BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — On Saturday, the day after at least three people were killed when a NATO strike destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, several hundred Chinese gathered in front of the gutted building and improvised one of the rowdiest demonstrations of the past few weeks.
Chanting virulent anti-NATO slogans, they marched across the main bridge to the Square of the Republic, where the Belgraders have been holding daily protests.
All along the way, people stopped to cheer them on, flashing the three-fingered salute of Serb solidarity. At one point, a Serb woman reached for a young Chinese boy and pulled him in a matronly embrace.
To many, the gesture came to symbolize a newfound solidarity - at least in the near term - between peoples whose only point of contact involves a commercial transaction of some sort.
There are as many as 20,000 Chinese living in Serbia and Montenegro. They are the largest non-European minority community in Yugoslavia. Many run small businesses: restaurants and shops that sell everything from raw silk to lighters and gadgets.
They come mostly for five- to 10-year periods, hoping to use Yugoslavia as a transit point to other, wealthier European destinations.
"Everyone wants to go to Italy, France, England, and Holland," says Yang Hao, a small-business owner who has been in Belgrade for two years and is now working all the connections he has toward returning to China and leaving the war behind. He says he chose Belgrade because "it was easy."
Visa requirements are not as strict as in other countries, he says, and for that reason he left China with his wife and only son to "make some money and move on."
Roots of a relationship
Yugoslavia and China have had good relations dating back to the start of the cold war, when Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito tried to strike a balance between East and West.
Yugoslav officials have intensified their courting of China in recent years, as their allies have become fewer and fewer. Both President Slobodan Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, have visited China and were granted the honors reserved for heads of state. When China experienced devastating floods, they donated humanitarian aid relief.
Ms. Markovic, the Communist ideologue behind the Yugoslav regime, is an ardent admirer of China, where her books are best sellers.
Whatever points in common the two governments have, it has had little impact on the relationship between the Serb population and the Chinese-migrant minority in Belgrade. "The Serbs may not be racist but they're definitively xenophobic," one observer says.
Mr. Yang denies ever having had any problems, lamenting only the presence of gypsies around a market stall his wife owns.
But when asked if he had any Serb friends, he points to the interpreter, a young Serbian woman who majored in Chinese, and says she is his only real acquaintance.
Still, he added, "lots of young Serbian people came to my restaurant to hear me play the trumpet." He said they called him Steva, a nickname he took up the day after moving to Belgrade and making his first Serb acquaintance.
"I asked him what his name was and he said 'Steva.' I asked him why he was called Steva and he said: 'With a name like mine you are guaranteed to be 100 percent Serb.' So I took the name," Yang says.
It didn't help him much when he went to renew his six-month work permit two months ago. Serbian authorities demanded proof that his business was turning a satisfactory profit before approving another six-month extension of his visa. "You must show that you make money," Yang says. "If you stop making money, you are out. "