Posted on September 28, 2006

Chinese Reap Opportunity, Rancor In Russia’s Far East

Alex Rodriguez, Chicago Tribune, September 27, 2006

Blagoveshchensk, Russia — The imprint of China is everywhere in this Russian Far East city perched on the banks of the winding Amur River.

He Wenan’s construction firm built 30 apartment buildings, three shopping centers and a hospital here. Wei Jing Qing is one of dozens of Chinese traders at the bustling Central Market who hawk everything from track suits to pipe fittings. Outside the city, Xiao Bin’s produce farm fills Blagoveshchensk-bound trucks with cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, carrots and cabbage.

Just how this burgeoning node of Chinese enterprise should be received is the subject of fierce debate on the Asian side of Russia, a vast, resource-rich region where the population has been plunging for years.

For every Russian who argues that Chinese cash and labor are ably filling a void in a part of Russia that is withering, there’s a Russian who believes nothing short of a Chinese takeover looms.

“There may come a day when China controls everything here,” huffed Elena Prelovskaya, 46, who sells hats on the Russian side of Central Market. “They’re buying out restaurants, buying apartments in our city and building shopping centers for themselves. And they’re only hiring Chinese.”

Such fears are dismissed as baseless by most Russian analysts, who blame vote-hungry politicians for stoking nationalist sentiments harbored by many Russians. Anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 Chinese have migrated — legally and illegally — into Russia, a number that grows but not a number that necessarily foretells a conquest in the making.

Nevertheless, as Russia and China forge stronger ties, many in Moscow wonder whether the Kremlin’s dreams of the two countries forming an alliance of pan-Asian superpowers will be supplanted by the fruition of a strong China and a dependent Russia faithfully at Beijing’s side.

Though Russia’s economy has made a remarkable comeback from the financially grim days of the Yeltsin era, China’s gross domestic product still outpaces Russia’s by a 3-1 ratio. China has the world’s fourth-largest economy; Russia trails in 12th place. Such economic realities help explain Moscow’s recent wariness toward Beijing on several fronts.

Russia has balked at allowing China to buy key oil assets, including what’s left of former oil giant Yukos. And though China has been buying $2 billion in arms from Russia annually, Russia stopped short of selling Beijing its most sophisticated military hardware.

“There’s always a danger of becoming too dependent on China,” said Viktor Larin, a Chinese affairs expert at the Far East History and Ethnography Institute in Vladivostok.

“And I think the Russian government very much understands this danger,” Larin said.

A shared 2,264-mile border

Tension along the Russian-Chinese 2,264-mile border dates back to the mid-19th Century, when China ceded what was then known as Outer Manchuria to Russia.

In 1900, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, Cossacks drove thousands of Chinese from their homes in Russia’s Amur region and toward the Amur River, where they were forced at gunpoint to swim over to the Chinese side. An estimated 3,000 drowned or were slaughtered at the river’s edge.

By the 1960s, Russia had rolled out barbed wire along the Amur and constructed pillboxes for gunners. Mao Tse-tung openly talked of what he argued was China’s legitimate claim to the Russian Far East cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, Beijing and Moscow have closed ranks against what they see as U.S. hegemony.

Trade between Russia and China stood at $29.1 billion last year and is targeted to reach as high as $80 billion by 2010. Russia has agreed to build two pipelines that will pump between 60 billion to 80 billion cubic meters of Siberian natural gas to China. It also plans to build a 2,500-mile pipeline that will send China and Japan 1.6 million barrels of oil each day.

Nevertheless, Putin has been mindful of the demographic plight plaguing the Russian Far East.

“Unless we make some real effort in the near future to develop the Russian Far East, a few decades from now its Russian population will mostly be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean,” Putin said in 2000 during a trip to Blagoveshchensk.

More than a million Russians in Far East provinces moved to central and western Russian cities during the 1990s, Russian authorities say.

Today’s population in the Russian Far East stands at just 6.6 million. Population density, just over one person per square kilometer, makes the region one of the most sparsely populated places in the world.

On the southern side of the Amur River, 38.1 million people live in China’s booming Heilongjiang province, creating a population density of about 83 people per square kilometer.

With virtually every inch of farmland in Heilongjiang already claimed, Chinese are streaming over the border to set roots in Russia’s Amur region. When they arrive, they are bewildered by the sight of vast stretches of verdant, available land — and no one tilling it.

“In the Russian Far East, they’ve got so much land, and in China there are so many people who want to work,” said Xiao Bin, who employs 22 Chinese countrymen at his produce farm in Ust-Ivanovka, just outside of Blagoveshchensk. “If you put these together, you make money.”

Dmitry Rogozin, one of Russia’s most influential political voices, calls Chinese migration “an invasion.”

‘Small groups of 5 million’

“The Chinese are crossing our state border, as we say jokingly, in small groups of 5 million people,” Rogozin said in a radio interview last year. His calls for a tightening of Russia’s borders resonate with legions of Russians.

Fears are especially strong in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where local officials have so far balked at approving a Chinese developer’s plans to build a $1.6 billion hotel and shopping center complex.

City officials are convinced the developer will turn the hotel rooms into apartments capable of housing as many as 600,000 Chinese.

“They don’t outnumber Russians in Siberia just yet, but I don’t want the trend to start,” said Vyacheslav Ilyukhin, head of Novosibirsk’s municipal planning commission.