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Chinese Workers Sowing Dreams in Siberia

Entreprenuers and laborers are crossing the border to make money, and make it big. But the influx is making some Russians nervous.

June 12, 2005|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

KHABAROVSK, Russia — The young Chinese man in a dirty black jacket had a lonely, mournful air about him, but he spoke softly of big dreams.

Zheng Chao was drawn to Siberia's vast expanse of black earth four years ago, part of a growing wave of Chinese peasants using their greenhouse skills to grow vegetables for Russians in a land where winter lasts half the year.

The 26-year-old gets paid only once a year. But he saves it all. His goal is to start his own farming business here, run it for a few years, then return home modestly rich.

Chinese laborers and entrepreneurs are shaping a powerful presence in eastern Russia. The two countries in October settled the last of their disputes over territory on their long-contested border. The influx of Chinese offers this Russian region a promise of fresh vitality, but also carries risks and frustrations for both sides.

The Chinese who come here are almost universally driven by the desire to earn money and go home. In pursuit of that goal, they often endure tough physical labor, dirt-poor living conditions, separation from family and a constant fear of corrupt police who may demand bribes whether or not documents are in order.

The Russians glance nervously over the border and wonder whether China is destined to control this region in 50 or 100 years despite the border agreement. The population of far eastern Siberia, which includes the cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, has declined from 8 million in 1989 to about 6.7 million today. The three nearby provinces of northeastern China are home to about 105 million people.

"Russians want Chinese products. They don't want Chinese," Cui Hongwei, 32, who sells sportswear in Khabarovsk's main open-air market, said in summing up the relationship. Yet he is on friendly terms with his elderly Russian landlady. He helps clean house, and they often share Chinese meals that he cooks, he said.

Vitaly Prokhorov, 34, who sells fur hats in the market, said it has become extremely difficult for Russian merchants to compete with the low prices of Chinese goods.

"They're pushing you out," he said. "In general, people here don't like them. They make fun of them. But the big problem is, they can no longer exist without the Chinese.... They're spreading like a forest fire. There's no way of stopping them now."

The Chinese have a reputation among Russians as hard-working and willing to take on tough and dirty jobs. And in the eyes of many Chinese, Russians are a bit lazy.

"They have land and don't plant it!" exclaimed Zhou Yi, 60, a peasant who recently arrived on his first trip to work in greenhouses and fields here.

He earns $100 a month, payable on his return to China, much more than he can make at home, he said.

Guo Lifan, 30, who runs his own vegetable business, said it was not as easy to make money as it was a few years ago because there were too many Chinese to compete with now.

"Russians are no competition for me," Guo said. "They're lazy. They drink their vodka and they don't want to work. Look at all the fields standing idle. Russians see that we work so hard and that we have good harvests, and they say we must go away because we prevent them from enjoying being lazy."

Very few Chinese lived in Siberia before the 1989 normalization of Sino-Soviet relations, which came after 30 years of bitter political and ideological quarrels punctuated by military conflicts on the border. Estimates of the number of Chinese here now vary widely.

Stanislav Bystritsky, vice director of the Far Eastern Research Institute of Market Economy in Khabarovsk, said he believed there were about 200,000 Chinese in Siberia. "I tried to analyze various aspects of the problem, and I think that's the correct figure," he said. "Not 2 million, as some reports say."

China once considered much of eastern Siberia part of its territory. But Beijing did not press broad territorial claims in the negotiations that led to the agreement in October, which resolved a dispute over three river islands, controlled by Moscow but claimed by Beijing, by allocating each side half the disputed land.

In announcing the deal, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao said the agreement would "create more favorable conditions for the long-term, healthy and stable development of the China-Russia strategic partnership of cooperation."

Many Russians and Chinese in Khabarovsk, however, think their leaders gave away too much to the other side with the islands deal.

"It's a horrible decision," said Georgy Senotrusov, 70, who works on a ferry that serves Bolshoi Ussurisky, a 20-mile-long Amur River island near Khabarovsk that was divided by the border settlement. "The Chinese want it only for their own goals. Their goal is to take this land, to take this water, and to go further. You see, we have a lot of land here and there are very few of us."

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