Posted on November 8, 2004

The Manchurian Candidates For Domination

Julian Strauss, Telegraph (London), Nov. 6

Less than a decade ago, Sui Huiling, a Manchurian trader, crossed into Russia carrying a bag of nylon track suits and cheap shoes.

Now 39, he runs an import-export company with a multi-million pound turnover, has a young Russian wife, two smart flats in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok and a Japanese sports car.

“Life is so much better here,” he said. “In China the competition is cruel and there is huge pressure on people. Here there is space and nature. I can walk by the sea or feel the fresh air in the forest. In China there is barely a tree left.”

Mr Sui was one of the first Chinese to cross into Siberia and the Russian Far East, among the most sparsely inhabited areas on earth, looking to make a living in the resource-rich region.

Since then hundreds of thousands of Chinese have followed the well-worn path north. Each year the pace is accelerating. Such is the influx that locals and some experts predict a seismic demographic shift.

They say the Chinese will change the ethnic make-up and fear they will eventually gain control over huge swathes of eastern Russia.

Sergei Buchma, the deputy president of the Association of Russian-Chinese entrepreneurs, runs a business centre in Vladivostok where eight Chinese companies with a collective turnover of £6 million a year are based.

He said: “Ten years ago they were all shuttle traders. Now they are big managers, some of them turn over millions of dollars a year. They already control half of the economy here. Within 30 or 40 years they will have economic control of this whole area.”

Statistics fuel the Russian fears. In the Vladivostok region the population density is 15 times lower than in the Chinese areas just across the border.

The local Russian population numbers 2.1 million. Officially, about 280,000 Chinese are already working in the area. The real number may be many times higher.

Some local politicians blame Moscow for its lack of financial support and its indifference to the far-flung regions.

Nikolai Markovtsev, an MP in Vladivostok, said: “If official policies don’t change, within 30 years the Chinese will dominate the Russian Far East. Last year alone, 40,000 Russians left the coastal regions”

Tens of thousands of Chinese farmers are also now working the land throughout Siberia. The scene in Zholti Yar, a tiny settlement a thousand miles north-west of Vladivostok, is typical. Yar Dongxian, 38, was harvesting water melons in the humid afternoon sun.

He had risen at six and expected to be in the fields until 10pm. He earns a few pounds a day.

Despite the fears, many Russians support the Chinese presence which has brought significant economic benefits to the region, stranded seven times zones and 6,000 miles east of Moscow. The Chinese bring consumer goods that are cheaper and superior to what Russian industry can offer and a work ethic that is rare among Russians.

“It’s very simple,” said Ivan Rugansky, the Russian farmer who employs Mr Yar. “They are cheaper, they work harder and they work longer. Our people are so lazy, they don’t want to work. They only want to drink.” The Russian economic boom also means that the area needs more workers than it can find.

In Vladivostok the changes the Chinese have wrought are pronounced. A decade ago the city was little more than a scrapyard for rusting Soviet-era ships. Now it has vitality. There are dozens of new restaurants and a wealth of consumer goods from across the border.

But the new mayor of Vladivostok, Vladimir Nikolayev, is not convinced. “They have flooded our markets with their goods,” he said. “We don’t mind that. But they have also flooded our markets with their people.”