN said they enjoy studying in Serbia because the lifestyle is drastically different to that of China.

“I think Chinese and Serbians are totally different people. For Chinese young people, myself included, if we stop working and stop studying, we don’t know what to do because working and studying makes us feel like our lives are significant,” said Chunyang Wang, 25, who recently received a master’s degree in Cultural Policy and Management at the University of Arts in Belgrade.

“People in Serbia enjoy leaving everything until the last minute. They enjoy the sunshine and spending the whole day in one cafe chatting with each other,” said Wang. 

For Serbia, the increasing Chinese presence could be a big economic incentive as well.

“I think having more Chinese abroad is a plus. They bring in cash, their families come over to see them while they’re studying and they spend cash in the local economy,” said Don Starr, an assistant professor of Chinese at Durham University in Britain.

For other students, the decision to come to Serbia was not pre-planned but happened by chance. 

“When I was 16, I felt like my life in China was so boring. I looked around at my classmates and felt like I didn’t belong there and I needed to have a different life... so I started to travel alone,” said Leone Lon, who is originally from the south-east Chinese prefecture of Qiandongnan.

Lon, 21, hitchhiked throughout the Middle East, Russia and the Balkans before finally settling in Serbia, where he will begin studying the Serbian language at the University of Belgrade this fall. 

“Over the past 20 years, both the political and economic situations have changed, so large numbers of Chinese families are middle class and can afford to send their children abroad,” Starr noted.

Observing the growing interest in learning about Serbia’s language and culture, Chinese students believe this trend will continue.

“Having been a Serbian language teacher in China for two years, I know the situation now and there are more and more universities who have opened or are planning to open a Serbian language programme,” said Wang. 

“Many more Chinese students will come in the future.”      

This article was originally published in Balkan Insight.