Chinese immigration to the Russian Far East and the debate about its advantages and disadvantages began in Russia in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The idea of Chinese immigrants being a ticking bomb has been disseminated by Russian officials for years.
Ultimately, the bomb did not go off or harm the Russians living in the region. Nevertheless, Russian media propagated an image of Chinese immigrants invading the Russian Far East quietly and depriving the Russians of their jobs, thus posing an immediate threat. Also this immediate threat did not materialise. After all, China’s population is ageing rapidly, and China itself will soon face labour shortages. As a result of domestic political changes in China, the number of Chinese workers seeking work in Russia is declining. Therefore, the myth of hordes of Chinese taking over the Russian Far East was precisely that; but it lives on among the Russians in the Far East.
The Russian Far East (RFE) is a very important region for three important production sites of the Russian military aviation industry. These are the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant (KNAAPO), manufacturer of fighter aircraft Su-27/30/35, the Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant (UUAP), manufacturer of Su-25 fighter aircraft, and the Progress production site in the Primorsky region, manufacturer of military and civil helicopters from Kamov. In addition, the Russian Eastern Military District (MD) headquartered in Khabarovsk and the Pacific Fleet headquartered in Vladivostok remain important elements to fend off any attack from the East. Therefore, President Vladimir Putin’s government is carefully monitoring Chinese immigration to the Russian Far East, and if necessary would restrict or expel Chinese immigrants. For example, in 2006, 100,000 Chinese merchants were forced to leave Russia, and the Russian Far East suffered serious consequences. Such an act can be repeated at any time despite improved bilateral Russian-Chinese relations; Russia’s domestic considerations outweigh its external relations.
A Peaceful Invasion?
Chinese immigration to the Far East of Russia is not a recent phenomenon, and government officials have previously distorted the growth of the Chinese population in Russia, reinforcing the feeling that a silent invasion is under way. In July 1999, Viktor Izhaev, former governor of the Khabarovsk region and former representative of the President of the Russian Far East, made an alarming statement: “The entire country in the Russian Far East will be bought by Chinese. A peaceful occupation of the Far East is under way” and it would only be a matter of time before the Chinese would seek the return of what they consider their historical territory. Such perceptions were later reinforced by President Vladimir Putin; during a visit to the border town of Blagoveshchensk in July 2000, Putin told the inhabitants: “If you do nothing to change the economic development of the region, your children will speak Chinese”. This kind of rhetoric is not new, and little has been done to dispel the fears of the population. In the last three decades, only a few Chinese immigrants have invaded the Russian Far East, but they mostly stayed in the region for a short time or used the region as a transit point on their way to Central Asia.
In order to stop the shrinking of the Russian population in Siberia, President Vladimir Putin launched a state programme in June 2006 to encourage Russian compatriots living abroad to voluntarily resettle to the Far East. The programme aimed primarily at ethnic Russians, people who now frequently live as second-class citizens in the former Soviet republics. But the programme has been tacitly abandoned as the government has recognised the plan as unfeasible. That should come as no surprise. Russian migrants returning to Russia prefer to settle in the more developed areas rather than in the Far East, and the meagre financial incentives offered by the Russian Government do not tempt Russian migrants.
One Hectare for Free
The latest “Strategy for the Economic and Social Development of the Far East and Lake Baikal Region”, signed by Putin in December 2009, says nothing about increasing the population with new settlers, but focuses on encouraging existing Russian residents to stay in the region by “creating comfortable living conditions” and “reaching the average level of social and economic development in Russia”. But even this goal was not achieved, and the Russians continue to leave the Far East. Moscow has also sponsored the so-called “Far Eastern Hectare” immigration promotion programme, but according to a November 2016 survey by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), only 14% of Russians and 27% of people living in the Far East would even consider applying for one hectare of land in the Russian Far East under this programme.
According to official statistics, the population in the Russian Far East decreased by 1.75 million (out of 8 million) between 1990 and 2010. Whether or not the shrinking Russian population in the Far East can be supplemented by Chinese immigrants is uncertain, but President Putin’s government sees the issue as a threat to national security rather than an opportunity for the country’s economy. Moreover, the Russian perception of Chinese immigrants as a yellow danger is deeply rooted in the Russian psyche. To be on the safe side, Russia accepts Chinese immigrants as temporary workers, but they do not want them to settle in the RFE in the long term. Such a policy is no incentive for the Chinese to emigrate to Russia, and Russian perceptions are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Today, the 6.3 million inhabitants of the Russian Far East face 110 million Chinese in the three provinces of Manchuria on the other side of the once porous border. The Russian leadership and analysts have pointed to this demographic imbalance and the often exaggerated figures of illegal Chinese migration to highlight the vulnerability of Russia’s Far East. However, the Russian programmes mentioned above are not good enough to overcome vulnerability, and the incentives associated with the Russian programmes do not lead to the migration of Russians to the Far East. At the same time, since 2015, immigrants have had to take a comprehensive examination to test their knowledge of the Russian language, history and relevant laws before they can apply for the necessary permits and documents. Shortly after the introduction of the comprehensive test, China asked Russia to abolish the Russian language test for Chinese guest workers, but this request was rejected. As a result, Chinese immigrants were unable to stay in the region.
