Sino-Russian boarders

January 13, 1995

A 'Chinese peaceful expansion' has been taking place in south-east Russia. Zhores A. Medvedev looks at the four options under consideration to ensure the district does not become a Chinese republic in the Russian far east

Since 1990 approximately one million Russians, about 5 per cent of the population, have left Siberia, the Russian north and the far east and moved permanently to central Russia. While they have been leaving, traders, workers and farmers from the Chinese People's Republic have entered the southern districts of Russia's eastern regions -- both legally and illegally. No one knows exactly how many "new" Chinese live in Russia. In spring 1994 estimates presented to the State Duma varied from 300,000 to two million people. If the trend continues, the Chinese could form the majority of the population in the regions bordering China (Chitinskaya, Amurskaya, Khabarovskaya and the Maritime province) within 20 years.

The fall in industrial production resulting from Russia's economic reforms is greater in the east of the country than it is in western areas and the government is clearly incapable of resisting what is now being called "Chinese peaceful expansion". Yet four ideas have been mooted to ensure the eastern regions remain Russian for the foreseeable future.

Under the "conservative" plan strict controls of people crossing the Sino-Russian border would be revived and all illegal Chinese immigrants deported. The population of Siberia and the far east will, of course, continue diminishing. But the thinking behind this plan is that when other energy and mineral resources in Russia and the rest of the world are exhausted, it will be reasonably profitable to exploit the distant and thinly populated regions of the north and east. The development of far eastern resources could begin as soon as ten to 15 years from now, when free capital has been accumulated and can be used for long-term projects.

The second plan envisages eliminating the serious imbalance between industrial and agricultural production in the east by reviving the Trans-Baikal and far eastern free Cossack movements. The plan would recreate Cossack communities along the Amur river, in the valley of the Ussuri river and even on Sakhalin and give the new Cossack families possession of large areas of land (up to 400 hectares per family). The government hopes that Russian Cossack peasants will squeeze the Chinese settlers off the land, much as their forefathers did at the end of the last century.

A third, more progressive project: to rent part of Eastern Siberia and the whole of the Far East to Japan and the United States on long lease; is discussed only in the narrow circles of the new Russian business and banking class. This could produce the capital and technology to build tunnels between the islands of Hokkaido and Sakhalin (43km) and between Sakhalin and the mainland through the Tatarsky straits (7-8km), which would connect Japan with the rest of Asia and Europe. It would also be possible to build a tunnel between Alaska and Chukotka under the Bering straits (35km) to connect the American and Eurasian continents. The cost of these plans has been estimated at $100-150 billion, while the income to Russia from renting its eastern territories for 100 years could be as high as $3 trillion.

The fourth variant is a more passive plan that involves encouraging Chinese immigration by renting empty land to Chinese farmers. At the same time, however, quotas would be introduced to restrict the number of Chinese settlers and workers eligible for Russian citizenship. Within 20-30 years a new Russo-Chinese autonomous republic would appear in the Russian east which could enter the Russian federation on the same terms as the Tartar, Bashkir and Yakut republics. Critics of this plan point out, however, that the new republic might well become part of the Chinese People's Republic rather than of the Russian federation and this would close off Russia's entry into the rapidly developing Pacific Ocean economic zone.

Judging by recent legislation relating to the problems of Siberia and the far east, the Russian government is opting for the first two plans. But events are in train that a democratic state with a market economy cannot fully control. These make it more likely that the fourth option is the one that will finally reflect the future of the far east of Russia.

