Vienna, June 1 – Beijing has rented 426,600 hectares of Russian territory in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast and Khabarovsk Kray for agricultural use by Chinese farmers, the Xinhua News Agency Reports, a 42 percent increase in the size of such Chinese holdings inside Russia and one likely to infuriate many Russian nationalists.
In an article in “Svobodnaya pressa” today, Andrey Polunin points out that China has been renting land in Siberia and the Far East for some time. “Already at the end of 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao approved [it within] a program of cooperation between the border regions [of the two countries] for 2009 to 2018.”
For an assessment of what Chinese farmers are doing in Russia, Polunin interviewed Valery Gurevich, the deputy head of the government of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, and Aleksandr Aladin, a Moscow specialist on China, for their reactions to the Chinese who are now living and working inside the Russian Federation (svpressa.ru/politic/article/25865/).
Gurevich was upbeat about the program. He said Chinese farmers had been working in his oblast for almost two decades and that they current rent out about nine percent of its arable land on which they grow soy, grains, and rice and are making plans for developing animal husbandry as well.
“The Chinese,” he said, “both bring in their own technology and make use of ours.” Some of them are employed by Russian agricultural enterprises, and some work for themselves or for Chinese firs. “There hasn’t been any discussion, it goes without saying, about any handing over of land to the Chinese neighbors.”
There are currently “about 2500 Chinese” working in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, roughly the same number as last year, Gurevich continued. And almost all of them are working on the basis of three to ten year contracts, an arrangement that ensures they are committed to developing the land and not just exploiting it.
Some of the production of the Chinese farmers is sent back to China, some is sold in the Jewish Autonomous District, and some is sent to neighboring Russian regions like Khabarovsk kray. Most Chinese farmers keep to themselves, Gurevich continued, and there is little assimilation: “At least, none of them has received [Russian] citizenship anytime recently.”
A different and more alarmist reading of this program was offered by Aladin, who extrapolated from the population imbalance between the Russian and Chinese sides of the border and from Chinese military doctrine to present the arrival of Chinese farmers as the first step toward the Chinese conquest of the Russian Far East.
All of the facts that Aladin pts forward – ranging from demographic statistics to military doctrine to Chinese shipbuilding and civil defense facilities – are true, but the interpretations he gives them prompt Polunin to suggest that his conclusions about Chinese plans verge on the “fantastic.”
This exchange is typical of the way this issue is discussed: Most officials in Siberia and the Far East are not unhappy with the presence of the Chinese. Given ethnic Russian outmigration and demographic decline, they are glad to have the labor force the Chinese provide and even the cross border relations they promote.
But a large number of commentators in Moscow and other cities in European Russia are inclined to make arguments like the one Aladin advances, extrapolating from what are very real Chinese statements and actions to often apocalyptic conclusions about a Chinese land grab in Russia.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that it is the comments of the latter rather than the experience of the former that define the way Russian officials at the center and especially Russian nationalist groups think about this issue, a pattern that seems likely to continue and one that makes the relatively rare comments of local officials like Gurevich especially useful.