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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 4. On the Periphery of the ”Clash of Civilizations?” Discourse and Geopolitics in Russio-Chinese Relations

Alexander V. Lomanov

Texte intégral

Images of each other

1Chinese people I meet love to ask whether Russians think that China is a threat. The answers will depend a lot on how you formulate your question. A polling company called asked 1,600 respondents in over 100 cities all over Russia in May 2000 whether they thought there was a country in the world today that represented a threat to Russia. 27% of respondents named the United States. In February 2001, this grew to 34%. China trailed the US in this poll with only 3% of the answers in May 2000 and 5% in February 2001. And the most amazing is that the third country was Japan. In May 2000 1% said that Japan constituted a threat to Russia, and in February 2001 it was already 3%. In other words, the increase in people who perceive Japan as a threat was the steepest.

2But responses could be absolutely different if you ask: Is China a potential threat to Russia? In case people are asked “Is China dangerous now?,” only 5% will say, yes. But if you ask “Will China be dangerous?,” it is more about your fears, about your interpretation of what you learn from history textbooks, the media, your own memories, and public discourses. There are polls in which you get a “yes” answer from more than one person in two, especially in the Far Eastern regions.

3This means that people do not think of the current People’s Republic of China as a threat to Russian security, but they think that somehow the would-be China could threaten Russia. That’s why mutual stereotypes between Russia and China are full of cynicism or ambiguity. Russian newspapers’ reporting on the visit of President Jiang Zemin to Moscow in 2001 had a huge amount of it. Very few newspapers, except those close to the Communists and close to the government, reported the official story of friendship and cooperation. Almost all independent newspapers took a critical and skeptical view.

Reasons for mistrust

4Why are they so skeptical? Why do they think that this friendship could not be long-lived? Why did so many journalist say that the Russo-Chinese treaty was empty, good words without any substantiation, or good words that would not change the evil intentions of China or the imbalance of power (that is, China is strong and it will be stronger, and Russia is weak and it will remain weak, and the gap will only increase)?

“Never trust the Communists”

5One possible explanation is a political one. Soviet people have lived through the Communist system, and there is widespread skepticism of it. They say: It is not because Chinese civilization is bad, not because Chinese culture is bad or Chinese are evil people that we should be skeptical, but because Communist parties are vicious. The Chinese Communists would go into an alliance with Russia and later destroy their former allies. That’s why we cannot trust China as long as the Communist Party is in power: because the practice of Communism is the practice of cheating your partner in order to gain more benefits.

“Cooperation is unprofitable for Russia”

6The second reason why China-Russia relations are flawed is that there is a gap between words and deeds. There are solemn declarations of friendship, but the deeds are a quite minuscule amount of trade between two countries. Many Russian analysts say: What’s the use to talk about our friendship and good-neighborly relations? Washington and Beijing never say such things but they have more than $60 billion of mutual trade per year. We say a lot of words and we can hardly produce $8 billion per year. Besides, China, like the West, needs raw materials from Russia, but unlike from the West, what we get from China is not hard currency or high-tech but low-quality consumer goods. If we disregard military exports, Russian exports of civilian machinery and vehicles continue to decline.

“Russia is threatened by Chinese immigration”

7The analysts say: You can be friends with Beijing, but that doesn’t mean that you can be friendly with those Chinese people who are coming to Russia. Those illegal immigrants will come in greater and greater numbers, so no treaties will protect you from the Yellow Peril. You can have a treaty, but in ten or twenty years the Far East and Siberia will be flooded with Chinese, and we should prepare ourselves to say goodbye to Russian culture and civilization in these areas.

“The Chinese look down upon Russian culture from a position of Sino-Communist chauvinism”

8The fourth problem is what is perceived by some circles in Russia as Chinese disrespect towards Russian culture. I think it is more a kind of misunderstanding produced by the very complicated history of the 20th century. In the 1950s, although there could be different assessments of that, there was a common ideological discourse that brought Chinese and Russians together. As a result, the Chinese learned a lot about Soviet culture, about icons like the heroes of the Second World War, Zoya and Shura Kosmo-demianskii—a brother and sister who sacrificed their lives during the war—or Pavel Korchagin from Ostrovsky’s novel How the Steel was Tempered. In the 1990s, a movie was produced based on this novel by a Chinese producer and broadcasted in China. Zoya and Shura are symbols of patriotism, of sacrificing your life for your land. How the Steel was Tempered is more about giving your life for the Party, like an early Soviet version of Lei Feng.

9What is perceived as Chinese disregard to Russian culture is the result of a break with Soviet culture in Russia. Soviet things are almost discarded, and there is a search for the cultural roots of Russian civilization and tradition; and the Chinese are absolutely unfamiliar with that tradition. There are no channels of transmission of that tradition into China. So there is a complete feeling of cultural miscommunication. As a graduate student in China you still know the Soviet icons, but persons of your age in Russia will not be able to say much about them. And those who are just five years younger haven’t heard anything about Korchagin, Zoya, and Shura. What used to be common cultural symbols are no longer that.

“The Chinese consider the current border with Russia ‘unjust’ and secretly want to grab our lands, and there is nothing any treaty can do about that”

10The Chinese say that we will respect the border, but you Russians must publicly confess that you obtained this land through bad means. But people suspect that China’s next step would be: OK, you have recognized that you got this land by bad means, so now it is time to return it. Chinese have been eager to receive Russian confessions of “mistakes” committed by the Russian tsars in the past, and Russians have absolutely refused to deliver them.

“They are arming themselves and can become a military threat to Russia”

11The last problem is the growing militarization of China. It is nothing compared with Japan or the USA. But in 2001, the Chinese military budget exceeded the Russian military budget by at least $4–5 billion. Of course, one billion dollars of this money are pouring into Russian pockets every year, because the Chinese use it to buy Russian weapons. But still, it is an unpleasant game of figures. We used to be Big Brother and Little Brother, but now Little Brother’s military expenses are bigger than ours.

12Many people say it is no problem. China has no interest, no motivation and no resources to attack Russia. But just as the Chinese say: why don’t we like Americans? Why are we suspicious about them? Because their military budget is ten times higher than ours. So we are suspicious that they will overrun us. By a similar logic, although the difference between Russia’s and China’s military budgets is still no more than 10–15%, the gap is growing and the Russians are beginning to ask questions.

How the image of China has formed in Russia

13Early Russian understanding of China was more or less coherent with Western Enlightenment interpretations: the “Chinese way” was to be stagnant, inefficient, corrupted. Later, these characteristics were applied to the West as well.

14In the 19th century, Russian intellectuals were divided between two main groups, the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. The former advocated a Russian indigenous way of civilization and development, while the latter advocated closer relations between Russia and the Western civilization. But even Westernizers stressed the unique values of Russia. They argued that Russia must save the West from Sinification, from becoming Chinese. Did they mean the Chinese occupation of the West? No. They meant that the Western apostasy, the Western split from genuine Byzantine Christianity had produced the same loss of spiritual values as in China. Moscow was the culture that kept the only genuine form of Christianity as an uninterrupted tradition. So all those people who don’t have it must have something in common. That’s why we have materialistic China, and we see that people in the West are getting more and more materialistic and less and less spiritual. That’s why we should spread our spiritual values both to the West and to the East. It was a sort of messianic self-understanding: we are unique and we could contribute both to the West and to the East.

15Later it was also discussed by the famous religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who predicted even physical occupation of Europe by Sino-Japanese troops. It was a completely millenarian vision. First you would be occupied by a Sino-Japanese army, and later somebody would come and claim to be a Messiah to save the world, but of course it would be an Antichrist. Later, the Antichrist would be overthrown by the true believers.

16These were the cultural, religious concepts of the late 19th century. They still live on somewhere within the matrix of Russian culture, but as articulated concepts they have been completely forgotten. But now, in the intellectual circles in Moscow and St. Petersburg, these old predictions by Soloviev and others have been rediscovered. People say: Look, we are scared of the Chinese migrants here—and this is not our bias. Already in the 19th century—they say—the best brains of Russia were scared of the Chinese invasion, of the chances that Chinese settlers would sooner or later retake the land masses of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and change the Russian way of life and civilization. How modern their theories are!

17So the current political and economical problems have been reinforced by discourses of the 19th century. Meanwhile, however, the image of China has changed from that of a passive and inefficient mass prone to apathy to that of a dynamic people capable of influencing the fates of neighboring countries.