The first Russian port in the far east, Nikolaevsk-na-Amur, built in 1850, marked the beginning of active colonisation of the area. However, for the first 30 years there were no Russians to work the land and the towns were supplied primarily from the northern regions of China and Korea. As a result, Chinese peasants settled in the valley of the Ussuri river up to Khabarovsk, and Korean peasants moved along the coast as far as Vladivostok. To prevent Chinese settlement of the new Russian maritime province the Tsarist government forced the Trans-Baikal Cossacks to move to the Ussuri valley. By 1899 peasants and Cossacks had migrated to the Amur and Maritime provinces. The process speeded up after the Great Siberian railway was built. From 1900 to 1908 172,000 peasants were sent to the far east from the European provinces. Between them the Russian Cossacks and peasants squeezed the Chinese peasants out of the Amur and Ussuri valleys. In the first Russian census in 1897, 57,400 Chinese were registered. By the 1939 census only 24,755 of them remained in the USSR.

The Cossack movement was eliminated by the Soviet government and Cossack communities were declared illegal during collectivisation. The Russian far east became heavily militarised once Japan controlled Manchuria and the Soviet and Japanese armies confronted one another along the whole length of the Sino-Russian border.

After the Chinese People's Republic was formed in 1949 tens of thousands of Chinese workers were employed on contract work in the factories of the Urals, Siberia and the far east. The Sino-Soviet dispute, which began in 1956, brought this to a halt, however, and in 1958 the USSR recalled all its engineers and advisers from China, while the Chinese recalled all their workers and peasants from the USSR. Over the next 30 years the far east was turned into the most militarised part of the USSR.

In the Soviet period the far eastern economy primarily served the needs of the huge land forces of 1.5 million deployed along the border with China, the Pacific fleet (the largest in the USSR), and the many military and missile bases that were constructed along the whole eastern coast and on Sakhalin and the Kurile islands. The expenditure on this huge military infrastructure was far higher than the profits the national budget received from fishing, gold and uranium mining, those parts of the economy of the province that were of national importance. The rest of the far eastern economy, including oil, coal and agriculture, could not even satisfy local needs. Under the Soviet command economic system, the resulting problems were easily resolved: food, coal, oil and other products were imported into the area. Once the economic reforms had begun, however, and the area began to be demilitarised, it was here that the highest levels of unemployment occurred.

For the first time in 140 years there was an exodus from the far east and eastern Siberia that reached its peak in 1992 when approximately 200,000 people left the towns and villages of the area. Although the fall in production became even more severe, reaching almost 50 per cent in industry and 30 per cent in agriculture, in 1993/94 emigration slowed down. The sharp rise in rail and air fares served as a deterrent.

If the industrial development of the far east was rather rapid in the Soviet period, the agricultural base developed extremely slowly. The urban population grew 13 times larger while the rural population fell by 30 per cent. In 1988 the three southern far eastern regions with the best conditions for agriculture (and which cover 1.3 million square km and contain a population of 5 million people) produced less grain, milk and meat than Tul'skaya, the very smallest region in central Russia with an area of 26,000 square km and a population of 1.8 million people. As a result, the far east produced only 30 per cent of its food requirements. Delivering food to the far east from the west by railway or from US and Canada via the Pacific Ocean proved difficult in the new conditions of perestroika. As a result, the price of bread, meat and milk was two to three times higher in the far east than in central Russia. When the liberal practice of "open borders" with China was introduced by Gorbachev in 1991, food and other products from the north China flowed into the towns of the far east. In 1993 almost 70 per cent of the fruit and vegetables, 71 per cent of the sugar and 30 per cent of the meat consumed by the population of the Amurskaya region were imported from China. At the same time, Chinese peasants crossed the border and, without permission, began to cultivate empty land. Chinese agricultural settlements appeared not only near far eastern towns but also on the outskirts of Siberian towns, particularly near Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk. One Chinese administrator of a border province explained the situation: "We have an excess of peasant farmers, you have excess land . . . you clearly do not have enough fruit, vegetables and salad. I do not think that the Japanese or the Americans will help you more than we will. This is what our peasants are already doing, by the way."

