Myth of the Yellow Peril

One of the staples of alarmist, pessimistic and/or Russophobic (not to mention Sinophobic) commentary on Russian demography* is a reworking of the yellow peril thesis. In their fevered imaginations Chinese supposedly swim across the Amur River in their millions, establish village communes in the taiga and breed prolifically so as to displace ethnic Russians and revert Khabarovsk and Vladivostok back to their rightful Qing-era names, Boli and Haisanwei. To a limited extent they have a point. Since 1989 the population of the Russian Far East declined by 14% to 6.7mn in 2002; shorn of subsidies from the center, it is now dependent on the rest of East Asia for food and consumer imports. It sits next to Chinese Manchuria (the provinces of Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin), an environmentally-strained rust belt of 108mn souls. Thus it is not surprising to see American geopolitical jockeys, Russian xenophobes and anti-Putin “liberals” alike (Golts, Latynina, etc) claiming that a stealth demographic invasion of Russia is under way which will in a few years result in a Chinese Far East.

As regular readers of this blog will know I prefer facts and statistics to rhetoric and hyperbole, and fortunately for us the excellent Russian demographic publication had this subject as its main theme in October 2008 – Life in Russia from Chinese Eyes. I will translate its main findings and conclusions to an English-speaking audience and then muse on the implications for future geopolitics.

The issue of Chinese migration to Russia and its political consequences starts with one main question – how many of them are there? All reputable estimates are in the range of 200,000 to 400,000, with 500.000 as the absolute maximum, most of them shuttle traders or seasonal laborers. The academic Gel’bras first came with these figures in 2001, based on adding up numbers from separate towns and regions. Foreign policy heavyweight and government official Sergei Prikhodko estimated a range of 150,000 to 200,000. According to the Federal Migration Service, in 2006 a total of 202,000 Chinese got registered as temporary workers in Russia, or 20% of all Gastarbeiters; although their numbers increased to 331,000 in 2007, they made up only 17% of all immigrant labor.

The alarmists believe that there is a massive, stealthy infiltration of Chinese into the deserted Far Eastern forests, where they establish communes and breed for the future glory of Greater China. Writing in the respectable “Russian Federation Today” in 2004, the academic Gil’bo spoke of 8mn Chinese living in Russia today and predicted its increase to 21mn in 2010 and a staggering 44mn by 2020. The article was called “perspectives on the Sinoization of Russia” – although that may have been his perspective, to date no-one has confirmed it. No secret Chinese communes have been discovered in the Far East. Although it is true that the figure of 35,000 ethnic Chinese given in the 2002 Census is too low by an order of magnitude, the millions plus numbers are as unrealistic. It is nigh impossible to be self-sufficient in food in the Far East and the idea that so many people will be both willing to endure medieval-like hardships and remain permanently hidden for years belongs to the the realm of fantasy.

Let us now look at the portrait of a typical Chinese migrant. Demoscope organized a poll of 700 traders and workers and 200 students, half of them in Moscow and one sixth each in the cities of Khabarovsk, Blagoveschensk and Vladivostok. Of those, 60% were men; most were middle-aged; and a surprisingly high 21% had a higher education (even in recent times tertiary enrollment in China stood at 12% of the young population). Below is a table of where they came from.

Russia Moscow Far East
В том числе
Vladivostok Khabarovsk Blagoveschensk
Beijing 6 10 2 2 3 0
Heilongjiang 45 11 79 66 86 85
Liaoning 7 11 3 4 3 2
Jilin 8 8 9 14 5 9
Hebei 1 1 1 2 0 1
Shandong 2 1 3 6 0 2
Shanghai 2 3 1 1 1 0
Fujian 3 7 0 0 1 0
Zhejiang 5 9 0 1 0 0
Jiangsu 5 9 1 2 0 0
Guangdong 3 5 0 0 1 0
Other 13 25 2 3 0 3
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100

The vast majority in the Far East hail from the neighboring province of Heilongjiang while most of the rest come from nearby Jilin and Liaoning – this illustrates the cross-the-border-and-back nature of the migratory flows there. In Moscow, whose Chinese population is much smaller, there is a much more even distribution of Chinese by region of origin, with substantial numbers coming from the eastern and southern seaboards.

