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.


  1. AK

    A most interesting read.

    Among some key points is noting the non-Russian Asian territories the mainland Chinese government concens itself with.

    Russia and China signed a border agreement which confirms the current boundaries. Only a relatively small stretch of present day Russian land could be considered as having been once a part of China.

    Countries with geopolitical clout have been known to not always grab everything. For example: after WW II, the Red Army got out of Austria with the understanding that said country would be neutral. China and Russia appear to understand that it’s not beneficial for them to vehemently oppose each other.

  2. I also caught Latynina’s somewhat comical comments on the subject (I missed Golts’, which is probably not missing much).

    Such commentary serves two purposes: swipe at Putin, while conforming with the seeming desire among some Western geostrategists to see China and Russia on not so good terms. On CSPAN, Brzezinski said that in the long run, Russia will move west on account of what he sees as growing Sino-Russo differences.

    Contrast this foreign policy stance of Latynina (the subject of foreign policy isn’t her strongest), with her parroted Western neolib mantra of bloated Bosnian Civil War casualties, while making Milosevic’s culpability in that conflict larger than life.

  3. I’ve only seen hysteria about Chinese demographic invasion of the Far East from two sources: western media and Russian “liberals” financed from the west.

    This just begs for a conspiracy theory.

    The reality is probably more complex. Pro-western Russian “liberals” are basically a bunch of racists who can discuss the superiority of “Europe” over “Asia” with a straight face, something that would be laughed at even in modern Europe. Clearly, their mentality is quite European, except it is about 75 years behind their object of adoration. I would guess that their anti-Chinese propaganda is driven not by genuine fear of China, but by disingenuous desire to influence Russian public opinion toward a pro-western position. They have been partially successful — they did manage to advance a racist agenda, but they certainly did help improve the image of the west, quite the opposite.

    In the west, anyone who cares about the relationship between Russia and whatever group of countries that can be described as “the west”, is mostly self-delusional. Every policy paper I’ve read, much like Brzezinski quoted by Michael, assumed that Russia would have no choice but to come crawling to the west just because Russia is supposedly “afraid of China”. This grand delusion is quite convenient because it relieves the authors of thinking of ways to accommodate Russia’s interests — after all, Russia will have no choice, according to them.

    In reality, of course, the supposed “fear of China” does not exist in Russia. So why is this delusion being perpetuated despite the absence of corroborating evidence? The reason is the same as with every other western (but mostly American) policy failure due to their misunderstanding of the wants and needs of the other party. The unfortunate penchant for hiring propagandists in other countries by paying them “grants” and “fellowships”, and then also using them to figure out the public opinion in those countries, creates a biased system with a positive feedback that is completely closed off from reality. It’s perfect for recycling misinformation, even for amplifying it.

    The way it works in this particular case is that Russian “liberals” funded from the west, with all their racist zeal, inform their western handlers that they dislike China. That is exactly what their handlers want to hear, because any trouble between Russia and China plays into their hands. And of course, they cannot trust any other sources because they don’t own them. Russian “liberals”, after realizing what their handlers want to hear, have to turn up the heat, and claim that Russians are even afraid of China. That goes over even better. And so the initially misguided message gets amplified as it bounces back and forth between the two parties who are not interested in reality and cannot trust any sources they don’t own or are owned by.

    Same system works on the Chinese side, where Chinese “analysts” can write long articles in English about alleged problems in Sino-Russian relations, while official Chinese media are positive on Russia, and Russia in general enjoys a very good image in China.

    How these delusions can lead to tragedy can be observed in the Iraqi debacle, where some clowns in Washington seriously believed that Iraqis would welcome their “liberators” with open arms. The result is a million lives lost for no reason and no progress. Why? Because first Washington paid Iraqi dissidents, and then believed what the dissidents had to say.

    What’s the moral of the story? People you pay are the last people you want to believe. Whoever heard of a prostitute being truthful with a client?

  4. Fedia

    What you raise relates to the saying of trying to be “more Roman than the Romans.”

  5. Excellent points, Fedia – you’re definitely on to something. Latynina apparently got something called a Defender of Freedom award from the US State Department.

    @Mike, Re-“I missed Golts’, which is probably not missing much”

    China is mentioned once in that article, but I know that Golts has written many articles criticizing Russia for antagonizing the West and selling advanced arms to the Chinese, which he believes will probably be used against it.

    Of course in practice this is an extremely remote prospect, which will in any case lead to China’s destruction unless they develop really good AMD and anti-biowar capabilities.


