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Survey on Chinese in Russia's Far East

Editor's note: Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia's vast Far East and limitless business opportunities attracted numerous Chinese businessmen. Now over 10 years have passed, how are the lives of those Chinese living abroad? Recently, this reporter with the Global Times went to the Far East region for news covering and had an in-depth understanding of those Chinese. 

'If the Chinese in Russia's Far East are driven away, it would cause inconveniences to many local people in their daily lives'


Strange soil but familiar faces. In his half a month trip in Russia's Far East, the reporter could often see the figures of Chinese either in Irkutsk, Khabarovsk or Vladivostok (Haishenwai). Then how many Chinese are there in Russia's Far East after all? Cheng Guoping, consul general with China's Consulate General in Khabarovsk, told the reporter that due to the strong fluidity of population, it is rather difficult to estimate the exact number, which, however, is absolutely not the figure of 1 million as certain Russian media put it.


Currently, there are around 100,000-200,000 permanent Chinese living in the Far East region as approved by Russian and Chinese governments. Except a few students and staff sent there by domestic companies, others are basically small retailers and labor service workers. They mainly deal in articles of daily use, clothes, shoes and hats or are engaged in agricultural planting, tree-felling and construction. In terms of regional distribution, Chinese are concentrated in Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Irkutsk and Chita. There are even thousands of Chinese retailers in Chinese markets in some of the cities. Although most of them are doing small businesses, there are locally well-known Chinese entrepreneurs in almost every Far Eastern city. The Chinese industrious and hard-working spirit is also affirmed by Russians. Even officials with a local Russian immigration bureau who are very harsh to Chinese have to acknowledge the excellence of the Chinese labor force.


The reason why Chinese leave their hometown to seek wealth in the Far East is that the business competitions there are far less fierce than in China and it is easier to make money. According to a consular official, it is very common for people engaged in catering and construction to earn a yearly income of hundreds of thousands of yuan, and in Khabarovsk, a shoe mender can make a net income of several tens of thousands of yuan which is unconceivable in China. Meanwhile, the economic activities of these Chinese also filled the blank of the consumption and labor markets in the Far East and make important contribution to meeting local people's needs and promoting the local economic development. The Russian Foreign Ministry's representative stationed in Chita State once made a vivid metaphor, saying, "If all the Chinese here are driven away, then 70 percent of the locals will have no trousers to buy." Although a bit exaggerative, his remarks vividly show the importance of the economic activities of the Chinese in the Far East. For the local government of the Far East, the various fees paid by the big Chinese market become an important source supplementing the local budgetary revenue. The Usurisk municipal government receives annually as much as US$1.5 million from one Chinese market alone. The deputy mayor of Usurisk once said that the city could guarantee the salaries of the civil servants mainly by relying on the income generated by the big Chinese market.


Businessmen in Russia must be ready to go home anytime, and also to endure the nagging of vicious forces


Despite the huge profits reaped from business done in the Far East, risk involved is equally very big. In the words of a Chinese already doing business in Russia for a dozen years or so: Doing business in Russia is just like wandering about doing all sorts of jobs, which is full of risk and danger; the businessman must be ready to go home at all time. It is reported that since Russia introduces a strict system of restricting the number of visas issued to foreigners, most Chinese retailers in the Far East do not have legitimate visas. For instance, there are about 20,000 Chinese in Irkutsk but the Russian government has only granted working visas to 3,000 Chinese this year. Additionally, the procedure is complicated, so sometimes it takes half a year or even eight months to apply for a working visa valid for one year and this makes Chinese businessmen complain a lot. Unable to go through the legal residence procedure and acquire working visas, most Chinese businessmen can hardly have their legal rights and interests guaranteed, as a result, they become the targets of vicious local forces and some low-quality Russian policemen.


A Chinese businessman complained to the reporter that in the eyes of some Russian policemen, a Chinese is a "living purse" and almost every Chinese has the experience of being racketeered by Russian police. Crimes committed by vicious local forces against the Chinese are common occurrences. On the day the reporter arrived in Vladivostok, there was a case of attack on the Chinese, leaving one Chinese dead. There are more cases of robbery and pilferage and even the Deputy Consul of China's Consulate General in Khabarovsk was not lucky enough to escape in these incidents, his home was robbed twice in merely 10 days. And the Consulate warned the reporter time and again not to go out alone for news covering in Khabarovsk so as to avoid accidents.


