On exactly the same day 20 years later, people still remember and reflect on this violent chapter in human history. The tragic moment is like a scar engraved in the history of both China and Serbia. The airstrikes left trauma in their wake.
On May 7, 2019, representatives of China and Serbia laid wreaths at the original site where the bombing was carried out during the 1999 campaign against former Yugoslavia.
The three victims of the deadly bombing were journalists Shao Yunhuan of Xinhua News Agency, Xu Xinghu and his wife Zhu Ying of the Guangming Daily newspaper.
The ties between China and Serbia remain vigorous, and are even closer now, especially in economic and trade cooperation over recent years, despite the pressure from the uncertain international situation.
At each Qingming Festival around April 5, many young people and students from Heyang county, Danyang, East China's Jiangsu Province, come to visit "Xu Xinghu and Zhu Ying Memorial Hall" in Heyang to pay respects to the couple who died in the bombing.
More than 300 items, including photos of the couple's lives, reports written when they were war correspondents in former Yugoslavia, and other relics are displayed inside the hall.
Song Wenfu, then director of the International Department of Guangming Daily, a national official newspaper that Xu and Zhu worked for, told the Global Times that visiting the couple's grave on memorial days has been a tradition for their colleagues for past 20 years.
Song believes that the bombing accident in 1999 strengthened China's determination to develop its core technologies and national defense industry, which is evident in China's increased investment in national defense over the past two decades.
"I remembered that the news said the victims were brought back home in a US-made plane, and we all know that the bombs that killed them were launched from a US plane. How shameful for us! However, 20 years later, things are completely different, if you look at our J-20 fighter jet and domestically-made aircraft carriers," Song said.
"A stronger China is making the US decision-makers responsible for the bombing 20 years ago regretful," he said.
"In the past 20 years, from 1999 to the present, the improvement of China's national defense force has been remarkable," Lü Xiang, an expert on Sino-American relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. "The incident brought us a strong sense of urgency, and was a warning that we cannot 'take our time' on developing national defense, but have to move forward quicker."
"Many of China's major advances in national defense, such as the J-20 and aircraft carrier, were made during that period. Since the founding of the state, the degree of independent industrial innovation reached its highest level in the past two decades," Lü said.
He refers to a steady stream of friendly signals at the non-political sectors, such as the Serbian lifting of visa restrictions on Chinese, and widespread use of Chinese on Serbian road signs in addition to Serbian and English.
Chinese New Year was officially incorporated into the Serbian national calendar in 2019. Also, the Serbian Cultural Center opened in Beijing in 2018, which is Serbia's second overseas cultural center after the one in Paris.
China-Serbia cooperation in various fields is thriving and the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries is entering the fast track of development, Song said.
Talking about the accident in 1999, Serbian Professor Blagoje Babich, an expert on China at the Institute of International Politics and Economics in Belgrade, defined it as an attack against international law which enshrines the inviolability of foreign diplomatic buildings.
"Serbian public opinion remains unchanged today, and it was an attack of aggression on a great and friendly people", Babich told the Global Times.
"It is worth admiration that in two decades, there has been no accident in relations between our two states, no conflict of interest between them and no intolerance between the citizens. Chinese tourists are the most welcome everywhere in Serbia," Blagoje said.
He further mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in its support for Serbia to develop infrastructure and accelerate its economic growth by linking with external economies.
Serbia has the most projects among the Central and Eastern European regional participants of the BRI and the "16+1" cooperation formula between China and the CEEC.
China's many "firsts" in Europe such as the first bridge, the first high-speed railway, the acquisition of the first steel enterprises and other projects, were all jointly promoted and completed with Serbia.
The Smederevo steel factory, the only steel factory in Serbia, founded in 1913, was plunged into crisis and on the verge of bankruptcy several years ago, due to fierce market competition and management problems.
But the situation changed in 2016 when a Chinese company, HBIS Group, China's second largest steel and iron producer, acquired it.
The factory turned profitable in the middle of 2016 and saw its best sales in history in 2018, becoming a prominent symbol of cooperation between China and Serbia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said on different occasions that takeover by Chinese companies not only secured the jobs of more than 5,000 workers, but also boosted the overall development of the centuries-old Serbian city of Smederevo, where the steel plant is located.
A Serbian manager of the factory told Global Times that they never expected the Chinese enterprise to spend so much on upgrading the factory.
In 2018, many other new, large-scale projects between China and Serbia are seeing results, such as the Hungary-Serbia railway.
Work to upgrade and reconstruct the Belgrade-Stara Pazova segment of the Belgrade-Budapest Railway began in 2017. The railway linking Budapest with Belgrade is the first cross-border project jointly realized by Serbia, Hungary and China, Xinhua reported.
"Project Belgrade-Budapest indicates that Serbia is developing in a smart and a strategic way," Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said, dubbing the rail "a track to the future."
When completed, the travel time between Belgrade and Budapest will decrease from the current eight hours to four hours. This is also an important step for Serbia to integrate into the European rapid rail network.
In other industries, China's Zijin Mining Group signed an agreement with the Serbian government on December 18, 2018, to pay $350 million for the 63 percent stake held by the Serbian government in the RTB Bor mine in southern Serbia.
Zijin has pledged to retain 5,000 jobs over the next three years and invest an additional $1 billion to double the mining capacity. The project is by far the largest Chinese investment in Serbia.
As more Chinese companies flock to Serbia, working for Chinese companies has become a new trend among local young people. Chinese companies' salaries in Serbia are up to two times that of similar local companies, attracting a large number of well-educated and skilled young people to apply for positions.
Local foreign language schools that run Chinese classes are often fully booked. More local government institutes and large companies eager to cooperate with China have complained of a "shortage of talents who can understand Chinese language and culture well." They expect the Serbian government to invest more in cultivating talents.
"When I taught the subject 'Economy of China', I witnessed how eager young Serbs are to work in Chinese enterprises," Professor Babich told the Global Times.
"I once arranged a visit to office of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in Belgrade. My students listened with admiration to the explanation of how this enterprise became the leader in its field," he said. "The willingness of young Serbs to work in Chinese enterprises is growing."
Today's China has become the world's second largest economy, and today's Serbia will never forget China's support for them in 1999, and also thank the Chinese for what they have contributed to the Serbian people today, Dr Ivona Ladjevac, an expert on BRI at the Institute of International Politics and Economics, told the Global Times.
This article was originally published in Global Times.