Most migrants come from cities or small towns, and only 20% from villages – although the latter figure is higher in Moscow. Only 5% were employed in agriculture back in China. 38% were “workers”  and 11% were “worker-peasants”. Although only 6% admitted they had been unemployed, the real figure is much higher since 70% of workers and 68% of worker peasants said they migrated because they couldn’t find a job in China. This is not surprising. The Chinese northeast is a depressed rust belt whose state-owned factories fired many of their workers years ago, many of whom were classified as “awaiting job” – a nice way of saying unemployed, and nice for official Chinese statistics too. Another 11% of Chinese migrants were government workers, presumably wanting to make some more money on the side. A surprising 35% considered their material situation in China to be “good” or “very good”; 36% evaluated it as “medium”, and 29% believed it to be “bad” or “very bad”.

According to the above graph, most Chinese immigrants are relative newcomers to Russia. In the critical Far East region, only 23% have spent more than five years in the country.

Few Chinese have affluent lifestyles in Russia – the majority, 61%, view their material condition as “medium” or “satisfactory”, 15% as “bad” or “very bad” and 21% are “good” or “very good”. Their earnings are not particularly high, with 83% getting less than 20,000 rubles – roughly the same as in neighboring Heilongjiang, when they had jobs there. Many say they save up on accommodation, medicines and even food in Russia. Leisure activities are plain and inexpensive – TV/Internet (23%), Chinese friends (17%) and family (12%). 22% have no free time. Only a quarter does touristy things, spends time with Russian friends, or do shopping or sport.

Most migrants come with the help of those already based there, who give them a hands up. The Chinese communities in Russia are tightly-knight, insular and highly trust-based, albeit fragmented into regional and ethnic groupings. According to the poll, 4% say they are directors or owners of an enterprise, 15% work for a Chinese firm, 9% work for a Russian firm and 53% are “independent entrepreneurs” – however, in practice the majority of the latter are hired workers and traders in informal relations with a Chinese company. Relations with employers are generally harmonious, with 25% saying they enjoy good relations, 41% evaluating them as “satisfactory” and only 1% complaining that they’re bad. The other 31% don’t work for hire.

They typically learn enough Russian to get by, but no more. Only 9% have a good knowledge of the language and another 5% can read; 33% can explain themselves and 43% are bad at the language. Another 6% are currently studying the language at an institute. Only 4% don’t know any Russian. Life is adaptive rather than planned – only 15% acquaint themselves with Russian laws or regulations. This is presumably because doing so makes little difference, with 82% of Chinese experiencing police requisitions, 49% rackets and 45% bribery amongst tax and customs officials.

Given the above, it is somewhat surprising to see that a majority of Chinese think that conditions for small and medium businesses are good in Russia. I guess all things are relative.

The Chinese have mixed opinions of how they’re viewed in Russia. In the Far East, attitudes towards them are more favorable than in Moscow. Locals are relatively friendlier in the Far East and Muscovites are more hostile. In the Far East, 25% claimed they had things stolen from them, 9% were beaten, 22% were threatened and 53% were insulted; in Moscow 16% said they were beaten.

That said, most Chinese migrants retained a favorable view of Russia and many expressed the desire to continue living there. Impressions generally improved after visiting it and the outcome of most trips were classed as “successful” or “partly successful”.

Most prefer to remain in Russia and open a business or expand it (Far East), get accommodation (Moscow) and improve one’s life in Russia. It appears the Chinese place far more emphasis on Russia’s potential to make them money than minor things like whether they get ripped off or beaten. A majority would prefer to either live in Russia permanently or live in China and keep commuting to Russia for work, even amongst those with negative impressions of the country. There are big regional differences. 67% of Moscow Chinese would like to get some form of permanent residency in Russia, compared to 27% in the Far East – despite the fact that attitudes towards them are significantly better in the Far East. The majority would like to bring a family member to Russia, especially those in Moscow.

59% of Chinese migrants would like their children to retain connections to Russia – 76% in Moscow and 37% in the Far East. Some 85% in Moscow and half in the Far East are not against mixed marriage – 2% are currently in such a marriage. For comparison, 8% of Russians approve of mixed marriages, 40% are neutral and 40% disapprove.

In conclusion, more Chinese migrants in the Far East think that Russia has better conditions for enterprise and consider locals to have better attitudes towards them, than their compatriots in Moscow. However, Moscow’s much smaller and diverse pool of Chinese migrants is much more enthusiastic about integrating themselves and their children and relatives into Russia. Thus what we see is a developing China-town in Moscow and moderate, temporary and mostly seasonal flows of Chinese into and out of the Far East who view Russia in an almost purely commercial light – a way to escape unemployment, make profits and enjoy them in China. The writers end the report by making the obvious (and banal) recommendation that Russia should both regulate migration in accordance with the national interest and treat migrants with respect – both much easier said than done.

