Breakdown on the new silk road
NOT long ago, the proprietors of the grubby free-market stalls around Beijing's Ritan Park had no time to spare for reading newspapers. Instead they spent their days jabbing at calculators, showing off their wares, and bargaining with customers over prices for bulk shipments—often in pidgin Russian.
Now they carefully scan the foreign-news pages for the latest on Russia's woes. Business has suddenly gone soft for these entrepreneurs and it will not improve, they know, until Russia and its economy right themselves. The “suitcase traders”, mainly from Russia but also from other parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have flocked to Beijing in recent years, buying up huge amounts of clothing, shoes and toys to be resold in their commodity-starved home markets at huge mark-ups. Sales at one Beijing market alone exceeded $500m last year.
The Russians also supported many bars, hotels and restaurants in the area, and their goods accounted for a significant share of air cargo from China to Russia. But since Russia's economic crash in August, the business is bust and most of the Russians are gone.
At its peak in 1994, Chinese merchants could easily earn 100,000 yuan ($11,600) a month. Such profits, huge by local standards, more than made up for what many merchants considered to be the indignity of dealing with the brusquely mannered Russians.
Zheng Gong had been trading with them for years. A somewhat manic fellow whose Russian is about as easy to understand as his thick provincial Mandarin, Mr Zheng now wanders the market hawking the Russian-English-Chinese phrase-book he has written.
Mr Zheng's odd use of Chinese characters to render English and Russian sounds may not succeed as a teaching aid, but his choice of phrases speaks volumes about how business was done. Entries like “I don't fool you, the goods are on the road, will be here in two hours” and “You are no polite, very sly, no training, get out” suggest that not all business dealings went smoothly.
All the same, the Chinese desperately wish the Russians would come back. No one else, after all, is likely to buy their stockpiled wares. China has not yet suffered anything approaching Russia's economic difficulties, but domestic demand is beginning to slow. Not that that matters much, since local consumers were anyway unlikely to splash out for bright yellow leather coats trimmed in matching yellow fur, extra-extra-large shoes, larger-than-life stuffed animals, and the kind of garish, velveteen blouses that can only really be worn with bleached blonde hair.