Thursday, August 12, 2010

More notes, some history, and a speculation on Russian immigration to China

The theme of Russian immigration into northeastern China that I explored this January is something I'd like to revisit now, thanks to an interesting post by the frequently interesting Window on Eurasia that claims that the volume has taken on large proportions.

Moscow media routinely talk about the influx of ethnic Chinese into Russian territories in Siberia and the Far East, but they rarely pay much attention to a movement in the other direction, one that has resulted in nearly 200,000 Russians living and working in the Peoples Republic of China.
Only a tiny share of these are descendents of the once enormous Russian presence in Harbin and Manchuria, reports, noting that “they are already intermixed with the Chinese population [and therefore] impossible to uncover.” The basic mass of those people who arrived in the imperial period and after the Russian Civil War were later forced to leave.
The Russians of Harbin, the portal continues were “Russian people who respective the hospitality of the Chinese as well as their own traditions. The Chinese responded warmly to Russians,” the portal says, because “our compatriots, while remaining themselves and valuing and preserving their culture, with respect accepted the Chinese world” (
Today, the site laments, “our compatriots in China are different.” They try “with all their strength to please the Chinese, to fit into their culture, and to emulate the civilized Chinese in every way” – not “of course” with the culture of the Chinese peasantry but rather with “Chinese business people who know English and the computer just like Europeans.”

The blog cites this Russian-language People's Daily article as an example. I got Google to translate it and edited it into some kind of idiomatic English (so be warned)

22-year-old Elena Zhuzina arrived in Harbin from Russia's Sakhalin province. From childhood she had heard a lot from her parents about China, leading to her taking a great interest in Chinese culture. On graduating from high school, Elena decided to continue her education in China. In 2006, Elena started studying the Chinese language in the International Institute of Culture and Education at Heilongjiang University.

"In the first part of my stay in China I did not know what I could eat in the dining room. In my first month I was eating only fruits and yogurt." Cheerful and inquisitive, Elena achieved notable success at school, quickly made friends with many Chinese, and became used to her new conditions. "The Chinese are friendly towards foreigners. When I walk down the street often someone warmly greets. Sausage and bread in Harbin to taste like they do in Russia. Most of all I love to eat Peking duck," said Elena.

In 2007, Elena was a contestant in the "Image Ambassador" competition of Harbin. On the recommendation of her teacher, Elena participated in the contest and won. Since Elena is a foreign ambassador, she has been actively involved in various events including Heilongjiang's New Year festivities and the International Beer Festival. She also was elected the Beauty of Oktoberfest.

[. . .]

Turning to her future life, Elena said that after her universities studies she intends to remain in China for further experiences. "I studied the Chinese language and made Chinese friends, I like living here," said Elena.

The Russians of China constitute one of the 56 recognized ethnic minorities of the People's Republic. It may well be that, given the growing disparities in income and infrastructure between the Chinese northeast and the Russian Far East that I mentioned earlier, the ranks of this minority may yet grow sharply.

This migration, from periphery to a newly-emergent core, would accentuate the recreatuion of the old community that once united the current Chinese northeast and the Russian Far East's southern territories together into the Manchuria home to the Qing dynasty that ruled China. Forced to cede the lands north of the Amur and east of the Ussuri to Russia in 1860, the Qing reluctantly opened up their homeland to Chinese migration, in what one source identifies as "one of the largest migrations in world history -- the movement of some twenty-five million Chinese farmers in the first four decades of the twentieth century from the provinces of Shandong and Hebei in North China to Manchuria. Of the twenty-five million who made the journey, about two thirds returned home, around eight million stayed." This immigration was a classic case of combined push factors (poverty in north China) and pull factors (the potential of the new frontier).

Because the [Qing] dynasty had forbidden immigration into Manchuria prior to 1887, the region had a relatively small population, approximately 25 million in the early 1920s [versus 110 million now], in an area as large as Germany and France combined. Since the railroads connecting the southern and northern parts of the region were opened only after the turn of the century, and because of the colder temperature in the north, [Heilongjiang] Province in the north was particularly underpopulated. As the new industries, mines, and farms needed additional labor, many from northern China made their way to Manchuria by rail and ship.

