When 7000 barrels of toxic chemicals from two damaged chemical plant warehouses in Jilin Province were swept into the Wende River, a tributary of the major Songhua River, emergency services in China leapt into action over concerns that the drinking water of millions of Chinese could be contaminated.
The accident happened during massive flooding in the north-east of the country that has claimed dozens of lives so far. But it’s not just Chinese officials who will have been keeping an eye on the clean-up efforts—the Songhua is also a tributary of Russia’s Amur River, which provides drinking water to numerous cities in the Russian Far East.
Although estimates vary over the volume of chemicals released, and when precisely they’ll reach eastern Russia, the incident is bound to reawaken anxieties Russians feel about the ecological policies of its rapidly industrializing southern neighbour—and exacerbate broader worries about the movement of its citizens.
Unlike with some previous spillages, the most recent discharge occurred sufficiently upstream that Chinese workers should be able to recover most of the containers before they reach the Amur. Nonetheless, authorities in Khabarovsk (the largest Russian city downstream of the latest chemical release) have announced preparations for a possible emergency water shutdown that includes storing enough supplies for the city’s hospitals and other vital facilities.
Such precautions seem only prudent in light of what happened in November 2005, when an explosion at a PetroChina chemical complex in Jilin spewed about 100 tonnes of toxic benzene into the Songhua. The poisonous discharge soon made its way into Russia, costing the Russian government and economy tens of millions of dollars. And, although the Chinese authorities made unprecedented efforts to cooperate with their Russian counterparts to minimize the spill’s impact, Khabarovsk’s 600,000 residents resorted to using bottled water and other liquids for drinking and cooking after the accident contaminated the Amur.
Since then, China and Russia have actually sought to work more harmoniously on ecological issues, with the two governments signing a protocol on bilateral environmental cooperation to protect their shared border rivers the following year. Other measures have included a January 2008 memorandum obliging China and Russia to inform each other in the event of ecological emergencies that could affect both countries.
Despite these measures, Chinese-Russian environmental cooperation lags far behind that of European countries as well as that of the United States and its North American neighbours. Yet even if more co-operation did exist, tensions would likely persist for one simple reason—the huge and steady flow of water and air pollution from China into Russia.
The costs of China’s pollution are staggering. According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, where the air is often so foul that it annually causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths. The World Bank estimates that China’s pollution-related costs—including resulting from acid rain, medical bills, lost work from illness, money spent on disaster relief following floods—amount to 8 to 12 percent of the country’s annual GDP.
Part of the problem is that Beijing still lacks a powerful national institution that can coordinate, monitor and enforce environmental legislation, while local Chinese authorities are typically evaluated on the basis of how well they can promote economic growth rather than on environmental considerations.
Russians regularly complain about the environmental threat from Chinese industrial facilities that routinely discharge waste materials into nearby waterways flowing into Russia, with the thousands of chemical plants in China especially prone to spilling hazardous substances into rivers.
But while representatives of the distant Moscow government are reluctant to confront Beijing over the issue, some local Russian officials in affected regions are less reticent, accusing Chinese factory managers of skimping on pollution controls to sustain their low-cost competitive advantage over foreign companies.
Will such protests make any difference at all? They might now that Russian interests now have a defacto ally on the issue—the Chinese. Russia has benefited from growing Chinese public pressure on their officials to improve their health and quality of life, and China’s government has responded by constructing waste treatment facilities that Russian experts believe have helped reduce the general level of pollution flowing into the Amur from China.
But there’s an additional layer of Russian concern over Chinese pollution tied to a broader fear among some Russian policymakers—the potential for it stimulating illegal immigration, in part as citizens look for a new life after their own regions have been ravaged.
Russia may no longer worry about a potential military clash with China over border issues, but they still fear that the combination of the declining ethnic Russian population in the Russian Far East, Chinese interest in acquiring greater access to energy and other natural resources, the growing disparity in the aggregate size of the Chinese and Russian national economies and suspected large-scale illegal Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East will result in China effectively peacefully annexing large parts of eastern Russia.
