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By Vladimir Radyuhin
RUSSIA'S LATEST census has produced a bombshell result: over the past decade, the Chinese have emerged as the fastest growing ethnic minority in Russia. While official data of the October 2002 census will be published only next month, preliminary figures leaked to the press show that Russia's Chinese population has grown from just over 5,000 in the late 1980s to 3.26 million today. This makes the Chinese the fourth biggest ethnic group in this country after Russians (104.1 million), Tatars (7.2 million) and Ukrainians (5.1 million) all indigenous inhabitants of Russia. More than three-fourths of Chinese immigrants have settled down in Siberia and the Far East.
The census results lend chilling reality to Russia's age-old nightmare of a Chinese takeover of the Asian part of Russia. Eighteen million Russians scattered across the India-size expanse of the Far East and Siberia face 250 million Chinese cramped across a common border in China's northern provinces. In the past the huge Chinese demographic pressure was contained by a tightly sealed barbed-wire border, but when the Soviet Union collapsed the 4,300-km Russian-Chinese border was thrown open to bilateral trade. Chinese traders poured in to sell clothes and other necessities to Russians struggling with a deep economic crisis and take back to China Russian timber, scrap metal, ginseng roots, frogs, jellyfish and what not. New glittering towns have sprung up in recent years on the Chinese side of the border thanks to the booming cross-border trade, while Russian border regions have remained stagnant.
Russia's main Pacific port and naval base of Vladivostok, once closed to foreigners, today is bristling with Chinese markets, restaurants and trade houses. The former Mayor of Vladivostok, Viktor Cherepkov, estimates that Chinese businessmen control 30 to 40 per cent of the economy in the Far East and 100 per cent of its light industry. Russian officials concede that the region needs Chinese workers to compensate for a shrinking local population. "We face a bad shortage of manpower as Russians are leaving the Far East by the million," complains the presidential representative in the Far East, Konstantin Pulikovsky.
The problem is not confined to the Far East. Russia's population is declining at a rate of close to a million people a year and may shrink by 30 per cent from today's 145 million to 101.9 million by the end of 2050, according to the State Statistics Committee. The country needs millions of foreign workers from the former Soviet Republics to keep the economy ticking. However, in no other part of Russia has there been such a massive influx of migrants from such a powerful neighbour. Experts predict that the Chinese community in Russia will swell at least to 10 million by 2010. Interestingly, Beijing's main condition for supporting Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organisation is to give Chinese labour free access to the Russian market.
"The Chinese have used various ways to legalise their presence in Russia, including through mixed marriages, and gained economic foothold by acquiring considerable assets in a number of Russian regions," said the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service, Andrei Chernenko.
The Russians are particularly concerned over the emergence of compact Chinese settlements on Russian territory. "Foreigners who obtain residence status get the right to vote. It is easy to guess who they will elect if they live in a compact ethnic community of 3,000 or 10,000," the migration chief, Mr. Chernenko, said, describing such communities as a "ticking timebomb".
The history of Chinese territorial claims to Russia feeds Russian fears of a demographic invasion. The Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, were both on record as saying that the Russians had taken too much territory and that Vladivostok and Khabarovsk by right should be Chinese. Chinese tribes had settled in the Far East long before the Russians came there. However, the region was never part of the Chinese empire, and when Russia established its control over the Far East in the mid-19th century, it signed a treaty with the Chinese emperor asserting Russian sovereignty over the region.
After two decades of "eternal friendship", the two countries fought a short but bitter border battle in 1969 when Chinese troops occupied a Russian island on the Amur River and the Russians fired Grad multi-barrel missiles to wipe out the intruders. In 1997 Russia and China signed a border demarcation accord, which settled most of their border disputes except over three islands on the borderline rivers. As gruelling negotiations over the disputed islands continue, the Chinese have been spotted trying to link their territory with the islands by dropping rocks into the river and sinking sand-filled barges in order to have more grounds for claiming the islands.
Two years ago Russia and China concluded a 20-year political treaty that declared the two countries "friends forever, enemies never". The treaty stated for the first time that the two sides had no territorial claims to each other's land. Russia is the only country with which China has such a treaty, and this is a reflection of its foreign policy doctrine, which calls for "relying on the North (Russia), stabilising the West (India), and concentrating on the East (Taiwan) and the South (Spratly Islands)." Russia also needs China as a geo-strategic partner and a vast market for Russian weapons, commodities and manufactured goods.
Yet Russians remain suspicious of China's longer-term intentions. Chinese historians continue to denounce the current borders as unfair and imposed on China by Russia in the 19th century, and Chinese children are still being taught in school that Russia took away the Far East from China by force.
Even though China, like India, is officially rated as Russia's "strategic partner", it does not have unrestricted access to the top-of-the-line Russian weapons India has.
While a Chinese military threat to Russia appears remote, Chinese demographic expansion is seen as a real danger. Russia has cancelled visa-free travel for Chinese traders that was introduced to encourage border trade after the break-up of the Soviet Union and has imposed new restrictions on the Chinese trying to settle permanently in Russia. The Khabarovsk Region Governor, Viktor Ishayev, has banned granting citizenship to Chinese men who marry Russian women, even though foreigners have this option under federal legislation, while authorities in Russia's easternmost Sakhalin Island have restored the Soviet-era border checkpoints to prevent illegal Chinese migrants from getting to the island from mainland Russia. However, these measures are ineffective, and demographers predict that the Chinese may become the dominant ethnic group in the region in 20 to 30 years from now.
"The situation is not hopeless but very dangerous," says the Minister for Economic Development and Foreign Trade of the Khabarovsk Region, Alexander Levental. "If things remain as they are and the regime for Chinese migrants is not tightened, several decades from now they will be in a position to vote in a referendum for acceding to China."
Experts say it is not Chinese immigration as such, but de-industrialisation and progressive depopulation that threaten Russia's hold on Eastern Siberia and the Far East. "The matter isn't one of someone causing a military threat to Russia in this region, though under certain circumstances this could happen," says the well-known political analyst, Andrei Piontkovsky. "The problem is that if current trends continue, these territories will drift away of their own accord first economically and then demographically... The main security issue today, and perhaps the key to Russia's survival in the first half of the 21st century, is whether Russia can hold on to its territory in Siberia and the Far East."
The thoughtless shock reforms of the past decade have hit the Far East worse than the rest of Russia and have all but cut it off from the industrial centres of European Russia. Only 10 per cent of the region's economic ties today are with other Russian regions, as sky-high rail and air tariffs have forced Russian eastern provinces to turn to China, Korea and Japan for supplies. While elsewhere Russians drive left-hand-wheel cars, in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Irkutsk they have long switched to right-hand-drive Japanese cars.
There are indications that the Federal Government is finally awakening to the problem. It has drawn up a programme of economic reconstruction of the region to be driven by the development of rich energy and mineral resources and the building of a rail transport corridor from Eastern Asia to Europe. The Government is also trying hard to attract Japanese, American and other foreign capital to the region. During a visit to the Far East last year the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, urged local authorities to do more to revive the economy.
"If people here will not regenerate their region and economy, they will all be speaking Chinese or some other Asian language," Mr. Putin warned.
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