The trade in food from China was primarily "shuttle" trade, that is, the traders were small groups and individuals, and they often bartered or accepted roubles for their goods. Gradually the Chinese also began to dominate the trade in consumer goods. In 1992-1993 about 800 Sino-Russian joint ventures and purely Chinese enterprises were registered in the far east. With a general trade turnover of $7-8 billion, China became Russia's second largest (after Germany) trade partner in 1993.

At the end of 1993 the number of Chinese immigrants in several border districts along the Ussuri river began to exceed the number of native Russians. Chinese penetration became so significant that at the beginning of 1994 the government of Russia, after Prime Minister Chernomyridin's visit to the far east, unilaterally ended the open border policy and insisted that Chinese citizens should have entry visas. A visa charge of $150 was levied, which meant that visas were beyond the reach of peasants and petty traders. At the same time, quotas were introduced which limited the number of Chinese workers who could be invited to work in factories and construction sites. The quota of Chinese workers for 1995 for the whole Maritime Province was set at 15,000 and preference was given to construction workers and vegetable farmers. The Russian authorities also began to restrict spontaneous petty barter trade, and to demand that wholesale trading deals should be registered and that goods and services be paid for through banks. The ministry of internal affairs adopted a special programme code-named "Inostranets" (foreigner), which involved the mass checking of the documents of Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese and forced deportation of those living in Russia without permission and registration.

According to press reports, about 2,000 illegal Chinese immigrants were detained in Irkutsk (some distance from the Sino-Russian border) at the beginning of October 1994. Of this number, 302 were repatriated to China, 18 were put in prison and the remainder were fined. By the beginning of October more than, 1,000 illegal Chinese immigrants, most of them petty traders, had been deported to China from the Maritime province. Checking of documents began in rural areas too. Cases were reported of Chinese peasant families who had settled in deserted army pill boxes and begun to cultivate the deforested territory of military training sites.

In 1993 President Yeltsin issued a decree on reviving the far eastern Cossack movement. The Ussuri, Amur, Kamchatka and Sakhalin Cossack communities have been recreated. By the end of 1994, however, no land had yet been allotted to Cossack families. It turned out that, unlike the Chinese settlers, Russians did not want to cultivate empty land without generous financial and technical support.

Visa restrictions and limitations on trade rapidly caused a deterioration in the financial situation of border regions. Whereas local authorities had received tens of billions of roubles for their local budgets from customs charges, the income from wholesale trade and visa charges went to the central budget. The local population, which had not long since vigorously opposed "the yellow expansion", "Chinese self-seizure of Russian land" and the "Chinese mafia", rapidly understood that the flow of food from China, to which they had become accustomed, could not be replaced by deliveries from western areas of Russia. To make matters worse, the 1994 harvest in both in the Trans-Baikal region and the far east was very poor, 60 per cent lower than the average harvest, and the number of head of cattle fell by almost half. There was a vegetable crisis in the autumn.

When the northern reaches of the Amur river froze on the Sino-Russian border, the Russian population of the Chitinskaya and Amurskaya regions found a temporary solution to their predicament. They began to construct what they called "zones of national trading" directly on the ice along the border in the middle of the river. On one side of the demarcated border the Chinese set up their trading stalls. On the other side Russian shoppers waited for them with their money and goods. In January, when the other border rivers, the Urgun' and Ussuri, freeze over, the longest bazaar in the world might appear along the ice.

The Centre for Demographic Research in Moscow has discovered another interesting trend. In 1992-94 the number of registered mixed marriages between Chinese men and Russian women increased sharply. The Chinese policy of restricting each family to a single child has increased the proportion of men in the Chinese population. There are too few women for Chinese men to marry. According to surveys, both sides are content in their mixed marriages. Simple economic and demographic factors demonstrate clearly what the Russian far east will be like in 15 to 20 years. The irony is that past overmilitarisation has made the far east defenceless to foreign penetration now that the Cold War has ended not only in the west but also in the east.

Zhores Medvedev is the author of Gorbachev (1986), Soviet Agriculture (1987) and The Legacy of Chernobyl (1990).

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