Wall Street Journal Europe
February 20, 2003
Repopulating the East
Can Russia come to terms with a multi-ethnic population? In Moscow, anxiety that the Chinese are effectively taking over the Far East territories of the old Soviet empire seems to be on the rise again. The Kremlin is tightening visa requirements for foreign workers, despite the fact that this will have a harmful economic effect on remote areas that are being rejuvenated by Chinese workers and entrepreneurs. If keeping Vladivostok and Khabarovsk part of Russia is the goal of more restrictive border policies, this is a terrible mistake.
The migration of Chinese into the Russian Far East is going to be massive and unstoppable, and this makes Russians nervous. Last December, Russian Minister Vladimir Zorin released census data that showed 390,000 Chinese have entered the country without proper visas. Others estimate the real number of such illegals at five to 30 times this number. That's not to mention the thousands of Chinese who have entered legally, sometimes through ruses like marriages of convenience. Russians blame the Chinese for all sorts of social ills, but their complaints sound like sour grapes. Over the last decade the immigrants have worked hard to build better lives for themselves, while the local Russian population has sunk into poverty and belly-ached about the lack of support from Moscow.
The migration of millions of Chinese already underway is a bit like a force of nature. The population density on the Chinese bank of the Amur River is more than 50 times as high as it is on the Russian side. And when the average farm size in China is little more than one-tenth of a hectare and vast areas of fertile land in Russia go uncultivated, it's not hard to see why the Chinese are coming. The pressure on the border can be resisted only so long; instead of fighting it, wise policy makers would look for a way to harness the power of the flood.
In a globalized world, Russia can best bolster its claim on its easternmost territories by stewarding the region to achieve its full economic potential. If Chinese are kept out, that only increases the likelihood that Beijing will eventually press its claim for those territories the Qing dynasty ceded to imperial Russia in the mid-1800s. The present regime in Beijing has settled most border disputes with Russia , but a future government might argue that the land lost under "unequal treaties" should be handed back, much as Britain gave back Hong Kong. The Russian population of the Far East, now about six million, has shrunk by more than one-tenth since the demise of the Soviet Union, and will go on shrinking if the economy isn't turned around, giving China room for complaint that land its still-growing population needs to survive is being left fallow.
But if Moscow welcomes entrepreneurial Chinese to repopulate the Far East and make it prosperous and productive, the area stands a good chance of becoming an attractive place for Russians and other nationalities to do business. Despite its frigid reputation, much of the region could become eminently habitable with proper investment in infrastructure, and there are valuable natural resources to be extracted. The better the Russian Far East becomes at attracting outside investment and rewarding it with decent profits, the more people there will be with an interest in maintaining the stability of Russian rule, including Chinese themselves, who have proven to be good citizens in many other countries. To make this work, of course, Russians will have to change their xenophobic views. But that would be no bad thing either.