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Friday, December 01, 2006

The Future of Russia is . . . China!

The Hankyoreh, a Korean newspaper, reports on the Chinese takeover of Russia already underway. Chinese in the East, Muslim in the West, soon Russia will be unrecognizable, all thanks to the polices of the neo-Soviet government.

The Chinese food is excellent at the Xianggang Restaurant. After dinner, people dance to the tunes of Hotel California in front of the bar. The place is popular-full every night-and "Xianggang" means, of course, "Hong Kong" in pinyin, the standard Romanization across the border in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. For this is not a Chinese eatery in the West, but in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East.

The Xianggang Restaurant is only one example of how Chinese influence is spreading in Russia's easternmost territories. Chinese merchants already dominate local trade and commerce, and many have settled not only in Khabarovsk but also in Blagoveshchensk, Vladivostok and Irkutsk, at the same time as the Russian population is declining. The birth rate is low, and every year thousands of Russians move to European Russia to look for jobs because factories are closing down and military installations have been withdrawn.

Many local residents and government officials believe that 100 years from now, this region may no longer be part of Russia. Economically, the Russian Far East is already more or less separated from European Russia.

Before the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Far East supplied European Russia and the other Western republics with fish and crabs from the Sea of Okhotsk. The area's heavy industry produced steel, aircraft and even ships, and few foreign consumer goods could be found in shops and markets.


Today, Chinese consumer goods, cheaper and better than those produced far away in European Russia, are flooding the markets along with Chinese food, while timber and raw materials are going across the border to Heilongjiang. Entire factories are being dismantled and sold as scrap metal to China, and Chinese seafood is almost exclusively sold to South Korea and Japan.

Given this climate, demographic changes are becoming evident. When communism essentially collapsed along with the Soviet Union, Chinese border traders and seasonal workers arrived in the Russian Far East. Here, it is still mainly a floating population that moves back and forth across the border, but now many are choosing to stay, as Vilya Gelbras, professor and China specialist at Moscow State University, pointed out at a seminar in Blagoveshchensk last year: "Now every second Chinese arrives in Russia with a firm intention not to go back to China. Most of them cannot be classified as 'free migrants' anymore." Many acquire false documents, even citizenship, from corrupt local officials, who are more willing to accept bribes from Chinese and other foreigners than from fellow Russians, who may complain to the authorities.

Russia's Far Eastern Federal District is huge. Having always attracted settlers and adventurers, it was conquered by the Russians in the 19th century, and it became a dumping ground for criminals and political undesirables. But its population remained extremely sparse. "The District", as it is called, covers 6,215,900 square km, but contains only 7 million people, which is a figure down from 9 million in 1991. Across the border, China's three northeastern provinces-Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning-are home to 100 million people, and the area has, even by Chinese standards, an unusually high unemployment rate. Or, as one Western analyst told me: "If the Russians continue to move out, the Chinese are ready to fill the resultant population vacuum in the area."

That could lead to more than just a change of the demographic balance in what is still the Russian Far East, as political loyalties of the Chinese in the region will remain with China. Russia is too poor, backward and different for any Chinese migrant to easily find identity with.

Officially, 40,000 Chinese live more or less permanently in the Russian Far East - which stretches from the Lena River basin to the Bering Sea - but the actual figure is believed to be much higher. The largest concentrations are in the three main cities in the area, and the economic dominance of Chinese immigrants is felt the strongest in Blagoveshchensk, the economy of which is less developed and diversified than those of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.

Blagoveshchensk is also on the banks of the Amur river, with the Chinese city of Heihe visible on the other side. Hydrofoils carrying Chinese traders bringing in goods ply between the two cities every half hour. This reporter saw some Russian traders, too, but they were also carrying household utensils, toys, shoes and tools from China.

Not only trade in consumer goods is in the hands of the Chinese: the construction sector in Blagoveshchensk is dominated by a Chinese-owned company, Hua Fu, which has just begun working on what will be the tallest building in the Russian Far East. Chinese New Year is not an official holiday here, but is celebrated in style with fireworks, drums and lion dances.

Even the mayor of the city and the governor of the province usually participate as guests of honour. This province, Amursky Oblast, may also be the most vulnerable Russian province for what many Russians call a "creeping invasion" by the Chinese. It is huge-363,700 square km, the same area as Japan-but with a population of only 900,000. More than 35 million live in Heilongjiang across the Amur river.

Local Russians told me their land is not suitable for farming, the weather being too cold most of the year. But the Chinese who have settled here have managed to cultivate the land. According to Lyudmila Erokhina, a researcher at Vladivostok State University, Chinese businessmen have bribed local officials in order to acquire land from Russian farmers, and then have brought in agricultural workers from China. A major problem is that Russia has no law that regulates private ownership of land, she said. All land belongs to the state, and individual farmers can only get the right to use it.

But more food-vegetables, fruit, pork, and even eggs-are brought in from China, which has led to concerns about food security in the Russian Far East. "The Chinese now dominate the agricultural sector and the food supply," Erokhina told me in Vladivostok. "We're totally dependent on them."

There may not be more than 40,000, or perhaps 50,000, Chinese living permanently in the Russian Far East. But that is 40,000 or 50,000 more than in 1991, and as the Russian exodus continues, the Chinese may move into an empty Siberia resulting in its detachment from Russia and reorientation toward Beijing. Chinese expansion is a fact of life in the Russian Far East, and there is little Russia can do to stop it.

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