Russians ponder the future as Chinese influence rises

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2002, 12:00am

In 1860, the Russian ambassador to Beijing managed to secure a 777,000sq/km plot of land north and east of the Amur river, including modern day Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.

Now, 142 years later, nearly half of the Russians surveyed by the Institute of History, Ethnology and Archaeology of Vladivostok believe that, as a result of immigration by Chinese, Beijing will get back the land - by peaceful means or otherwise.

The issue of Chinese migration to the Russian Far East was on the agenda at talks yesterday between Vladimir Putin and Chinese leaders.

The issue was broached under the diplomatic heading of joint efforts to combat illegal immigration and people-smuggling.

Russia's Far East has 6.2 million sq/km, accounting for 36.4 per cent of the country's land mass but just 5.3 per cent of its population. The number of people is shrinking because of emigration to European Russia, a high mortality rate and poor economic conditions.

Over the border live 120 million people in the three provinces of China's northeast, whose urban unemployment rate is among the highest in the country and which also has millions of idle farmers.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chinese flooded across the border to sell cheap consumer goods and look for work.

It is hard to estimate the number of Chinese living there now. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, there are 100,000, working on farms and building sites, running shops, street stalls and restaurants and working in the tourist industry.

It is virtually impossible for them to obtain long-term residence permits or become Russian citizens.

But Russian newspapers come up with much larger estimates, of 500,000 up to one million, much to the anger of regional officials, who say that this is an insult to their border controls.

Major cities in the region have open-air markets, where Chinese sell their goods. Most are laid-off workers and peasants from the border province of Heilongjiang.

One of the 3,000 Chinese traders in the Khabarovsk market told the Global Times newspaper that he made 10,000 yuan (HK$9,430) a month, but had to make frequent pay-offs to local mafia and police and worked long hours in sub-zero temperatures.

'Few Chinese want to stay here for the long term. Most want to make money and go home,' he said.

Building workers from Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang, said they earned 700 to 800 yuan a month. They live in dormitories, four to a room, are taken by bus to and from work and are not allowed to gamble or see women.

Local people resent Chinese because some flaunt their wealth and gamble and because they fear they will take away their jobs.

But figures from the Far East Research Centre of the Russian Academy of Social Science show China's share of trade in the region has fallen from 39 per cent in the early 1990s to 10 per cent, while that of Japan has risen from 35.4 per cent to 49 per cent and South Korea's is up from 6.2 per cent to 11.6 per cent.