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Life on the Chinese border: Russia's Far East

Primorsky Territory is seven time zones away from the capital and has the largest economy in the Russian Far East.  There is justifiable irritation at Moscow’s insistence on a one-size-fits-all model of government oriented towards Europe and levels of frustration are forcing people to leave, says Olesya Gerasimenko.

The Far Eastern Federal Region covers one third of the territory of the Russian Federation. Its 6.2 million people represent 4% of the total population of the RF; two million of them live in the warm Primorsky krai or Primorye (maritime territory). Its administrative centre, Vladivostok, has a population of 600,000. 

Some 414 million people live within a thousand-mile radius of the city (in South Korea, Japan, China and North Korea), which is an hour by plane or nine hours in a train. This is Russia’s only city with a surrounding population of this size: at a similar distance around Moscow there are fewer than 100 million. The daily GDP of the area surrounding Vladivostok amounts to about $7 trillion, four times greater than the GDP of Russia. Despite living in an area of such economic concentration, however, more than 20% of the Primorye population lives on the breadline.

Over the border, in the three neighbouring Chinese provinces, a population of 110 million lives in 804,000 sq km. This could lead a newly-arrived Russian to expect a great many Chinese people in Vladivostok, buying up land on the quiet, owning real estate and marrying Russian girls. But no. Chinese restaurants are few and far between, the market has been closed down and in the former Chinese quarter there remain only a couple of boards hanging crookedly outside buildings.

China and Russia

Chinese expansion into the Far East is one of Moscow’s bugbears.  A local dignitary explains to me that previously Russians and Chinese worked amicably together. Now the Russian government is afraid of everything – the Chinese moving in and settling, Russians wanting to become Chinese citizens. But, as he says, the Chinese are hardly cheap labour and the only people that come have to be sure of being able to earn at least $1000 a month.

The boot is on the other foot in the sense that Russians are frequent visitors to North East China, mainly engaged in shuttle trade. The Russian federal customs are very pernickety, changing the rules for importing goods frequently and at random. Vladivostok abounds in notices offering ‘Suifenhe: 3 kgs for 600 roubles, 50 kgs for 3200, tel. 1117788.’ This amounts to legalized smuggling: a businessman puts together a group of volunteers, sends them over the border into China at his expense and pays for their accommodation in Suifenhe. On the way back, they go through the customs declaring that the large suitcase of goods they are carrying is their own.

The border with China is the village of Pokrovka, some three or four hours by potholed road from Vladivostok. But Russians are not allowed to drive into China in their own cars: they can only travel there by bus. China is very successful at selling itself to Russian tourists and places are hard to come by on weekend buses: people go to celebrate a birthday or simply to relax after a hard week’s work, because it’s cheaper than back home in Russia. And much cheaper than going to Europe via Moscow.

Second-hand car sales have been the major source of income in Vladivostok's economy since the early 1990s. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/Unau

Vladivostok was a closed city until 1992, but since then it has survived mainly because of second-hand car sales. The market for right-hand drive used Japanese cars does a roaring trade and Vladivostok still arranges so-called ‘car weddings’, when all the guests arrive in cars of the same make, say Toyota Celica. The bride is in a white car and the groom in a black one.  The cars stand bumper to bumper for the photographs, as if they were kissing.

Home rule?

At the end of 2008, however, it was the height of the crisis and Vladimir Putin decided to intervene on behalf of Russian company AvtoVAZ by increasing the import tax on second-hand cars. There was a demonstration against this move and the Bison division of OMON, the special purpose mobile police unit, arrived from Moscow to deal with the situation.

People in Primorye are used to peaceful demonstrations, so they were shocked by the liberal use of truncheons, which they find impossible to forget. ‘We always protested peacefully: cheerful people in the squares with homemade flags, avenues closed off the night before – no big deal. But suddenly we were being beaten by Moscow police in the centre of our own city.  Shock therapy, they called it…’ was the tale I was told by a local journalist.

