Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the slim likelihood of a Chinese takeover of the Russian Far East

For some time, it's been taken for granted by many--see bloggers here and here and here--that China, with its growing population and its booming economy, is destined to take over the Russian Far East, usually the southern portions of said territory around the cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, on account of said region's post-Soviet decline. It was Chinese territory up until the mid-19th century, after all--why shouldn't it become part of Zhongguo again? Kim Iskyan proposed in Slate in 2003 that Russia should sell the territory while it can.

Seven million people live on the frozen resource-rich taiga of Russia's Far East, a region nearly as large as the contiguous United States. Roughly 1.3 billion Chinese are packed like pickles next door, where corruption, spiraling unemployment, environmental disaster, and growing rural unrest are taking the luster off the Chinese economic miracle. Unfortunately for China's dire need for new demographic and economic horizons, Russia isn't eager to share its chilly sandbox with the neighbors. The struggle between Dr. Malthus and Doctor Zhivago> threatens the balance of power in the Far East. But economics—rather than a Tom Clancy-style showdown—will likely decide the winner.

[. . .]

The endless horizons of the RFE would create new opportunities for land ownership for tens of millions of unemployed Chinese rural dwellers. Unlike Russia, China has the ingrained entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the incentive and cash, to make the best of the Russian Far East. The RFE's natural resource wealth—especially oil and gas on Sakhalin—would provide Beijing with a significant measure of energy-security comfort. Moving in on Vladivostok, Russia's only temperate Pacific port, would at once end Russian trade in the Pacific; terminate any lingering relevance for Russia's Pacific navy; and enable China to pose an immediate threat to Japan. Russia's focus, though, long ago shifted west, just as its influence in East Asia has long been on the wane.

[. . .]

[F]or Moscow, the RFE is a distant underperforming colony that is gradually slipping into economic and demographic irrelevance. China needs an outlet for simmering rural unrest, and it has historically had designs on the Russian Far East. Admittedly, the likely difficulties of negotiating a fair price (the $2.5 trillion suggested by a usually sane Russian legislator as Russia's price for turning over the disputed Kurile Islands to Japan suggests that Moscow would aim high) is one barrier to the transaction. And Vladimir Putin would have a spot of trouble trying to convince the Russian electorate that selling off the motherland's crown jewels is a good thing

But a Far East version of the Louisiana Purchase—the Siberian Bargain, to take a bit of geographical license—would allow Moscow to get rid of its Far Eastern headache and raise some cash to see it through the next dip in commodity prices, and it would pave the way for China to buy a few more decades in its capitalist experiment. Occasionally, economic rationality prevails. Might Russia and China see the (snow-blinding) light?

Call this vision a Russian version of Eurabia.

But does this vision hold up? Sergei Prosvirnov, writing in the latest issue of (vol 37 no 2) Far Eastern Affairs, an English-language version of a Russian journal on China, argues fairly convincingly in his article "On the Migration Between Amur Region and China at the Turn of the 21st Century" (62-72) that this vision is wrong, certainly inasmuch as it assumes that hundreds of thousands or even millions of Chinese live in these territories now. "[O]ne Ishakov, the Russian President's former representative in the Far Eastern Federal District, said in a December 2006 interview that some 350,000 illegal Chinese migrants lived in the region, in addition to the legal presence of 150,000 Chinese who had the required legal status. In another interview, the former presidential representative went as far as claiming that one in ten residents of the Far Eastern Federal District was a Chinese" (63).

Is this true? According to Prosvirnov, certainly not in the Amur region, as actual statistics demonstrate. "Estimates made by experts for Amur Region and Blagoveshchensk do not go above 5,000 Chinese citizens residing within their boundaries. They are, in particular, traders, most of whom have businesses in Blagoveshchensk. For their part, Chinese sources estimate the number of Russian citizens living every day in Heihe, across the Amur River from Blagoveschensk, at between 3,000 and 4,000" (64). Chinese migrants are present in some number, but make up only 4.4% of the Amur region's employed population, working in areas like trade and forestry and farming, often on short term contracts (66). The author goes on to argue that, in fact, administrative issues are even hindering Chinese tourists.

Who is crossing the border? Russian bordercrossers, in fact, are more numerous than their Chinese counterparts, as they cross to shop and to visit tourist attractions and commute and even live in order to take account of the lower cost of living (65-66). Heihe, the Chinese city located on the other side of the Amur from the Russian province's capital of Blagoveschensk, has benefited accordingly. "Chinese public service officials are glad to have Russians in Heihe. A good illustration of this is the admission made by Yuan Yuxiang, chief of the construction department at Heuihe, at a meeting with a Russian delegation in 2006. "Once we have a bridge across the Amur completed, you will be able to live here and commute to work in Russia. Many Blagoveschensk residents would willingly embrace this idea, not least because the cost of living on the Chinese side is much cheaper. In December 2006, a woman pensioner made the country's headlines after she had moved to live in China. On the heels of that sensation, local and central press continue to publish regular features about Russian citizens buiying real estate in China in the subsequent period" (66).

Will this change in the future? It's unlikely. Quite apart from growing anti-Chinese xenophobia (69-70), the likes of which has been extensively documented, the Russian Far East isn't all that attractive. "A forecast of possible Chinese migration to Amur Region in the short term must take account of the situation in China itself. For example, a number of Russian experts do not see the Russian Federation as a priority for global Chinese migration for such reasons as China's economic growth and rising living standards in the country that do not contribute to Russia's attractiveness to Chinese migrants. Foreign researchers give Russian Far Eastern territories a transit role on the route to European capitals. Another consideration is that the 'one family one child' policy, experts argue, will result in a faster aging of China's population than is the average for the world at large" (70).