Russian communities located near China are especially uneasy about China’s enormous population, their dependence on Chinese trade and investment and Moscow’s seeming inability to staunch the population drain from the Russian Far East or to rehabilitate it economically.
The area is one of the most sparsely populated in the world, and the population that is there has fallen by more than 500,000 since 1992. During the Soviet period, the federal government provided extensive subsidies (for travel, housing and other services and amenities) to induce people to reside and work in eastern Russia despite its harsh climate. But the Russian Federation couldn’t afford to continue these money transfers, contributing to a mass exodus and sense of alienation among those who remained. Some forecasts estimate that only 4.5 million Russians will live in the region by 2015, compared with the over 100 million Chinese residing in the border provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning.
Given the large number of Chinese people living near Russia, some Chinese labourers invariably look for jobs to their north, where they often find employment more easily and can earn higher wages than if they stayed at home. Estimates are that, at any one time, as many as one million Chinese citizens may reside somewhere in Russia.
Meanwhile, Chinese merchants and small businessmen are visibly concentrated in urban ghettos in large cities such as Irkutsk, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok where they often find a niche in the underdeveloped retail and service sectors of the Russian Far East.
Very few Chinese citizens legally immigrate to Russia, with most Chinese nationals either entering on term-limited visas, which they then overstay, or simply crossing over illegally. The fears that emerged after the new Russian Federation opened its borders to limited Chinese immigration that the influx of workers would lead to a Chinese ethnic onslaught were clearly exaggerated; and so far at least most Chinese traders and labourers see Russia as a place to work and make money—not as a permanent home. Indeed some analysts even see a decline in the number of Chinese nationals working in the Russian Far East.
Chinese officials have said they will assist their Russian counterparts to manage the immigration problem, but last month, Zhang Hanhui, a deputy director of China’s Foreign Ministry Department of European-Central Asian Affairs, complained that the Russian government used an overly broad definition of illegal Chinese immigration in Russia.
‘Many Chinese people don’t want to take root in Russia, but are keeping private business on a short-term basis. In order to do this it is necessary to have a registration, [but] some Russian departments are creating artificial barriers’ to their obtaining one, he said. Although he acknowledged that many Chinese citizens claim on their visas that they want to visit Russia for educational purposes but really intend to engage in private commerce, Hanhui said China doesn’t consider them as illegal immigrants.
Since the Russian government enforces strict limits on the number of visas issued to foreigners, even Chinese sources acknowledge that most Chinese working in the Russian Far East actually do so illegally. One reason doing so is attractive is that Chinese citizens doing business in Russia without the proper visas usually by their very nature won’t pay taxes on their illegal earnings. But for those that do come illegally, their irregular status makes them vulnerable to extortion and blackmail from corrupt Russian officials, while Chinese labourers often become the targets of Russian criminal gangs, whose members know that their Chinese victims will avoid appealing to Russian law enforcement agencies for protection.
But such problems come with some potential solutions, given official will. One option open to Russian authorities would be to actually allow more Chinese to enter Russia legally, therefore reducing opportunities for profitable criminal activities. More Chinese workers in the Russian Far East would also open up the possibility of more (and more affordable) services to the region’s Russian inhabitants, as well as increasing price competition among the Chinese providing services in Russia.
Such proposals typically meet with vociferous local opposition, with many Russians fearing the increased competition from Chinese labourers and retailers will hurt the employment prospects of the native Russian community (indeed, Russian trade unions have already complained that Chinese migrant workers are taking jobs that should go to ethnic Russians).
But the problems with reconciling the two sides also go deeper. Many Russians oppose allowing more Chinese to reside in Russia on nothing more than racial grounds, irrespective of economic considerations. Such suspicions of ‘otherness’ are only exacerbated by events like last month’s toxic chemical incident, which in turn make it easier for sceptics, fairly or not, to raise the spectre of threats to national security.