The dragon no longer is the little brother

The population of Russia is declining fast. In the Far East, only six million Russians are left. At the other side of the border, hundreds of millions of Chinese are packed together in the northern provinces of the People’s Republic. Is the Chinese dragon a threat for the Russian bear?

  • Kristof Clerix WHERE TWO WORLD POWERS MEET: on the one river bank the Russian city of Blagoveschensk; behind the Amur river the Chinese city of Heihe. Kristof Clerix

‘Good news’. That’s the literal translation of Blagoveschensk, a border city with 200.000 inhabitants in Russia’s Far East. Because of its strategic position, outsiders weren’t allowed to visit Blago during the Cold War. The distance to China? Only 800 meters, the natural border is the Amur river. At the other side of the river bank: the Chinese city of Heihe.

In Soviet times, when Russia was called the ‘big brother’ of China, young Chinese boys used to drop their pants down when they saw Russians passing by in a boat. The toilets on the river banks were directed towards Blago, without walls that is. But those days are long gone. Today, Russia and China maintain friendly relations. And that’s not the only thing that has changed. On the once empty bank at the Chinese side of the Amur, in only twenty years a bright skyline of shiny skyscrapers has appeared.

While the twilight slowly descends over the 3645 kilometer long border between Russia and China, Sergey Olontsev and his fiancee saunter along the newly constructed promenade near the Amur river. Olontsev wrote a phd on the relation between Chinese and Russian companies in the border region. ‘Along the bank of the Amur, one can notice very well the speed of China’s economic development’ says Olontsev. ‘Only in 1992, Heihe got the status of a city, before that it was just a village. But today its development is clear: 150.000 people live in the centre and 2 million in the outskirts. The speed at which Heihe is developing, can be compared to that of other Chinese cities. Where its border position at first was necessary in order to develop, Heihe meanwhile has all the capacity to do that atonomously –focused at the interior Chinese demand and independent of trade with Russia.’

Russian without an accent

Blago is situated in the Amur region, a region with 800.000 inhabitants and winter temperatures of down to minus 30 degrees Celcius. The past decade, a fifth of the population has left the region, looking for better living conditions elsewhere. At the other side of the border, the northern Chinese province of Heilong Jiang has almost fourty million inhabitants.

China may be next door, in the streets of Blagoveschensk only few Chinese people can be spotted. Still they are there. According to official statistics, today about 23.000 Chinese live in the Amur region, half of that number in Blago. As cheap labour force the Chinese fill the shortage of workers in the agricultural and construction sector. Chinese entrepreneurs also run a brick factory and a brewery nearby and own a number of shopping centres here. According to Russian media, in 2010 Chinese investers pumped two billion euro in the Russian Far East, three times as much as the Russian government invested here. Also Blago’s highest building, hotel Asia (at the reception clocks show the local time in Moscow and Beijing) is owned by a filthy rich Chinese entrepreneur. His company, Hoa Fu, also runs a shopping centre at the other side of the river.

Two blocks down hotel Asia, Chinese merchants are selling cheap stuff –mainly textiles and shoes– at the Chinese market. ‘Five years ago, there were many more Chinese merchants at this market, but Moscow restricted the Chinese labor migration. Some Russians fear that the Chinese will come and take over this place, as the Far East is not so densely populated. Fortunately, only a minority thinks like that’, says Zhao Xin (23). The Chinese student came to Blago ten years ago, following her father who worked here as a translator in the agriculture sector. She speaks Russian nearly without an accent, it’s been long since she’s got used to the Russian cuisine (‘except for the raw meat’) and now and then she visits the banja –the Russian sauna– with some fellow students. Zhao Xin says she feels good in Russia. At the same time, whe listens to the Chinese radio and goes once on holidays to China once a year.

‘Social facilities such as medical services are better in Russia then in China, as the population is much smaller’, says Zhao Xin. ‘Elderly people get free health care, not so in China. In Russia, pensioneers can travel by public transport for free. Also the education is better in Russia –at least until today. On the other hand, life is cheaper in China. With the same monthly salary one can buy much more in China.’ According to Zhao Xin, the average salary in her home town Harbin –the capital of the Heilong Jiang province– is about 4000 renminbi (500 euro), about the same as in Blago. Zhao Xin: ‘In cities like Shanghai, it’s even three times more.’

