"The Chinese Gave Us a Push"

Immigrants are energizing Russia's Far East

To enter Lu Binzheng's pig farm in the village of Lazarevskoye, near the Chinese border in Russia's Far East region, visitors must dress in white lab coats, stand under an ultraviolet light to kill any germs, and slosh their shoes in disinfectant. Lu, a 37-year-old migrant from China's northern Heilongjiang province, is serious about protecting his animals from disease. He arrived last year at the invitation of the Russian director of Lazarevskoye's collective farm, which lacked enough local workers. Now, Lu and 11 other Chinese nationals, leasing the land from the collective, run the 300-pig farm. "I'd like to be here for 20 years," he says.

Although still a tiny minority of some 800,000 in a nation of 145 million, the Chinese are rapidly expanding their presence in Russia and giving an economic boost to a lagging region. In particular, they're flocking to the sparsely populated Far East, a vast stretch of land east of Lake Baikal in Siberia. There could easily be 10 million Chinese in Russia by 2050, predicts Moscow demographer Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya.

The main pull for these immigrants is economic. Because of a declining birth rate, Russia's working-age population will soon start to shrink, sparking a severe labor shortage over the next decade. Russia offers Chinese immigrant farmers ample potable water--a resource in alarmingly short supply in overcrowded northern Chinese provinces. Already, China's farmers are being joined by traders and construction workers in the Far East. And in the future, cities such as Vladivostok and Khabarovsk can expect to see bus drivers, hotel workers, and restaurant operators as well.

Many Russians feel threatened by this influx. In the Far East, a scant 10 million Russians are neighbors with 120 million Chinese. Chinese guest workers and traders often suffer ethnic insults and sometimes much worse: In Vladivostok this past summer, a Chinese scrap-metal dealer and three employees were robbed and murdered, allegedly by two current and two former Russian policemen. Some Russian politicians are calling for tightened controls on Chinese immigration, and old fears of Chinese military incursions are reviving.

Such worries seem unwarranted. The Chinese and Russians are actually settling a century-long dispute over the demarcation of the Chinese-Russian border. Trade ties are improving, too. With annual purchases of about $2 billion, China is Russia's top weapons customer. China's state-owned Daqing Oil & Gas Corp. and Russia's state-owned Rosneft and privatized oil producer Yukos in September announced plans to develop an oil field in Siberia's Irkutsk-Sakha region--the first-ever such agreement between Chinese and Russian energy companies. China is negotiating with Yukos to build a $1.7 billion pipeline from Siberia to Daqing.

PIGS AND SLIPPERS. If Russia can surmount its concerns, it is likely to find in the Chinese a source of renewal. The chairman of Lu's collective, Lyudmila Mokronos, is greatly impressed with the "industriousness" of Lu and his fellow Chinese farmers, who are planning to expand their stock from 300 to 1,000 animals and have contracted to deliver the pigs to meat processors in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Regional Vice-Governor Valery Gurevich, who hatched the idea of inviting Chinese farmers because 50% of the local agricultural land lay fallow, says "the Chinese gave us a push and showed us how to work."

Chinese traders, meanwhile, are energizing Far East market bazaars. In Ussurisk, a city of 160,000 located 100 kilometers north of Vladivostok, a Chinese market with 1,500 stalls is one of the largest taxpayers, putting nearly $50,000 annually in city coffers. Russians jam the market in search of tea kettles, slippers, nightgowns, kitchen linoleum, and lots else. "My daughter bought two jackets that cost 400 rubles," says Tamara Nestrenko, a Vladivostok resident who finds the trek to Ussurisk well worth her time. "In Vladivostok, they would have cost 600 rubles." Russia needs immigrants with entrepreneurial drive. The Chinese are ready to oblige.

By Paul Starobin, with Russell Working, in Lazarevskoye

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