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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.’
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.
The moves toward a more Asian orientation are in part inspired by Europe’s growing antipathy toward Russia, and Russia’s need to build relationships elsewhere.
‘In the 1990s, the Russian government had the view that for Russians to cross the Urals was a historic mistake: Moscow is the heart of Russia, and this is the tail,’ says Vladivostok-based political analyst Mikhail Shinkovsky. ‘But this is changing. Europe doesn’t like Russia. But here, in this great region, we have neighbours who, maybe they don’t exactly like us, but their feelings aren’t as bad as Europeans.’
Because of China’s economic advantages over Russia, some scholars are actually now predicting that, instead of a Chinese invasion of Russia, the reverse may happen. While long-term economic predictions are risky, it seems likely that Russia’s economy, whose current boom is dependent on a (finite) supply of petroleum resources, will eventually be slowed by demographic decline. Meanwhile, China’s economy looks set, for now at least, to remain strong even as demographic projections show China’s population levelling off over the next several decades. As a result, it’s not hard to imagine Russians moving to China for better job opportunities.
Indeed, to a small extent that already is happening: While working class Chinese do try to come to Russia to trade or work on construction projects, many young, educated Russians are going the other way.
China has already been working on attracting Russians, both visitors and immigrants. Russia’s well developed education system produces many of the skilled engineers, English speakers and other types of workers China needs to continue to grow, and Russians generally are eager consumers of China’s cheap manufacturing. This has led to border cities in China posting signs in Russian to attract day-tripping shoppers from across the border, while local governments encourage talented Russians to settle there. One border city, Suifenhe, even started a project to create a ‘Russiatown’ that would apparently house 50,000 Russians (though the plan appears to have been abandoned in favour of letting Russians live wherever they want in the city).
But much of this is beside the point–specific incentives aren’t needed to encourage Russians to come to China. China’s dynamic economy, simpler bureaucracy and lower taxes and interest rates make it attractive to young Russian professionals and entrepreneurs. And while there’s still apprehension about China’s intentions in Moscow, in the Russian Far East there is a good deal of Sinophilia. Chinese language studies are now popular than English at universities, and Russians travel to–and even buy vacation homes on–Hainan Island.
So, does all of this portend a future of Russians in the Far East moving en masse south to China? It’s too early to know for sure. But today’s trends suggest this is more likely than a Chinese mass migration north.
‘China is the destiny of Siberia–our present and future depends in every respect on what happens in China,’ says Viktor Dyatlov, a scholar of Chinese immigration to Russia. ‘The only direction we can move in is integration and cooperation between Russia and China. We just can’t predict what form that cooperation will take.’