Gambling capital

Framed pictures of students taking part in an exchange programme or doing their internship in China cheer the walls of professor Lyudmila Ponkratova’s office. She heads the sub department World Economy at the Amur State University. One of the corner stones of the cooperation between Russia and China, says Pontkratova, is the Treaty of Good Neighbourhood, Friendship and Cooperation (2001). After ten years, it bears fruits. The bilateral trade between both countries has risen up to about fifty billion euro, the sevenfold of a decade ago. Pontkratova: ‘The aim is to increase that number to 75 billion by 2015 and to 150 billion by 2020. If the present trend continues, those estimates are realistic.’

Russia mainly exports natural resources to China, accounting for almost sixty per cent of the export. Next to that, it also exports metals (ten per cent), timber (eight per cent), products of the chemical industry, foodstuffs and a small share machinery (for the electricity sector and the military industry). China exports machinery and devices (fourty per cent) and –of course– all kinds of consumer products. Pontkratova: ‘Shoes, toys, televisions, iPods, but also e.g. furniture made out of Russian wood.’

‘When you compare China and Russia in terms of gdp per capita, then Russia is still ahead of China’, says Olga Vasilyeva, professor International Economy and colleague of Pontkratova. ‘But actually one shouldn’t compare the countries as such, but better should compare regions within the countries. The west of China and the east of Russia are poor. But cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Moscow, that’s a different story.’

Vasilyeva knows the economical challenges of the Far East all too well. ‘The population density is very low in this region, as a result of which you don’t have the advantages of schale economy. On top of that, the infrastructure is very poor. If you want to set up a production facility here, you have to start from zero.’ Solution: investments. Vasilyeva: ‘But to attract investers, you have to be able to guarantee them that their property rights will be protected. And that’s a problem –for the whole of Russia by the way.’

Still Vasilyeva believes that the Amur region has a future. ‘Notably as a transport hub. If we want to diversify our economy and not only be dependent of gas and oil, then that could be a direction. Bottom line is we need another growth model. But our political system doesn’t allow that development. It cripples people who want to take initiative. Every attempt to grow from below is being undermined.’

Vasilyeva is very critical of Moscow’s policy regarding the Amur region. ‘A few years ago, Blago was a gambling capital, nicknamed Blago-Vegas. Chinese people used to come over to Blago for a few days to gamble. Then Moscow changed the policy and abolished all the casinos in this region. The Russian authorities claimed that this was to keep Russians away from gambling; but at the same time we lost an export industry.’

Nowhere in Russia the support for United Russia –the party of prime minister Putin and president Medvedev– is so low as in the Amur region, Vasilyeva says. ‘But whether that will also show during the upcoming elections, that’s a totally different question.’

Drills and vibrators

Elbows kicking left and right. In front of the Russian customs office at the bank of the Amur, some 150 Russians are pushing their way to the customs official at the counter. The older the babushka’s, the more brave the efforts to make it first. Everybody wants to get a place on the boat to the Chinese border city Heihe, as soon as possible. The Russians –wearing hats and winter coats– don’t need a visum for China, as Blago and a part of Heihe are a kind of free trade zone. Most of the Russians use the trip to buy Made In China-stuff, for “personal use”. That is: to sell in Russia.

‘I’m going to Heihe as a tourist’, says Sergey (23), as the boat silently moves away from the river bank. The young Russian man works as a security guard and earns something extra by importing products from China. ‘For personal use, one can take two bags of twelve kilo back to Russia. I buy e.g. an iPhone in China for 4000 renminbi (500 euro), and then sell it in Russia for 30.000 rubles (650 euro). A counterfeit iPhone costs 400 renminbi (50 euro) in Heihe.’ According to Sergey, about all the Russians on this ship are going to China in order to buy stuff they later want to sell in Russia. ‘Not on the market, but from hand to hand.’

Immaculate boulevards, shining skyscrapers, everything looks brand-new in Heihe. Blago, on the other side of the river, suddenly makes a gloomy and monotonous impression. Next to the Chinese customs office, there’s an enormous shopping centre with three floors, tiny hallways and TL-lights. Flashy signs all over the place, name boards in Chinese and Cyrillic characters. Anything is for sale: counterfeit Kipling bagpacks and Adidas shoes, fishing equipment and guitars, cameras and dvd’s, qwerty laptops and pineapple tea, drills and vibrators, Russian (!) matrioshka dolls, a life-size statue of Mao Zedong, samurai swords, car bumpers… The merchants welcome visitors with ‘druga’, a Chinese variation of the Russian word ‘druk’ (friend). One can pay in renminbi but also in rubles. Bargaining seems to be the national sports. 

