Leering Bear, Rising Dragon: Life Along the Sino-Russian Border


by Collin Spears, BFPR Chief Foreign Policy Correspondent Washington, D.C.


The Chinese government declared 2006, The “Year of Russia”; and in turn, Russia celebrated 2007 as “The Year of China.” These mutual pronouncements were part of a decade long rapprochement between the two states. After many years of mutual acrimony and suspicion the barriers that divide the two nations have abated, replaced by a bridge of pragmatism. This new relationship, based on mutual resentment of global Western dominance and a shared interest in Central Asian security; has an unintended consequence: both nations are seeing increased economic interaction on their border. Conversely, this contact has fed lingering paranoia and insecurity in Russia, a former great power that is seeing itself eclipsed economically and politically by China, a state it once considered a “little brother.” Less then a decade ago, this was reflected in an ominous warning given by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, ”If we don’t make concrete efforts…the future local population will speak Japanese, Chinese or Korean” (Wines 2001). Currently, the Russian political elite are not publicly expressing fear of territorial encroachment and potential colonization, but these attitudes are increasing in the general population. This xenophobic sentiment is an outgrowth of reawakened Russian nationalism, which has served as a swathe for the disillusionment that came from loss of empire. However, to have a truly constructive engagement with China, Russia must move beyond its historic tendency to loath any nation along its periphery it cannot dominate.

Eastward Russian expansion at the expense of China began hundreds of years of suspicion and animosity between the two nations. In August of 1689, Imperial Russia and the Chinese Qing Dynasty signed their first treaty over land disputes in the modern Russian Far East, which was formerly part of China. Almost three-hundred years later, under the new political incarnations of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, conflict along the 4,300km (2,700 mile) border renewed due to ideological clashes between the two communist states. At the height of tensions, the Soviet Union had as many as 700,000 troops on the border, adjacent to a million Chinese soldiers (Blagov 2005). A few years before, during the reign of Joseph Stalin, the Soviets repatriated many Chinese still living in the border area or deported them to Central Asia Republics. Chinese leaders, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, openly bemoaned the amount of territory China had lost to Russia historically; land the Chinese believe was unfairly stolen. Nonetheless, in 1989 the Soviet Union and China normalized relations and reduced the militarization on the border by 1991.

In July of 2008, Beijing and Moscow resolved their last long-standing territorial dispute near the Amur and Ussuri rivers in the Russian Far East. The two nations finalized the transfer of 337 square kilometers (~130 square miles), 2% of land on the border area of the Russian Far East, from Russian to Chinese control. The Far East is about 37% of Russia’s territory, stretching from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean, bordering China, North Korea, and Japan. This concession was highly unpopular in Russia. Ekho Moskvy Radio conducted an opinion poll that found 82% of the listeners opposed the border agreement (Blagov 2005). This is in spite of Russian official’s attempts to assure the public that the land deal would not hurt Russian interests in the region.

Mutual Benefit

The cessation of border tensions has been lucrative for both sides. Over the last decade, there has been an eight-fold increase in trade between the two nations, from $5.7 billion in 1999 to $48 billion in 2007; almost 1/3 of that trade was along the borders (Mitchell 2007), (World Tribune 2009). Russia’s goods are primarily commodities and primary manufactured products, whereas the Chinese traded in textile; light manufactured goods; and low-end electronic. In 2005, China was Russia’s fourth largest trading partner and Russia was China’s eighth, still this was not even 10% of either countries total trade (Mitchell 2007). In 2006, Russian foreign direct investment in China was $1.4 billion, while China had $1 billion invested in Russia (Mitchell 2007). This was about 5% of China’s total outbound FDI for that year (Wang etc al. 2008).