“Atlantism” versus “Eurasianism” in current Russian debates

18Those in Russia who are more or less sympathetic to a civilizational and political alliance between Russia and the West are sometimes called Atlanticists. And those who are in favor of China or emphasize the Eastern element of Russia are dubbed Eurasianists.

19Let me describe two examples of extreme Atlanticist discourse. One example is Professor Utkin, who says Russians are Europeans who are not being allowed into Europe.

20For Professor Utkin—a Deputy Director of the Institute of the US and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences—an alliance with China is a means to open the doors of Europe. Europe is now satisfied with the current situation, and Russia is forgotten. You have a complicated, humiliating process applying for a visa, and no investments. To get accepted into Europe, we need to improve our legal system and create order inside the country, but we must also make Europe worried about China. We must scare Europe with the phantom of a Sino-Russian alliance. I quote him: “A coordination at the general level [between Russia and China] would be sufficient for the currently inaccessible Euro-Atlantic world to feel the tectonic shift” in the global balance of power. This is an interesting sort of nationalistic discourse. And the final statement by Professor Utkin was a funny one: The Russian military-industrial complex sells only a fraction of its products to China. It should sell all our military technique and designs—then Europe will see how big a mistake it made by leaving Russia outside Europe (Utkin 1999).

21Other versions of the Atlantic nationalist discourse are also based on the idea of Russia as the bastion of Europe. The Yellow Peril is reappearing. No one will save the West but Russia. But we need Western help to reinforce us economically and civilizationally in order to be a good frontier against Chinese expansion. This is a modern version of the historical myth of Russia as the protector of Christianity from the Mongol conquest. Economist Vladimir Gilbo, head of a small think tank in St. Petersburg, proposes that Russia should apply to join NATO immediately and offer to establish an extraterritorial East–West transport corridor in Russia to protect NATO forces. Professor Gilbo’s idea of a Chinese expansion starts straight from 300 million: not several thousands, several hundreds of thousands, or several millions. He says that it is quite easy for the Chinese to plant 300 million people into Russia. It is only one-fifth of the Chinese population. Let’s imagine we did not invite NATO troops and there are 300 millions of Chinese in Russia and only 120 millions of us. Then Russians will be teased as “big-eyes,” idiots unable to speak human—i.e., Chinese—language, and relegated to the status of a docile work force to produce timber and oil for China. Of course, the figures cited by Professor Gilbo are absolutely fantastic—but that is the only way to make things believable (Gilbo 1999).

22Gilbo’s theory is so extreme that it has no representative value. But its extremeness gives an idea of the scope of Russian uneasiness about the way into the future. At least, you can say that about some intellectuals in the metropolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg who are still trying to invent a framework of “the Russian national idea” out of the blue. Many people in Russian political and intellectual circles are seriously worried that the “strategic partnership,” this alliance or quasi-alliance with China that is going on now, will be an obstacle to Russia’s Westernization or movement into Europe. So Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book The Grand Chessboard. American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, in which he argues that the struggle for world hegemony will be decided in Eurasia, set off an alarm among Russian political scientists (Brzezinski 1997).

23Should we try to get integrated into Europe? Or should we keep an intermediate position somewhere between the West and Asia without being integrated into either system? This very old controversy is still alive in Russia.

24The theory intended to transcend this controversy is the so-called Eurasianism. This theory has its rational core: the desire that the 19th-century dispute between Slavophiles and Westernizers should be closed. Some moderate Eurasianists in contemporary Russia say we should find a middle ground. Russia should be a bridge between the two civilizations, East and the West, but without being affiliated to either of these two systems. The influential head of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Titarenko, is one of the proponents of “neo-Eurasianism.” He writes:

...the Eurasian character of Russian civilization opens the possibility of new inter-civilizational and international relations founded on the principles of co-development and mutual influence, allowing to solve the problems of ... preserving civilization diversity. In the new geopolitical situation in which Russia finds itself today, the concept of neo-Eurasianism that removes the extremes of both Slavophilism and Westernism can correspond to the interests of the country’s consolidation and to overcoming local nationalism and interethnic conflict as well as separatist tendencies (Titarenko 1996).

25It is a very good program, this idea of Russian neutralism. Who knows, those young girls and boys in Vladivostok who are learning Chinese, who are dynamic and able to interact with this new civilization, might produce a new Russo-Chinese or Russo-Eurasian paradigm. The problem is that, unlike cultural interaction with the West, interaction with China has no roots in the past. People are scared by this paradigm, afraid of being completely assimilated by the Chinese, which would be no Eurasian-ism but the Sinification of Russia.

The role of China in defining Russia’s identity

26Both Russia and China have developed through history as system-states, i.e., states with exclusive, universalistic ideologies. In the Russian case, this was based upon the Orthodox tradition, upon the uniqueness of Russia’s place in Europe or Eurasia; quite a Messianic role. In the case of China, it was based upon the Sinocentric notion of tianxia or “all under Heaven,” where the non-Chinese periphery is inhabited by barbarians. When these two systemic states met each other, one—Russia—was strong, the other was weak. But now, both China and Russia are rediscovering their nationalistic discourses. In the Russian case this is a post-Communist discourse, in China, it is a still-Communist or quasi-Communist nationalistic discourse, because it is still done within the previous ideology. In the Russian case it is more like a negation of the negation of Russian culture that took place in the Soviet Union.

27How will these two newly emerged nationalist ideologies, both of which are developing themselves through proving their uniqueness, interact? The ideology of Russian nationalism is mainly to find a uniquely Russian route. In the case of China it is also an attempt to find a uniquely Chinese model in economy and politics. As long as those two discourses are not militant, as long as they are tolerant and concentrate on the problems of the country itself, they couldn’t be dangerous. But if and when these discourses take the form of rebuilding their empires—of course they could be dangerous.

28The encounter between Russia and China is unique because both are former superpowers that have lost out in the contemporary world. They are beyond the so-called new world order. They have no place in the world-system that would satisfy their appetite for dignity and respect. To a certain extent, the effect of the 1990s in Russia, the decline and disintegration of the country and the impression that it is being abandoned by the West, is comparable with the effect of the Opium War upon the Chinese national psyche. Before there had been a huge Soviet Union and a sense of security, of greatness, maybe of a certain superiority. Now your country has disintegrated, it is much smaller, you have no friends, no respect, you are poor, nobody wants to talk with you, nobody wants to treat you as an equal, so what should you do? Should you fire a couple of missiles? Or should you find some investment? Or should you send more oil? Or should you say “no” to everybody including China, or China should say “no” to America and Russia?

29They do not exactly know who they are. Post-Mao China and post-Communist, post-Yeltsin Russia are still defining themselves. The search for their places is still going on. Nobody knows what the final shape would be. There is a hidden possibility of a future collision between the two countries that are now talking as quasi-allies, or friends at least. But because they are still finding the path for their development, in a certain period of time, they could say: now we are good friends with America, but we are still not satisfied. Where is the enemy? Could it be China? Maybe the source of all Russian grievances is Chinese migrants. Should we kill them? Or vice versa. In China, in case there would be political turmoil or economical stagnation of China, millions and millions of people would become completely destitute. We got Hong Kong from Britain, we got Macao from Portugal, but then there is one million square kilometers of land that we still haven’t claimed... go there and try to get it.

What China means to Russia

30The image of China has been crucial for Russian self-definition between East and West. In order to position Russia in the civilization of the world, when you have one point of reference, that is the West. But when you get two points of reference, you can start thinking about your distance from both points.

31All these famous disputes that were carried out by cultural studies scholars in the West and in China are still alive in Russia now. What are “Western values”? Is it corrupting individualism? And what are “Eastern values”? Is it communitarianism or collectivism? Which path should Russia follow? Of course, if you see individualism as corrupt, the terminology will motivate you not to follow this path. Those that do so are making use of the dissatisfaction with the Russian reforms of the nineties and the politicians who implemented it. Often, the mistakes of these reforms are simplistically put as “a pro-Western value bias,” while “Eastern values” such as collectivism are portrayed as more appropriate for Russia.

32On the one hand, you have people like the famous liberal journalist, Boris Kagarlitskii, who writes for Novaya Gazeta. He openly compares Russian skepticism about the Chinese with anti-Semitism. The Russians are getting more and more xenophobic. They hate Chechens and now they are adding to the list of hatred one more nation: the Chinese. Kagarlitskii insists that the “yellow” do not take away jobs but create them (Kagarlitskii 2000).