Ten people –and not a single person more– fit in the hovercraft back to Blago. Big plastic bags full of Made In China-stuff are towered up to the roof. The door is blocked by a teddy bear of at least 1,5 meter tall. Crossing the river only takes two minutes. Packed and ready, the Russians pass the customs office through the ‘Nothing to declare’ entrance. Only China seems to win from this trade. Then who cares about the fact that Chinese people from Heihe do need a visum for Blago?

Toyota world

Nowhere in Russia the support for United Russia –the party of prime minister Putin and president Medvedev– is as low as in the Amur region. ‘But whether that will also show during the upcoming elections, that’s a totally different question.’
The taxi ride from the airport to the centre of Vladivostok takes as long as the flight from Blago to Vladivostok. The city is one big construction site. Roadworks and traffic jams all over the place. Vladivostok is preparing for the APEC summit of 2012, an important meeting of 21 countries along the Pacific.

Two megalomaniac projects have to be finished by the beginning of the APEC summit: a cable bridge over the Golden Horn bay (price tag: eighteen billion rubles –almost 500 million euro) and a bridge connecting the mainland to the Russki island, where the summit will take place. The bridges under construction are the new trademarks of Vladivostok.

As an engineer, Yuri Tyunyagin (29) is involved in the construction of the bridge to Russki island. ‘The pillars are no less then 320 metres high, and the bridge will span 1920 metres. The Russian authorities want to show the Chinese, the Korean and the Japanese: “We have the money to build these kind of bridges. We’re here and we will not leave this city behind.” Don’t forget the Kremlin is far away from here. With the legendary Trans Siberian Railroad, it takes at least a week to make the 9288 kilometre trip from Moscow to Vladivostok.

When Moscow goes to sleep, Vladivostok awakens. Tyunyagin, who lives in Moscow, feels in Vladivostok as if he’s in another world. ‘Something that immediately stroke me here in the Far East, is that people still use bills of ten rubles. Those bills are hard to find, in Moscow they have been replaced by coins long time ago. One also can’t neglect the Asiatic influences here, both in the Asiatic juices automats and in the traffic. Vladivostok is a Toyota world.’

During many years, the import of second hand cars from Japan –steering wheel on the right hand side– was a major source of income for Vladivostok. When Moscow recently decided to drastically increase the import taxes on foreign cars in order to stimulate its own car industry, street protests broke out in Vladivostok. Riot police was sent from Moscow in order to calm down the crowd. It’s just one of the reasons why Putin and Medvedev are called ‘thieves’ and ‘idiots’ in public here.

Like Blago also Vladivostok (literally: ‘Conquer the east’) used to be a closed city during the Cold War. No trespassing for foreigners. Even Russians had to ask a special permission to visit Vladivostok. The reason? The strategic location of the port city and the presence of the Pacific fleet of the Russian navy. Today, the military ships are still stationed here. If you’re lucky, you might even see a submarine popping out of the port.

When in 1922 the Soviet reached the Far East, all foreign ships in the port of Vladivostok were nationalised. Only Soviet ships were allowed in the port. In those days, the ministries of Transport and Fisheries were in charge in Vladivostok. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, twenty years ago, the port opened its gates again for foreign companies. In 2010, the trade between Vladivostok and China amounted up to two billion euro. 

Not as spicy as in China

At the monument for the Fighters of the Soviet Power, located at the central Revolution square in front of the port, communists are handing out free newspapers. Babushkas sell fresh vegetables at the Saturday market. Suddenly the buzz of the merchants is silenced by the Last Post, resounding over the bay. Also in the modern shopping centres, people come and go. Striking: also in Vladivostok there are almost no Chinese people in the streets. To spot Chinese, one has more chance at the Chinese market, some fifteen minutes outside of the city centre. The market opens every morning at ten and is very popular among the Russians.

The market square looks like so many markets in former Soviet republics: plastic tents and barracks against a background of a gray, somewhat industrial site. A young Chinese in his twenties, originating from the Chinese border city Kuntchung, is busy arranging shoes and counting shoe boxes. His name is Lian, but he introduces himself as Sergey –much easier to pronounce here. Since a good year, Lian is living and working in Vladivostok. Lian: ‘I’m young and I wanted to know an other country. I’m here for the experience. I could make about the same money in China as I do here in Russia, although in general Russians do have a better salary.’ The average monthly wage in Vladivostok is some 10.000 to 15.000 rubles (250-375 euro). Lian describes the situation of Chinese in Vladivostok as ‘normalne’, good. ‘We work, and we don’t spend money on going out or other unimportant things.’

