A new scandal is adding fuel to the fire of Russian fears about Chinese penetration of Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Russian media in those regions is reporting that in order to sell Russian agricultural products to China—something that benefits both local oligarchs and Moscow—Russian taxpayers are being forced to subsidize the sector. And those taxpayers are reportedly receiving nothing back in return, because what the Chinese are willing to pay is less than the costs Russians incur producing the food (Babr24.com, March 22, 2018; RBK, November 23, 2017).
Were this a single isolated development, it might not be that significant. But it comes on top of others that have sparked headlines like “The Siberians Feel They are Losing Baikal to China” (Regnum, February 27), “Baikal: Appropriated by Bureaucrats and Seized by China” (Regnum, February 13), and “Russian Only for the Time Being: China Takes Control of Baikal” (Regnum, January 15). Thus, this recent agricultural subsidies scandal could prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Notably, it links Russians’ anger at their own government—as exemplified this week in the furious reaction to official responses to the Kemerovo mall fire disaster (Meduza.io, March 26, 27; The Moscow Times, March 27, 28)—with public concern about what those same officials are allowing or even encouraging China to do on Russian territory.
Chinese involvement in the Transbaikal and adjoining regions is most obvious and has inspired most outrage in three inter-related areas. First is the massive influx of tourists who often behave badly, use only Chinese facilities and so bring little money to Russian firms, and are hated by the local population. Second, Chinese citizens have been buying up land on Lake Baikal that Russians are not allowed to purchase as well as acquiring various Russian companies. All this has been leading to an influx of Chinese permanent residents. And third, the entirely illegal Chinese logging operations in the region are being protected by Russian criminal groups and Russian officials allied with them.
Chinese tourism is what the region’s Russians see most often and are most appalled by. According to a poll conducted jointly by the Lake Baikal Foundation and the NAFI Analysis Center, 79 percent of Russians are concerned about the growth in the number of tourists, workers and businessmen from China; 63 percent say that the Chinese violate Russian environmental protections and other laws more often than tourists from elsewhere; and 59 percent want the government to impose strict limits on this influx of Chinese into their areas (Regnum, February 27). They believe that Moscow has failed to keep its promises to protect Lake Baikal and their rights in its pursuit of money from the Chinese (Regnum, June 15, 2017; June 16, 2017; February 13, 2018; February 16, 2018).
The behavior of the Chinese tourists helps to explain why Russians feel this way. According to local people, Chinese guides tell Chinese tourists that “Baikal is China’s northern sea, that their ancestors used to live there, and that the territory only belongs to Russia for the time being. These guides also reportedly encourage Chinese visitors to buy property and businesses in order to make money over the next decade. Many are doing so, and that constitutes the second challenge residents of the Transbaikal and other Russian regions in the area see (Babr24.com, January 12; Regnum, December 12, 2017, January 15, 2018).
In the words of one local, there are now so many Chinese businesses that the “Chinese are everywhere. There are thousands of them. Thank goodness there are not millions.” They violate laws with impunity, locals allege; and they flaunt their power: One company even put up a banner declaring that Baikal belonged to the Heavenly Kingdom 200 Years Ago.” Other local people are complaining that China is not sending scholars but “only poorly raised tourists, purchasers of raw materials, renters of enormous territories and purchasers” of everything they can get their hands on (Irk.ru, December 22, 2017).
Meanwhile, in the neighboring Altay region, the Chinese are reportedly engaging in collusion with Russian counterparts in the government and criminal worlds in order to carry out illegal logging operations. The Chinese come through Mongolia and Kazakhstan and thus are often ignored upon entry. But once in the region, they cut down and haul away lumber either from government-controlled lands or from lands of questionable legal provenance in ways that residents can see. This is what China promises Russians, many in those regions feel: the stripping away of Russia’s natural wealth and the sharing of profits with Russians prepared to cooperate with them (Irk.ru, June 20, 2017).
Last year, local Russians were angry. Now, they are furious and have even launched an online petition demanding that the authorities end the illegal Chinese logging operations in the Transbaikal and punish those Russians who have been cooperating with the outsiders. Those behind the petition say that Russian officials have failed to uphold their duty and protect Russia and the rights of Russians (Regnum, December 12, 2017). And it is that linkage between the influx of Chinese and the attitudes of Russians toward their own leaders that is creating a combustible new situation (Regnum, February 6, 2017; November 17, 2017; November 22, 2017)—one that may both feed on and feed into the outraged Russian protests that followed the fire in Kemerovo.