Staunton, August 10 – Most of the approximately 40,000 people from Russia and the other former Soviet republics who live in China have no desire to return home despite the difficulties of life in China and the fact that Beijing has increasingly tightened the rules against their presence, according to Russian journalist Ivan Zuenko.
In an article for the Lenta news agency entitled “Russians Beyond the Chinese Wall,” Zuenko says that “the life of foreigners in the Chinese Peoples Republic is ever more complicated but they don’t want to return home.” And that is particularly true of the ethnic Russians (lenta.ru/articles/2016/08/10/russians_in_china/).
Russians have been living in China for a long time. At the end of the 19th century, some settled there as part of “Yellow Russia,” which was as the Lenta journalist points out “a logical extension of the territorial expansion of the Russian Empire to the East.” Then, after the revolution, many fled to Harbin and Shanghai to escape the Bolsheviks.
Over the last two decades, Zuenko says, “China has become a popular direction for labor migration” involving not only experts in technical fields but also those in various sectors of the entertainment industry. Chinese salaries are better than those in Russia, he continues, but the situation of Russians in China is increasingly complicated.
“There are no precise statistical data on the size of the Russian diaspora in China,” he says; “there isn’t even agreement on whether it is appropriate to call it a diaspora at all.” Most Russians working in China still retain their property and residence permits in their homeland and travel back and forth between the two countries.
It is “almost unreal” to get Chinese citizenship unless one or both of your parents are Chinese citizens, he points out. Those who have jobs can get a residence permit; those who don’t but who marry a Chinese citizen can get permanent residence status. As a result, there is significant turnover in the Russian community with most not staying in China for decades.
There are some students among the Russians living in China, but the core group, Zuenko says, consists of “young professionals,” some of whom work for Russian companies but some of whom are married to Chinese. There are also nightclub workers and some traders especially along the border.
The diaspora remains “international” in the sense that it is multinational with various nationalities from the former USSR all coming together in the Russian clubs that began to be set up a decade or so ago. “Paradoxically,” the Lenta journalist says, “on this foreign land ‘the Soviet family of peoples’ is alive to this day.”
More than half of the Russians in China live in just three cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Guanjou. Very few live in Harbin, the pre-1949 center of Russian life in China. There is little industry there of the kind that provides employment for the Russian community in China now, Zuenko says. There are only a handful of Russians in the border towns.
Russian pensioners used to be able to live relatively well in China, but with the collapse of the ruble exchange rate, rising prices for housing, medical care, and other services and pressure from the Chinese authorities, many are now thinking about leaving, although some can’t because they have nowhere to go.
Those with jobs also face the price rises in China and the risk that if they lose their positions, they will have to leave. They can’t become tour guides as Chinese do in Russia. Russian firms are pulling out or cutting staff. And while there are some possibilities to live in China illegally, they are becoming scarcer as China cracks down on this phenomenon.
The number of Russians leaving China has gone up significantly over the last two years, the journalist reports, but “one does not see a mass exodus” perhaps largely because of difficulties in Russia and uncertainty about the future there as well. At present, there are few openings for those who know Chinese but who don’t have academic certification.
Consequently, Zuenko says, “the Russian community in China exists and will continue to exist despite all the problems” because for many of its members, the problems they would face in Russia are even greater.