    That dude still lives in the 1990’s or perhaps much earlier (I remember in one interview he said that most Russians outside Moscow and St.-Petersburg live like 19th C peasants and therefore the country will decline and fall apart), so I don’t hold his analysis in high regard. In general he is very much inferior to G. Friedman and co. as a geopolitical analyst.

  6. Hands off our Yulia!

    “…But it was one hundred degrees hotter than the temperature of the fire in which Copernicus was burned.” (c) Yulia Latynina, “The Steel King”

    If it wasn’t for Yulia, we would never have found out that Krovavaya Gebnya ™ has also burned Copernicus.

    For dessert: “It thrashed like the needle of an oscilloscope, up and down…” (c) Yulia Latynina, “The Land of War”

  7. AK

    ZB seems more rational when discussing foreign policy issues not dealing with Russia.

    As for GF, I think he comes across better on account of some of the other commentary getting propped.

    Post 2

    This piece concerns GF:

  8. JRL 2009-#62, item #24 is this post. Why is it credited to the wrong blog and the wrong author? (I couldn’t even find this post on .)

  9. Thanks, Fedia.

    (I subscribe to JRL too but haven’t yet read today’s issue).

    I’ll drop David an email.

  10. Logical and rational, intelligent and thought people prefer facts.

    UNFORTUNATELY Facts often play little role in the decisions nations make to go to war.

    This ironically is this is an historical fact that makes your point of view ludicrously naive.

    All too many wars in history were started in spite of the facts clearly painted going to war as the worst possible option, a lose lose for both sides.

    WWI comes to mind.

    Logically and rationally it was insane for Europe to go to war over the assassination of a that Duke, but they did.

    It didn’t end until millions of people died, and Russia and Europe completely devastated.

    The facts in Napoleon’s day said leave Russia alone. She will be the death ofyou and your Empire. Yet he chose to invade, and we know what happened.

    125 years later, despite all the facts saying stay the course, and the UK will fall, Hitler grew impatient, and ignoring a mountain of facts invaded Russia, hmmm.

    You blithely ignore the elements that would far more likely trigger conflict with China.

    #1 is nationalism – a desire for war driven by nationalism will not be detered by your facts, because those facts would be called lies disguising Russia’s weakness.

    How you can believe China has truly accepted their losses to Russia, considering their extreme passion in the South is a mystery, especially since the “facts” have little to do with how approach the issue in each sphere.

    The one fact that does matter is it would achieve quite a bit of China’s short term goal of gaining regional supremacy forcing SE Asia to fall in line.

    Doing the same with Russia requires China to master a far more complex set of issues, and thus is a long term goal.

    #2 The fact that the rapid development of China has yet to reach the vast majority of the nation, actually provides an impetuous to taking action. Should a war be as devastating as you believe, the vast poor of China would not notice a big drop in standards. So going to war with Russia would cost far less to China as a nation, than it would cost Russia, because the relatively better off Russian would lose far more of what made life in Russia with its cold winters possible.

    All in all though, I agree no war is eminent or likely between Russia and China.

    I just don’t agree the facts will pay much of a role should a war scenario start to develop.

    Both sides will come up with the ‘real facts’ to justify their actions.

    China is waiting for the right situation to develop vs. a vs. Russia. In the meantime they will focus on SE Asia were they will master the skills they will need to take back the Chinese Siberian territories, and probably more.

    This will probably take decades. Though PR China will do all it can to hurry it up as it grows in strength.

    Changes like the rapid drop in Russia’s population as a whole not just in Siberia.

    This problem is worse in Russia than any other nation of Europe, and Putin doesn’t seem to be doing anything to fix it.

    Finally you dismiss the one method China would probably most prefer as the tactic to take back what China considers stolen territory – Economic domination.

    As the size of each country’s economies become more and more skewed in China’s favor, China will gain vast leverage. Short of shutting out Chinese wealth, Russia will eventually reach a point that “power in Russia” becomes something the future rich China can buy either directly or through proxy as a first step towards a peaceful reclamation of lost territories.

  11. It was so obviously Russian stole Outer Manchu from China during optim war in 1850s. And there was not many Russian lived there until 1890s trans-Siberia railway finsihed.  The term ‘UNFAIR” was used by Vladimir Lenin and was going to give back to China. Well, Russian are so territory hungry, they don’t want to lose 1 inch of land. We Chinese don’t have enough land and water resource.
    Many Russian keep trying to argue about history in some forums, but well, one most important thing in history was that : If Chinese did not invent GUN in the first place, Russian could not even invade Siberia. They Russian really owed too much to Chinese.