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The Myth of Chinese Mass Migration into Russia

I stumbled upon a rather entertaining Reuters article a few days ago, reporting Russia’s latest move to supposedly defend against a so-called “soft invasion” from China – in which massive yellow hordes from China’s over-populated Northeast will systematically migrate into and outnumber the dwindling Russian population in the Russian Far East (RFE), and eventually assume de facto control. This article includes some very comical anecdotes, including the not-so-subtle hint that Russia recently deployed two additional submarines to counter Chinese influence in the Russian Far East, while making no mention whatsoever of recent Russo-Japanese maritime territorial disputes over resource-rich islands in the Sea of Japan. If I were a five year old, I might be led to believe that submarines are far more useful in guarding sparsely-populated land against illegal migrants, than showing resolve in a maritime dispute… which would inevitably make me wonder why the US Navy does not deploy SSNs in the Rio Grande against illegal Mexican migrants.

But joking and non-sense aside, having actually written a senior thesis on the topic of the “yellow peril” myth in Russia, I wanted to throw out a few facts to illustrate the “dire magnitude” of this supposed “threat” from the “yellow hordes”:

  1. There are a total of fewer than 500,000 Chinese residing in all of Russia at any given point, the majority of which resides in western Russia. In fact, more Chinese reside in Moscow than in the entirety of the RFE region.
  2. The ethnic Chinese population makes up less than 3% of the RFE’s total population.
  3. Out of that aforementioned ~3%, nearly 89% are seasonal migrants with no intent of permanent settlement – business people, workers, students – those who stay less than 1-year; over 8% stayed in the region for longer than 2 years; and the remainder (less than 2% out of that aforementioned 3%) expressed a desire for permanent residence (defined as 10 years or longer).

For those who care to verify these stats, check out “Alexseev, M. (2006) Immigration Phobia and the Security Dilemma, New York:
Cambridge University Press.”

I think the article “Chinese migration: still the major focus of Russian Far East/Chinese North East relations?” by Sullivan and Renz in The Pacific Review (Volume 23, Issue 2, 2010) aptly summed up emerging attitudes of local residents in the RFE:

“… after a decade of apocalyptic warnings about waves of Chinese immigrants penetrating the RFE, local residents have become increasingly aware that the inflated figures of Chinese migrants residing in the region legally or illegally do not correspond to actual developments.”

That said, I don’t expect the China-bashers in the western media to stop propagating the myth of Chinese hordes invading Russia any time soon. Its not like facts actually matter to them. On the other hand, while the China-bashers are obviously inflating this “threat” at every given opportunity, one must recognize that the west did not create this myth; its origins go back to the late 19th century and was renewed by xenophobic self-serving local politicians within the RFE. In the face of challenges largely beyond its control, China still has much work to do to foster understanding and trust in Sino-Russian relations not only on a state-to-state level, but also on a societal level.

  1. wtlh
    August 14th, 2012 at 11:50 | #1

    Given that Putin had once proposed to end visa restrictions between the two countries for short term visitors, and it was China who declined the offer, I would say at least the Russian authorities are not exactly losing sleep over the “massive wave ” of Chinese immigration.

    I think the Russians and Chinese can already visit without visa one or two bordering market towns along Suifenhe. I once saw a travel documentary about one of the towns, and the Russians and Chinese in these towns seems to get along very well and the Russians regularly takes trips over to the Chinese side as a family day-out, where they hang out, do shopping and eat etc, and vice-versa.

  2. east2west
    August 14th, 2012 at 14:20 | #2

    I think other countries should welcome Chinese with open arms. Chinese people in general are hard working , non-violent, and friendly.

  3. August 14th, 2012 at 17:54 | #3

    Yes, the yellowperil myth is a constant in the western press including sometimes in Russia. Almost always based on little to no evidence, the media or politicians love drumming up fears of the yellowhorde. But what is really behind their insecurities? Is it really national security and jobs? Perhaps. but I think this says more about at least the origins of some rightwing politicians’ fears.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/dispatches/features/2009/where_russia_meets_china/why_are_siberian_russians_drawn_to_china.html

    One feature of the Russian-Chinese relationship seemed especially telling: Cross-border marriages are overwhelmingly between Chinese men and Russian women.

