By Qiyang Niu
In June the government of Zabaikalsky Krai signed a preliminary agreement with a private Chinese company, Hua’e Xingbang. According to the agreement, for 24 billion rubles ($440 million) Hua’e Xingbang would gain control of over a thousand square kilometers of farming land for a term of forty nine years.
Considering Putin and Xi’s relations, which are believed to be the “best in the history of bilateral relations,” this agreement does not seem surprising at all, especially when one takes into account that Zabaikalsky Krai, which comprises mainly of virgin land, is one of the poorest regions in Russia. However, when the plan was made public, Russian politicians and the masses raised a loud warning: "China is annexing Siberia!"
“20 or 30 years from now, the Chinese government will demand those lands be given to China because all those Chinese people live there.” (FT) “Yes, the region will develop,” but there will be a “state within a state,” “is it worth risking?” (NewsRU) Igor Lebedev – chairman of the LDPR parliamentary group of the Russian State Duma – represents many Russian people’s concern. As if in response, a protest coordinated by the local Communist Party and going by the name “We Give Our Own Land to Nobody” was held on 23 July in Chita Lenin Square Members of the movement plan to gather 30,000 people for another rally on August 30.
In fact, even if we add another in-plan 50,000 hectares lease of land for cattle breeding and industrial developing in Mogoytuysky District, the land Chinese partners can get is still no more than 0.9% of the Transbaikal Krai - 431,892 square kilometers. Besides, Hua’e Xingbang promised to reserve 75 percent of all jobs in the farmland for locals.
It is logical for Russia to want to defend its own interests, but it makes no sense to exaggerate the situation. In my opinion, Russia’s exaggerative reaction is mainly the product of two factors: Russia’s long-standing xenophobia and its nationalist mentality; the history of Russian Far East.
There is no need to go into the details of Russia’s history of xenophobia. Most ethnic minorities -- Caucasians (people of the Caucasus), Jews, Asians and Africans – are prone to being targeted by extremists. Although incidences of racist attacks are generally declining, certain issues can always spark feelings of xenophobia, especially with the help of media propaganda, such as the anti-American fever after the Ukrainian conflict. Also, the masses’ general idea is more or less in favor of nationalism, as the Levada Center survey How Do You Support “Russia for Russians” can show:
Another survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center also confirmed this situation. About 33% of Muscovite and 41% of Petersburg youths think that non-Russians are to blame for the troubles facing Russia. With this background, the anti-Chinese mood on the Far East issue is not hard to understand.
Russian Far East History
It should be noted that in the mid-19th century, the Russian Far East was annexed from the Qing government by Imperial Russia in a situation quite similar to today, although the roles were reversed.
Didn’t Imperial Russia annex Qing Empire’s Far East by signing the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Treaty of Beijing (1860)? Yes, it did, but this is not the core. The key to their success was to gain real control of the territory by immigration ahead of everything. Even before the Treaty of Aigun, by launching several coercive armed navigations on Amur River, Gennady Nevelskoy and Nikolay Muravyov had already ensured an increase in Russian immigrants in the north side of Amur, totaling 3,000 (6,000 according to another source), which guaranteed Russia’s practical occupation of the lower reaches of Amur by 1857.
Clearly, Russia is worried that by creating an influx of agricultural immigrants, China is attempting to replicate Imperial Russia’s strategy of annexation through military immigration. To make matters worse, the old troubles of Russia from a century ago still remain today.
According to Vladimir Pozdnyakov, the deputy of Russia’s Communist party, who shared Igor Lebedev’s concerns, “only 5.4 million live in the five Russian regions neighboring China, while the two Chinese provinces on the other side of the border have a combined population of 63 million.” New situation? In 1895, there were only 87,000 Russians inhabiting the Priamur region (now Amur Oblast), while Chinese Manchuria had a population of 13 million (Matsuzato, 379-381).
Konstantin Ilkovsky, the governor of the Zabaikalsky region, has argued that “no Russians are willing to cultivate land” in his region. New problem? Let’s look at the other parts of the Far East in the 1880s. In 1885, the amount of land per capita cultivated by the Cossacks and Russian settlers in the entire Ussuri region was 0.6 dessiatines (A Russian unit roughly equivalent to 1.1 hectares), compared to 1.1 dessiatines by the Chinese; And in the South Ussuri region, each Chinese farmer had to provide 25-26 Russian residents with agricultural products (Malozemoff, 11; Соловьев, 59).
Last month, critics in Russia also feared that the contract could squeeze out Russian agribusinesses because as well as exporting produce back to China, the Chinese company could also sell it more cheaply on the domestic market. New danger? As early as 1880, a large portion of the profits from the development of these new territories (Russian Far East) went to foreign merchants in China and Japan. The Chinese’s business “accounted for most of the exports of the Primorsk region” (Malozemoff, 8). In 1897, in all of Primorskaya Oblast there were 3,567 Chinese firms compared with 1,241 Russian ones (Соловьев, 52).
The old problems remain Russia’s problem, but the advantage Russia had a century ago has long disappeared. Today the power situation of China and Russia is totally different. Despite the huge gap between the two countries’ GDPs, Russia is currently in need of China’s funds to replace the shortage caused by western sanctions. So, when the current situation resembles the 19th century one but with a reversed power situation, it is natural for Russia to recall the history of the Far East annexation.
Given the multiple factors above, Russia seems to have full reason to be vigilant about China. But if we think about this more logically and rationally, is Hua’e Xingbang really to blame because Russia is in need of investment? Is China really posing threats since Russia has not stood firm in its Far East? This mental process in fact reveals a dangerous logic: “No matter what happens, if evil is committed, it is always the other side that is to blame.”
As Benjamin Franklin once said, "A good example is the best sermon." Russia needs to first solve its own Far East problems. There have, in fact, been some major reforms in the Far East to boost Siberia’s development, including a free land grant policy. Many analysts and experts, however, dismiss it as a 1990-like policy, which will do no more than slowing down the population decline. Even if China has no land claim in the Far East, if this situation continues for a few more decades, this land will slip out of Moscow’s control one day.
Andrew Malozemoff, Russian Far Eastern Policy, 1881-1904: With Special Emphasis on the Causes of the Russo-Japanese War.
Kimitaka Matsuzato, The Creation of the Priamur Governor-Generalship in 1884 and the Reconfiguration of Asiatic Russia.
Ф. В. Соловьев, Китайское отходничество на Дальнем Востоке России в эпоху капитализма, 1861-1917.
Qiyang Niu is an intern with the Strategic Trust-Building Initiative at the EastWest Institute's New York City Center. He is a graduate student of European and Russian Studies at Yale University. Qiyang's interests include Russian/Chinese foreign policy, Russian/Chinese history from 20th century, and Russian literature and music.