33The Communists stay mum on the topic because their orientation is toward idealizing the Chinese Communist Party and its experience, which they juxtapose to Yeltsin’s path of “ruining the people.” Occasionally, they warn that the uncontrolled immigration of the Chinese is the result of the weakness of the Russian state. For the Communists, China as a state is not a potential enemy.

34On the other hand, there is a non-Communist nationalistic discourse. The Zavtra newspaper, very famous in Russia for its nationalistic ideas, often publishes articles about China and the “Chinese problem” in the Far East. One article in Zavtra writes that the Chinese behave in the Russian Far East “more or less like the conquerors of outer space in the fantasy action movies of Hollywood”: they plunder its natural riches to exhaustion while feeding Russians indigestible food (Shchurygin and Tukmakov 2001).

35Another writer in Zavtra (Ilyushin 1998) concludes that empires need colonies. And the empire is China. The yellow-eyed tiger is walking around an agonizing deer (the symbol of Russia). It has no business to hurry.

36At the same time, the nationalists applaud the Chinese government’s support of patriotism. Although Zavtra is anti-communistic, in 1996, the Chinese paper Guang-ming Ribao, considered the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party leadership, invited Editor-in-Chief Alexander Prokhanov to China. In the article about his visit—entitled “Fifty questions at the Great Wall”—Prokhanov repeats the arguments of Chinese nationalist propaganda, contrasting them to Russia’s problems. He asks: What is the difference between us and the Chinese? Of course our civilizations are incompatible, but the history of Communism brought us together. So why are Chinese so successful and why are we not? First, because China had Deng Xiaoping, who controlled all dissent and did not permit any political freedom. Deng Xiaoping understood quite well that for a person intoxicated with freedom, freedom is deadly. The Chinese success lies in the fact that they did not permit any freedom; they did not destroy the public sector of the economy; they were not afraid to crush antigovernment demonstrations in 1989; they do not respond to any criticism from the so-called international community. And, he writes, now the Chinese have returned to Hong Kong, and are very rigidly saying that they cannot let Russians have the two islands near Khabarovsk. (See the section on the border dispute below.)

37Prokhanov claims that China does not want to occupy Russian lands, although it has been capable of doing for some years. He prefers to portray the “Japanese samurai” as potential conquerors of the anemic Russian Far East (Prokhanov 2000).

The question of “cultural compatibility”

38Another question is why, although Russians and Chinese have been communicating with each other for such a long period of time, there has been no apparent assimilation of each other’s culture. There was a Chinese community in Russia from the mid-19th century till the mid-20th century, first in the Far East and then all around Russia. In the early 20th century there were about 100,000 Chinese in Russia. Of course there was everyday communication between people, but there was nothing one could call a Sino-Russian culture produced by migrants. At the same time, there was a huge Russian community inside China, along the China Eastern Railroad that was built and owned by Russia, and later refugees who fled from the Communist Revolution in Russia. But they were also unable to create a Russo-Chinese culture. So, people said, maybe we have a firewall between our cultures.

39After the Communist Revolution in China, 1712 Russian repatriates returned from Harbin to Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union. Many of them were born in Manchuria and were in their late 40s and early 50s. At the time of their repatriation, they had to fill out official questionnaires. These questionnaires reveal that only 4.7% of them were able to speak Chinese or Japanese, but more than 30% were able to speak one or even two European languages, English or French.

40So there was a feeling that both sides were quite cold to each other. In the Russian case, you can explain it by the tragic situation inside Russia. Russian emigrants were consciously resisting any assimilation because it was a part of their sense of mission to keep Russian culture “pure” from barbarism, from Bolshevism, to keep their customs, keep their styles of life as they had been in Russia before 1917. They were training their children not to live in China but to return to Russia, to restore it after all that had happened during and after the revolution.

An example of assimilation
Vladimir Boyko, ”Chinese Communities in Western Siberia in the 1920s-1930s,” Inner Asia, 2001, no. 3, p. 25, fn. 12.
Vladimir Boyko described several examples of assimilation among Chinese in the Soviet Union in the first half of the 20th century:
Wang Ling-Ting, originally from Shandong, who had mastered the mirror-making business and learned Russian in Harbin, was one of those who corresponded to the notion of the Chinese as the ”civilised nation of East Asia.” He expanded his knowledge of sciences and Esperanto, subscribed to the local Russian newspaper Red Altai, carefully and skillfully budgeted personal expenses, and took care of his health. But the Barnaul bureaucrats, first in the police and then in the local government, put obstacles in the professional career of this talented foreigner, leaving him no option but to be an individual craftsman. He was saved neither by marrying a Russian woman, nor by accepting Soviet citizenship. In 1929, political detectives ‘recognised’ ‘Valentin Valentinovich’ as a spy—an officer of the Chinese army. He was sentenced to three years of reform labor and later eventually assassinated on false accusations in 1938.

41But in the case of the Chinese migrants, it is more difficult to explain this lack of interest. That’s why, even now, a lot of people say that Chinese never assimilate. When people say we need to invite more Chinese migrants, their answer is: what for? they never assimilate. And if there are too many, they will assimilate us; but they will never be an integral part of Russian society. And these opinions are justified precisely in terms of the lessons of the Chinese diaspora of the late 19th-early 20th century.

Discussion: Is there an interpenetration of cultures in the Russian Far East?
Olga Smirnova, Vladivostok: Chinese restaurants in Vladivostok have separate halls for the Chinese and for the Russians, because they eat in different ways. The Chinese eat with chopsticks and we eat with forks and knives. So if people do eat differently, what’s wrong with respecting each other’s habits and separating them?
You ask why there was no interpenetration of cultures, even though in the early twentieth century 30% of the population in the Russian Far East was Chinese. But first of all, Chinese and Russians started coexisting in the Far East only in the 1860s, and in 1932, when Stalin killed 10,000 Chinese, it was all over. Do you think this is enough time for cultures to create something together? Yet in fact, there was a group of mixed Russo-Chi-nese parentage, the Taza.
Lomanov: You cannot confine the interaction of cultures to only those years. Let’s remember the story of the Russian Orthodox mission in Beijing: 300 years. The earlier years of this mission, in the 18th century, were full of human tragedies. There were never as many cases of untimely death because of excessive drinking among missionaries as among the Russian missionaries in China. After ten years or so, of the original mission of ten people four or three were surviving. While Westerners were determined to convert China, the Russians were limited only to taking care of the small Russian community in Beijing. Those Russian priests were sent to China against their will and were absolutely unwilling to learn Chinese or to communicate with the Chinese.
There are, of course, exceptions. There is a community of descendants of those people who were taken from the town of Albazin by the Qing Army. They still live in China, some 300 people in Beijing and elsewhere, and they still unofficially keep their Russian names and keep the Orthodox faith, although they have absolutely no chance to attend any Orthodox services. They have been intermarrying with the Chinese for more than 200 years, the Russian Orthodox Parish in Beijing didn’t exist for about fifty years, and Orthodox Christianity is not among the five faiths which are in Chinese Constitution, so they are in a legal limbo, they are not protected by the law, they are not supported by a rich foreign church, and each time they apply for something they are told ”you are not permitted to do anything, you are not permitted to have faith, you are not permitted to have a church”—but they still regard themselves as Orthodox Christians.
The precarious position of the Orthodox Church has to do with bad memories connected with the so-called Russian tsarist aggression. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian mission are dubbed in official Chinese history a tool of Russian imperialistic aggression against China. At the level of official discourse, right now it’s friendship, but all these political improvements have not influenced the position of the Russian Orthodox community in China at all.
Smirnova: Today as well, in the Far East of Russia there is more interpenetration of the two cultures than in the European part of Russia. There are plenty of Chinese restaurants. Everything in Chinese and Japanese is fashionable, from books about Confucius and Feng Shui by Russian authors to Chinese markets. Russians have started using Chinese sauces, and Chinese people have started to drink milk and eat fried potatoes. Chinese fast food in Vladivostok is like hot dogs in Moscow.
Many Russians know enough Chinese to communicate, and many Chinese speak Russian very well. At the Chinese markets, they all speak Russian. You don’t have to learn Chinese when you come to a Chinese market. They know not only ”How much?” and ”Twenty,” ”Thirty,” but also ”Young lady, this fits you.”
At Far Eastern State University in Vladivostok, where I work, the most popular foreign language is Chinese. It is very fashionable to study Confucianism. The first thing we studied in our philosophy course was Confucianism. We compared Western and Asian philosophers.
Lomanov: There are different levels to this debate. People feel interested, but they also feel safer about the Chinese if they live in separate ghettos and eat in separate restaurants. There is a Siberian city where residents protested against Chinese using the same public bathhouse as they did. So the decision was taken that the Chinese and Vietnamese will be served once a week and the local population on other days. What was interesting was the theoretization of the affair in the Moscow newspapers: Is it true that each guest must respect the customs of the host country? So in case you are a Chinese person in Russia, should you wash your body like the Russians do? Should you acculturate in this sense or you should keep your bathing identity? It was a little bathhouse-nationalistic discourse. If you are coming from Asia to Russia, when you cross the Russian border forget about your habits. Look at what the Russians do and wash your body and wash your clothes like the Russians do. Or do it separately if you cannot do it like we do. That’s why the liberal newspaper Obshchaia Gazeta asked: Are we a European country if we can produce an ethnic conflict inside the public baths?
Smirnova: There are clubs with signs that say ”Chinese only.” And the police made a very big deal of them. They thought these clubs were meeting places of Chinese Mafia dons. The police came and grabbed all the presumed Mafia dons on the first night of the opening of this pub. If you cannot see what they are doing, you become suspicious.
Anna Urbanska, Poznań: In different situations, people interpret this cultural coexistence in different ways. Like the Jews in Poland: historically, we find a lot of Jewish people speaking German and a lot of Jewish people speaking Polish. But if something happens, then they are two separate societies.
Nyíri: Sasha Lomanov is talking about more or less elite discourses. The points about the Chinese that he mentioned are not made by huge masses of the Russian population. Can you link an elite discourse to a spontaneous-popular action such as the bathhouse affair? When you go down to the level of popular culture, then of course you have various controversial manifestations in various situations. I mean at a market, also at the Chinese market in Budapest, there is continuous interaction, there is mutual learning of languages at the personal level, but then, as Anna is saying, in certain situations, especially with the leadership of a particular group, you can switch on a completely different cultural discourse of antagonism. But that is the very complicated part: in what situations you switch on what at the actual level of human interaction.