  4. August 14th, 2012 at 18:22 | #4

    @wtlh

    Quick clarification on Sino-Russian visa agreements. China extended visa-free travel privileges to Russian passport-holders back in ’06 or ’07, in which Russians are allowed to travel to Chinese border areas as tourists for up to 3 days without visa applications. A lot of Russian business people take advantage of visa-free travel to purchase goods from Chinese border towns.

    Russia has not extended a comparable privilege to PRC citizens as far as I know (don’t know where you got your source), given lingering concerns about mass migration, but has dealt with Chinese migrants in a level-headed manner. For example, in 2007 a rule was put into place forbidding foreign ownership of sole proprietors in the retail sector. This law was widely propagated as a move to contain Chinese influence, when in reality it was just as much a check on Central Asian migrant business people in western Russia. RFE local law enforcement was well aware of the impact this would have on Chinese retail businesses in the RFE region and subsequent fallout for Russian consumers, so they used a technicality to reclassify Chinese-owned businesses to ensure that these businesses were not driven out or otherwise disrupted in the RFE.

    In short, while the yellow peril myths still linger in Russian society (I think this is an inevitable fallout from the chaos & stagnation of the 90s), the Russian government’s (both federal and local) motto is “do not fear immigration, as long as you control and monitor immigration” – an attitude that I find reasonable and pragmatic.

  5. pug_ster
    August 14th, 2012 at 18:32 | #5

    @east2west

    Actually, I think that Russia would welcome Chinese in its Far East Areas, considering that the population of Russians are slowly decreasing there.

  6. August 14th, 2012 at 18:45 | #6

    pug_ster :
    @east2west
    Actually, I think that Russia would welcome Chinese in its Far East Areas, considering that the population of Russians are slowly decreasing there.

    Actually that’s precisely why lots of Russians still buy into the yellow peril myth. They fear that an influx of Chinese immigrants, exacerbated by the rapid (not slow) decrease of the Russian population (50% decrease since the 90s), would eventually create a situation where ethnic Chinese outnumber Russians in the locale, and make the RFE a de facto Chinese province.

    So the reverse of what you said would be true. If the Russian population in the RFE were increasing, then they would be correspondingly more tolerant and less wary of Chinese migrants.

    In any case, while such fears are clearly exaggerated, and the mass influx is practically non-existent, China needs to be sensitive and responsive to such fears. Furthermore, Chinese nationalists must realize that while a reversal of the Treaty of Aigun (1858) would be emotionally satisfying, it is in China’s strategic interests to ensure that the RFE (especially the Kurile Islands) remains under Russian sovereignty, since Chinese access to natural resources of the region is far cheaper and easier when Russia is not constantly paranoid about the erosion of its territorial integrity and defensive against the possibility of Chinese irredentism in the RFE.

  7. jaffarca
    August 14th, 2012 at 20:30 | #7

    actually, according to the CERN, a London based pro-EU think tank, based on a Feb 2012 report, there aren’t that many Chinese people in RFE, actually. According to the report:

    “Chinese immigration has admittedly introduced Russians to the triad criminal gangs, which have proven difficult to infiltrate and crack. And some analysts suspect China’s intelligence services of making use of the triads. But in the two decades since the opening of the Sino-Russian border, few Chinese have decided to settle in Russia. They have been deterred by the cold climate, the lack of business opportunities and poor local hospitality. In Primorie, with a population of two million, there are only 25-27,000 resident Chinese. Very few marry Russians, and even fewer have come to own land in the borderlands.”

    I encourage you all to read this academic report by a non-profit group called CER, rather than some biased bullshit American tabloid trash like Slate that’s willing to say anything to sell advertisement and subscriptions. I reckon the formal has better information on Russian and Chinese relations than the latter.

    http://www.cer.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/pdf/2012/rp_065-4622.pdf

  8. jaffarca
    August 14th, 2012 at 20:35 | #8

    Read a bit of the Slate article. Once again, this shows that you have to rely (mostly) on academic sources to get a clearer and less biased picture. The quality of commercial print and online english journalism are… non-existent.

    For example, in entry 4 of the Slate series on that site,

    “The city represents Russia’s purported desire to open up to Asia—Vladimir Putin has dubbed Vladivostok the “Gateway to the Pacific.” And Moscow has promised to back up that rhetoric, choosing Vladivostok to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2012 and undertaking several ambitious new infrastructure projects, like business-class hotels and new bridges and roads, to help the city prepare for the event.”

