Russians have long feared that the demographic imbalance between an overpopulated China and an underpopulated Siberia and Russian Far East will eventually result in Beijing’s taking control of what is now part of the Russian Federation. And Moscow has manipulated that fear since Soviet times to undercut regionalism in those distant territories as well as to promote patriotic feelings more generally (see Commentaries, September 14, 2015; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, September 7, 2017). But now Moscow—and Beijing—face a far more real and potentially explosive problem. Anger is rapidly growing among people east of the Urals against the Russian federal center for giving China enormous economic access to the region. Locals charge that these business arrangements are benefitting only the oligarchs and the Russian state. Moreover, their resentment encompasses Beijing for the arrogant ways in which Chinese companies have behaved on Russian territory, frequently ignoring the interests of local people and violating Russian law with a sense of complete impunity.
Siberians and Russians from the Far East are angry about many Chinese actions; but increasingly, they blame Moscow for allowing this to happen. Indeed, the central Russian government has often signed contracts with Chinese firms without so much as a consultation with local officials and even sweetened the deal for China by providing subsidies collected in taxes from Russian citizens and firms (see EDM, March 29, 2018). They blame Moscow for allowing almost unrestricted Chinese immigration; those incoming workers are then employed in Chinese factories operating on Russian soil, thus eliminating any possibility that local Russians could obtain these jobs. They are also upset that Moscow has allowed Chinese sex tourism to flourish: Chinese men, who outnumber women in their own country, reportedly come to Siberia to find wives, often successfully. Locals are also angry at Moscow’s agreement to allow China to extract water from Lake Baikal and ship it to Chinese cities. And finally, they resent that authorities have allowed Chinese resorts to be built on the shores of that lake, including in places where Moscow, by law, has prevented Russians from doing so (RIA Novosti, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 3, 2016).
Those problems have been simmering for some time, but Moscow’s new moves to profit from a Chinese presence in Siberia have brought things to a boil. The situation may truly spiral out of control later this year, when an environmental activist releases a film he has prepared about how Russian officials have profited from China’s destruction of the forests of Siberia and the Russian Far East. As Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has shown, films that become available online are among the most potent political organizers in that country (see EDM, March 27, 30, 2017).
At the end of last week (June 22), Moscow’s Novyye Izvestiya reported that Pavel Pashkov, has “shed light” on a situation in which “practically all the forestry business in western and eastern Siberia belongs not only to Chinese investors but directly to Chinese businessmen.” Pashkov is a blogger who has led an environmental expedition to Siberia and prepared a film about Moscow profiteering and Chinese depredation of the land. As he argues, while some Russian officials are pocketing fabulous sums thanks to the sizeable Chinese direct investment, few Russians or other minority nationalities of the region have benefited at all (Novyye Izvestiya, Rusmonitor.com, June 22).
Not only are Chinese businessmen using Siberia as “a raw materials supplier for the People’s Republic of China,” Pashkov says, but they are committing “enormous violations” of Russian law without being held to account. As a result, he argues, “20 to 30 years from now, instead of large forests, we will have swamps, empty steppes, and an ecological catastrophe. Rare types of animals are disappearing, the indigenous peoples of Siberia are losing the source of their existence, and our children will never again be able to see and understand what Great Siberia is!” (Novyye Izvestiya, June 22).
When he began his research, the blogger continues, he thought that Russian businessmen were cutting down the forests and shipping the wood to China, an arrangement that would benefit Russians and make it far more likely that the authorities would enforce the law. “But I was very seriously mistaken: our businessmen in Siberia have practically no business in this at all.” Instead, “Chinese companies are cutting down the Siberian forest and carrying it away to China. They are NOT RESTORING IT!” That is a lie. The Chinese are clear cutting and not replanting, as required by Russian law; and that has become obvious to everyone in the region, Pashkov concludes.
The expansion of Chinese lumber companies into Siberia and the Russian Far East continues. Recently, for example, officials in Tomsk Oblast announced that they were renting some two million additional hectares of land to Chinese firms, allowing them to clear cut the land and to pay the few Russians they do employ far less than they pay the Chinese workers they have brought in to do much of the work (Novo-tomsk.ru, March 8).
Officials say that the Chinese are paying a good price, but local analysts point out that while the figures may seem astronomical to ordinary Russians, they are far too low to ensure environmental protection and reforestation. Furthermore, these analysts note, “for the Chinese ‘investors,’ such a business is extremely profitable—they cut down enormous areas of forests, pay the local ‘aborigines’ almost nothing for it, and sell the wood off in China at high prices.” But for local people, all this is “extremely unprofitable and brings nothing besides harm” (Novo-tomsk.ru, March 8).
Indeed, in the Chinese imagination, thanks to Moscow’s short-term, cash-centric approach, Russia has been reduced not just to a raw materials supplier, but to “something much lower.” British and French colonies had more rights and respect” than the peoples of Siberia have from Beijing or Moscow, according to the local analysts. Siberians do not need such a business, they assert. And Moscow may increasingly be challenged by allowing it as well: especially if it can no longer point to a Chinese threat to the Far East without raising the specter of a Muscovite one as well.