42When President Vladimir Putin and Jiang Zemin met in Moscow in the summer of 2001, President Jiang made a speech at Moscow University where he said that many people in China like the Russian poet Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky, the famous composer. He picked up three quite neutral figures from the Russian cultural tradition of the 19th–early 20th centuries. It was absolutely uncontroversial: he didn’t enlist any Soviet figures. And in order to balance his statement, he said the Russians are getting more and more interested in the ideas of Confucius and Laozi, the Chinese philosophers. But later there was a strange response from President Putin. He said we should not confine ourselves to studying culture. When we are visiting each other it is not to learn about Pushkin and Confucius. We should learn more about higher mathematics and natural sciences.

43So it was a friendly meeting, but it was a brilliant example of a cultural misunderstanding. Jiang Zemin made an attempt to create an illusory bridge between cultures.

44Although this so-called interest in Confucius and in Laozi is actually limited to a very small segment of Russian intellectuals and students, Jiang made an attempt to pretend that we are interested in the classical traditions of each other and base our relations upon that presumption. First create an empty framework and later fill it with something. But Russian President Putin completely missed this cultural point. The idea of cultural interpenetration was rejected by the Russian leader, and it was rejected absolutely unconsciously. It is not as though he wanted to insult Jiang or to ruin this nonexistent cultural bridge.

Chinese and Russian views of the Sino-Russian treaty

China’s reaction

45In July 2001, China and Russia signed a treaty of friendship that elicited complicated reactions on both sides. Some of the Chinese say it is good. Why is friendship with Russia good for China?

“A quiet northern border”

46So they can concentrate on the Taiwan issue and on their relations with the US. Russia is now weak and unable to do anything against China, but it is better to seek to institutionalize this peaceful situation along the northern border. It is good for China, because now they can save money on military spending and allocate it to civil projects.

“China can continue getting Russian weapons”

47A friendly Russia can provide China with Western weapons in the current situation where under American pressure Israel declined to sell them to China in 2000. Russia still remains the only significant source of more or less modern weapons for China.

“Unconditional support on the Taiwan issue”

48In exchange for support in international affairs like in Chechnya, Russia provides good political support for China in Taiwan.

49But there are also skeptics in China. They say: What is good in this friendship with Russia?

“Previous treaties—in 1945 and in the 1950s—led to losses of territory”

50They recall that Mongolia was completely lost to China due to the 1945 treaty signed

51by the Kuomintang and the 1950 treaty signed by the Communists.

“The Kremlin’s military strategy is duplicitous”

52The Kremlin is hedging between China and India, and military specialists could decide that India gets the most advanced weapons from Russia, not China. Russia is simply playing in a triangle by arming India in order to compel China to buy more weapons, to feel insecure.

“Irreconcilable histories of Sino-Russian treaties”

53The Treaty of Nerchinsk of 1689 is regarded as good and equal in the Chinese narration of history and as bad and unequal in the Russian version. There is no way to produce a coherent history of Sino-Russian relations because all policies that in the Russian narrative are positive are negative in the Chinese narrative, and vice versa. What is equal in Russian histories is unequal in Chinese histories. It is a problem of compatibility of historical narratives. The Chinese say that the Nerchinsk Treaty was an equal treaty, but the Russians say it was signed under military pressure from China when the Russian delegation to China was surrounded by Qing troops. The Nerchinsk Treaty acknowledged Chinese suzerainty over most of Russia’s current Amur Province, the southern half of Khabarovsk Region, and the whole of the Maritime Region, but an unexplored strip was left undelineated, pending further settlement.

4.1. A map of the Soviet-Chinese border with historical references

4.1. A map of the Soviet-Chinese border with historical references

54The 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking, by contrast, are treated as equal and good by the Russian narrative of history and bad and unequal by the Chinese. The Treaty of Aigun gave Russia control of the left bank of the Amur River, and the Treaty of Peking gave it the right bank of the Ussuri and granted Russian vessels navigating rights.

Lomanov on Sino-Russian treaties pre- and post-Westphalia see p. 44

“There could be secret protocols unfavorable to China”

55The public of both nations is suspicious because the previous treaty, signed by Stalin and Mao, had a secret protocol about mutual military assistance in case of an aggression. This time, the Russian and Chinese Ministries of Foreign Affairs have said that there are no secret protocols. But people are still suspicious. The Chinese are suspicious that maybe there is some secret protocol that gives away another part of our land that we don’t know about, and will know only later. The Russians are suspicious that maybe Putin and Jiang Zemin decided on military assistance in case of aggression but decided not to disclose it. It is interesting how history taints the present.

Russia’s view of the 2001 treaty

56From Russia’s point of view, this treaty created a big shift in the self-understanding of Russia’s position within the system of bilateral relations. Before, Russia or the Soviet Union was the leader. Treaties were mostly proposed by the Kremlin to Zhongnanhai, to the Chinese government. But in this case, for the first time, the treaty itself was proposed by the Chinese.

57For a long time, Moscow had been suggesting a new treaty with China, because the old treaty had expired in 1979 or 1980. And the Chinese replied, year after year: No, we shouldn’t, because we are a sovereign nation and we don’t have any alliances with any foreign nation. But when Russia stopped proposing this idea, Jiang Zemin himself suddenly produced the same one. In 2000, Jiang Zemin approached the Russian president: Don’t you think that we should sign a treaty? This reversal of roles was quite unexpected for Russia, and it created another wave of suspicion. If this treaty was prepared by the experts of the Chinese, not the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are there any hidden nuances that could later be used against Russian interests? And beyond that, the reversal of roles had a tangible impact upon the self-understanding of the Russian elite.

The border problem

58Some Russian scholars say that the two states must conclude a new treaty about border demarcation, which would recognize the current border but not contain any references to the old treaties. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not support this, but the debate continues.

59Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, condemned tsarist Russia for annexing territories of China, and even wrote that China would be justified to start an anticolonial war against Russia. Of course he wrote this before 1917, but later the Chinese, who claimed to be true Marxist-Leninists while accusing the Soviet Union of revisionism, made a lot of references to it. If you Russians promised to say good-bye to your colonial and tsarist past, why won’t you do it? Why won’t you tear up all your former treaties?

