Staunton, October 23 – The Chinese presence in Russian agriculture in the far eastern portions of the Russian Federation is far greater than officials admit, according to an investigation carried out by Andrey Zakharov and Anastasiya Napalkova of the BBC’s Russian Service.
Their 4600-word report provides one of the most detailed and complete surveys, including statistics, of the growing role of the Chinese in this sector, a role that frightens many local Russians even at a time when Moscow is celebrating expanded cooperation between Russia and China (bbc.com/russian/features-49978027).
In the 1990s after the border was opened, individual Chinese peasants moved into the region because there was a great deal of land and ever fewer people. But more recently, Zakharov and Napalkova report, Chinese involvement has been industrialized, with big firms organizing Chinese penetration and increasing their investment after the 2008 crisis.
Moscow officials understate the Chinese presence, the journalists say, insisting that Chinese are farming “only 16 percent” of land in the Russian Far East now being used for agriculture. But the BBC found that the Chinese presence was more extensive and far larger than that.
According to Zakharov and Napalkova, there are currently Chinese agricultural operations in 40 percent of the districts of the Russian Far East, and they control large swaths of territory. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast has the largest Chinese presence by share, in that Chinese are farming in one district 62,000 of the 81,000 hectares under cultivation.
“And these are only official statistics,” the two say. “Even the authorities admit that in far from all cases do the Chinese rent under their own names.” In the JAO, for example, as many as 20 percent of the lands the Chinese are using are rented under fictional Russian front names, a pattern that suggests a far larger Chinese presence.
With the collapse of collective state farms and the exodus of Russian workers, Zakharov and Napalkova say, the Chinese have moved in and in many cases simply taken over, importing their own work force, keeping it separate from the Russians, and producing far more per worker because the Chinese peasants really work hard.
Chinese managers say they would like to hire more Russians, but there either aren’t any or they refuse to work for Chinese firms or they drink far too much and are unreliable as employees. Chinese workers drink beer but not vodka, while Russians drink so much vodka that employers pay them only once a month so they won’t lose more workers to drunkenness.
In most cases, they continue, Chinese workers return home when they can and live apart because they have not learned Russian. Consequently, there are few of the kind of clashes one might expect, even though many Russians are angry about the growing Chinese presence and fearful of what it means for the future. And what clashes that do occur aren’t reported.
Polls over the last 25 years show a serious deterioration in local Russian attitudes toward the Chinese agricultural workers. In 1994 and 2003, large shares of Russians said they were unhappy with the Chinese being there. But in 2017, they viewed the Chinese as a direct threat to Russia.
The latest poll showed that “more than a third (37 percent) of Far Easterners are certain that the strategy of the Chinese Peoples Republic regarding Russia can be described as one of ‘expansion.’ And almost half suppose that China threatens the territorial integrity of Russia” while “a third say it threatens Russia’s economic development.
But at the same time, many in the region believe that if the Chinese disappeared with their workers and investment, economic activity in the agricultural sector in the Russian Far East would simply stop altogether. And so they feel trapped, both needing and disliking the presence of the Chinese.