It's worth noting in this connection that just before a relatively thinly-populated territory is adjacent to a relatively densely-populated territory a population shift isn't inevitable. There has been no massive Euro-Canadian or Danish influx to Nunavut or Greenland, no mass migration to Tibet (the Chinese migrants seem to be concentrated in Lhasa and are usually temporary besides, contra perceptions). There was a massive Soviet-era settlement of the Far North of that state, but that was driven by political imperatives and has been--as the Far East demonstrates--in decline since the end of these subsidies. If areas of the Russian Far East once part of China had stayed part of China, doubtless these regions wouldn't be much differing from Heilongjiang, but the post-Chinese development of the region is such that temporary migrations by ambitious traders or contract workers, exploiting the resources of a relatively marginal area, seem plausible. Besides, as Prisvirnov points out, there's not much of a choice between--say--Blagoveschchensk or Berlin.


FreedomDemocrat said...

I would wonder though if global warming would make the Russian Far East a more attractive area, if projections hold.

Anonymous said...

Why would Chinese men go to the Russian Far East?

Chinese immigrants
”Life is so much better here,” he said. “In China, the competition is cruel and there is huge pressure on people. Here there is space and nature. I can walk by the sea or feel the fresh air in the forest. In China, there is barely a tree left[...]

Sergei Buchma, the deputy president of an association of Russian-Chinese entrepreneurs, runs a business center in Vladivostok where eight Chinese companies with an annual collective turnover of $10 million are based.

“Ten years ago they were all shuttle traders,” he said. “Now they are big managers, some of them turn over millions of dollars a year. They already control half of the economy here. Within 30 or 40 years they will have economic control of this whole area.”

Another consideration is that the 'one family one child' policy, experts argue, will result in a faster aging of China's population than is the average for the world at large"

"The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations: compared to the majority of countries that have similar level of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women" Demography and development in Russia

The new marriage market and the future
"Today, 97% of all unmarried Chinese aged 28-49 are male. These men make up 72-75% of a large floating population that numbers between 100 and 150 million
...the worst-case scenario implies that China may have close to 40 million young adult bare branches to spare in twenty years
Another scenario is that China will export single males"

China's controversial Polish contract

"He cites a Chinese company building an apartment block next to his home using only Asian workers.

With many Polish builders working in the UK and perceived by some to be undercutting UK pay rates, it is ironic that their jobs at home could now be filled by Chinese workers"

Cicerone said...

That are modern migration patterns. The more modern and developed a society is, the less attractive is a life in an empty area. Migrants in a modern society usually go to the densiest parts of the countries, the cities.

Randy McDonald said...


More attractive? It hasn't been enough to attract Russians. Even though the regions said to be set to be Sinicized share a climate type with most of nrothern and central Europe, they still haven't attracted a significant population. Warming the climate might make things more habitable, but it wouldn't change the underlying developmental patterns that have discourage settlement to date. Again, if these regions had stayed Chinese and developed accordingly, they'd doubtless be as heavily populated as the Chinese northeast is now, but they weren't, and that path was closed off.


If we're talking about Chinese moving in large numbers to Russia, European Russia with its high level of development strikes me as a more likely destination. The climate might be similar to that of the Russian Far East, but the Russian heartlands are so much more attractive.


Agreed. This concentration might account for biased perceptions of migrants, of Chinese in the Russian Far East as elsewhere. If you've a relatively concentrated and highly visible minority in a particular area, the temptation might arise to extrapolate wildly.

Randy McDonald said...

It's also worth noting that the direction of migration seems to be from Russia to China.

Anonymous said...

China's average female age is arround mid thirties or so? and with a current below replacement fertility rate and no asurance that it would blast up if family size laws were removed, China may begin to shrink. Then there are the many alternatives for migrants to go, even within China, that will compete with Siberia. Siberia might become *more* Chinese but it might not become nearly Chinese enough - Especially if any degree of assimilation goes on in later generations. The Russian government might decide to bombard the airwaves with free Russian language TV and offer free Russian language and culture lessons to immigrants.

Then again, we need to remember that there are a lot of Chinese in the area who are there temporarily or who cycle between the two nations so the current levels of settlement are not as great as they can appear.

The future of the region is far from certain. They (whoever they might be) might have to end up flying in seasonal shifts to work at exploiting the resources with isolation pay. They might have Indian employees running robotic mining equipment over satellite feeds.

Cicerone said...


New fertility figures for Israel released. It's accessible via the Statistics Israel page, and then Statistical Abstract of Israel, table 3.11.

The trends of the past are continuing, Jewish fertility rose the fstest since 5 years, from 2.8 to 2.88. Muslim fertility decreased from 3.9 to 3.84. Bedouin fertility (Muslims in south district) decreased from 7.14 to 6.91. Northern district is interesting, as there, the fertility of Muslims is now just 0.4 children ahead of that of the Jews. If trends continue, then in less than 10 years, Jews will be ahead of muslims in TFR in that district.

Looks like the Jewish population of Israel is in the 'third demographic transition', where high fertility parts of the society (Haredi) have grown large enough to constantly rise the fertility of the whole country. I think that this transition slowly lifts the Jewish fertility over the next decades to the 7-8 children range.

Anonymous said...

"Today, 97% of all unmarried Chinese aged 28-49 are male."

If 3% of the women between 28-49 are unmarried than only 1 in 3 Chinese between 28-49 will be women according to your statistic. To say that i don't believe your statistic is an understatement

Nobody said...

Russian statistics are not very reliable. This is a very corrupt country with people forging documents and the stuff. It should be worse in remote areas such as the Russian Far East. I think the actual number of migrants should surpass official estimates by orders of magnitude. Though it's true that the actual numbers may still not be enough to transform the Russian Far East into a Chinese province.