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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Far East Void Eats at Russia

Chinese immigrants find opportunity in the fertile emptiness of Siberia. But hosts fear a gradual takeover. One says, 'We are becoming their slaves.'

July 19, 2001|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLAGOVESHCHENSK, Russia — Xu Yan remembers what she felt when she first entered the Far East of Russia from her native China 10 years ago and saw the empty green land stretching forth in every direction.

"I was amazed--such a waste," she recounted recently. "I thought: 'This land is good, but no one cultivates it. How can you possibly live on the land, and not work it?' "

At the time, Russia and China were just opening up to each other again after having fought a series of border skirmishes in the 1960s and '70s. Xu, who had studied Russian, was coming to Russia as part of a delegation to do business. But that first impression of space and waste never left her.

Today, the 39-year-old Chinese citizen--who now calls herself Natalya--can be found in her leased field, directing a brigade of Russian and Chinese farm workers, planting watermelons, cabbages and tomatoes in the rich black soil of Russia.

But to many people in Russia, this hard-working, straw-hatted woman is the epitome of what they most fear: a gradual Chinese takeover of the huge chunk of Russia that is underdeveloped, underutilized and underpopulated.

In fact, one of Russia's foremost fears is that it might lose control of Siberia and the Far East in the new century.

On Monday, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin signed a 20-year friendship treaty that makes the countries officially strategic partners and lays to rest 99% of their border disputes. But Russians are not wholly reassured. Many still fear that Russian political and economic influence will wane in the Far East in future decades, while Chinese influence will rise.

Behind the fear is the fact that since the 1980s, China has been booming technologically, militarily and in population. And Russia has been falling behind--particularly in Siberia.

Putin noted the threat when he dropped in on this city bordering China last year. "If you do not take practical steps to advance the Far East soon," he told residents, "after a few decades, the Russian population will be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean."

Some people say it is coming true already. Alexei Barsukov, an unemployed 37-year-old on a derelict collective farm outside Blagoveshchensk, said of the Chinese, "Slowly, we are becoming their slaves."

For most of its course, the 1,800-mile-long Amur River serves as the boundary between the countries. North of the river, in Russia's Amur region, is a wilderness beautiful to behold. Slightly smaller than California, it holds deposits of gold and other valuable minerals, and hundreds of thousands of acres of timber-rich forest, with stretches of rich plains ideal for farming.

A shrinking population of about 1 million people lives on it. Just to the south, in China's Heilongjiang province, 38 million people are crowded onto the Manchurian plain, farming every available acre.

The bigger picture is the same. China's population of 1.2 billion compares with 16 million Russians living in all of eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East--an area larger than all of China. Given such imbalance, Russians themselves wonder if simple population pressure might one day cause China to reassert now-dormant historical claims to land north of the Amur.

From the late 1960s until the late '80s, the Amur River was an armed confrontation line after an ideological falling out between the Communist leaderships in Moscow and Beijing. While the United States was preoccupied with Vietnam, China and Russia almost entered into a full-scale war against each other.

Chairman Mao Tse-tung said Russia had imposed unfair borders on China, and he was once quoted as saying that the Russian cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk by rights belonged to China.

Until 1989, tensions were so high that Russia closed its riverside city of Blagoveshchensk. Foreigners were forbidden, and barbed wire lined the riverbank. Today, on the Russian side at least, the only vestiges are heavy concrete bunkers with gun slits facing China. They're filled with trash and are a curiosity to the Chinese riverboats that swing close to shore so that tourists can get a snapshot. Every day from June to September, a ferry plies the river between Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city on the other bank, Heihe, laden with traders and goods. From November to March, an ice road on the frozen Amur takes over.

City Is Being Drawn Into Chinese Orbit

It was a small scene, but perhaps emblematic of what is happening in Blagoveshchensk. At this city's central market, a Russian teenager crouched with a bowl of noodles in one hand, dexterously feeding himself a quick lunch with a pair of chopsticks.

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