60A quite successful delimitation of the border between Russia and China which was carried out from the 1960s till 1991 was still possible under the common ideology of communism. Its successful accomplishment was the product of the Gorbachev era. Under Russia’s current political system and in the current mood, if the delimitation were to be started now, it could fail.

61In 1964, when the negotiations started, the Chinese demanded several things.

Recognition of unequal nature of the historical treaties

62First of all, they demanded that Russia recognize that the treaties concluded by tsarist Russia and Qing China were unequal.

“Short list” of territorial claims

63Second, they demanded the “restitution” of 22,000 square kilometers to China. There was also a so-called “long list” of territorial claims that included 1,500,000 square kilometers, but the “short list” was the basis of the talks in the 1960s.

Reconstruction of 64 Chinese settlements on the Russian side

64Third, there was a very interesting attempt by the Chinese that could be interpreted as a remnant of the multiple identities of the pre-Westphalian states that Prasenjit Duara writes about. In the Aigun Treaty of 1858 there was a clause about sixty-four Chinese or Manchu settlements on the Russian side of the border, on the left bank of the Amur. The Manchu and Chinese population was permitted to remain permanently in these settlements and remain Qing subjects. In 1964, the Chinese government said to the Russian government: All right, you Russians stick to this unequal Treaty of Aigun, but you should at least be loyal to this unequal treaty. So reconstruct the 64 Chinese settlements.

65Of course this idea was rejected by the Soviet government, because by that time this border area was completely clear of any Chinese or Manchu population. The Chinese countered: How to repopulate this area is our problem. We know how to do it; all you need to do is follow the treaty.

Chinese border patrols on Russian territory

66Fourth, another demand was made that showed how the Chinese were still allowing the terms of overlapping sovereignty to creep in. This demand was to permit Chinese border patrols to patrol the border on the Russian side. The Chinese were saying: We dispute these five square kilometers, so let us patrol this land behind your backs. You can leave your own border patrols where they are, but we will station our patrols where we think the border should be. Picture two Communist nations, with absolutely clear identities of the border and citizenship, wrangling over these loopholes in the old treaties that were still the results of the pre-Westphalian system!

67That’s why some skeptics in Russia are very alert to the news of joint Russian-Chinese patrols on the border. Are the Chinese trying to use these joint patrols to project influence inside Russian territory? Could the idea of joint border patrols between Russia and China be interpreted in pre-Westphalian terms? Is it an attempt to create an overlapping territorial identity? There are many confusing and unclear issues that are rooted deep in the past.

68The 1964 negotiations had failed, especially because Mao Zedong openly talked to a Japanese delegation about the “long list” of claims for 1.5 million square kilometers of the Russian land in Siberia. China and the Soviet Union did not sign the treaty on the demarcation and delimitation of the border until May 1991. And in December 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated.

The delimitation of 1991

69Some people in the Russian Far East opposed this delimitation. In the Maritime Province of Russia, the Treaty of Aigun and especially the Treaty of Peking had drawn a clear border, most of which followed the Chinese bank of the Ussuri and Amur rivers.

A map of the Soviet-Chinese border with historical references see p. 83

70The idea discussed in 1964 and adopted in 1991 was to delimit the border following the deep water channel, i.e., roughly the middle of the river, instead. So, many parts the border moved, and the Chinese side received some parts of the territory that had been controlled by the Soviet Union. The Maritime Province lost 27 square kilometers, and prominent local politicians complained that Russia didn’t receive anything in exchange. By contrast, China, according to the calculations of Boris Tkachenko—a local historian and prominent opponent of the delimitation—gained 700 islands with a total area of 720 square kilometers (Tkachenko 1999).

71One of the arguments Tkachenko and local politicians used was that the treaty was signed by the Soviet government but ratified by the Russian parliament. So it was signed by one state and ratified by another. Another grounds on which they challenge the treaty was that in 1990, when Yeltsin was elected Speaker of the Russian Parliament, there was a declaration of state sovereignty of Russia, still within the Soviet Union. That declaration asserted that the Russian rather than the Soviet government had exclusive territorial sovereignty over Russia, and that any legal change in the territorial limits of Russia could only be made through a referendum. And of course there was no referendum about these islands in the Amur and Ussuri rivers.

72Nationalists on both sides mirror each other. On the Chinese side, they say that all former treaties are unequal, so it could be possible in the future to challenge tsarist treaties signed by Russia and China about millions of square kilometers. On the Russian side, there are arguments that the delimitation treaty was not fair for Russia, and that it is possible to challenge it. Therefore skeptics are able to plant mines under this treaty from both sides.

73The territorial business is closely linked with economics. Take the Tumen River project. It has been a dream of the Chinese government since as early as the 1860s to gain access to the Sea of Japan between Korea and Russia. The Tumen River project was based on the idea of constructing a deep-water port on the Chinese stretch of the river and jointly—between Russia, China, and North Korea—creating a new transportation channel from there to the sea. There was also another idea, to trade some islands near Khabarovsk with Russia to gain sovereignty over part of the Tumen River. This part of the border is still not delimitated. The islands are still under dispute. The Chinese say it is impossible to cede them to Russia, and the Russians say it is critically important to keep them.

Local nationalism opposing the center

74I will discuss later how a regional patriotism developed in the Russian Far East during the process of border delimitation and confronting the issues of Chinese migration into Russia. Former Governor of the Maritime Province Evgenii Nazdratenko became known as a strong opponent of the Tumen River project and was hailed by the nationalistic press as an excellent patriot. Nazdratenko spoke out against the “treacherous demarcation”: he positioned himself as a regional patriot who opposed the federal traitors. The arguments against the Tumen River project are that it would bring environmental degradation and decrease the traffic of the Transsiberian railway if China got its own access to the sea. The central government, by contrast, claimed that China, Russia, and North Korea had many shared interests and that the project would benefit all sides. But Nazdratenko pointed out that the negative effect of the project on railway traffic would not be felt by the central government, because cargo transit would still pass through Russian territory. But the section of the Transsiberian railway in the Maritime Province would become useless because the port of Nakhodka on Golden Horn Bay—the port of Vladivostok—would decline. Goods would be shipped directly from Japan to this new port in China.

75But the economic argument in the opposition to the Tumen project was closely linked to a territorial argument. Let me cite again Boris Tkachenko. He said: There are only three options of how China can gain access to the sea: to buy a huge part of Russian land, which is not possible; to get a multilateral agreement with North Korea and Russia in order to perform a huge land reclamation and to make the shallow Tumen River into a deeper one; or to conclude an international lease agreement, similarly to the way the British leased Hong Kong. And of course it was quite easy to say: this is not Hong Kong; in case something would be leased by China for fifty years, we would never receive it back because China will be eager to reclaim this land for itself. So no land can be leased to China.

Economic relations: a mixed bag

76Arms sales have been the most successful item in bilateral economic relations. But Chinese analysts occasionally accuse Russia of insincerity. Strategy and Management (Zhanlue yu guanli), an influential journal in China, published an article entitled “The modernization of national defense and the problem of Taiwan” by a Chinese author. The author said that Russia had sold China 27 fighter aircrafts and Kilo class submarines, but this shouldn’t be overestimated. Russia was mindful of its own interests and worried about China. It would never sell the most advanced weapons to China. It sold the most advanced weapons to India. Moreover, Russia was not willing to spoil its relations with the West, especially with the United States. Each time it sold weapons to China, Russia supplied detailed technical information to the US. In case there was a conflict around Taiwan, the US would supply all this technical information to Taiwan. So we wouldn’t be able to win this war. We need to build our own strong military.

77When such things are openly pronounced, there is a certain degree of mistrust. On the one hand, Russian alarmists or skeptics say that the factory in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, which produces Su-27 aircraft, is a Chinese factory. It doesn’t belong to China, but it produces for China only. The Russian Air Force has no new aircraft, but the Chinese receive them in the hundreds. On the other hand, the Chinese say: what we receive are old aircraft, and the Russian traitors supply all information about them to the US and to Taiwan. These aircraft are useless. That’s how ambiguous the picture is.

78What hinders cooperation between Russia and China in the economic field is partly real difficulties and partly discourses and stereotypes.

