Vienna, April 15 – A clash between Chinese and Russian students in the far eastern city of Vladivostok earlier today throws into high relief growing Russian worries about China and especially Chinese immigration into that under-populated region of the Russian Federation – and also about the inability of Russian authorities to calm them.
According to regional media outlets and Ekho Moskvy, about 40 Chinese students at the Far Eastern Technical University and somewhat fewer ethnic Russian students from the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service clashed, leaving at least seven seriously injured (www.edrus.org/content/view/8455/53/).
The local authorities quickly intervened to separate the two groups, detaining some from both, according to these preliminary reports. And while the precise causes of the clash are still under investigation, such a fight and the coverage it attracted point to increased tensions between the two ethnic groups.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians in Siberia, the Far East and European Russian have been concerned that Chinese guest workers and traders will move into Russia beyond the Urals in such numbers that Moscow will not be able to hold the region within the borders of the Russian Federation.
Both politicians and commentators have played up this “threat” to the point that the exact numbers of ethnic Chinese there are hotly disputed. Some Russian writers insist that there are five million or more Chinese there, but that number almost certainly includes day traders and short-term visitors.
The real number of Chinese living and working in the Russian Far East is certainly far smaller, but both their distinctive physiognomy and tendency to live in Chinese-majority neighborhoods in many cities have attracted enormous attention and concern, especially given the continuing decline in the number of ethnic Russians there.
Last week, Baikalskiye vesti organized a roundtable on “Chinese expansionism,” noting that “rumors are circulating ever more widely” about the rising tide of Chinese immigrants and about possible “military moves by China” there. (www.politirkutsk.ru/index.php?subaction=showfull&id=1207612800&archive=&start_from=&ucat=1& ).
One of the participants in the roundtable, journalist Mikhail Kulekhov said that recently there had been “a wave of almost panic-filled publications” about Chinese immigration – most of which, he pointed out, were written in Moscow rather than in Siberia or the Far East.
(For an example of such alarmist thinking in the Russian capital, see the article by Aleksandr Repnikov in the current issue of “Stoletiye” which uses as its title Konstantin Leontyev’s 19th century observation that “The Chinese Are Intended to Conquer Russia” (stoletie.ru/territoriya_istorii/kitaci_naznacheni_zavoevat_rossiju_2008-04-08.htm).)
But another participant, activist Konstantin Volkov said that even if these articles were extreme, “no one should ignore” the threats from China, especially since in his words, Beijing now faces several problems which a move into the Russian Far East could help to solve.
First of all, he said, China faces a serious demographic problem: too many men relative to women, given Beijing’s one-child policy. As a result, at the present time, “every year in China will appear two million young men for whom there simply won’t be any brides.”
Second, Volkov continued, China faces what he called “the ‘bicycle problem’” – as along as its economy is growing rapidly, it will be stable, but if the growth rate falls, then China could quickly become unstable, especially because much of its progress so far has depended on extensive rather than intensive forms of development.
And third, he said, China faces the challenge of finding new and stable markets for its goods, something that is increasingly difficult for Beijing to do given the rise of other Asian countries and problems in the American and European economies at the present time.
“If China had only one of these problems, it could solve it,” Volkov argued, but because Beijing must deal with them all together, the Chinese government is going to have difficulties – including unemployment and the resulting social tensions – and some there may see the Russian north as a kind of solution.
That is all true, Kulekhov agreed, but he noted that “the real number of Chinese migrants in Siberia and Russia” is far lower than many believe. According to him, approximately 500,000 Chinese come to Russia each year – and almost as many go home, for a net increase of only a few thousand at most.
But even Kulekhov noted that the Kremlin’s indifference to a possible military strike by China northward, something unlikely anytime soon but entirely possible in the middle range future, especially because, Volkov added, the United States might stand behind China in such an action.
And consequently, a discussion that was clearly intended to dispel some of the rumors about the Chinese “threat” almost certainly will feed them, another and in many ways far more serious problem in the low-information environment of Vladimir Putin’s Russia than the possibility of a Chinese move into Russian territory.