Increased trade has not just resulted in the movement in goods, but also population. Chinese nationals began crossing the Russian border when it opened to tourism in 1991. About 90% of Chinese tourist overstayed their visas; they entered the labor market, migrated to third countries, or became traders (World Tribune 2009). Today, up to 400,000 Chinese live on the Russian side of the border, but because many of them are illegal aliens, this is only an estimate (Karlin 2009). The majority of these immigrants are from Heilongjiang and the surrounding northeast China rustbelt (Dongbei). Few of them are fluent in Russian and most live in-country less than 5 years, typically in socially segregated communities (Chinatowns). Currently, Chinese make up about 20% of all temporary Russian labor (Karlin 2009). The average salary of a Chinese worker is roughly $100 a month or half the typical Russian salary, but still higher than what they could earn at home (World Tribune 2009).

Due to the fall in subsidies from Moscow and the closing of Soviet era factories, many Russian border areas are heavily dependent on clothes, electronics, and food sales from China (Feifer 2008). Russians buy these goods in open-air markets from the Chinese, because store prices, especially in big cities, are some of the world’s most expensive, despite the fact the average Russian earns only $16,000 a year (Purchasing Power Parity). Because Far Eastern Russians are so dependent on these markets, there are routine intimate relations between the two groups. Frequent interaction is likely the reason for Russians in the region having more favorable attitudes toward Chinese immigrants than those that live in the European part of the country. There is also a significantly lower amount of physical violence and verbal threats directed toward the Chinese in the Far East than in Western Russia (Karilin 2009). Still, contact is not a panacea. Chen Gopin, the Chinese consul general in Khabarovsk remarked, “When things don’t work, they all scream, ‘The wolves are coming, the wolves are coming’ — and the wolves are Chinese…this isn’t even hidden anymore. They all talk about the Chinese expansion” (Feifer 2008).

Russian Reaction

Despite the benefits to trade, the increased number of Chinese in Russia has been a catalyst for traditional Russian xenophobia, as expressed in public resentment and security concerns, a trend heightened by the reality of the ethnic Russian demographic decline. The average salary of a Chinese immigrant is low, but the conspicuous economic dynamism they generate and the investment that often follows them from China makes clear the reality of a changing balance of power in the region. In 1990, the economic outputs of China and the Soviet Union were comparative. By 2000, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was four times that of Russia and only declined to 3.5 times in 2008, due to the benefit Russia gained from surging commodity prices, which have since collapsed (Wines 2001), (CIA Fact Book 2009).

The first to sound alarms about the supposed growing “Yellow Peril” and the threat of “Sinification (Kitaizatsiia)” were the governors of Siberia and the Russian Far Eastern territories, the military, and the Russian media. The 1999 statements of a Cossack Army Chieftain serves as an example of the fear in some quarters,The ‘yellow peril’ is rising…We see the overpopulation of the neighboring nation. They will come here, give birth to multitudes of slit-eyed people and then claim political autonomy…. Even if we shoot and kill a million Chinese a year, this problem won’t go away” (Alexseev et al. 2006). The feeling some Russians have of being “outnumbered” will only increase with time as the ratio of Chinese to Russians on the border increases.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s population has staidly dropped, falling by 12 million between 1992 and 2008 (Ferris-Rotman 2009). The averagemale life expectancy is only 59 years-old, with the average female living to 72 years-old (Weir 2002). The birth rate is far below the replacement level of 2.4 babies per woman, sitting at 1.1 (Weir 2002).The low life expectancy of men is due to drug and alcohol abuse and violent death, whereas low birth rate is attributed the high education level of women, poor prenatal care, and sexually transmitted diseases (Levy 2009). The United Nations predicts that by 2050, Russia’s population will have drop by 18%, to 116 million. This would leave the ethnic Russians population a religious and ethnic minority as compared to the combined number of other ethnicities in the nation (Mainville, 2006). Contrasted with the bordering Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang; Liaoning; and Jilin, which have 110 million people, the Russian Far East, at 6.6 million people, is sparsely populated (Johnson 2009). To make matters worse, Russian Far East population has declined by 14% from 1989 to 2008, faster than most other regions (Karlin 2009), (Levy 2009). This decline will continue at a fast rate, because residents of the Far East are out-migrating to European Russia due to lack of job opportunities.

