To understand a country’s nightmares, read its novels.
Here is one of Russia's: It is the year 2028 and the monarchy has at last been restored. The nation's future is holy, medieval and backward, walled off behind a Great Wall – and in its Secret Chancellery the agents of the blessed Sovereign are investigating an act of illegal occultism that is maddening them.
Sixteen months before, six members of the anti-Russian sect ‘Ardent Light’ had been detained in Moscow. The cultists' crime was to have drawn a map of Russia on to a white cow, before killing, carving up the animal, and carrying each chunk and joint to a different corner of the imperium to feed… foreigners.
Three old Estonians smacked their lips after eating the animal's frozen head in the slums around Pskov; its hooves were rolled into little meat balls and fed to Belorussian farm hands in Roslavl; its chest was turned into borscht for eighteen Ukrainian ferrymen; its flank was used to fill the dumplings the Chinese settlers of Barnaul wolf down to keep themselves going; whilst Japanese colonists in the Far East were the ones that ate its whole hind legs. The Secret Chancellery has forced these anti-Russian heretics into confessions. But they are unnerved, troubled even. They cannot find the animal’s entrails – its guts.
All these are scenes from Vladimir Sorokin’s grotesque satire Sugar Kremlin, a world where Putin’s rule has given way to the worst of all Russian futures: a feudal one, where Siberia is colonized by Asiatics and the Chinese dominate commerce even in Moscow. Its holy Sovereign, in an empire where everything worth having is made in China, from the cars his horse guards drive to hallucinogenic drugs his court consumes, has chosen to educate his children in Mandarin. To the reader in our own world this subservience to China is meant to be as terrifying as neo-feudalism, because in the form of millions of migrants somehow flooding Siberia, it represents the one truly existential threat to the Russian state still imaginable… other than the half-forgotten terror of nuclear weapons.
The fears of 2008
The financial crisis saw one dominant hysteria replaced by another another. Out went a narrative about failed states, rogue states and nuclear equipped Jihadists; in its place came the fear of a rising China, apparently set to dominate the world with its crushing GDP figures and endless pits of cheap labour. In the West, the response was huge amounts of money poured into think-tank programmes unpacking Beijing politics. US Republicans started to feature China in their attack ads. You could see it in the names of some of the books that were selling, e.g. When China Rules the World.
In Russia, 2008 rekindled the fears of the early 1990s. There was increasing talk of civil unrest destabilizing the state, and there was creeping talk about Chinese ‘migrant invasions.’ This was fused to new century paranoia that an un-modernized Russia could end up completely dependent on a triumphant Beijing as in Sorokin’s ghastly vision. This was redolent of the 1990s ‘yellow peril’ that opened with the border in Asia.
The military in particular started making statements. The chief of Russia’s ground forces, Lieutenant General Sergey Skokov, warned that, in the future, ‘if we talk about the east, it could be a million-man army with traditional approaches to the conduct of combat operations.’ The head of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, also went public with his concerns. In the Artic, he warned, there was a growing danger ‘due to the penetration of host states advancing their interests very intensively, in every possible way, in particular China.’ It was so pervasive that even then-‘President’ Dmitry Medvedev warned that unless Russia developed the Far East it could ‘lose everything.’
Russian think-tankers seemed the most distressed of all. The most influential foreign affairs writers in the country, including Fyodor Lukyanov and Sergey Karaganov, warned in the Valdai Club paper Towards an Alliance of Europe that unless the EU and Russia joined forces to form a pole in world affairs they were doomed to irrelevance in the coming age of ‘US-China bipolarity.’ Sergey Karaganov, who has advised Yeltsin, Medvedev and Putin, darkly prophesized that ‘Russia’s regions east of the Urals and, above all, its Far East are being transformed into a raw material appendage of rising China.’ Serious publications like Expert ran sensationalist claims that millions of Chinese were already living in Russia. A few tabloids started shrieking the Chinese were in fact living in huge camps in the forest, in taiga so dense the FSB couldn’t find them – laying the groundwork for their ‘takeover.’
Writer Vladimir Sorokin reads from Sugar Kremlin (published 2008). Sorokin's satire imagines a nightmarish future for Russia, with an un-modernized motherland ending up entirely dependent on a triumphant Chinese superpower.
This triggered a wave of Sinophobia and Sinomania in the Russian elite. Tibetan remedies and Asian cures became ever more fashionable, Putin’s daughter was said to be fluent in Chinese, even Korean, and no foreign policy grandee was worth his salt if he hadn’t been at least twice to Beijing by 2010. As I researched my forthcoming book round Moscow, it seemed everyone who was anyone in the Russian commentariat wanted to talk about China, from Medvedev associate Igor Yurgens to the one-time Kremlin spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky. An embarrassing number of them claimed to have gained some ‘enlightenment’ into Chinese ‘grand strategy’ from reading Confucius’s Analects. And when the interior of the office of the Vladislav Surkov himself was finally photographed, the ‘grey cardinal’ too had some Chinese characters prominently positioned in one of his display cabinet: the brushstrokes read ‘Sovereign Democracy.’
'One number stuck with me most of all. The population of the Russian Far East is 6.5m, whilst that of the three Chinese border regions is over 100m. I couldn’t help but imagine this border like a Dutch dyke holding off the sea.'
Like most think-tankers, I only started travelling to China in 2008. When I first arrived in humid Shanghai and looked at the glass towers of Pudong that seemed to spring up like mushrooms overnight – at first I saw reflections of the decline of the West. From those first few meetings, the numbers stuck with me most of all: a billion plus consumers, trillions of Yuan, millions of scientists, double digits growth in GDP.
