Putin’s Turn to East Boosts Demand for Chinese Language Expertise and Fears of China

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 74

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Executive Summary:

  • Booming demand for Russians who know Chinese, a product of Putin’s turn to the East, is exacerbating long-standing fears that Moscow will lose control over lands east of the Urals.
  • The flight of Russians from the vast and underpopulated region, combined with the growing presence of China with its enormous population and economy, has led to rising concerns regarding potential Chinese designs on Russia’s periphery.
  • Moscow may again play up fears of China in the Russian Far East—a strategy it has succeeded with in the past, but could easily compromise Putin’s ability to keep Beijing in his corner.

In Soviet times, Russians joked that the optimists were learning English, the pessimists Chinese, and the realists Kalashnikov. Now, in Putin’s Russia, many say that those who want to move abroad are learning English or German, while those who are true Russian patriots and want to remain where they live are learning Chinese. Some even remark that the next Chinese–Russian summit will take place not in Beijing or Moscow, but in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East (Publizist.ru, March 28, October 19, 2023). Such jokes and, more importantly, the fears behind them have been growing as Moscow has opened the floodgates for a rush of Chinese influence into Russia east of the Urals (Window on Eurasia, August 7, 2015, September 7, 2017; Crime.vl.ru, accessed May 14). The Kremlin has even launched a Chinese version of the official site of the Russian Duma. Most recently, there has been a sharp spike in demand for Russians who know Chinese to work for or with companies in Russia that are Chinese-owned (Censoru.net, December 28, 2023; Izvestiya; EastRussia.ru, May 7).

Fears of a rising China have been around for decades in Russia. Many Russian citizens fear that Beijing, with a burgeoning population and economy, wants to dominate and, some say, absorb portions of Russia east of the Urals. This is an enormous region, rich in natural wealth with a declining population. These worries have increased since 2014, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned geopolitically to the East as a result of his isolation from the West in the wake of the Crimean Anschluss and his subsequent expanded war against Ukraine.

As a result, Putin has opened the region to Chinese businesses and an influx of Chinese workers (see EDM, September 14, 2015, October 6, 2020, March 9, October 26, December 5, 2023). Simultaneously, Russian fears have been amplified by Putin enabling more Russians to move to China both for work and marriage. There are concerns that this group of emigrants will one day return, acting as the vanguard for future Chinese assimilation of ethnic Russians and/or “a new fifth column” inside Russia (Window on Eurasia, August 25, 2017, January 15, 2019).

Of particular concern among Russians in general and Russians east of the Urals in particular has been the growth in the use of the Chinese-language in the Far East. Official support for this shift has also been on the rise, both directly and through the promotion of Chinese-language instruction in the Russian educational system. Globally, the number of Russian speakers is declining—a trend mirrored in the composition of the Russian Far East as well (Kasparov.ru, December 14, 2020; DW.com, March 10, 2021; Window on Eurasia, July 2, 3, 2022). Russians in some Moscow educational institutions have protested against introducing Chinese instruction at the expense of other coursework (Vzglyad, March 30, 2023). 

Until now, the Kremlin has counted on primal fears of China to keep Russians east of the Urals in line. It has done so with such apparent success that both Russians and the West have dismissed Siberian regionalism as irrelevant. Putin’s increasingly close ties with Beijing, however, are calling that view into question. The expansion of Chinese influence is leading some in Siberia and the Russian Far East to see Moscow and Beijing as their enemies. They conclude that at a minimum, they might benefit by playing the two capitals against one another in a manner similar to the countries of Central Asia (see EDM, November 10, 2020, April 10, May 24, 2023; Window on Eurasia, May 23, 2021; Novaya Gazeta, November 10, 2023).

Such conclusions are likely to spread, especially given reports in early May that Russian employers’ demand for Chinese-language expertise has jumped 63 percent over the previous year. In addition, Russian universities and even schools are expanding Chinese-language instruction. This trend, already taking place in Moscow itself, is even more pronounced in Siberia and portions of the Russian Far East bordering China, where the increase in demand for workers with such linguistic skills rose by 77 percent over the past year (Izvestiya; EastRussia.ru, May 7).

Unsurprisingly, these developments have garnered attention in Ukraine, given Kyiv’s interest in Russian regionalism. The narrative has also gained steam among Russian analysts abroad who are able to speak their minds more freely than those who live under Putin’s repression (see EDM, January 25). Among the first group is Oleksandr Musiyenko, head of Kyiv’s Center for Military-Legal Research. He argues that even if Moscow manages to formally retain its current borders east of the Urals into the next decade, it will lose effective control over much of the country because of Chinese neo-colonialism. This force may prove even more powerful than any regional or national movement. This could  change Russia almost as much as these separatist movements could, even if no borders are redrawn (Charter97, February 6).

Among the second group, perhaps the most thoughtful is London-based Russian scholar and commentator Vladimir Pastukhov. He suggests that while Putin has turned to China as the best way to keep himself in power, his turn to the East will likely lead to Russia becoming a satellite or even a colony of China (see EDM, February 6, 2023, April 17). Most Russians will not like this development and thus are likely to respond with protests of various kinds once they realize what the Kremlin is leading their country to (T.me/v_pastukhov; reposted at Echofm, December 4, 2023). The rising demand for Chinese speakers and the Kremlin’s support for their production will only attract more attention to this.

In addition, Pastukhov argues that this development will highlight misconceptions of where Moscow choses to focus its territorial sights. While many follow the ideas of Putin, Solzhenitsyn, and Brzezinski in believing that Ukraine is central to Russia’s existence, in reality, however, “it is in Siberia and the Far East where today all the truly existential risks for Russia are concentrated.” These risks are “not associated not with pressure from the West but with the formation of a new world power center in China, Japan, and Korea.” He concludes, “A strong China today poses a threat by its very existence. It will not have to do anything, and in 50 to 70 years, everything will happen by itself” as Russia east of the Urals “switches to these new ‘external’ centers of gravity” (Novaya Gazeta, November 10, 2023).

By promoting Chinese-language expertise, the Kremlin is clearly playing the role of a mouthpiece for Beijing. Russians, especially residents of the country east of the Urals, are already seeing this reality and will likely protest and exploit the situation in the future, creating yet another set of difficulties for Putin and his regime (see EDM, May 3, 2022).