Moscow chose to interpret the desire for foreign cars as a drive for home rule, rather than a perfectly understandable attempt to settle the problem of insufficient domestic car production. Vladivostok is very sensitive on this subject and has no love for myths handed down from Moscow. A barman making a cocktail called Free Far East (based on Cuba Libre or rum and coke) was blackballed, but Moscow Mule (a deadly mixture of vodka and ale) is hugely popular.  Locals told me that they were not interested in home rule, they are just against Moscow, as represented by the Kremlin.

The Kremlin adopted the tried and tested recipe of injecting state funds: in 2007 Putin proposed that the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum summit should be held in Vladivostok. Preparations for this event cost about 600 billion roubles ($20 billion): Gazprom laid a gas pipeline from Sakhalin to Vladivostok and the island Russky was taken away from Defence Ministry to be developed and connected with the mainland by an enormous bridge. Roads in the city were repaired and sewage treatment works were built for the first time.

Moscow chose to interpret the desire for foreign cars as a drive for home rule, rather than a perfectly understandable attempt to settle the problem of insufficient domestic car production.

But the locals were not taken in: in the Caucasus the 'feds' refers to the military, here it's officials and 'summit' is a dirty word. Moscow's attempts to smarten up this far-flung region and reduce its dependence on China has created new problems. In 2012 the register of migrants in the region included more Uzbeks than Chinese: the complaint is that the people that come here are non-skilled, don't know Russian and have been unable to find work anywhere else i.e. Moscow, the republics or Siberia.  In 2012 the work permit quota was 3005; in 2011 the number of migrants arriving was 19,000.


The region's best-known protest movement is called TIGR [Russian initials of Fellowship of Proactive Citizens of Russia]. Artyom Samsonov and Yury Kuchin met behind bars after the protest meeting was so violently broken up in 2008. Computer programmers by training, they were left to stew for 10 hours at the police station and found much to discuss.  They soon moved on from the subject of cars to shortage of kindergartens, infill development and the threat of a change in the time zones. 'We don't have any money, but we give advice and help to coordinate by bringing activists together,' says Samsonov. 'The time zone change would have had us getting up before dawn, but we saw that one off.' He also considers that the poor 'United Russia' result in the parliamentary election (33% as against 54% in 2007) was a result of their efforts.

TIGR is an organisation without a head – so there's no one to pressurise – and Samsonov himself has been elected to the local legislative assembly as a Communist Party deputy.  Opinions about the organisation differ: some say it was set up by the previous governor, Sergei Darkin, as a controllable opposition (which got out of control); Moscow analysts regard it as a precursor to the protest movements of the late 00s; when the Japanese flag was raised in the region in protest at the increased import tax in 2008, the State Duma declared that the organisation were separatists trying to hive off the Far East from Russia; the new governor has described them as extremists, though he didn't explain why.

TIGR may promote some separatist slogans, but its main target is the federal government. 'It's all so feudal,' say the activists. 'There's no room for business initiative to develop, all important decisions are taken by the Moscow-appointed governor and even Russian ships prefer Korean or Japanese repairs, because they're better and cheaper.'

Local businessmen say the same. Young entrepreneurs who have built up a satisfactory business here, but haven't yet saved enough to move the company to Moscow. They all have the same problem: their desire to develop the business is frustrated by the impossibility of acquiring land on a long term lease or buying a property for a shop or a bar; most of the Summit building contracts were awarded to Moscow companies.

'There's no room for business initiative to develop, all important decisions are taken by the Moscow-appointed governor and even Russian ships prefer Korean or Japanese repairs, because they're better and cheaper.'

The bridges built for the Summit and the campus of Vladivostok's new university are often compared to idols on Easter Island: 'they built them, now they pray to them for investments.' The construction of facilities for the Summit did not lead to any increase in real incomes.  VTsIOM surveys revealed that less than 50% of locals give salary as their chief source of income. The role of the shadow economy is thus not just the legacy of the 90s, when the most efficient government in the Far East was the criminal security group 'Obshchak', which extorted money from those in its grip, and bribed the government.