In the past decade, Russia’s elite has become less vocal about the potential threat of China, but some observers point to Russian actions. The Russian government has created a second joint military grouping of defense forces and has built up internal security troop in the Far East. There is little reason for Russia to place such resources so far removed from areas that had been traditional security concerns, such as the Caucuses and the border with Eastern Europe.Military sales and technology transfers have always been a point of contention between the two nations, China has been a boon to the Russian military industry over the last decade, buying over $2 billion a year or 40 percent of Russia’s total arms sales. Yet, Russia remains cautious in selling China its more complex weapons systems for fear of Chinese reverse engineering and a potential military threat from China (Johnson 2009). The Chinese neutrality in the Georgian-Russian conflict of 2008 has caused some rumbling in Moscow as to the nature of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership (Bin 2008). More recently, the Russian military sank a Chinese owned civilian vessel off the coast of Vladivostok, killing 13. This incident has caused more friction between the two nations (World Tribune 2009).

National polls conducted by the Levada Analytical Center, revealed that the Russian public has been quite responsive to the elite’s China hysteria. The number of respondents who wanted to restrict the legal and illegal immigration of Chinese in Russia rose from 39 percent to 46 percent in one year, 2004 to 2005 (Alexseev et al. 2006). This anti-immigrant attitude is also reflected in the rise of racial hate crimes (Baker 2003). In 2008, the Kremlin responded with new laws baring foreigners from trading in open markets, locations that had been the seen of anti-immigrant riots over supposed price gouging in 2007. This did not come without problems;the Chinese filled a market niches, so blocking them from legally trading only decreased the amount of goods available to Russian consumers (Kramer 2007).


Russia will have to come to the realization that China will be its equal and its neighbor, a situation that Russians historically have found intolerable. As of now, Russia can do three things to improve the situation in the Far East, diversify its trade position with China, realize that its security is not dependent solely on a large ethnic Russian population and conventional military, and create a comprehensive immigration program that includes Chinese traders.

Although China is facing water shortages and will need inordinate amounts of resources to keep its economy growing, there is no evidence the Chinese government is purposefully moving “settler populations” into Russia to prepare for impending annexation of the Far East or Siberia. In addition, China has shown no interest in territorial expansion since the Qing Dynasty. For the last decade, China’s primary interest has been to secure a stable border to its West and North, where it can gain access to energy supplies and expand its political and economic reach into East and Southeast Asia. Any move at colonization by China could result in a very destruction war that could become nuclear.In fact, Russia’s vast nuclear deterrent is its security guarantee for the region, as China has proved to be a rational actor.

Nonetheless, Twenty-five years from now it will be highly unlikely Russia will be able to maintain its industries and agriculture in the region, if it continues down the current demographic path. Moscow’s solution to this problem has been to attempt to raise birthrates through appeals to nationalism. The government has also proposed the creation of re-population programs and economic development. One program aims to draw ethnic Russians from former Soviet Republics to the region. Russian officials estimate that more than 25 million people were eligible (Levy 2009). It is implausible that Russia can attract enough of these people to a region like the Far East, especially in the current economic climate, that would halt or reverse the population decline (Weir 2002).

Constant reaction to chronic problems will not provide long-term solutions. Russia will need a comprehensive immigration plan that involves Central Asians, Chinese, and ethnic Russians. Russia should expand its outreach in the former Soviet Republic to all citizens. These groups have a much smaller cultural distance with Russians, as compared to the Chinese, and no large amount of ethnic kin that lives opposite them across border. This might make Russians feel more secure.To attract these people to the region, there must be service and high end manufacturingindustries, where they can work, designed to export to China’s growing domestic economy. Russia should also work harder to increase cultural and economic ties between Chinese and Russian peoples, in an effort to lessen Russian public suspicions of China and East Asia in general. This should include programs to increase the acculturation of Chinese immigrants, easing their transition into Russian society. Russia must also accept that the Chinese fill a useful position in Far East society and create a formal program to encourage continued targeted immigration.


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