“Chinese invasion” of Russian Far East: is it the case?

Unsuccessful immigration policy leads to the rise of nationalism and hate speech in societies with little level of tolerance, or very sensitive historical background. Processes of globalization contribute to the complexity of this problem: policies of open borders and global business expansion might worsen the situation. Issues of hate speech and hate crime are closely related to the migration policy and security interests of states. Therefore governments are the ones who should provide its societies with the valid understanding of immigration issues. And this understanding should meet modern age requirements.

Countries that occupy vast territories will always have a complex ethnic structure, especially if they are neighboring other large countries. Russia and China represent two typical cases of multi cultural societies with presence of mutual phobias towards each other. Russian government as well as the Russian media do not address issues of Chinese migration constructively, but prefer to give a blind eye on the existing issue, thus creating xenophobia.

Due to the close proximity to China residents of Vladivostok, Russia’s largest city on the Pacific coast, have developed strong anti-Chinese sentiments, even though many of them travelled to China at least once. Local residents have fears and anxiety, which is why they react to the “Chinese invasion” in their way.

Historical aspect

According to the Sova Center, a Moscow-based NGO that works on nationalism and racism, in 2009 at least 431 people fell victims to the racist and xenophobic-motivated violence in Russia, 72 of whom died. Hate speech exists in every city of Russia, but the phenomenon differs from city to city, from region to region. People in Vladivostok are sensitive to Chinese immigration and the increasing number of Chinese people working in the region. These tensions are deeply rooted in both Chinese and Russian societies.
Centuries ago the territory around Vladivostok was occupied by different nations (e.g. Manchus or Bohai) that later became a part of the modern Chinese and Korean societies. Following the Treaty of Aigun in 1858, the River Ussuri and right bank of the Amur river passed to China, while Russia got the left bank of the Amur. Indigenous Manchu and Chinese were allowed to stay where they lived before, in what is now considered Russian territory, keeping their citizenship and residence [taken from: John J. Stephan. The Russian Far East ‘A history’ (California, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 48, quoted in: Quested, R. K. I. Expansion of Russia in East Asia, 1857-1860. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1968] . By the time Vladivostok was founded in 1860, its territory changed owners several times.

Vladivostok is the official name of the capital of Primorskyi Krai, but in China they prefer calling it 海參崴 [Hǎishēnwǎi] meaning the city of “Sea Cucumber Cliffs,” considered by some Russians as offensive.

Some locals believe the Chinese teach school children that those territories used to belong to China. Therefore there is a deeply rooted fear that in the near future Chinese government may claim those territories back. It is very difficult to refute this belief especially since some Chinese support the idea of territorial belonging to China. “I’ve heard that this place was once part of the People’s Republic of China,” said one Chinese visitor in Vladivostok to a BBC reporter. “We’ve come to have a look at it.” When he was asked whether China would like to get these territories back, he replied: “Sure we want to, when our country is great and strong, we’ll take it back.”

Migration of workers

Residents of Vladivostok do not approve of the growing number of Chinese migrants working on the markets and construction sites of the city, even though there is no exact data of Chinese migration. Federal Migration Services of Russia keep records of migrants but majority of them avoid the registration process, thus violating the law and remaining unknown. The data indicates only 235, 000 citizens of China, who obtained a temporary registration in Russia as of April 2008. This number might not be entirely accurate, but even if doubled it is still relatively small to create a fear of the “Chinese invasion.” As Russian specialist on migration Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya once pointed out, this fear of Chinese invasion is highly exaggerated; there are not that many Chinese walking on the streets of Russia. To the contrary people are typically unaware that “the number of Russians who annually cross the border with China is 2 times bigger, than the number of Chinese crossing the Russian border.”

The 2007 poll indicates that Russian population generally perceives its proximity to China as a threat. Majority of respondents (57, 7 percent) replied that “if a government let the things slide, seizure of territories may occur,” whereas 75, 5 percent of the Chinese respondents believe that this possibility is excluded. Therefore this situation points out once again that the issue of Chinese “expansion” is highly politicized in Russia. The government tries to play a role of the moderator in this situation, artificially maintaining and keeping this idea in the society.

Hate speech and hate crime

The fear of Chinese occupation followed by hate speech is not a new phenomenon in this region. Russian media doesn’t make things any better; to the contrary they maintain and reinforce this fear. In 2009 popular business newspaper Vedomosti published an article called “Russia Won’t Manage,” describing the plan of 2009-2018 co-development of the Far Eastern natural resources together with China. This development will be built on the principle “our materials – your technologies.” It means that Chinese businessmen will build their own factories on the territory of Russia and attract Chinese labor to the region, while using Russian natural resources and materials. Local population raises reasonable concerns whether this measure is necessary and if local businesses benefit from it at all.

In the meantime, anti-Chinese hate speech and hate crime became a common feature of the region. In May 2009, three policemen in Ussuryisk, a satellite town of Vladivostok, detained two Chinese without any reason, took them to a forest and threatened them in order to get money. This case got discovered and policemen were facing charges, however many cases like this remain unknown.

There are many other examples of hate crime in Vladivostok. In 2004, about 60 skinheads brutally beat 6 Chinese citizens who were peacefully resting on the beach. Skinheads were shouting nationalistic slogans while security men tried to stop them and called the police. The police they did not arrive soon, as they did not want to interfere. Detained skinheads confessed their actions and were released on surety of their parents shortly.

Residents of Primorsky Krai are used to everyday anti-Chinese atmosphere and do not seem to pay attention to it anymore. This is even more surprising since some areas of Vladivostok look just like China-towns: Chinese products appear in every shop and Chinese cuisine is present in various restaurants across the city. Regional and central government do not pay attention to the phenomenon of hatred either; on the contrary they aggravate and worsen it.

Local authorities lack tolerance and understanding of issues of migration. Decisions of co-development with China are extremely sensitive for the local population; their views, however, are not taken into consideration. Therefore the situation is not getting any better and hate speech is engraining. Regional and national media do not address these issues in a sensitive manner either. To the contrary they create fear of Chinese expansion into the region, which is barely the case.

[This article was published on the Future Challenges media platform. You can find it here]