Separatism may exist in Primorye, but the idea originates in Moscow, where people are guided by the principle of 'give them an inch and they'll take a mile' i.e. if they want to drive right-hand cars, then that can only lead to a declaration of home rule. The federal government has invested a deal of money in the region and is not, therefore, inclined to be very alert to proposals for tax breaks for businesses or new customs legislation. Locals feel that Moscow's orientation of the whole country towards Europe is quite unsuited to their geography or the realities of their lives.

Chinese development

Meanwhile, they have an example of 'how the other half lives' right in front of their eyes. Chinese construction may not be so noticeable in Primorye, but work being carried out on the 171 sq. km islands near Khabarovsk, which were handed over to China when the national borders were defined in 2008, only inflames the situation.

Tarabarov Island is now called Yinlong (silver dragon) and the western part of Bolshoi Ussuriisky Island is called Heixiaxi (black bear). A six-kilometre bridge from the mainland over the Amur River to Bolshoi Ussuriisky is just finished: work went on all round the clock, even in temperatures of -30° and the cost of construction was 603 milion yuan (3 billion roubles). Russia is also building a bridge to the island, but things move much more slowly: during the past year they have only managed to put up some of the supports.

In September 2011 China started building a new city at the confluence of the rivers Amur and Ussuri. This city, Wusuli, is 22 km from Khabarovsk and the construction cranes are visible from the border.  The plan is to develop 12 sq km in 8 years at a cost of $6 billion.  By 2020 China aims to bring 1.5 million tourists a year to Bolshoi Ussuriisky island to see nature untouched, study Russian, eat caviar, ski, fish and take part in dog races.

Academic reasoning

In order to try and understand the real threat to Primorye – China, the separatists or CIS migrants? – I attend the lecture of a professor of the Far Eastern University, Alexander Abramov.  He was part of the team developing the development concept for Vladivostok up to 2020 and has also worked on a study of 'Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region.'

After an hour, I realise that I am hearing just what the so-called separatists were telling me, but this time expressed scientifically: new legislation, budget and tax zones, reinforcement of company headquarters in the Far Eastern region (rather than Moscow). Abramov also said that the ban on shuttle tourism, which caused hardship to 15,000 people (more if their families are included), had led to increased migration out of the region; tourism has been blighted by a 500-km border exclusion zone, where nothing can be built, while Chinese hotels and entertainment facilities are but a step away from the border crossing point.

The poor condition of the railway system in the region is only one of the problems of the development of the Far East. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/JackNo1

Underdeveloped regional transport infrastructure means that the throughput of all the Russian Far Eastern ports taken together is less than that of ports in China and Korea. These neighbours would be prepared to invest in Russian ports because they need to import raw materials or to avail themselves of transit facilities, but Moscow won't give the go-ahead for 'geopolitical reasons.' In October 2011, for instance, South Korea proposed the construction of a high-speed railway parallel to the Trans-Siberian, which could have reduced transport time to 24 hours. Russian Railways currently only have a project aimed at transporting goods from Far Eastern ports to EU borders in seven days. Abramov explained that freeing up the Trans-Siberian would increase the transport possibilities to 150 million tonnes a year; the parallel railway line would compete with air transport, and the project would pay for itself in six years.

Brain drain

But while everything is only on paper, people are leaving the region and there's no way of stopping them. Putin's Programme for Resettlement of Compatriots in the Primorye has failed: in 2006 the plan was to bring in 18 million people to live there, but in six years only 3,000 have come.  The population of Primorye is shrinking by 15,000 per year according to Primorskstat: some go to west, though not to Moscow, preferring the cheaper flats and intellectual life of St Petersburg.  Many use Moscow or St Petersburg as a springboard for a final departure to Europe.

The second wave goes east: in the 90s it was to Japan, now it's to China. People who studied Chinese find it relatively easy to find work with a salary of $3-5,000 a month.

Locals say that sooner or later everyone realises that if you want to live here, you have to do everything for yourself. It's not a question of separatism or home rule: people who leave Russia on their own or in community groups think alike.  They have no faith in the government's ability to run the country properly.

About the author

Olesya Gerasimenko is a Moscow based journalist and investigative reporter. She is staff writer for the Kommersant-Vlast magazine. 

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