Poor perception of each other’s products

79Russia has been struggling for more than ten years to sell its high-tech products to China. Throughout the 1990s, Russian aircraft manufacturers were desperate to sell their aircraft. The aircraft were not bad, but Russian airlines were oversupplied with old Soviet machines, so they were not buying new planes. The Russian side appealed to China several times; but only during Jiang Zemin’s visit to Moscow did the Chinese side officially agree to start negotiation on purchasing ten Tu-204 passenger aircraft. Jiang Zemin paid for signing the friendship treaty with this gesture.

80On the other hand, the Chinese who went to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union sold products that had no markets in China because of their poor quality. The quality of Chinese goods is not among the top ten problems related to the Chinese migration that one hears from Russians. But, interestingly, it is among the top problems when you talk to Chinese scholars or officials.

Trade surplus

81Russia is unfamiliar with the problem of trade deficit that plagues China’s Western trade partners. In the 1990s, bilateral trade surplus have continued to grow and totaled over $20 billion. China complains, but Russia exports more and more raw materials to China and buys fewer and fewer consumer goods, so the trade gap is growing year after year.

Environmental issues

82This aspect is also both real and imaginary. Russians are, correctly, suspicious that the Chinese are polluting border rivers like the Amur and Ussuri, and there is no way to cooperate with them in cleaning up these rivers.

83Russia cannot invest in improving the situation, and it cannot influence China to stop the development. The second problem has more to do with illegal migration: Chinese poachers and diggers of ginseng. There are horror stories about how the Chinese use electric shock to kill frogs.

Nyíri on standards of development
A bigger and conceptual problem is that the Chinese still do not understand the importance of Siberian forests to the survival of China itself. Chinese planners usually say: Let us come to Siberia, we will chop all trees and grow rice everywhere and build factories; it will develop, it will be like China! Why do you need all these wastelands? But in fact, China needs those forests even more than Russia, because in case this forest is chopped, Northeast China would start suffocating because the trees have long ago been chopped in this area of China, and the deserts are advancing.
This comment by the Chinese planners speaks to the issue of whether there are one or several standards of development. Before the Second World War, one US senator advocating aid to China became famous for suggesting to ”Raise China higher, ever higher, until it reaches the level of Kansas.” Today, Western anthropologists point out the need to take into account that standards of development may differ. Indeed, many developing-country leaders, including China’s, like to reject the imposition of standards by America. Yet such episodes suggest that standards of development may have more to do with historical period than with culture: now Russian Far Easterners have walked away from the industrial and high-rise vision of modernity (or at least take into account other concerns), while the Chinese planners are keen to impose that vision on them. Their eagerness to do so also reflects the reversal of roles between Russia and China.

Pre-Soviet migration from China to Russia

84The most important factor of Russian-Chinese interaction in the Russian Far East is the problem of Chinese migration to the region. In 1999, a famous nationalist member of the Russian State Duma, Sergei Baburin, proposed to revitalize the Baikal-Amur Railroad, a bypass railroad built to the north of the Transsiberian, farther away from the Chinese border. Baburin said that special investments should be made in the Baikal-Amur Railroad because there was a “silent Chinese expansion.” Don’t you know there are 1.5 million Chinese illegals in this region?, said Baburin in the Russian Duma. Another member of the Duma mentioned “Greater China, extending to the Arctic Ocean.”

85The issue of a Chinese population on Russian territory surfaced after the two treaties, of Aigun and Peking. In the very beginning of Russian colonization in the Far East—the middle of the 19th century—the Russian government even welcomed the Chinese to settle in Russia and gave them preferences. For example, they were exempt from taxes for 20 years. At the same time, Chinese officials continued to collect taxes from the local tribes, causing concern in the Russian administration.

86Probably the first clash between the Russians and Chinese occurred in 1868. It was called the Manza War, Manzovskaia voina. “Manzy” was the Russian name for the Chinese population in those years. In 1868, the local Russian government decided to close down goldfields near Vladivostok, in the Gulf of Peter the Great, where 1,000 Chinese were employed. The Chinese decided that they did not want to go back, and resisted. The first clash occurred when the Chinese were removed from Askold Island, in the Gulf of Peter the Great. They organized themselves and raided three Russian villages and two military posts.

87For the first time, this attempt to drive the Chinese out was unsuccessful. And the government in Eastern Siberia increasingly saw the Chinese as potential bandits. But Russian scholars of those years came to conclude that the so-called khunkhuzy, Chinese bandits, were not a threat to Russian domination or control. They generally targeted other groups of Chinese and Koreans.

88The political component of Chinese banditism emerged only in the year 1900. For the first time, khunkhuzy attacked the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk. It ended in the drowning of about 3,000 Chinese near Blagoveshchensk (called Hailanbao in Chinese). When during the Boxer Uprising Boxers and khunkhuzy assaulted Russian positions nearby, Cossacks stationed there decided to drive the Chinese from the Russian bank of the river back onto the Chinese bank. People were simply pushed into the river, and many of them drowned. Even Vladimir Lenin personally criticized the Russian tsarist government for its brutality. This is one of the dark pages of the history of Sino-Rus-sian relations, one that is never publicly discussed in Russia but is present in all Chinese textbooks.

89In 1910, before the First World War, there were 115,000 Chinese in Russia, and later the Chinese participated in mass-scale construction and defense infrastructure projects in the war. Discussions of the “Yellow Peril” became commonplace.

90Then there occurred another story which has become traumatic, this one for the Russian nationalistic psyche. At the end of the year 1918, after the Russian Revolution, the Chinese merchants in the Russian Far East demanded the Chinese government to send troops for their protection, and Chinese troops were sent to Vladivostok to protect the Chinese community: about 1600 soldiers and 700 support personnel.

91There was a story published in Newsweek around 1997, written as an imagined letter from the Russia of 2005. In this letter, Chinese President Li Peng sent troops to the Russian Far East because Russian President Lebed was unable to protect the 2 million Chinese settlers from the Russians, who were angry because the Chinese were already very rich and owned a lot of land. This story could be regarded, to a certain extent, as a descendant of the real story of 1918.

92By the 1930s, the number of Chinese was reduced to about 50,000, and later Joseph Stalin’s government accused the Chinese and Koreans of being Japanese spies.

93It is an interesting question how deep the allegiance of Chinese residing in Russia to the Manchukuo state ran, or whether this was just a flimsy pretext for another lawless act of totalitarianism; at any rate they were deported and in part executed as Japanese spies. By 1989, there were only 10,000 naturalized ethnic Chinese living in Russia, and only half of them indicated the Chinese language as their mother tongue; the other half said that their mother tongue was Russian.

Post-Soviet migration

94After the Russian borders opened to foreigners again in 1991, there was no longer a tradition of having a Chinese community in Russia, and there was nothing similar to Chinatowns in the West. Everything concerning the Chinese community in Russia is a statement with a question mark. How many Chinese are there? Do we need to invite them? Do we need to expel them? Could Chinese immigration be stopped? Should it be stopped? How useful is it for the development of Russia?

95There are many problems with estimating how many Chinese there are. First of all, in the Russian Far East, we have immigrants mostly from the neighboring provinces of China. In Vladivostok or in parts of Siberia, you mostly find people who come from Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Inner Mongolia, and partly from Jilin Province. In Moscow you can find people from all parts of China. People who come to Moscow mostly come to stay longer, and those who come to the Far East are mostly moving back and forth, doing business and making money.

96In 1992, the Russian Government adopted a visa-free regime of travel between the Russian Federation and China. A high official of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry acknowledged in a private conversation in 2001 that this decision had opened the door to illegal migration, but said it had been necessary because of the disruption of trade distribution networks in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Russian Far East faced scarcity of food and consumer goods. Chinese traders had helped solve this problem.

97The period from 1992 to the beginning of 1994 was the period of the greatest influx of Chinese migrants into Russia. In 1994, the visa-free agreement was limited to diplomatic and service passports, and from the spring of 2001, it was narrowed to diplomatic passports only.

98Visa-free group tourism in bordering provinces is still there. The Russian Foreign Ministry could easily call on Beijing to cancel this arrangement, but the visa statistics show that the number of Russian visitors to China increasingly exceeds the number of the Chinese visiting Russia. The number of Chinese tourists and visitors is slowly declining, and the number of visitors from Russia to China is growing. So the Russian government is reluctant to cut visa-free border tourism.