These immigrants were concentrated in the southern two-thirds of Chinese Manchuria, not in the more frigid Heilongjiang that bordered on the Russian then Soviet Far East, but even there estimates suggest that in twenty-two years from 1908 to 1930 that province's population grew from 1.8 to 5.2 million.

The settlement of the new Russian Far East, meanwhile, was more piecemeal, a half-million settlers arriving between 1860 and the Russian Revolution in 1917, the number growing as transportation links with the metropole improved. Anti-Chinese violence aside, even in the Tsarist era Chinese migration to the Russian Far East seems to have been more temporary than elsewhere in this space, Chinese most often being traders and miners in an area that was increasingly European in origin. Indeed, European migrants flocked in large numbers beyond the Tsarist empire's borders to settle in Heilongjiang's capital of Harbin, a major transportation nexus and industrial centre founded by Russian settlers and home to a community that lasted to the People's Republic.

Built in 1898 by Russians who were extending the railroad across northeastern China to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, Harbin was home to perhaps 100,000 Russian citizens in the 1920s, their ranks swollen by refugees first from tsarist oppression and later from the meltdown of their homeland under Bolshevism.

They were a microcosm of the Russian empire. Ukrainian Catholics worshiped at their own church, Jews built two synagogues and a rabbinical school and Tatars established a mosque topped by domes and crescents. Old Believers, a splinter Orthodox sect, chanted their ancient liturgies, and German-speaking Mennonites from Russia's Volga River area, relocated to the Siberian city of Blagoveshchensk, fled across the frozen Amur River in 1928-29 and settled in Harbin.

"It was a free zone," said Svetlana Rusnak, senior researcher at Vladivostok's V.K. Arseniev Primorye Local Studies Museum. "What was impossible in the Russian empire was implemented in Harbin. For instance, in Russia, Jews didn't have the right to own land and had limitations on entering universities and couldn't freely do business in the capital. But in Harbin, there was nothing like that. ... It was a mosaic, a multiethnic society, united by Russian culture."

But all this would vanish under three successive regimes hostile to the Russians of Harbin: Japanese occupiers, the postwar Soviet army and China's communist government.

[. . .]

With the arrival of Chinese communist forces, many Chinese celebrated the liberation of their country from foreigners. Russians began flooding from Harbin to Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries. Many of them had already fled the ravages of the Russian Revolution, and they were unwilling to live under a communist government.

After the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union itself recruited thousands of Harbiners. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began a policy of cultivating the "virgin lands" of Kazakhstan in 1953, and he sent trains to Harbin to transport settlers to the grasslands of Central Asia, Rusnak said.

The Cultural Revolution and onset of Sino-Soviet hostilities didn't do good things, either.

Now this might all change, with northeast China taking on a new role for the Russian Far East, not as a source of immigrants bound to swamp Russian territories, but rather as a complementary economic partner that--who knows?--might join in some measure, but not replace, European Russia as a metropole for the region's ambitious young.



Scott said...

Very interesting stuff. The fact that the Qing limited migration into their Manchurian homeland is a key detail; that doubtless gets not much more than passing mention in historical surveys of the area.

This area is still thinly populated relative to the core metropolitan areas of China, so it would seem that there would be room for significant additional in migration. I think that the fact that neighboring regions all contain aging, slow growing populations could be a factor that limits migration to this area. Japan, North and South Korea and Russia seem unlikely to be sources for major migrations. Surely for Russians already in the Far East this area could be appealing but the size of this migrant pool seems small relative to the population in place in Manchuria already.

Randy McDonald said...

The region may be thinly populated, but the northeast's economy also isn't the most dynamic in China; it seems to suffer from the classic rust belt syndrome common to many areas industrialized in the early 20th century. It's still a much larger economy than the Russian Far East's, and, lag behind the prosperous coastal areas of China notwithstanding, may well be more developed.

The fact that a population is well advanced in the demographic transition doesn't have much to do with the propensity of its residents to emigrate, although I agree it will set an upper limit on the number of people who will emigrate.

I suspect that there's going to be rather more North Korean emigrants than Russian, if we're talking absolute numbers (perhaps not so much proportions), on account of the yawning economic, political, et cetera incentives that are probably going to remain in some form indefinitely.