Such dire predictions have given rise to rumours that the Chinese invasion has already begun. The Russian press has reported that there are villages in the Russian Far East, populated by thousands of Chinese, that don’t appear on any map. There have also been reports (not true) that there are Chinese members of the city council in Blagoveshchensk and statues of Chinese generals in the city squares. It is even widely believed in Russia that there are ‘secret’ Chinese maps that show the parts of the Russian Far East inside China’s borders.
With such talk swirling, the Russian government has tried to make it difficult for Chinese to move to Russia. Visas are tightly controlled, and Chinese tourists have to come to Russia in a group, unlike Russian tourists, who can cross into China by themselves. As a result, there’s little visible Chinese presence anywhere in the Russian Far East, other than a few ‘Chinese markets’ selling cheap clothing and electronics. Indeed, there are more Chinese in Moscow than anywhere in the Far East. The truth is, no one knows exactly how many Chinese are in the Russian Far East, and those who are there tend to come and go frequently. However, it is thought numbers are only in the tens of thousands.
But if there are few Chinese people flowing to the Russian Far East, plenty of Chinese money is. Most of the new buildings in Blagoveshchensk, including the tallest building in the city, a new hotel, have been built by Chinese companies. The two countries have built a pipeline to ship oil from Russia to China, and last year signed an agreement under which China gave Russia a $25 billion loan in exchange for a 20-year supply of oil.
Compounding this are growing signs that Russians in the Far East are becoming disaffected with Moscow. There’s a widespread feeling in the area that the central government treats the Far East like a colony. Last year that tension boiled over in Vladivostok, when the government moved to shut down the thriving Japanese car-import business in that city, in order to prop up domestic car manufacturers (who are located in European Russia). The resulting protests were so serious that the government flew in riot troops from Moscow to quell them, apparently not trusting the loyalty of local forces.
The Russian government also has taken measures to strengthen Russian control over the Far East. It has introduced a program of incentives for ethnic Russians from Central Asia to move to the Russian Far East. They’ve also tried to mitigate the problem of the vast distance between the Far East and European Russia: Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean, is a seven-day train ride from Moscow, and seven time zones away. So the Russian government has subsidized airfares for some Russians in the Far East to travel to Moscow, and has proposed decreasing the number of time zones in the country to three or four so that businesspeople and bureaucrats at both ends of the country could work more easily together.
Moscow also hopes to establish Vladivostok as the country’s ‘Gateway to the Pacific,’ and chose it to host the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. To prepare for the big event it has promised a package of ambitious infrastructure improvements, like new bridges, highways and hotels.