July 25, 2022 – Ahead of the official opening of the Chinese-built Pelješac Bridge, TCN visits His Excellency Qi Qianjin, Chinese Ambassador to Croatia at his official residence in Zagreb to talk about the bridge, Chinese-Croatian relations, tourism and more.
1. The opening of the Pelješac Bridge on July 26 will be a historic occasion for Croatia, joining the county for the first time thanks to the Chinese-built bridge. How significant is this project from a Chinese perspective – I understand that the Chinese Prime Minister will be speaking at the opening ceremony by video link?
The Pelješac bridge will be officially opening tomorrow, and I will be there joining the ceremony. I hear that there will be an excellent range of events to mark the occasion. In terms of political significance, I think this is an excellent example of cooperation not only between China and Croatia, but also China and the EU. It is the biggest project so far for a Chinese company, and it will finally realise a long-held dream to connect the south of Croatia to the rest of the country.
I think the Pelješac Bridge is an example of friendship between Croatia and China, and I am already thinking about what could be the next project. It has been an excellent example of cooperation between the leaders of both countries, who have shown a strong willingness to boost political trust, business and trade.
The bridge will have a big impact on the local economy. Now Dubrovnik will be connected to the rest of Croatia, which will be great for tourism, with no more long queues at the two Bosnian borders. This will save a lot of time.
There have been lots of benefits locally, with the project hiring some 1,500 people, which obviously had a significant impact on the local community. In addition to employment, local workers have also learned from Chinese expertise, and 7 Croatian engineers have gained certification from the Faculty of Civil Engineering at Zagreb University, specialising in management and technology. These are additional successes of the bridge story. It is not just about completing the bridge or making a profit. It is about taking responsibility, educating local people, and creating job opportunities. So now Croatians have the know-how to build bridges quicker.
And we even have a Pelješac Bridge love story! A young Croatian girl called Ana Vulić, who graduated from China and came to work on the project, as did the future man of her dreams, who is from Africa and also working on the project and met Ana in China previously. They have now got married, so that is one more happy international story from this great project.
The impact of all the Chinese workers on the local economy has also been significant, especially in the local village. The need for shops, hotels and restaurants has had a considerable impact on the local economy. Great friendships are made, and there is some sadness that the project is ending, but those friendships with Chinese people will continue. So I would say that yes, this project has had a major impact on the local economy.
Our Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, will be taking part in the proceedings via a recorded message. I am not sure exactly what the content will be but I think it will express the continued friendship between the two countries. But not only China and Croatia, for this is a great example of trilateral cooperation between China, Croatia and the EU.
2. Can you tell us a little about the Chinese Embassy’s involvement in the whole project from the start? After years of talking about the project (starting around 2005), things moved very quickly.
The Embassy has been a bridge to help facilitate things, but nothing could have been finished without the dedication and partnership of both leaders. The bridge is important to China, and President Xi Jinping talked about it at the summit he chaired between China and Central and Eastern Europe.
Our Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, visited the bridge back in 2019 with Prime Minister Plenković on a day when it rained heavily. I saw the pictures – it was very dark. And our Prime Minister said that we would need to use the very best technology and equipment to make the Pelješac Bridge a Chinese brand of construction excellence in Croatia, which can resist any challenge.
So many thanks to Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Plenković for all their efforts. Did you know that the opening of the bridge is part of Croatia’s four strategic goals, in addition to the Euro, Schengen and membership of OECD? Things are moving well.
Mr. Plenković has visited the bridge more than 10 times, and we at the embassy have been very busy helping to build channels and facilitate, make connections and enhance understanding, with excellent work done by my predecessor, the previous ambassador. We have also been active in encouraging Chinese entrepreneurs to abide by local laws and customs. Getting this project done was not straightforward, and there were plenty of political and economic pressures, but we succeeded thanks to great teamwork on all sides.
3. Once the tender was won, construction moved quickly, and the Pelješac Bridge was finished more or less on time and on budget, something that rarely happens in Croatia. How were the Chinese companies able to deliver when so many projects here are delayed and over budget?
China has developed very rapidly in the last 30-40 years and we have become an expert in construction. We have overcome many challenges with this bridge, including the pandemic, earthquake, Ukraine, and inflation, but we have succeeded, even delivering the project 3 months earlier than planned.