99In Moscow, the City Department of Visas and Registrations said in 1999: we have only 10,000 Chinese officially registered in Moscow. Later, they said: there are probably several hundred thousand Chinese in Moscow, but they are unregistered. So we don’t know where they are.

100On one end, you have official statistics, which are the smallest numbers. On the other, the biggest ones are just journalism or alarmist political statements, where the figures are exaggerated. Official figures are unbelievably small, and alarmist figures are unbelievably large. Between these two extremes, there are two more sets of figures. One set is by scholars who work for state institutions, like the Russian Academy of Sciences and universities. Sometimes they are critical of official statistics. Usually, if you get an official figure of ten, scholars who work for official institutions will give you something like 100.

101Zaionchkovskaia and Gelbras, using funds from the Carnegie Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, or the Ford Foundation, obtained estimates in between the alarmist figures of millions and official statistics’ dozens. According to the study carried out by Professor Gelbras, the number of Chinese in Moscow is 22 to 25 thousand.

102The Migration Service says there may be 30,000 Chinese residents in Russia. The 2002 census say 3,000. Scholars’ figures range between 400 thousand and 1 million. A study by Vitkovskaia and Zaionchkovskaia shows 200,000 to 300,000 Chinese in Eastern Siberia and the Far East by the late nineties. How do people produce such figures as two or three million Chinese in Russia? There are no rational explanations.

103Then there is yet another set of figures, that of the Chinese authorities. The Chinese state also claims to know how many Chinese there are in Russia, down to the individuals. First of all there is a figure from the embassy. And second, there is a figure from the so-called Qiaoqing Pucha, the Overseas Chinese Census, which is done through relatives of the migrants in China. The questionnaires are sent to families in China.

104And finally, there are indirect ways of estimating the number of the Chinese. In the summer of 2001, a Tu-154 aircraft of the airline Vladivostok-Avia flying from Yekaterinburg in Western Siberia to Vladivostok crashed near Irkutsk, and ten percent of the passengers were Chinese. Several of them were illegals. Can we see this as a random sample of the local population and conclude that Chinese account for ten percent of that segment of the local population which can afford flying? (Another interesting detail is that this plane had been used by a Chinese airline before having been purchased by Vladivostok-Avia. Russian papers immediately speculated that the accident is the fault of the Chinese airline that had not properly maintained the plane. Yet the investigation pointed to pilot error.)

105This provocative way of “estimating” just serves to illustrate that even an estimate like this would be more reliable than saying there are three million Chinese. The latter figure means nothing at all, and yet it is cited by many scholars, and politicians, who do not even explain how they get it.

The current situation

106The image of Chinese migrants is very different from the perception of migrants of other countries. It also varies between Russian regions. For example, in Central Russia, or even in Moscow, there are refugees from Afghanistan. After the collapse of the political regime that was loyal to the Soviet Union, many political and military figures of that regime escaped to the Soviet Union. Now they represent a poor and underprivileged part of migrants. Their links with the motherland are completely severed—or at least they were before the toppling of the Taliban regime.

107By contrast, the image of the Chinese migrant, at least in the central part of Russia, is that of somebody who is well connected with his native land and who came to Russia to enrich himself. You can find similar stories in Southeast Asia where the real or presumed wealth of the Chinese community creates contradictions. People conclude: This wealth is not fair; it was built at the expense of the development of the native Russian population.

108Are the Chinese economic migrants or simply businessmen who come to another country to make money? There is an idea that if the Chinese continue coming to Russia, they'll take all jobs in construction and agriculture, which are badly paid, and it would be quite easy to solve Russia’s problems because the Chinese would do the work that Russians are not willing to do. Peasants who are coming from the areas bordering Russia are eager to do some labor of this kind, but it is very hard to say whether the Chinese are complementing Russians or stealing jobs. But according to another study by Vitkovskaia, 47% of the Chinese residing in the Russian Far East and Siberia are engaged in trade, and 65% of them are not willing to be workers.

109Only the scholars who are working using American money had a chance to enter the Chinese community, because they had the money to do fieldwork and administer their own questionnaires. Official scholars usually take what they know from paper sources for granted. And they never penetrate into the Chinese community. The only scholars who have done research in the Moscow communities of the Chinese were Gelbras and his team, who worked for the Carnegie Foundation.

110Gelbra’s team observes that, as the Chinese themselves say, in Moscow they have two enemies: the police and skinheads. In 1999, when after two explosions in Moscow, people’s identity papers were checked especially rigorously, the Chinese disappeared from the streets for half a year; but they didn’t disappear from the city. In Moscow, there are more than ten hostels that are completely Chinese. They are like small Chinese islands, not Chinatowns but China-buildings scattered all around Moscow. They are mostly controlled by the Chinese. There are Chinese guards at the doors. In Moscow’s markets, Chinese almost never trade goods themselves. Usually they own a market stall, but often they do not appear there themselves but hire a Russian or another migrant, from Ukraine or Belarus, as the salesperson.

111Interestingly, rather than seeing this as a sign of openness, Russians interpret it as more evidence for the Chinese being a closed community, as unwillingness to communicate with Russian customers. They are involved mostly in operations controlling the flows of goods. They communicate with people who are at the market, but the leaders never appear at the market themselves. Some Moscow tabloids even claim that almost each Chinese hotel in Moscow has its own bordello, and they never hire Russian girls. Whether true or not, it reinforces the image of a self-enclosed community that avoids all communication with the Russians.

112Problems inherited from history, like the assessment of the legacy of the border delimitation, greatly influence the perception of the Chinese community. The perception of Chinese communities is linked with an idea of the future disintegration of Russia due to their growth.

Approaches to Chinese immigration

The guest worker argument

113Today there are two opposing approaches to Chinese migration in Russia. The “economic” approach calls for expanding immigration, particularly from China, as a solution to Russia’s economic problems. A well-known sociologist, Zhanna Zaionchkovskaia, Head of the Department of Migration at the Institute of National Economics Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, argues: The Russian population is declining. The population in the Far East is shrinking at double pace, because many people are returning from the Russian Far East to the western part of Russia. So, she says, quite soon labor will be the most deficient resource in the development of Russia. But we are lucky! We have a neighbor that has an abundant labor force! Professor Zaionchkovskaia is sure that it is necessary to invite Chinese to come to Russia. Her projection is that by the middle of this century, there will be at least 10 million Chinese in Russia, or maybe 20 million, equal to 20% of the immigrant labor force that should come to Russia. And, she argues, enemies of immigration must understand that only immigration could build up the Russian service sector, transportation, communication, and the construction industry.

114But is everything so simple? There are many questions about it. There is no clear-cut strategy yet for the development of the Russian Far Eastern and Siberian economy. Should it be a raw materials-based economy or should it focus on developing technologies? Therefore the need for labor is as yet unclear. Is it reasonable to start inviting migrants now? Nikita Khrushchev, the former Soviet leader, wrote in his memoirs that in the late 1950s there had been an idea to invite one million Chinese to the Soviet Union to cut trees and do other work. They invited several thousands, and later those who were involved in economic planning found out that it was simply a calculation mistake, there was no need even to invite hundreds of Chinese. There was plenty of local resources. On the other hand, if most Chinese really intend to go into trade rather than into wage labor, do we need 10 million or 20 million traders in the Russian markets?

The geopolitical argument

115Russian nationalists are obsessed with the idea of the Chinese threat, of Chinese migrants who will not be absorbed within the Russian society. But also many more moderate politicians call for closing the door to Chinese migration because, they argue, it raises the threat of compact Chinese-populated regions that may later split from the Federation. These arguments emphasize that a “re-Sinification” of the Russian Far East and its eventual return to China appear quite legitimate within the view of history that is taught in the People’s Republic of China.

116A famous liberal Russian journalist, Otto Latsis, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of New Izvestiya, raises the specter of a “Kosovo scenario” where Russians would stand for the Serbs, and Chinese, no longer obeying Russian structures of power, for the Albanians. It would be two communities split apart and hating each other. Latsis predicts that when the Chinese outnumber the Russians they will start a secession movement, there will be huge bloodshed in Siberia, and the Russian government will be forced to bomb its own land.

