Staunton, July 26 – Under Moscow’s Far Eastern hectare program, approximately 24,000 Russians have received on hectare each over the last six months, but in the same period, a single Chinese entrepreneur backed by Beijing has applied to take control of “more than 66,000 hectares” in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast alone.
That fact, Anatoly Komrakov says in today’s Nezavisimaya gazeta, is worrisome not only because of the history of Chinese agricultural practices and the failure of the Russian authorities to consult local people but also because as of now, there are more ethnic Chinese in the oblast than there are Jews (ng.ru/economics/2017-07-26/1_7037_china.html).
Liu Xiao, the entrepreneur in question, has been active in the oblast since 2005 during which she has overseen the construction of “more than 20 apartment blocks, kindergartens, and administrative buildings.” Last fall she helped the region recover from flooding and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship.
But in the last two years, she has shifted from the construction business into agriculture, the result of China’s need for more food and Beijing’s support for such activities as part of its “belt and path” foreign policy initiative. Liu Xiao says she is being helped financially and in other ways by the Chinese government.
According to her, opening the Russian Far East to Chinese agriculture makes good sense all around. “The economies of the Chinese Peoples Republic and the Russian Federation to a significant degree fit together. China has great experience and good technologies in agriculture, and in Russia, there is a great amount of land lying fallow.”
Her “Sunlight” project, she continues, will be a “green” enterprise and produce vegetables, fruits, and medicinal herbs. China needs them: It has 19 percent of the world’s population but only six percent of its water supply and 10 percent of its arable land. To feed its people, it must look abroad, and Russia is an obvious place.
According to the Moscow journalist, “of the 70 Chinese enterprises working in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast now, agricultural enterprises form more than half.” Many of them now operate large agro-centers, far larger and more efficient than the farms they could get in China itself.
But the result, as local media point out regularly, is that “there are definitely more Chinese [in the Jewish AO] than there are Jews.” And that trend appears likely to continue to grow given that the neighboring Chinese province has 38 million residents, “more than 200 times the entire population of the Russian oblast.
The Jewish Autonomous Oblast is not the only place where Chinese agriculturalists are making inroads, a growth that is especially striking given the veritable collapse of farming in the Russian Far East earlier. Between 1990 and 2006, the Nezavisimaya gazeta journalist says, the area cultivated there fell by 60 percent.
Perhaps the largest Chinese conquest in this regard has been in Trans-Baikal kray where the authorities agreed to hand over 115,000 hectares of land to Chinese entrepreneurs on a 49-year lease basis. Whether Liu Xiao’s project will be approved or may even expand remains to be seen.
Russian officials and experts are concerned. Mikhail Shapov, a Duma deputy, says that “Chinese citizens for a long time already have been active in the agricultural markets of Siberia and the Far East but earlier they did everything in a semi-legal way and more often in a completely illegal one.”
“In every region,” he continues, “you hear stories” about how the Chinese have come in, poisoned the land with pesticides and fertilizers, and then departed, leaving the Russians with a mess to clean up.
And Natalya Shagayda, head of the Center for Agricultural Policy at the Russian Academy of Economics, adds that many of the new Chinese projects are taking off without an adequate discussion of the arrangements. There is no standard contract, and the views of local people are simply ignored.
Of particular concern, she continues, is the fact that many of these Chinese enterprises once they are registered in Russia qualify for and receive Russian government assistance even though they are also receiving Chinese government aid. That gives them competitive advantages which are driving many Russian producers out of business.
“This is a new situation,” Shagayda says. “It requires very attentive consideration.”