Steel gift of iron-clad friendship

(Xinhua) 08:29, October 17, 2023

Aerial photo taken on Aug. 16, 2021 shows the HBIS Serbia in Smederevo, Serbia. (HBIS Serbia/Handout via Xinhua)

BEIJING, Oct. 16 (Xinhua) -- In the collection of gifts that Chinese President Xi Jinping has received from foreign friends over the years, a commemorative plaque made of steel witnessed the firm commitment of China to an iron-clad friend.

The rounded plaque, inscribed with the silhouette of a steel mill and depicting the outlines of the blast furnaces, exhaust chimneys, and workshops, was tailor-made by workers of the Smederevo Steel Mill using its own steel. The plaque was presented to Xi as an expression of their heartfelt gratitude and welcome during his visit in 2016.

Situated in the city of Smederevo located by the Danube, the Smederevo Steel Mill, Serbia's largest steel factory, boasts a history dating back to 1913.

Local workers remember its glory days, when it was "a pride of Serbia" -- a pillar state-owned enterprise, supplying around 40 percent of the city's fiscal revenue and sustaining nearly one-third of the city residents.

However, during the late 1990s, declining competitiveness and poor management pushed the plant to the verge of closure. In the following two decades, it went through bankruptcy, privatization, a government buyback for 1 U.S. dollar, and foreign management.

But nothing seemed to work. The wheel only started to turn in 2016. At a point when the plant had been running at a loss for seven consecutive years, China's HBIS Group purchased Smederevo Steel Mill for 46 million euros (about 48.64 million U.S. dollars) under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It was later renamed Hesteel Serbia.

Aside from investment in advanced technology and management systems, the HBIS Group also found ways to help the plant significantly cut the cost of raw material procurement and open up the European market.

In a couple of months, the steel mill began to make profit. It had transported quality products to over 30 countries and regions by 2018, and became Serbia's leading exporter for three consecutive years in 2020.

Two months after the Chinese acquisition, Xi visited the plant. He went to the workshop and the staff canteen to talk with the workers.

Reminiscing about Xi's visit, Vladan Mihailovic, chief operating officer of the steelworks, said "I assured President Xi that everyone here would work hard and make every effort to make this project a success by using the experience accumulated in the over 100-year history of this factory."

The local people's livelihood was on top of Xi's mind. "With the close cooperation of the two sides, the Smederevo Steel Mill will surely be revitalized and play a positive role in creating jobs, improving people's lives and helping Serbian economic development," Xi said during the visit.

After the acquisition, the HBIS Group drew up a development plan with the interests of the workers and local people as a priority. It also focused on developing supporting industries such as the cement and glass sectors and built a new industrial park.

In addition to making a profit, Hesteel Serbia is also focused on being socially responsible, committing over a million dollars to the welfare of local people in recent years, and helping to build roads, support education and supply drinking water to villages.

"The revival of the Smederevo steel plant served as strong evidence that the BRI contributed to an increase of jobs and economic growth in Serbia," Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said during a meeting with Xi in 2018.

"China and Serbia are iron-clad friends," Xi said in another meeting between them in 2022, adding that the two sides should continue advancing high-quality Belt and Road cooperation and bringing into play the economic and social benefits of projects such as Hesteel Serbia, thus translating the traditional friendship between the two countries into more pragmatic cooperation results.

On Monday, Vucic arrived in Beijing to attend the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which will be held in Beijing from Tuesday to Wednesday. It is widely believed that the iron-clad friendship will be further strengthened during his visit, so will the two countries' cooperation under the BRI framework.

(Web editor: Zhang Kaiwei, Liang Jun)


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