Some more articles about Chinese migration:

Chinese migration – facts, objectivity and subjectivity: a Kazakhstani perspective. As in Russia, they massively overstate the Chinese presence, mixed marriages, etc. Ironically twice as many Kazakhstanis visit China every year than vice versa.

What’s happening with Chinese expansion in Russia?: a comprehensive and sarcastic recounting of prior alarmist estimates of the numbers of Chinese in Russia.

The Russian vector in global Chinese migration: notes that the alarmism of the 1990’s and early 2000’s is dwindling away and being replaced by more scientific views of Chinese migration to Russia. Notes that Russian migration as a share of total Chinese global migration is tiny – as of 1990, the total number of Chinese overseas was about 37mn, including 30% of the population in Malaysia, 10% in Thailand, 17% in Brunei and 4% in Indonesia. Lots of other stuff.

I will now go beyond demography into geopolitics. China is not the monolith that it is usually painted as in the West; its strong central government conceals a greater deal of simmer, dynamism and regionalism. The idea that it could organize a successful stealth demographic invasion of the Far East is preposterous. The only way in which something like this could succeed would be if Russia were to collapse again and to a far greater extent than during the 1990’s, e.g. like during the Civil War when Vladivostok was occupied by the Japanese. This is possible, but unlikely.

What you have instead is a reversion to nineteenth-century traditions, in which Korean and Chinese laborers and traders made seasonal migrations to the Far East and built up sizable, but far from demographically dominant, communities in the region (who were later deported to Central Asia in 1937 over fears of Japanese espionage).

Speaking of which, that would be a real concern if China were to ever invade. That said, Chinese expansion has always been primarily aimed at South East Asia – today’s strategic posture emphasizes a limited, hi-tech war against the likes of Taiwan, Japan the US. Historically China aimed to achieve three geopolitical aims in the following order: 1) maintain central authority over the commercial seaboard and the peasant hinterland, 2) surround itself by a buffer of vassal states on land – Tibet, Sinkiang, Mongolia, Manchuria, etc and 3) build a strong navy to repel sea-based foreign predation and to protect its trade. Today and in the future, China is going to have cope with a panoply of threats to those geopolitical goals – rising inequalities, a disconnected bureaucracy, ethnic separatism and American and Japanese sea power. In other words, it’s going to have its hands full and Chinese willingness to pursue reconciliation and friendship with Russia is a reflection of its need for a safe strategic rear.

As I’ve mentioned here before, China is going to run into severe ecological problems within the next few decades. Water tables are plummeting in the northern breadbasket, yields are stagnating and the deserts are spreading. The south has plenty of water but is threatened by inundation due to the melting of the icecaps. The rivers that feed its people and industry are going to run dry as the Himalayan glaciers melt away. This means that as soon as the 2030’s, overpopulated China will be faced with a scenario in which it will either have to acquire new lands or face die-off. Would it invade the Russian Far East? The problem with this is that even if it were to succeed in conquering it, actually building up the infrastructure for human accommodation will take decades; the land is barren, mountainous and will remain very cold even after warming. The actual war will be very costly for the Chinese because the Russians will almost certainly use their huge stockpile of tactical nukes to check the assault. Should they lose, its possible they will unleash their much superior strategic nuclear arsenal on China or even worse – thus destroying their industrial infrastructure and precipitating a die-off in any case.

Hence I believe that if, or more likely when, ecological problems reach a critical point in China they will expand into (by then collapsed) East Africa, using the mighty navy they foresightedly built up to forestall anyone who has a problem with that. It will also guarantee continued energy, food and resource flows into metropolitan China from Australia and Latin America. Eventually it is possible that Russia (and Canada) will fully open up their borders to immigration from the sinking and drying south, in which case the Far East will become Chinese. But this is all futuristic speculation.

The essence of Russian demographic doomerism is that in a few decades the AIDS-ravaged, infertile and alcoholic ethnic Russian component will die out and be replaced by hordes of Islamist fanatics in the west and Chinese in the east.

NOTE: This article was edited by Charles Ganske and myself and reposted on the prestigious Russia Blog as The Myth of the Yellow Peril: Overhyping Chinese Migration into Russia. It’s a better version and I recommend reading it there.

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