    Well, actually, Russia volunteered to host the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, because Vladimir Putin wanted to deter any designs by China, AND Korea as well as Japan, on Russia’s territorial integrity. And he built those bridges and roads to consolidate the territory and to be able to say “we have not neglected our territory, so you better not have any plans”, not because he was worried about impressing Obama or Hu Jintao for some 5 day leader’s summit.

  9. August 14th, 2012 at 21:11 | #9

    @jaffarca

    Umm, yeah, why don’t you offer some well-supported criticisms against the Slate article instead of just a rant?

    Granted everyone here agrees with you that the mainstream western press is usually sloppy but what specifically did you disagree, what relevance did it have for the first post and what evidence do you have showing that what you claim is correct?

    You should read the Slate article. It explicitly said that the notion that Chinese are now a large presence in the RFE is exaggerated.

    I quote from the article

    “And some of the overheated immigration rhetoric you hear in the United States exists in Russia, too, about the “zheltaya ugroza,” or “yellow peril.” That paranoia is much more prevalent in Moscow than in the Russian Far East, however. Here, everyone seems to have their favorite example of how other Russians exaggerate the Chinese presence.

    In part because the government has placed tight restriction on Chinese visitors to Russia, there is little visible Chinese presence in Blagoveshchensk—and there’s more here than anywhere else in Russia.

    But you see very few Chinese people on the streets, other than a few tourists snapping photos of the statue of Lenin or of the reconstructed arch originally built for Czarevich Nicholas’ visit through the Far East in 1891.”

  10. Zack
    August 14th, 2012 at 23:51 | #10

    @melektaus
    nice article; i do wonder what sort of implication the writers were making about the rising trend f Russian women marrying Chinese men. It just seems like a cheap but effective method of appealing to one’s sexual insecurity and incipient racism-the sort of racism that birthed anti miscegenation laws in the United States, and Australia.

    Of course, american and other western writers have fantasized about another sino-russian war in the hopes that those two deadly rivals to the west would destroy themselves and leave the West free to rule the earth. THe most famous of course being that of Tom Clancy.

  11. jaffarca
    August 15th, 2012 at 00:10 | #11

    @Zack

    Indeed, but a conflict between China and Russia would be unlikely, not because of the commonalities between the two, but because they know that any action other than co-operation with each other would doom them. But hey, Tom Clancy’s job is to sell fantasy books, not promote knowledge.

  12. Wayne
    August 15th, 2012 at 05:35 | #12

    I’m sure there is some xenophobia and racism among Russians, as there is among some Chinese (probably less so), but overall relations are pretty good now. These articles are typical Western shit-stirring, Russians, like Chinese may not be politically correct, and call a spade a spade, but the Russians I have met I have liked a lot, and I find them more culturally compatible with us than Anglo Saxons.

    Russian women also date Chinese men, and don’t have the snooty attitude of Anglo Saxon whores. Not just for the money, but they are also neat to hang out with. My brother got one in the sack after just a couple of dates (she invited him over to her downstairs apartment), just last week. They actually look at and treat a Chinese man as a possible partner.

    I’ve also heard from several other Chinese guys living in Europe.

    Of course the West would love China going hammer and tongs with Russia, and write shit stirring articles about both countries all the time, turning molehills into mountains.

  13. William
    August 15th, 2012 at 05:39 | #13

    Russia is a completely different kettle of fish, and there’s lots of things you could say about it. Your image of Russia might be of a place with “white” people, whereas Putin derides “Western” values when talking about eg Pussy Riot, whereas the rather large area of Russia includes all sorts of races, many of which have self-governing republics.

    In particular, in Eastern Russia, many of the racial minorities are of course “Asian” looking, for example the Buryats (30% of Buryatia just outside Mongolia). It doesn’t take much to conclude that the “white” Russians are the ones who have pushed outwards to the East.

    So it becomes very easy to spin this story as grumpy white colonialists with a declining population vs. overcrowded Asians in Asia. All depends what view you take of Russia. Personally I shy away from any idea of people belonging to the land, or land belonging to “the people”, whoever they are … we’re all equal. But this issue can become a real can of worms.

