The 'China complex' that is haunting the Russian Far East

September 20, 2017 10:07
Chinese tourists take in the sights in Vladivostok. The enormous spending by cash-flush Chinese tourists has propelled the economy of Russia's Far Eastern region. Photo:

I have heard many people ask the same question over the years: if China was able to take back Hong Kong from the British on the grounds that the territory was ceded to Britain under an unequal treaty concluded in the 1840s, then why didn't it reclaim Vladivostok as well, which was also ceded to Russia under another unequal treaty signed in the 1860s?

It is indeed quite an interesting question, given the unique historical background of Vladivostok.

Even though the city has been officially known as “Vladivostok” ever since it became Russian territory more than one and a half century ago, today most mainland Chinese still stick to its original Chinese name, Haishenwai, when referring to the place, suggesting that even to this day, the view that “Vladivostok used to be Chinese territory” remains deeply entrenched among the Chinese.

Officially and diplomatically speaking, Beijing has already given up its claim to Vladivostok and no longer regards it as disputed territory, but China's rapidly growing economic influence in the Russian Far Eastern region in recent years did arouse quite a lot of suspicions and wariness among the Russians.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies China's burgeoning economic presence in the region more than the city of Khabarovsk, the administrative center of Russia's “Far Eastern Federal District” that is located some 800 kilometers north of Vladivostok, where Chinese capital now accounts for 45 percent of the city's total inbound foreign investment.

At present, more than 300 Chinese companies have business operations in Khabarovsk, investing in almost every major sector of the city's economy such as trade, construction, lumber and natural resources exploration.

Likewise, as the Russian government has been working aggressively to transform Vladivostok into a major tourist destination, China's economic influence can be seen everywhere in the city, such as the influx of cash-flush Chinese tourists in recent years.

The enormous spending by Chinese tourists has propelled the economy of Russia's Far Eastern region, which for decades has remained relatively less developed than European Russia.

But the fact that tens of thousands of Chinese holidaymakers and investors are flocking into the area on a daily basis has inevitably raised concerns among Russian nationalists, who suspect that this could be part of China's strategic plot to reconquer its lost territories.

Apart from tourists and businessmen, Chinese labor, both legal and illegal, is also flooding into the Russian Far East.

Although Moscow doesn't have official statistics on the number of Chinese workers in the Far Eastern region, according to the local border control authorities, between June 2016 and June 2017, an estimated 1.5 million Chinese illegal workers arrived in the region, most of whom were doing manual labor. 

We might not be able to verify these figures but they do make sense, considering that the Russian Far East is home to only seven million Russians (or just 1.3 per square kilometer), while across the border there are nearly 10 times as many people living in the northeastern region of China.

As we can imagine, it would be very difficult for the Russian authorities to halt the flow of migrant workers from China along their 4,200-kilometer-long shared border. Besides, the region that is so sparsely populated does need cheap foreign labor to sustain its economy.

As regards Chinese workers who entered the Russian Far East legally on short-term work permits, it is estimated that their current number stands at around half a million. Under normal circumstances, they are allowed to work in Russia only for a few months, but it is hard to tell how many of them have overstayed their visas.

Even though Beijing and Moscow are currently on good terms with each other, China-Russia conflicts over the region are still very much within the realms of possibility in the long run, considering the nationalist sentiments prevailing in both countries.

For example, the recently much-talked-about screenplay by the Russian nationalist movie director Nikita Mikhalkov about “China's invasion of the Russian Far East” is to a certain extent a reflection of the growing anxiety in Russian society about the potential threat posed by China.

Meanwhile, Russian Far Eastern authorities have been toughening up border security measures against illegal Chinese migrant workers in recent months.

In fact, both Russian and Chinese leaders need to take very seriously the possibility of conflict between their countries over the region in the long run.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 19

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal