Low-income Balkan countries open their arms to Far Eastern products

Once a week, a ship docks at Thessaloniki with 300 containers from Shanghai filled with all manner of Chinese products from shoes to toys, electrical appliances to reading glasses. On the way, the ship deposits cargoes in Port Said, Izmir and Istanbul, before unloading the remainder in Thessaloniki. The cargoes are not only destined for the Greek market but for Central Europe. The Chinese are methodical and far-sighted. Knowing that they need a base from which to send their products to markets where they are in high demand due to low average incomes, they have chosen Port Said for African countries, Izmir for Turkey, Istanbul for the Black Sea coast and Thessaloniki for the western Balkans (the former Yugoslav states, as well as the Czech Republic and Hungary). Last April, a transport consortium comprising the Chinese firm Cosco, the Taiwanese firm Yang Ming and Germany’s Senator undertook the sea transport and distribution of thousands of containers destined for the above ports. Meanwhile, large cargoes of Chinese products are also reaching Greece from Italy, France and the Netherlands, where they are not as popular as people there can afford to pay more. A very organized and completely legal network distributes the goods from Thessaloniki to Chinese shops throughout Greece and to vendors in street markets. Of course, Thessaloniki has its own outlets – the district around the railroad station, Aesopou Street, has become a true Chinatown with at least 15 shops doing a roaring trade in Chinese goods. Over the past year, Aesopou has been «at war» with Valaoritou Street where there are hundreds of small clothing factories whose owners see the Chinese «invasion» as the cause of their decline. The conflict has so far been confined to verbal protests, although a short while ago, factory owners built a bonfire of their products out in Valaoritou Street to draw attention to their plight. In Skopje, Tirana, Belgrade, Budapest and other towns in the Balkans and central Europe, Chinese stores are popping up everywhere. Lower incomes in these countries mean that Chinese goods are especially welcome. The profits are so high that in Belgrade, for example, some Chinese men are paying up to $15,000 to marry a Serbian woman in order to be able to open a store. A marriage of great convenience indeed, even if they do part ways the same day.

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