China' Consulate General in Khabarovsk has done a lot to safeguard the legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens there. However, Chinese businessmen's psyche of "suffering of financial losses helps eliminate calamities", to some extent, helped inflate the arrogance of the lawless elements. To counter this phenomenon, the Consulate General actively launched various kinds of activities publicizing legal knowledge to enhance the awareness of Chinese citizens to protect themselves, which has yielded good results. Chinese diplomats often visit the market and conduct inspections in open and secret ways and this has markedly frightened the Russian lawless gangsters and greatly reduced the cases of Russian policemen's extorting money from the Chinese. The policemen who in the past waited brazenly outside the market for extorting money also disappeared.


Vicious competitions among Chinese businessmen cause them to suffer a lot


The sentence "one person is a dragon while three people an insect" is used to describe overseas Chinese business operators. Chinese retailers in Russia are no exception. Despite associations for overseas Chinese in various regions, almost all these people are working single-handedly and not interested in those associations. For instance, among the 20,000 Chinese in Irkutsk, less than 100 are members of these associations. Due to the lack of organization and coordination, the Chinese selling the same type of commodities often engage in price war, undermine each other and they themselves suffer a lot. Take the fruit market in Irkutsk this year for example, the internal strife among Chinese businessmen greatly brought down the fruit price and incurred great losses to themselves. A Chinese businessman in Irkutsk said feelingly that it is no easy thing to do business abroad and foreigners will laugh at the Chinese if they are not united. Chinese people should change their minds and actively organize and join guilds to avoid such pernicious competitions.


The quality of the Chinese in the Far East is another thing in urgent need of improvement. As most Chinese there are farmers and laid-off workers who are not well educated, some business dealers operate against rules and engage in tax evasion and fraud. Some people who have poor morality are even keen on gambling and prostitution. Chinese become the main customers of the gambling houses and porn sites in Far Eastern cities. At nightfall, crowds of people are there in gambling house in Vladivostok; over half of them are Chinese. These behaviors not only tarnish the image of the Chinese, but also ruin the career and families of many people. A Chinese businessman in Vladivostok, who was once labeled as the richest Chinese in the Far Eastern coastal area and monopolized the leather goods businesses of the whole area, went bankruptcy because of gambling.


A Russian official say: The report about Chinese boosting unemployment rate of Far Eastern residents is sheer nonsense


During news covering, the reporter also found that some officials and people in Russia's Far East have much prejudice against the Chinese and worry that increasing numbers of Chinese will put the region under Chinese control. In fact such worry is entirely unnecessary. According to investigation made by Russia, only about 1.5 percent of the Chinese making a living in Russia's Far East want to settle in Russia and less than 10 percent are willing to marry Russians. To make money and go back home is the common aspiration of most Chinese there. In recent years, with strengthened Sino-Russian economic and trade relations, the aforesaid prejudices are decreasing.


According to an investigation conducted by the Far East Academy under Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, nowadays, young educated people are more and more tolerant of accepting Chinese labor and marrying Russian girls off to Chinese. As the population of the Far East regions keeps decreasing, leaders of the Russian central government and the local government of the Far East have to admit the labor shortage existing in the local economic development. And the outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) early this year made Russians have a clearer understanding of this point. At that time, the closed-off boundary led to soaring prices and complaints were heard everywhere. A Russian economist said frankly that SARS made people in the Far East truly realize that the economy of the Far East can not develop without Chinese people.


In refuting some Russian media's reports about Chinese causing increase in the unemployment of residents in the Far East, director of the Market Research Institute of the Far East Academy under Russia's Economic and Trade Ministry said that is sheer nonsense. The unemployment in the Far East is a kind of structural unemployment. Russians are mainly engaged in technical work while Chinese in manual work such as construction, lumbering and planting which Russian are not willing to do. Therefore it must be Chinese who fill in the vacancy. And "the all-round cooperation between the Far East and north China is determined by the natural geographic conditions of the two countries."


(People’s Daily January 2, 2004)

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