But one number stuck with me most of all. The population of the Russian Far East is 6.5m, whilst that of the three Chinese border regions is over 100m. I couldn’t help but imagine this border like a Dutch dyke holding off the sea. Especially after wandering round the history museum on Tiananmen Square and seeing the maps of imperial China covering where Khabarovsk and Vladivostok now sit. Was a dysfunctional, corrupt Russia losing Siberia? A lot of people in Moscow shrugged this was perhaps inevitable. Was it actually happening? Not a lot of people seemed to know for sure. So, I had to go there.
The facts on the ground
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.
'What is so surprising is there are quite simply very few Chinese in the cities of the Russian Far East. There are no large ‘China-towns’ and local officials and locals say the numbers have been falling for years.'
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.
According to the local interior ministry in Birobidzhan, there were only 2,000 Chinese in the region and the number was falling. The Ministry's rugged, scar-faced officials explained to me that ever since the mid-2000s, bigger investment in salaries and better techniques had effectively sealed the border. They swore to me it was impossible not to be harassed as a foreigner in Birobidzhan: I believed them – the only way I had got to interview them was due to them briefly detaining me for ‘suspicious’ behaviour.
"Life has improved in China and there are now better opportunities there. I’m going back. China got richer, but Russia got nowhere."
Chinese settler-farmer 'Andrei'
To find the Chinese themselves I had to drive for hours through the marshy wastelands to south of Birobidzhan all the way to the border. I passed through ramshackle and decrepit Russian villages. It was as if a plague had been there. Everyone seemed ill, old or an alcoholic. Everything appeared broken, used-up, kaput. Those who lived there, scraped through, living off their pensions and selling berries and mushrooms on the side of the road.
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.’
This labour shortage, he said, was his biggest fear, quite the opposite of the ‘Yellow Peril’ in Moscow, that assumes empty places inevitably suck in millions of migrants.
China’s demographic crisis
As I drove to Khabarovsk, an unimaginable number of insects from the marshes swatting on the windscreen – through the supposed ‘densest’ patch of Chinese famers – the evidence was scant and the few I met told the same story. It wasn’t really happening. Over the next few days as I drove halfway to Vladivostok the farmsteads disappeared altogether. The colonization of Siberia that had so unnerved me was a living myth.
Put simply, Russia’s nightmares about China do not match up to the demographic realities of its neighbour, let alone its migrants’ desires. Studies suggest that Russia is their fifth or sixth choice, usually for those who have failed to make it in the biggest coastal cities. Russia is reported as a violent, dangerous place with predatory police. This is why there are already more Chinese in Africa than its half-empty neighbour.
'Russia’s nightmares about China do not match up to the demographic realities of its neighbour, let alone its migrants’ desires. Studies suggest that Russia is their fifth or sixth choice, usually for those who have failed to make it in the biggest coastal cities.'
But, above all, Russia is not losing Siberia to Chinese migrants because the People’s Republic itself has its own demographic crisis. This no longer a country of a billion land-hungry peasants desperate to go anywhere, even Siberia. In fact the legacy of the one child policy and the rise in wages as the economy booms has produced an acute labour shortage inside China. The working age population as a percentage of the total began to fall in 2011 as the country moved away from the demographic ‘sweet spot.’ According to one study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there are over 10m unfilled jobs in the coastal cities. The Manufacturers Association of Hong Kong has reported that 90% are struggling to hire as many workers as they need and are on average 14% short. This is why it is becoming so difficult to get Chinese to come to their few farming bridgeheads in Siberia.
A Chinese migrant worker picks tomatoes at the Saglasy greenhouse complex in Chelyabinsk, Western Siberia. Some evidence suggests that far from increasing exponentially, Chinese migration may be much reduced, with increased wages and inhospitable locals encouraging many potential migrants to stay put. Picture: (c) Ria Novosti / Aleksandr Kondratuk
These are the first contractions of China’s coming demographic crunch: its total fertility rate is already below Russia, leaving it as the lower end of world rankings, and the UN has projected that, given current trends, its population will sink below 1 billion again by the end of this century. Starting around 2020 China is going to age faster than any society in the history in the world. By 2025 the age of meaningful Chinese labour export will be over and the one child policy generation will be ‘precious commodities’ at home. Eventually, Beijing will need to turn to massive immigration itself or risk grey stagnation.
Even the danger conjured up by Sergey Karaganov, that of Russia turning into a ‘raw material appendage’ of a richer China does not fit the facts. A raft of laws to prevent this have been brought into place: banning foreigners buying land in the Russian Far East, further tightening of migrant regulation and billions of dollars invested by Moscow into regenerating Vladivostok around the 2012 APEC Summit. Local businessmen in Vladivostok complain they want more Chinese investment and that government ‘protection’ is keeping it out. People in this city laugh when you ask them about ‘migrant invasions’ or ‘Beijing buying up Siberia.’
'Why do so many in the Russian Far East say they still fear a Chinese future? They [actually] fear the fragility of the Russian state.'
Rather than being a ‘raw material appendage’ of China, almost all Siberian oil, gas and mining resources are controlled by Russian oligarchs of state companies. There are Chinese-owned mines and oil investment, but in the grand scheme of things they are relatively small compared to those of Western states in Russia. There are plans afoot to further centralize this in a proposed gigantic State Corporation for Siberia and the Far East. Dubbed the ‘Far Eastern Republic’, this would be given preferential access to resources across this vast region and have the right to allot mining licences itself – over the head of regional authorities. It will be answerable only to the Kremlin.
So why, knowing all this, do so many in the Russian Far East say they still fear a Chinese future, one way or another? Because they fear the fragility of the Russian state, but this has nothing to do with long-term trends, or even, really, China.