To counter allegations of Chinese extraction of raw materials at Russia’s expense in the Far East, Russia and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in early 2016 to relocate Chinese companies to the Far East in twelve key sectors, including agriculture, energy, engineering, metallurgy, shipbuilding, textiles and telecommunications. At least theoretically, Chinese companies should want to relocate to the Russian Far East because of China’s overproduction, access to the Russian market and its growth potential, as well as the region’s natural resources, less stringent environmental regulation and lower overheads due to the devaluation of the rouble. Chinese factories could in turn create new employment opportunities for the region.
A Chinese Takeover
For instance, the Ministry for Development of the Russian Far East (Minvostokrazvitiya) reported on 29 November 2017 that Russia‘s Far East Investment and Export Agency and China’s Paper Corporation, a division of China Chengtong Holdings, signed an MoU on the implementation of a project to build a pulp-and-paper mill in the city of Amursk in the Khabarovsk region. The mill will produce up to 500,000 tonnes of pulp per year; overall investment in the project will total about US$1.5Bn. No progress in the implementation of the project has been reported since the MoU was signed. Therefore, the cross-border transfer of Chinese companies remains limited and is not expected to increase in the coming years.
In Russia, many of these initiatives have met with resistance at the local level. Although sometimes misinformed, such an opposition shows the different perspectives between federal and local governments regarding China’s role in the Russian Far East. In mid-2015, for example, major demonstrations took place in the Baikal region against the lease of more than 100,000 hectares of land for 49 years to Hia’e Xingbang, a private Chinese company, for US$440M. The plan was not implemented. These concerns result in part from the “farm rush” of the 1990s and early 2000s, when farm workers from China moved to the fertile land in the Far East along the border.
Some Russians have pointed to this migration flow as evidence of a Chinese takeover of the Russian Far East. In reality, land under cultivation in the region declined by about 60% between 1990 and 2006, while Chinese farms have been commercially motivated, primarily producing crops for the Russian market. To dispel these fears, Alexander Galushka, Minister for Development of the Russian Far East, has repeatedly emphasised that the “Russian workers are priority and then foreigners who will not have problems with adaptation; those who know the Russian language, and are close to us in history and culture.”
Galushka stressed that the framework agreement with China on the establishment of the Russian-Chinese Agrofund provided that at least 80% of employees in joint projects must be Russians. Nevertheless, the Russians fear that the growing Chinese presence will facilitate China’s economic dominance in the Russian Far East at the expense of foreign competitors and Russian companies. To address these concerns, the Ministry of Development of the Far East of Russia has stated that Russian contractors and suppliers will be given priority in these companies. The locals have also expressed concern about the pollution caused by the relocation of Chinese dirty industries to Russia. All these concerns have contributed to more bureaucratic hurdles being imposed on the Russian side. Moreover, local officials do not view the implementation of these projects with the same expediency, as these value-adding companies do not provide immediate payoffs to local officials compared to natural resource extraction. Therefore, the economic factor outweighs the human factor, and Russian bureaucratic hurdles hamper Chinese investments.
The arguments against lifting the visa requirement are even more speculative. Some fear that visa-free travel could lead to uncontrolled immigration; alarmists say that an influx of Chinese could lead to ethnic crime, environmental disasters and even the secession of the Far East from Russia. It remains unclear on what basis the scaremongers are making their allegations, but for now the scaremongers have the upper hand and the lifting of the visa requirement for Chinese is not on the agenda.
After all, geopolitics has always been a fundamental concern of the central government in its dealings with the Far East. Because of the region’s remoteness from the centre of the country, its sparse population, poor transport infrastructure and the presence of large and ambitious powers in its neighbourhood, Moscow must always be very careful when it comes to the Far East’s external relations. And Moscow manages external relations with great care, maintaining balance with its neighbours and keeping Chinese immigrants on a leash.
In summary, it can be said that Chinese immigration is certainly not a ticking bomb, but a rather exaggerated perception of threat that both Russian officials and Russian people living in the Far East are unwilling to overcome. There is also agreement in Russia that Russians living in the Far East tolerate the presence of Chinese immigrants as long as the West maintains economic sanctions against Russia. As soon as the West no longer sanctions Russia, Russian tolerance will turn into intolerance and the threat from China will be re-emphasised. However, there is an additional factor that the Russian authorities can no longer ignore. China’s population is ageing rapidly. This means that, given the labour shortage in China and rising wages, the willingness of Chinese workers to seek work in Russia is likely to decrease in the coming years. This would have a negative impact on the local Russian population, which will decline in the foreseeable future. The shortage of skilled labour in the region will remain a major problem for some time to come. As a result, both local residents and Chinese immigrants are in a vicious circle that the Putin government cannot or may not want to solve.
Eugene Kogan is a defence and security expert based in Tbilisi, Georgia.