Pink TL-lights, golden wallpaper, shiny floor tiles, kitchy columns with mirrors. Above Lian’s shop, a Chinese lady runs the New Century, a restaurant/karaoke bar. The menu offers Chinese dishes, ‘but not as spicy as in China’. While young Chinese waitresses in elegant uniforms are preparing the tables for lunch, Galina (54) takes a sip from her green tea. Also Galin sells stuff at the market and now and then organises touristic trips to Chinese border cities. Galina: ‘I expect the relation with China to further improve in the future. We need each other. We “feed” them: China gives us stuff, we give them money. Without Russia, China wouldn’t know how to get rid of all its goods.’

The yellow danger

According to Vladimir Saprykin, head of the International Relations department of the city of Vladivostok, today about 25.000 Chinese live in his city (Vladivostok in total has 800.000 inhabitants). Saprykin: ‘They mainly work in construction, trade and agriculture. Strikingly, there are only very few mixed Sino-Russian marriages, just a handful every year. The Chinese come to Vladivostok to work, and afterwards return back to their country.’ This phenomenon of living-apart-from-each-other is not reflected in the urban architecture. ‘We don’t have one Chinatown where everybody is living together. The Chinese are spread all over the city, usually close to their working place.’

In the 19th century, Vladivostok did have a Chinese neighbourhood. The historical Arseniev museum  even dedicates a full room to the so called historical Chinese Miljonka quarter. ‘In those days, the Chinese used to work as street sellers, hairdressers, shoemakers… They even had their own theater’, says museum director Viktor Shalay. ‘But in 1930, Stalin kicked all Chinese out. He didn’t want any foreign influence or espionage in this region. Only as from 1992, when Vladivostok again opened its gates for foreigners, the Chinese started to return.’

Chalay is not worried about a possible mass influx of Chinese people. ‘The population of the north of China has always outnumbered the one of the Russian Far East. Already in the 19th century, scientists tried to assess the risk of that demographic imbalance.’ China and Russia have a long history of mutual relations, the museum director stresses. ‘And in that history, there has been more place for friendship than for conflict.’

‘Still, do not underestimate the Chinese’, professor Andrei Aleksandrov warns. He works as a historian at the Federal University of the Far East. Aleksandrov: ‘It’s not part of the Chinese traditions to invade other countries directly. But there’s a Chinese saying that goes: “Eat the land of your neighbours like a worm eats the leaves of a tree.” Step by step. The relations between China and Russia are only 400 years old. But forming the Chinese identity has already taken over 5000 years. The Chinese can wait. Slowly but surely, the Chinese are advancing. Give them another hundred or two hundred years.’


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Chronology of Sino-Russian relations

2011 – According to president Dmitri Medvedev, the relations with China have never been so good as today. Moscow and Beijing announce they want to increase their bilateral trade up to 150 billion euro in 2020. Medvedev and his Chinese colleague Hu Jintao state that ‘deepening the mutual relations’ is a priority in their foreign policy. The two countries strive for a ‘fair and rational global architecture’ in the UN Security Council, the G20, the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They also plead for a ‘strict adherence to the norms of international law’ –an indirect message for the United States and Nato.

2010 – Medvedev and Hu Jintao meet six times. Russia and China sign an agreement on gas deliveries to China for the next thirty years. The discussion about the gas prices remains ongoing however.

2009 – Three thousand Russian and Chinese soldiers take part in a common military exercise of five days, officially focused at counter terrorism. / The Russian Migration Service hands over an alarming report to the Duma, accusing neighbouring countries of expansionist plans.

2008 – Russia and China settle their long lasting border dispute.

2007 – Russia tightens its migration legislation. A number of Chinese merchants have to leave the country.

2006 – Russian arms exports to China decrease to almost zero –according to analysts because of Russia’s fear that China would copy its technology.

2001 – The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is set up by China, Russia and four other countries. / Russia and China sign the Treaty for Good Neighbourhood, Friendship and Cooperation.

1996 – Presidents Boris Jeltsin and Jiang Zemin set up a strategic partnership.

1991 – Implosion of the Soviet Union. Thaw in the relations between Russia and China. As a result of a European arms embargo against China, Russia becomes China’s most important arms supplier.

1969 – During the Chinese Russian border conflict over the Damanski island, several hundreds of people get killed.

Sixties– After a decade of cooperation, the relation between the two communist super powers ends up in ideological disputes. Moscow takes distance from the personal cult around Stalin –much to Mao’s annoyance. Until the end of the eighties, the relation between China and the Soviet Union is characterised by minimal interaction and mutual hostility. 

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