Some people think of Chinese products as cheap and poor quality but I think this bridge will help change that perception. We have lots of experience in bridge building. Pelješac is 2.4 km long, but our longest bridges to Macau and Hong Kong are almost 40 kilometres. We have learned how to build quality with speed. That is part of the secret – but also cooperation and teamwork.
But it is important to note that we are strictly adhering to the rules regarding environmental protection. It is a project that has had some noise pollution issues, and so we introduced some special procedures to minimise the influence on local life. Similarly for waste management and avoiding water pollution.
4. China has a lot of key infrastructure projects all over Europe. How significant is this project in the overall portfolio of European infrastructure projects?
It is very important to China, as this shows the quality and delivery of Chinese excellent here in Europe. China has become an infrastructure Superman, and this bridge shows the quality of the build, as well as excellent cooperation with our European partners.
I think it is a project that has showcased what Chinese companies and workers can do, and it should lead to more projects. Chinese workers and managers have been welcomed because they are humble and hard-working. It has been easy to deal with local people, and this has been a great first partnership with the EU, which provided most of the investment. But there have been lots of other international cooperation – the architect who designed the bridge is Slovenian, for example.
We can also say that the bridge has indicated the significance of the relationship between China and the EU. I cannot deny that we have some major problems with the United States, which regards China as an imaginary enemy. The United States is used to finding enemies, they are very good at that.
But I think Chinese relations with Europe are quite good. President Xi Jinping has held virtual meetings with European leaders during the Ukraine crisis. China is willing to maintain a good relationship and partnership with European countries, and to help develop them on the basis of protecting international peace and promoting economic growth.
It is true that China has a very different ideology than the West, but we have to have dialogue and find points of common interest. We see European countries as friends and partners, and the Pelješac Bridge is one example of that working in practice.
5. Will the Pelješac Bridge project attract much media coverage back in China?
Yes certainly. There will be a lot of social activity, and the China State News agency will cover it. This is a day of celebration for China, as well as Croatia.
6. Tell us a little about China’s strategic goals in Croatia, how big is the Chinese community here, and what are the key activities?
The Pelješac Bridge might be the most high-profile project, but the biggest Chinese investment so far is in wind farms and green technology. I think China has a role to play in supplying energy, particularly now as Europe has an energy crisis due to the conflict in Ukraine.
We also have some coordination in sports. Croatia is small but it is well-known for sports in China as Croatia is very strong. We love sports but are not so strong by comparison.
And of course tourism. Tourism is about 20% of GDP in Croatia, and it was just starting to take off when the pandemic came. Before the pandemic, there were about 400,000 tourists coming from China each year. I expect this to increase as Chinese tourists become more aware of Croatia. We now have a middle class of some 400 million people.
I also think it is important to enhance relations to push both countries forward. I encourage Chinese companies and entrepreneurs to invest, as well as invite Croatian people to go to China to study or do business. I think we have achieved a lot in the first 30 years of relations and look forward to the next 30.
7. As a global power with a population approaching 2 billion versus a declining population of less than 4 million, it is understandable that the relationship between Croatia and China is reflected in that. How do you see the relationship with Croatia, and what are the key areas of common interest?
I see it as an equal relationship. Chinese people are deeply influenced by our culture. Confucius teaches us to be humble, to treat people the same if they are rich or poor. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, it was on a policy of peaceful coexistence, not interfering with other countries internal affairs.
China and Croatia have never had any major disagreements, even though we are very different in size and ideology. We accept that there are differences in ideology, and we do not try and input our system into other countries. We think that Communism and the one-party ruling system work well and efficiently for China, but that does not mean it will for other counties.
We don’t want to export our political ideology to other countries. Instead, we focus on the similarities which exist. So, for example, Croatia and China both have administrations that care about the well-being of their citizens and economic prosperity. So both governments can work together to find ways of solving problems and raising livelihoods.
Both countries also support globalisation and multilateralism. I think this is fundamentally important.
8. How active and successful are Croatian companies in the Chinese market, and what are the main opportunities for them?
There are not so many Croatian businesses in China. There is Rimac of course, who is the symbol of hi-tech. He has a Chinese partner. I met Mate Rimac – he represents high technology, and China is the factory of the world, and this could be a great cooperation.
