Hidden Belgrade (50): Chinese connection

Tucked away in New Belgrade’s Blok 70, “Chinese” shopping centre is not only a vibrant is probably the city’s most cosmopolitan spot, with Chinese and Roma merchants selling everything from orthodox icons to tofu in colourful shops. Within its slightly mucky walls, you can also buy all sorts of far eastern foodstuffs and also eat cheap, but surprisingly tasty Chinese food.

Ever since first Chinese shops opened in the late 1990s, it became a go-to place for bargain hunters, however its existence is a result of one of the most important geo-political decisions Serbia, (then part of the 1990s Yugoslavia with Montenegro) made in recent history.

In 1990s, during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Yugoslavia was an international pariah subjected to far-reaching sanctions. In a bid to secure some international clout by reaching out to other socialist states, and with Russian Federation still reeling from the dissolution of the USSR, the government, including Slobodan Milošević, his wife Mirjana Marković, decided to look further east and reached out to China, which was accelerating its development.

This was a bit of an counterintuitive move, as neither Serbia nor SFR Yugoslavia ever had particularly close relationship with China. Although the two countries shared historical struggles with imperialism, remarked by the few of their nationals who travelled between the countries like Kang Yu Wei (who visited Belgrade in 1908) and Dr Milutin Velimirovic  and post-war Yugoslavia was one of the first countries to recognise People’s Republic of China when it was founded in 1949, the relationship was complicated due to difference in approaches to communism. The first obstacle came due to Tito’s decision to break with Stalin and then Yugoslav League of Communist’s 1958 programme came under harsh criticism from China and Hoxha’s Albania (which were allies at the time). Yugoslavia’s communists were accused of revisionism and flirting with capitalism, while they shot back criticising PRC’s  great leap forward. Although the relationship thawed in 1970s, it is remarkable that Nixon visited the PRC five years before Tito and that the first return visit by a Chinese president was only in 1984.  

During their visit to Beijing in November 1997, Milošević and Marković agreed to increase trade relations between the two countries and open Yugoslav marekt to Chinese products and labour. On their part, Chinese authorities apparently ran a campaign about business opportunities in Yugoslavia which inspired a number of brave Chinese merchants to move to the country that was already economically crippled by sanctions and thirsty for cheap, colourful wares.

Although this move inspired a bit of a panic in periodicals like Vreme, which warned of tens of thousands of Chinese illegal workers taking over parts of Belgrade, around the shopping centre grew and Chinese merchandise started supplanting bootlegged wares from Turkey and the rest of the world. Many of the Chinese expats started learning Serbian and the shopping centre became Belgrade’s most culturally diverse locale.

The relations between the two countries, however, further solidified after NATO bombers targeted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on 7 May 1999, killing three Chinee journalists (Shao Yunhuan, Xu Xinghu and Zhu Ying), and wounding 27 more people. The attack came on the day when the city centre of Niš was targeted with cluster munitions during daytime (which resulted in 15 civilian deaths), and only a few weeks after the Serbian state broadcaster, RTS, was targeted in another air-raid (16 emploees were killed and 16 were injured).

The attack on the Embassy prompted an emergency session of the UN Security Council, and Hu Jintao China’s president called the attack “barbaric” and “criminal” to the backdrop of massive anti-US and anti-NATO protests which erupted in China. The reason behind the attack still remains a topic of debate, some even speculating that it was partly motivated by Yugoslavia’s decision to provide China with parts of the F117-A stealth bomber, which was downed a few days after the beginning of the bombing campaign and part of which are displayed in the Military Museum in Belgrade. The site of the bombed Chinese Embassy is now marked with two monuments, one to the victims and one to Confucius, and is set to become Chinese’s first cultural centre in the Balkans (to open later in 2020).

In the immediate aftermath of the 5th October 2000, when Milošević’s government was deposed,  the relationship between the two countries was mostly focused on the economy. As China started growing and opening even more rapidly, the relationship the number of Chinese shopping centres grew in post-socialist transitional Serbia. Chinese merchants opened shops inside former socialist retail chains in almost every small town in Serbia, providing their well-priced products for shrunken wallets of locals, who often suffered from country’s de-industrialisation.

The political connections between the two countries was again put in focus in 2008, when government in Priština unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. Chinese government’s decision to not recognise Kosovo as a separate state, meant that Serbia increasingly relied on Beijing for support on this issue. The alliance between the two countries deepened even further as Serbia sought to improve its infrastructure through cooperation with China, even before China launched its Belt and Road initiative in 2013.

The first major project between the two countries materialised quickly after BRI was launched. In December 2014, Belgrade’s second bridge over the Danube was opened after three years of construction. Although it was officially named after the scientist Mihailo Pupin it is still colloquially known as “the Chinese bridge” as it was built by a workforce brought over from China.

In the following years, the relationship between the two countries started growing ever closer, with a lot of Chinese tourists visiting Serbia and a lot of Serbians going to work and study in China. The first guest exhibition after Belgrade’s National Museum was reopened came from China, and in the winter of 2019/20 there was the first Chinese lantern festival at Kalemegdan park.

Then came the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and Serbia once again looked to China for help, given the country’s deft handling of the first virus outbreak in Wuhan. In March, China was the first country to provide medical aid to Serbia and also provided the equipment and expertise for a state of the art laboratory which still helps with suppressing the outbreak in Serbia. All of this led to a number of banners popping up around Belgrade thanking China for its help.

As the situation normalises, hopefully shoppers and diners will return to where the connection between the two states started: to the delightfully dingy and colourful 90s post-modern mall, which still serves the best Chinese buns in the shade of socialist high-rises of Blok 70.

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