The fate of the Russian Far East, the easternmost region and federal district of Russia with a land area of 6.2 million square kilometres and a fast-dropping population of 6.3 million as of the 2010 census, is something people have speculated about for some time. We've talked about it, too. Co-blogger Claus Vistesen noted in 2006 the scale of the population shrinkage in the region, product of natural decrease and of mass migration to points elsehwere in Russia. Geocurrents' Asya Pereltsvaig noted in an April 2012 post the extreme case of Magadan Oblast, where the population has fallen by two-thirds since 1989, but by and large significant population shrinkage and aging is a fact.
The supposed threat of a Chinese takeover of the region has been in the air for a century. I don't think it's going to happen. I wrote in September 2009 and again in January 2010 that the evidence just didn't suggest that there was any substantial Chinese migration to the Russian Far East, the most economically marginal area of a Russia that doesn't rank highly for Chinese migrants who want to take the expense to leave their country. I mentioned in August 2010 that there was in fact a long history of Russian immigration to northeastern China continuing even into the present day, and that a northeastern China that was fast surpassing the Russian Far East might become an important destination for people seeking to leave a declining periphery of Russia. Even the relative excess of marriage-age women in Russia contrasted to a surplus of marriage-age men in China isn't likely to propel cross-borer migration: in April of last year I linked to anotherpost by Geocurrents' Asya Pereltsvaig that made the point that, in fact sex ratios in Asian Russia generally are relatively balanced and any Chinese migration to relatively attractive areas in Russia would be directed towards European Russia.
Just last month, writing for Open Democracy Ben Judah produced an article, "Why Russia is not losing Siberia", that reinforces this. He travelled to Birobidzhan, capital of the fabled Jewish Autonomous Oblast hard by the Chinese border, to see how many Chinese were around. For a population supposedly on the verge of taking over a vast territory, the Chinese of the Russian Far East are astonishingly scarce.
Birobidzhan was supposed to be Soviet homeland for the Jews. That obviously failed. But as I researched where to focus my trip, the legendary Chinese settlement of Siberian Birobidzhan kept coming up. It was the Russian province with the highest percentage of Chinese settlement, having leased out 14 per cent of its arable land to Asian farmers. It was together with Khabarovsk region the province that has leased over 7,500 square kilometres for Chinese agriculture. I decided to go – and find out if this area the size of New Jersey was the beginning of the ‘loss of Siberia’ or in the grand scheme of things not very much of Siberia at all.
Experts in both Moscow and Beijing agree there are around 500,000 Chinese in Russia and that most of them live in the capital and St. Petersburg. What is so surprising travelling in the Russian Far East, is that this actually appears to be the case. There are quite simply very few Chinese in the cities of Birobidzhan, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. There are no large ‘China-towns’ and local officials and locals say the numbers have been falling for years.
At first glance in Birobidzhan there appear to be more Jews than Chinese i.e. virtually none in the poor and sinister city where the streets are named after Yiddish poets and official buildings are capped with rusting Hebrew lettering. Locals mock the fears of those in Moscow. The number of Chinese peddlers has been falling for years, as Chinese wholesalers put them out of business. Even in the market the Chinese were absent. ‘Why would rich people like the Chinese work in a market?’ asked one confused Kyrgyz crockery vendor when I asked where they were hiding, ‘The Chinese are the big bosses that do the wholesaling or own the stalls. They don’t get their hands dirty.’
The real striking migration flow was like elsewhere in Russia – Muslims from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In Birobidzhan, as in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, there are large numbers of Azeri immigrants, followed by huge amounts of dirt poor Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. They far outnumber any Chinese in these cities. The most powerful families in Birobidzhan were Azeri immigrants that seemed to have sewn up local politics, food processing, the taxi business and even the local prosecutor’s office.
[. . .]
Locals claimed no Slavs tilled the land any more. Yet independent Chinese settler-farmers had since the mid-2000s also practically gone extinct. The only one who I found (‘Andrei’) in this unhappy outback told me had reached the end of the line. ‘It’s simply too hard here,’ he said in his hut. ‘Life has improved in China and there are now better opportunities there. I’m going back. China got richer, but Russia got nowhere.’ The only people he employed were half-illiterate Russian girls from the village. ‘Chinese workers are too expensive. There are better jobs in China,’ he moaned.
In the far south of Birobidzhan there is some evidence of Chinese land leasing as almost all the fields are electric green from soya and tilled by Chinese migrants. Yet these are not settlers but contract workers living in barracks with no desire to remain in Russia. Instead of working long-term for remittances, they usually do two-three stints in a barracks to save up to start their own business in China and then never come back. They are forbidden to move freely by the companies and frightened of stabbings, hostile drunks and pretty much all Russians.
The director of one of these Chinese agricultural companies operating in southern Birobidzhan explained to me that he was finding it increasingly difficult to recruit enough workers to come to Russia. He estimated there were barely 6,000 in the region and the numbers were falling. ‘To be honest life in China is better than it is in Russia these days,’ he explained. ‘As Chinese wages rise, I am going to start having a serious problem getting these people to come to Russia.’
Judah, I think, is right in tracing the fears of a Chinese takeover of large parts of Russia to fears of a fatal weakness in Russia, to concerns that are fundamentally irrational and/or don't speak to what's actually going on.