They’re known as the “geese” — a long line of Chinese in their 20s, mostly men, all wearing cheap casual clothes and carrying small knapsacks as they pass through customs at Belgrade’s Surcin International Airport.
The passengers arriving on a plane from Beijing on a recent afternoon include a five-member Chinese delegation, which leaves the airport in an official car with Yugoslav army plates, and a dozen or so Serbs, all carrying huge air-conditioner boxes labeled Mitsubishi. But the majority are geese.
“It’s like that all the time, my child,” says pilot Uca Prokopijevic, coming through customs with his own Mitsubishi air conditioner. “A flight to Beijing is empty, but the flight [back] to Belgrade is completely packed. Try booking yourself. It will be impossible to find a seat from Beijing.”
The immigrants are met by a local Chinese man with a mobile phone in one hand and a list of names in the other. After making some calls, he leads them outside in groups of five to 15, paired like schoolchildren on a field trip.
They head for a remote parking lot, where some second-hand Western-made cars with Italian or German plates appear out of nowhere. Everybody gets into a car, and they all disappear.
Belgrade as Gateway
You might not think Yugoslavia, one of the poorest and most isolated countries in Europe, could be a land of opportunity. But for about 15,000 Chinese immigrants, it is a new place to do business — and for thousands more, it has been a gateway to the West.
“About 80,000 Chinese have used Yugoslavia as a first step for their clandestine journeys to the West since the early 1990s,” says Predrag Milojevic, who runs a consulting agency for those Chinese who want to stay in Yugoslavia. “You even have a Chinese name for them, ‘Ya-Zi,’ or ‘geese’ in English. They are using Serbia as a gateway to the West at the rate of 400 people a week.”
Because of Yugoslavia’s good relations with China, Chinese citizens get visas to enter Belgrade legally and easily. All they need is a Chinese passport, an invitation letter from a relative living in Serbia, and proof that they have bought a round-trip plane ticket.
Most do not want to stay, says Milojevic, a Beijing University graduate who spent 14 years in China and Hong Kong. Their families have saved or borrowed $10,000 to pay a “master,” or smuggler, for all the necessary papers — plus a guarantee that his associates will meet the immigrant at the Belgrade airport and escort him or her illegally to the West.
The “geese” come largely from the poor Qingtian area of Zhejiang Province in Southern China, Milojevic says. From Belgrade they take one of three routes. Some go south through Montenegro, the smaller of Yugoslavia’s two republics, and then by boat to Italy. Others go west, crossing to Slovenia and then Austria via Croatia or the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And many more try their luck heading north, through Hungary to Austria.
Not everybody succeeds the first time. A month ago, Serb police arrested 102 Chinese migrants on the border with Hungary for trying to leave the country illegally. All of them were deported to China.
A Thriving Chinatown
Many, at least temporarily, stay in Belgrade.
“I came here six months ago with my wife,” says “Lin,” 27, in perfect Russian. “We want to settle here for couple of years and then see where we want to go next.”
Lin, born in Beijing and with a management degree from Moscow, says he doesn’t mix much with his less-educated, Cantonese-speaking compatriots. He runs a store selling plastic toys and cheap sports clothes and shoes.
Lin’s store is in a three-story mall surrounded by Tito-era skyscrapers in the working-class neighborhood of New Belgrade, where 315 of the 350 stores are Chinese-operated.
“Nowhere [else] in the world would we be able to sell such cheap-quality goods,” Lin says.
You can buy cheap Chinese toys, clothes, shoes, household accessories, old models of mobile phones. It’s packed with shoppers, mostly housewives and youngsters drawn by the low prices.
“This is my first time here, and I’m not thrilled,” says Petar Jovanovic, drinking coffee in the coffee shop in front of the main entrance of the mall. “We have such a high unemployment rate here, why do we need the Chinese? But my wife likes it here, so I’m sure we’ll be back.”
At the table next to his there is some sort of business meeting going on through a translator between a local merchant of mobile phone cards and three Chinese men in their 30s who want to buy a large number of mobile cards.
For the Chinese immigrants who can make themselves understood, Yugoslavia offers many possibilities.
“We decided to come to Yugoslavia three years ago,” says “Rose,” 34, who owns two shops in the mall, in good English. “It’s nice here. We will stay here to do business. We are not friends with the people from the south. We are from Beijing. It’s a difference.”
Like many Chinese shop owners, she has part-time help — a Serb economics student, Dragana, who is happy to work for her.
“The fact that Rose speaks good English is so convenient,” Dragana says. “I can not imagine working for somebody and not being able to communicate. I don’t know how others can do it.”