Sunday, November 19, 2006

Jotman Reader from Siberia: Flood of Chinese into Eastern Russia

A Jotman reader offers rare insights into one of the most interesting geopolitical developments in Asia -- one most Westerners are in the dark about: the migration of Chinese into Eastern Russia. Could this pose a threat to Russian sovereignty? Could it eventually lead to conflict between Russia and China? The flow of Chinese peasants and merchants into Siberia gains momentum amidst the rush to exploit Siberia's rich natural resources. The three superpowers of Asia -- China, Japan, and Russia -- each have a keen interest in what happens to the region.

In a recent posting I mentioned an Asian WSJ cover story which examined the issue. The Jotman reader from Siberia acknowledges that this is "the growing trend" and provides some historical context:
Private Chinese trade started as early as the borders opened after perestroika, in the late 80s – early 90s. Ordinary people started shuttling across the border virtually on a daily basis. A typical "kommersant" (entrepreneur) of the mid 90s would be a Russian or Chinese woman of middle age, with a couple of huge duffle bags, called "shuttle bags", stuffed with cheap clothes etc. These small person's efforts would supply everything from tape-recorders to fur coats across the entire country. That's how Chinese people learned there was a giant country, with lots of land and very little population. Soon they would start settling their open markets, farms and light industry factories in the deepest parts of Russia. As for the Russian Far East, in the mid 90s they already made a visible portion of the population.
The WSJ article showed that Russia’s trade with Europe far outweighs its trade with China. Russia’s total trade with China was less, overall, even than its trade with the Netherlands. The disparity is attributable to Russia’s oil and gas sales to Europe. The Jotman reader writes that by contrast:
Asian oil and gas transport infrastructure is still in its infancy. The great confrontation of the early 2000s – whether the pipeline would go to China or Japan, has apparently been solved for the China's benefit (not 100% sure, though). Russian-Japanese relations are still very poor. After a very enthusiastic period in the 90s, when Japanese corporations would spend huge $$$ on their cultural programs, we end up in a situation where Mitsui and other foreign companies might lose their stakes in the Sakhalin-2 oil project.
The Jotman reader says that although Japan and China both seek Russia’s natural resources, the Chinese appear to have the upper hand.
Generally, Chinese companies feel a lot more comfortable operating in Russia, than Japanese or Korean competitors. They may lack experience and resources, but Russian business and official circles usually find Chinese a lot easier to deal with. Unlike their Japanese competitors, Chinese entrepreneurs are usually very eager to learn Russian and usually take Russian names, like Vanya, Petya, Kolya etc. This is especially common in Siberia and the Far East and has a long history too. Russian belletrists Nikolay Zadornov describes peaceful coexistence of Russian and Chinese settlers and Siberian natives in the late XIX c. in his monumental novel "The Amur Saga".
Chinese have historic ties to this part of Russia, and in the past they assimilated into Soviet society:
From the sociocultural point of view, Chinese, especially the older generation, are very close to any Soviet-background group. Same Communist stuff and beliefs. Cheap Chinese labor was widely used in road construction and gold mines of Yakutia in the late XIX c. until early 1920c. In many parts of Siberia there were so many Chinese that the Red Army recruited whole Chinese regiments to fight against the White Guard in the Civil War, – a fact recognized even by the Soviet history and literature (a short story by Mikhail Bulgakov describes the life of a Chinese soldier in the Red Army). Chinese regiments were extremely fierce and violent in battle even by the measures of the Civil War. In many cases, on important missions, such as assault or bodyguard assignments) when Bolshevik leaders like Leon Trotsky could not entirely trust their Russian forces, they would deploy Chinese mercenaries.

In Yakutia (as it may be case in other Far Eastern regions), Chinese and Korean immigrants have long history. Second and third generations of Chinese immigrants became completely "yakutized" to the extent they speak Yakutian better than Russian. Yakuts and other northern indigenous people usually are quite positive towards Chinese and Korean, perhaps opposing them to Russians. Not sure if it can last if the Chinese population starts to dominate.
Recent months have seen the rise of an ugly and fervent tide of animosty on the part of Russians toward non-ethnic Russians. Some observers, such as the author of a RAND study look at whether Russian mistreatment of Chinese migrants could lead to armed conflict between the two regional powers. Does recent explosions of ethnic hostility have a bearing on the fate of Chinese migrants streaming into Russia?
The violent cities against non-Russian ethnics are Moscow, St Petersburg, and Voronezh. Less statistics is available on smaller towns in central Russia. Siberia and the Far East region are somewhat more tolerant to non-Russians, attributable to the history of relatively peaceful coexistence of the Russian settlers and the local indigenous population. These regions might also find comfort in being not like the rest of Russia, as people often like to feel being different, and more independent in their attitudes. However, tensions exist even in the safest of neighborhoods.
The author of the WSJ article quoted someone fervently opposed to Chinese immigration, but the Jotman reader indicates that he was misleadingly identified in the article:
The "Movement Against Illegal Immigration" (DPNI, or "Dvizheniye Protiv Nelegalnoy Immigratsiyi"), the WSJ refers to, has nothing to do with illegal immigration, - it is basically a radical nationalist party. Its leader Andrey Belov and other activists are largely accountable for the race provocation in Kondopoga.... DPNI has emerged as one of the most influential political movements in the last few years, fueled mostly by ordinary Russian's dislike of Caucasians (Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Chechens and Georgians) and Central Asians (Tajiks, Turkmens). Its anti-Chinese line is less significant. DPNI is not present in the Duma (Russian Parliament), but is closely affiliated with other nationalist MPs.
For analysis of how the migration of Chinese into Russia is likely to impact Russia's security interests, check out this Carnegie Moscow Centre report by Galina Vitkovskaya.

Recent developments in Russia have, for the most part, been off the Radar of the Western media. Jotman thanks this reader from Siberia for sharing his unique perspective on these developments.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.