China’s presence can be felt all over Blagoveshchensk, a Russian city 5,600 kilometres east of Moscow but only just across the Amur River from China. There are students learning Chinese, plenty of Chinese-manufactured clothes and electronics in the stores, and Chinese restaurants serving stir-fried potatoes chased down with vodka. Yet you won’t find many Chinese people here.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the border between Russia and China opened up, predictions were rife of a massive wave of Chinese heading north. And it seemed that was possible: there were numerous opportunities in that part of Russia, the easternmost part of Siberia known as the Russian Far East. There just weren’t many Russians to take advantage of those opportunities.
Indeed, according to a United Nations survey, Russia’s population could fall by a third over the next 40 years. And the prospects in Siberia and the Far East are even grimmer, as residents move in droves to the warmer climate and better economy of European Russia: the population of Russia east of Lake Baikal dropped from 8 million to 6 million from 1998 through 2002, and has continued to fall since.
Meanwhile, just across the river, China is bursting at the seams. The three provinces of north-eastern China–Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning–have 110 million people between them.
And China’s supercharged economy means that those people need ever more fuel for their power plants, raw materials for their factories, and land to grow their food–all things in abundance in the Russian Far East. The area contains nearly all of Russia’s diamonds, 70 percent of its gold and substantial deposits of oil, natural gas, coal, timber, silver, platinum, tin, lead and zinc, as well as rich fishing grounds and vast expanses of unpopulated land.
Such a wealth of resources has restoked perennial fears of a Chinese takeover of the Far East. After all, anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in Russia. It wasn’t long after the easternmost part of Russia was settled in the 1800s that Russians first began to speak of a ‘yellow peril’ posed by Chinese immigration to the area. In 1900, in retaliation for a Chinese bandit attack on a Russian outpost, Russians in Blagoveshchensk drove, at gunpoint, all 3000 Chinese then living to the city into the Amur River. Most of them drowned.
But for most of the lifetime of the Soviet Union, the border was effectively closed. When it opened again in 1988, the fear of the ‘yellow peril’ resurfaced, based on a simple demographic reality: that Russians are hugely outnumbered by Chinese. Says Mikhael Kukharenko, head of the Chinese-government run Confucius Institute in Blagoveshchensk: ‘It’s a law of physics; a vacuum has to be filled. If there are no Russian people here, there will be Chinese people.’
The Russian government, too, has taken notice. During a recent visit to the Far East, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that ‘if we don’t step up the level of activity of our work [in the Russian Far East], then in the final analysis we can lose everything.’