Chinese discover that utopia is not a place in Serbia

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The Independent Online

Chinese nationals are arriving in Serbia in ever greater numbers, hoping to realise their dreams of prosperity in a country that recently has been depicted on billboards back home as the promised land.

But as more turn up each week, encouraged by rumours that the government of the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, is handing out citizenship, the Chinese Communists are forced to admit that Serbia today is far from a workers' paradise.

"This impoverished country can offer little to its own people, let alone us Chinese," says Meng, a cook who has lived in Serbia for some years. Things were more or less all right until a year ago, when the Nato air raids started. "Everything has fallen apart since then and business is bad," he said.

Unofficially, the number of Chinese in Serbia is put at some 100,000, and there are reports that about 40,000 of them are due to be granted Yugoslav citizenship soon. That would enable them to buy real estate and vote in the elections. After the citizenship rumours started spreading in Serbia's independent media, the Chinese embassy issued a mild denial, saying that "many people are here as tourists or visiting relatives".

The Chinese started coming to Serbia in 1996, after President Milosevic paid an official visit to China. Many Serbs also believe that the well known obsession with China of his powerful wife, Mira Markovic, added to the process. Both are promoting China as Serbia's closest and only friend at a time when European and American sanctions are still in force. It is widely believed that China is where the private fortunes of Belgrade's super-rich have been stashed away.

A Belgrade radio station has a programme in Cantonese once a week; and the central police station, where foreigners have to register, has instructions written in both Serbian and Chinese. Meanwhile, in the Belgrade suburb of Novi Beograd, Block 70 houses a huge shopping centre with stocks of cheap Chinese goods. Shop windows are decorated with Chinese characters and local restaurant menus are in Chinese. Next to the mall, the high rises in Block 70 are rented to thousands of Chinese families, who live a ghetto-like existence.

The Chinese speak some Serbian, and use it when plying their trade. Business is not good, they complain. One man, who gave his name only as Liu, said: "Serbia is definitely not the promised land."