Get Your Canned Goods, Umbrellas, and Knock-off Pumas Here!

How Chinese merchants have become the anonymous Sam Waltons to the world's hardest-to-reach consumers.


Where Walmart dares not go — or believes it can’t make a profit — Chinese merchants quite often fill the void. That is, they are often the low-cost consumer goods supersellers to much of the developing or war-ravaged world.

China’s growing presence in Africa is by now well known. But while most news headlines focus on extraction industries, Chinese entrepreneurs have also been active in other sectors, from textiles to grocery outlets. In some cases, their presence has fueled local resentment, especially when they are competing directly against African merchants; in other instances, Chinese merchants have brought finished products and supplies that otherwise wouldn’t be available or affordable, to unlikely consumers in Africa and elsewhere across the globe.

Indeed, the rise of Chinese merchants in other underserved markets may provide a glimpse into the future role the Chinese could play in Africa. Take Eastern Europe. Chinese merchants have been moving en masse into the region since the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc turned post-communist Eurasia into a free market free-for-all.

I became interested in Eastern Europe’s Chinese communities when I first visited the Balkans in 2004. At the time, the highest numbers of Chinese were found in the Yugoslav successor states, particularly Serbia and Montenegro (which still existed as one federal entity) and Republika Srpska, the eastern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Various news agencies had put the number of Chinese in the former Yugoslavia at 200,000. Experts told me this was an inflated estimate, but I could not dispute the pervasiveness of the Chinese in the Balkans.

Everywhere I went, I saw little shops called kineske prodavnice (literally, "Chinese shops") scattered throughout the cities and countryside of Serbia and Montenegro. The kineske prodavnice peddled cheap goods made in China — pens, umbrellas, knockoff Pumas, everything but food. They were a natural part of the landscape, patronized by locals and staffed by Chinese merchants who spoke broken Serbian.

Curiously, every shopkeeper I spoke with — from Belgrade to the little town of Ulcinj on the Montenegrin-Albanian border — hailed from the same county in Zhejiang province in southeastern China. They told me that the Zhejiangese were also shopkeepers in North Korea, Cambodia, and Russia.

In each of these places, there is a clear need for basic commodities. But because of embargoes or political instability, few multinational companies are interested in opening their doors. Yet the Chinese merchants were willing to launch small businesses in the shadiest of emerging markets.

When the Chinese started passing through the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, mainly to enter Western Europe illegally, the Serbian territories had been hit hard by sanctions. Industries had ground to a halt, yet people needed everyday products like toilet paper and clothing. Under embargo or besieged by war, Serbia, Montenegro, and Republika Srpska could not turn to American or Western European exporters.

Many of the Chinese heading to Western Europe saw this unmet need, and they held off on going westward. Instead, networking with manufacturers back in southeast China, they set up stalls on the street to sell clothing and electronics. Over time, their ventures prospered, and they moved into brick-and-mortar shops.

Today, the greatest concentration of Serbia’s Chinese resides in the Block 70 neighborhood of New Belgrade, just across the Sava River from downtown Belgrade. Block 70 even has a Kineski Tržni Centar, or "Chinese Marketplace." Comprised of two factory-sized buildings, the Chinese Marketplace is the distribution center for every kineska prodavnica in Serbia. Each Sunday, Chinese shopkeepers come from all over the country to stock up on clothing, housewares, and electronics.

When the Chinese first moved into New Belgrade 10 years ago, they were not well received. They had brought from the Old World habits such as littering, spitting in public, and speaking in unmoderated decibels — all of which the image-conscious Serbs found repulsive. Notoriously wary of banks, the Chinese were the favorite targets of robbers. Culturally and linguistically ignorant, they were unable to defend themselves from teenage vandals and unwilling to report incidents to the police.

Then they began to retaliate. Many of the Serbs I met in New Belgrade had grown up fighting with vigilante groups of Chinese men. Eventually, Chinese and Serb neighbors settled into a grudging mutual tolerance.

On each of my subsequent trips to the region, I have visited with Chinese merchants. Today Serbia’s economy is much the same as it was in the war-ravaged 1990s. Although embargoes have been lifted, the country is still politically isolated, and foreign companies refrain from major investments. And so the niche for affordable commodities continues to be filled by Chinese merchants.

Meanwhile, the Chinese opinion about Serbs as a people has not changed: Customers are generally polite and cause little trouble other than the occasional incident of shoplifting. Employees do not work very hard. But in general life is peaceful, tolerable.

Over the years, the distance between Chinese and Serbs has diminished. Serbian children are going to school with Chinese children in many neighborhoods, a sign that Chinese parents have stopped sending their children back to China for education. The Chinese have even made inroads into Serbian film and other cultural products, from cameo appearances in movies about New Belgrade, to references in pop songs.

It would be unwise to generalize too much about the experience of Chinese immigrants worldwide. The African continent is far more diverse than Serbia — or, for that matter, all of Eastern Europe. But it is important to remember that when we hear of China’s "colonization" of Africa and elsewhere, we should picture not only predatory oil-company managers, but also small-scale merchants providing cheap consumer goods.

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