Prospects for the future

117For ten years, there has been no selection of Chinese who were coming to Russia. As a result, there is now a sense that we have built a self-isolated community that is absolutely unwilling to integrate into Russian society. This has become a source of nationalistic emotions. Talking about this immigration, we usually concentrate on the problem of China. Participants in this debate, including academics, rarely make the point that in a democratic state, and Russia pretends to be one, immigration policy cannot be based upon the norm of ethnicity. There cannot be another Chinese Exclusion Act as there was in the past in the United States, Canada, or Australia.

118The Russian government is now changing its migration policy. In 2001, it adopted a new migration program, creating conditions for the immigration of Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union.

119In case Russia feels that it needs to attract new labor force into the country, the only conclusion could be an institutionalized system that would test people, and it cannot be confined only to some ethnic groups. Everybody should be able to prove that they can accommodate themselves in Russian society, support themselves, and learn the Russian language. In Russia, debates about a systematic approach to immigration are always around ethnic Russians or about Chinese. Nobody raises the idea of inviting Indians. But after all, why not invite migrants from India, as overpopulated as China, or from North Korea?

A discussion on immigration policy
Lomanov: Is there a need to invite migrants to Russia from other countries in order to develop the Russian economy? In case we really need 20 million or 40 million migrants in order to keep the Russian economy developing, who should be invited and on which criteria? On a temporary or permanent basis? Is the ability of Russian institutions to manage or control the system or implement the criteria the main limiting factor for having an open immigration program? According to Gelbras’s study, only 13% of Chinese people who are living in Russia are able to speak Russian. In case we invite migrants to stay in Russia for a long time or forever, should we test them for Russian language proficiency? In order to prepare the population of the Russian Far East to accept immigrants, do we need to teach them Chinese culture? Do you want a language test for anybody who comes in, or do you want a language test only for those who want to stay forever? What are the financial implications? And what do we give them in return?
Migrants can be asked to prove that they have no criminal record or that they have paid tax in China. Interviews can also help in the selection process. Of course they are quite subjective, but the immigration official who will talk with the candidate can try to find out whether he seems ready to adapt to Russian society. Another possibility is ”business immigration,” which is best known in Canada. In case you go as a ”business immigrant” or investor immigrant, you first must invest your own money in Canadian businesses. First they invest 300,000 Canadian dollars into the Canadian economy, and only later can they move to Canada and receive all social welfare.
Can and should the criteria of selection take into account the likelihood of assimilation? In the 18th century, when German immigrants were invited to the Polish city of Poznari, only young couples with children of the Catholic faith were accepted, with a view that these were more likely to assimilate. Or are these historical ideas of assimilation obsolete?
Should the focus be on integrating those migrants who are already in Russia rather than inviting new ones? Or both?
Or is it useless to argue whether we need more Chinese or not? The government of Russia should make clear that it wants to establish a market economy. Should it just permit a free flow of capital and labor and focus on regulations and sanctions that will make the market operate well, eliminate fraud and tax evasion, and create incentives to channel migrants into important industries?
Zha: Let us consider the case of postwar Japan, an island nation that is also a former colonial power. Before and during the Second World War many Koreans moved or were moved to Japan to alleviate a labor shortage for the war economy. The Japanese do not expect them to be Japanese in any way. You have many Koreans just stuck in Japan doing the ”three D”—dirty, dangerous, and low-paid—jobs. Ethnic Koreans have built up their own ”fortresses.” You can see signs in Korean writing saying: ”Japanese stay out or else I have a bullet for you.”
During the ”bubble economy” of the eighties, the Japanese found another solution to the labor shortage and brought in Filipinos, Thais, and Iranians. The Filipinos and the Thais were normally dancers and prostitutes, and Iranians did the construction work. Their perception was: You look different, we don’t expect you to speak Japanese, you are prostitutes. No joke about it. Even if a Filipina dressed up as a Japanese, it didn’t help.
Then there was crime, there were problems with people overstaying their visas. A park in Tokyo was occupied by Iranian laborers who failed to go back to Iran, and some of them had fathered children by Japanese women. Then what do you do?
In the early 1990s, the Japanese government found a third solution. Let’s bring in ethnic Japanese, second- or third-generation descendants of Japanese migrants to South America. They are coming to do the ”three-D” jobs, but they want to be Japanese. But a third-generation Brazilian-Japanese immigrant sued the Japanese government because he was denied service. They go to the baths, they look Japanese, and yet they are kicked out. Or they go to the convenience store and they are not served. This became so bad that it became an issue when Japan ran for positions in the UN.
In the late 1990s, the Japanese found a fourth solution: the Chinese. And of course the same story goes on. Now you have a Chinese government lawyers group helping Chinese laborers who get mistreated in Japan.
What happens here? You have a clash of identities, a clash of cultures. When immigration takes place, the government’s maneuvering space is very limited. The government can control such matters as the terms of stay and crime. The forces in society the government cannot direct or control. But there is something more fundamental about that. Whether people live in their home country, whether they go to another country, they look for something more than money. Humans are not animals that follow water or grass. Migration is a learning process. It is more than just economics, there is cultural change, there is assimilation, there are many dimensions to it. If a land does not feel very hospitable, they move on, somewhere else.
My point in talking about the Japanese case is that thinking there can be a perfect solution to human migration is a fallacy. Migration is a troubling event. You have extreme responses such as in Germany, some skinheads responding to migrants from Turkey or Africa. Or you can have the Canadian response: anybody can come in with a minimal investment—let’s give this person welfare and give him a chance to get started. You have the American philosophy, which is that the government attempts to control migration but essentially accepts immigrant flows until there is an acute problem. If you go to Miami, they have elected a Cuban emigrant to be the mayor. It is a different level of acceptance.
Part of the idea of the ”China threat” comes from the psychological factor that there are just so many Chinese. Chinese leaders know that. Deng Xiaoping in 1970 in Tokyo mentioned this, very bluntly, talking about how the US was telling China to allow its people the freedom of migration. He said: ”No problem. How many millions do they want?” One of the changes the Chinese government made in response to the students’ protest in 1989 was to make it easy to get a passport. The Chinese government turned the table around: it is not that we don’t allow you to go. It is these stupid foreign embassies that don’t give you a visa. And that was probably a means to diffuse tension.
Chinese were literally dying to go to Hong Kong in the '60s and the '70s. They cut fences and electric wires. The Hong Kong solution to this, immediately after China opened up in 1979, was building factories inside mainland China along the border, bringing new machines and managers from Hong Kong. The result was a transformation of the Hong Kong economy. Back in the '70s, Hong Kong was making plastic chairs, plastic flowers, telephone sets—it was not a big deal. Because they were able to move the labor force to Shenzhen, to Zhuhai across the border, they could upgrade Hong Kong to a financial service center. They used the profits to educate themselves, learning Western banking.
Look at Shenzhen itself. In 1979, it had a population of 3,000 persons. Today it has millions. This crucial element of joint production is missing from Sino-Russian economic exchange. What has been going on is trade and trade and trade. Even in aircraft business.
Nyíri: There is an important difference in the Russia–China case compared to the Hong Kong-China case. Vis-a-vis Russia, China is the country where the capital is, and paradoxically also where the cheap labor is. Usually capital is in one place and cheap labor in another, and there is a certain dynamic. But in this case, the Russians who live in the Far East continuously talk about incredible unemployment and poverty on the Chinese side, which is probably what makes people go to Russia. But the Chinese cities across the border look better than Vladivostok, and there is more production.
Zha: Still, the Russians can design things together with the Chinese, for the Russian market or the Western markets. And there is a huge consumer market within China itself that remains to be detected.
And now a note of caution. I've been a migrant overseas since 1988. I never feel I am mistreated, even though the general image of a Chinese living in Japan is one of racial tensions.
You can get carried away if you rely on personal experiences and impressions. Remember the criterion of admissible evidence in research. Personal stories matter, but at what level are they admissible as evidence? If you occupy your research with your personal impressions, aren’t you missing something larger? The last thing you want to do is to have a model UN type of exercise where you represent China, you represent Canada, you represent your home country, everybody goes in there, delivers a very nationalistic speech, refuses to listen to the other side, and walks away.

Table des illustrations

Titre 4.1. A map of the Soviet-Chinese border with historical references
Fichier image/jpeg, 114k


Alexander V. Lomanov is Leading Research Fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
He is interested in the relationship between Russia and China—particularly their interplay with globalization, nationalism, and regionalism—as a “peripheral” drama in the construction of East–West interactions questions of in Russo-Chinese interactions.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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