    In domestic Chinese politics Russia is of course important, and the appearance of good relations is key to keeping some of the more nostalgic among us on board. The actual state of relations is somewhat different – Russia has qualms about China, China has qualms about Russia, and government officials’ overseas bank accounts and children (at university) are all in the West or Singapore, not Russia. Best to think of Russia and China as just two emerging economies, nothing more.

    @melektaus @Zack – Russia has a major gender imbalance overall, as lots of its men die off in various ways. There is a long-running association in the minds of a lot of Europeans about Russian / Ukrainian mail order brides. Please take a look at Wikipedia or http://headlinebistro.typepad.com/headlinebistro/2011/04/the-other-side-of-gender-imbalance.html .

  14. Wayne
    August 15th, 2012 at 05:56 | #14

    Russia stands up more against globalist ‘values’, that the West tries to thrust upon the rest of the world, sadly, far more than China.

    Too many Chinese worship the West.

    Here is a great interview with the renowned Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, on North Korea. He makes so much sense. I can’t imagine many Chinese academics coming out and speaking the truth like Dugin nowadays:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob6C7DU10Sc

  15. August 15th, 2012 at 06:40 | #15

    @Wayne

    I find this philosopher & his advocated methods way too simplified and extreme, but I understand and agree with the promotion of a multi-polar world.

    Also, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Russians are far more vocal and far more cynical against western liberal dogma vis-a-vis the Chinese, since they suffered first hand in the ruins that such dogma created – breakup of the country, collapse of the healthcare system (which decreased life expectancy by 10 years), rise of robber barron capitalist oligarchs, economic stagnation, attempted colored revolutions (& in some cases NATO encroachment) in its own territory & former territory, etc. It’s no wonder that the Russians have a far more realistic view of the actual results of adherence to western dogma.

    But you’re right, I concede that way too many Chinese ideologues who haven’t gone through the decade of humiliation that Russia has, are blindly worshipping western rhetoric. Its up to people such as those on this forum to dispel the myths of this religion.

    @William

    Let’s be precise in our statements here. Russia means little to Chinese DOMESTIC politics, but remains unique in its value as a comprehensive but limited partner of China on the international stage.

    I say comprehensive because Russia is the one and only partner that plays a complementary role to China in every sphere of global interaction, be it trade, resources, energy, military cooperation, science, or foreign policy in international organizations.

    Simultaneously, I call it ‘limited’ because the volume and depth of such support in each sphere is not as great relative to other powers (i.e. volume of energy trade with Russia relative to that with Iran or Saudi Arabia).

    Nevertheless, Russia is the only country in the world today that is willing and able to support China to some degree across all spheres of interaction in the global arena; that makes Russia a unique partner, with whom China should seek a stable and progressive relationship.

  16. August 16th, 2012 at 11:27 | #16

    Anyway, for those interested in the only part of China that borders Russia and N.Korea. The location is here:

    http://baike.baidu.com/albums/53731/53731/0/0.html#0$c8ab0bce6f463e14b700c860

    Take a look at the video for its history, it includes the Chinese and Russian perspective too:

    Interestingly, the Russian know they took most of the land from late Qing but their argument is that if they did not take it the Japanese would.

    http://big5.ifeng.com/gate/big5/v.ifeng.com/history/shishijianzheng/201205/e3602263-3a84-4ea4-ac83-13f3234a8ab9.shtml

  17. August 17th, 2012 at 02:35 | #17

    always count on reuters for disinformation. if Chinese are mass migrating to Russia, then south korea, and japan are mass migrating into CHina, especially in proportion to their population. but you will never hear it spun that way because japan and south korea are good little pupets. nevermind the huge amount of south koreans in america. could the mass migration of south koreans to america be a sign of incompetence on the part of the south korean regime?

  18. Jay Riter
    August 19th, 2012 at 23:06 | #18

    National Geographic had a article a few years ago about Chinese farmers and entrepreneurs renting farms across the border from Heilongjiang.

    Renting farms is definitely NOT migrating, but it certainly moves the farmers’ interest toward their crops across the border – and most probably, in the spring/summer, they live across the border for several months.

    It’s better that the land is producing food than not, but I’m not surprised that is causes some worry to some Russians.

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