There is also Infobip, the first unicorn in Croatia. They started operations in China in 2013, and they now have offices in 5 Chinese cities. I met the Infobip CEO last week, and he said the Chinese market is good. We need more Croatian businesses in China.
We are facing the same challenges – pandemic, inflation, supply chains. The original forecast for GDP growth was 5.8% but now that has been scaled back to 0.2%. This has never happened before, so now is a real challenge. But China remains the biggest market, the factory of the world, and it can produce everything, from a small pen to aircraft. China needs the world, and the world needs China. We have the consumer power of 400 million people in the middle class. Even the United States cannot ignore it. It is a huge market. And China will never close its doors to foreigners because China depends on globalisation. This provides huge opportunities for Croatian businesses.
9. What advice and mechanisms for help do you have for Croatian businesses looking to enter the Chinese market?
It is important to build these channels. The first stop is here at the embassy, where we are ready to assist in person, as well as having information on the embassy website. Travel to China has been difficult over the last 3 years, but nothing compares to face-to-face contact and trade fairs. We have excellent fairs and expos where you can connect with Chinese businesses. These could be the main channels for Croatian businesses. Additionally, the Croatian Chamber of Commerce is active, and they have an office in Shanghai.
10. Turning to tourism, how well known is Croatia in China? Tourism was increasing slowly before the pandemic. What is Croatia best-known for in China?
I would say that Croatia is not so popular. When it comes to Europe, Chinese tourists know about Rome, Paris and London, but not so much Croatia. Television is an important medium, and Game of Thrones, which was filmed in Dubrovnik and elsewhere, was very popular and helped put Croatia on the map.
I was at the Dubrovnik Forum last week and saw tourists from all over the world, but very few Chinese. But next year I think we will see a rise in Chinese tourists – there were 400,000 in 2019. I should also point out that this summer, there are 8 Chinese policemen in Croatia, who are working in partnership with their Croatian counterparts on joint patrols. One more example of partnership, and it is a positive signal.
11. There have been periodic discussions of direct flights to Croatia from Beijing. The pandemic obviously slowed down a lot of things, but are there any ongoing initiatives, and can you expect a direct flight any time soon?
Direct flights would obviously make things easier. When our Premier Li Keqiang visited Croatia in 2019, the topic was discussed with the Croatian Prime Minister. And it was agreed in principle of market and business that when certain conditions are met, then this issue can be moved forward. I am involved in some discussions, but there is nothing concrete to announce yet. Discussions are ongoing but some technical details have to be resolved. But it can succeed.
12. What advice do you have for Croatian tourism businesses looking to cater to the Chinese tourism market – the potential is huge?
In 2019, before the pandemic, there were 155 million international tourists from China, spending US$134 billion, so the potential is huge. Using technology is one key strategy. Technology is a part of our lives, and we are all – including me – addicted to our phones. Channels such as Tik Tok, which is Chinese of course, is increasingly influential.
13. We live in uncertain times, and energy is a hot topic in Croatia and Europe. How is China able to assist to help solve this problem?
The Ukraine crisis has now been ongoing for 5 months. No country in the world has been unaffected – food supply, inflation, energy supply, and instability. There is a lot of uncertainty, and nobody knows when it will end. The first thing we need to do is stop the fighting, to get a ceasefire. The United States, EU and Russia must come together and make it stop.
And then we need to coordinate a strategy to develop green and renewable energy. Energy is a huge issue, and you can see Germany going back to coal, for example. China is very strong in green and renewable energy and is ready to partner. This could be a new era of cooperation on green and renewable energy between China and Europe.
But as our President said, we must also not forget the poorer in society, especially in African countries. We need to coordinate, and China is ready to play its part.
14. And finally, a little about your personal reflections on Croatia. Tell us about your experience so far. What has surprised you about Croatia? What is your favourite place, and some thoughts on the food and wine?
I love Croatia, and especially Zagreb. It is a great city, so green and safe, and the food is excellent. And the cafe culture – people seem to have coffee from morning until sunset.
The architecture is incredible, especially that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th-century. Croatia has been at the front line of conflict and cultures over the centuries, and there are many stories in its buildings. I love to walk around the city, zig-zagging while looking at the architecture. It is a country of great culture.