China: Russia’s Land of Opportunity

Where Russia Meets China: The final part of a 5-part series in cooperation with Slate.

Photo by Joshua Kucera
Photo by Joshua Kucera

SUIFENHE, China — In 1989, the opening of the border between Russia and China raised Russian fears of a "yellow peril": millions of Chinese citizens flooding north into relatively unpopulated, but richly endowed, Siberia. Some contrarian publications even went so far as to suggest that Russia should just accept the inevitable and sell the whole territory to China.

Demographically, it makes sense that Chinese people would flock to Russia. Look at it in economic terms, though: China’s economy is booming, and its prospects seem limitless. Meanwhile, Russia is highly dependent on uncertain oil and natural gas reserves. Professionals already make more money in China than they do in Russia, and as China’s economy grows, blue-collar wages will likely outpace Russian pay. So, rather than Chinese people moving to Russia, isn’t it more likely that Russians would move to China?

I asked this question of many Russians in the Far East, and I usually got the same answer: It’s already happening. Thus far, the Russian migration to China seems to be only a trickle. But it’s not hard to imagine that this is just the start.

The energy in Suifenhe, a relative backwater, is so much greater than in Vladivostok-a city three times the size-that taking the four-hour bus trip across the border is like switching from black-and-white to color. The road from Vladivostok becomes progressively worse the closer you get to the border, and the land is almost empty of people. As soon as you cross the border into China, there is a massive shopping mall with red cupolas, an apparent nod to Russian architecture, and an international-standard Holiday Inn.

The mall is part of what was supposed to be a joint Chinese-Russian free-trade zone, where people would be able to come to shop and tour visa-free. But all Russia has built on its side of the border is a church, which Chinese tourists photograph through the chain-link fence.

The day I arrived was one of the biggest celebrations in recent Chinese history: the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Still, at the many construction projects around the city’s center, workers were on the job until after dark. I thought back to Vladivostok, where a huge suspension bridge is under construction. It is supposed to be ready by 2012, when the city plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Ostensibly, this is a priority project overseen from Moscow, but when I mentioned to my translator that I hadn’t seen anyone working on it, she smiled. "Yes," she said. "We notice that all the time."

Suifenhe’s economy is driven by Russian shoppers on package tours, and the shops in the city center all have signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. One sporting goods store was called CSKA, after Moscow’s legendary soccer team. I flipped through the T-shirts on sale at another boutique and saw shirts advertising the 2014 Sochi Olympics and United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

But in addition to the many Russian tourists, there is a growing population of Russian expatriates living in Suifenhe. One, a journalist named Stanislav Bystritski, is a former reporter for a Vladivostok TV station. He moved here five years ago and produces two Russian-language shows on local Suifenhe TV, one oriented toward Russian tourists and one for Chinese people who want to learn about Russia and the Russian language.

As he showed me around town, an elderly Chinese man greeted us with a smile and said "Horosho," which means good in Russian. It seemed a strange thing to say, but Bystritski told me it was a common greeting by Chinese people here, because it sounds like it could be a Chinese word and is easy for Mandarin speakers to pronounce.

He echoed what I had heard in Blagoveshchensk and Vladivostok-Russians come to China because it is easier to get a good job and easier to do business. "So many Russian businessmen say it’s easier to work here, there is so much less corruption and bureaucracy," he said.

Suifenhe’s government once had plans to build a Russian quarter, reportedly with the expectation that up to 50,000 Russians might relocate here, though those plans appear to have been abandoned. Bystritski said that the rules on apartment ownership by foreigners have been loosened, so the government may have decided that there is no longer a need for a special Russian district. (We couldn’t find out for sure. Bystritski set up a meeting with a member of Suifenhe’s local government to talk about that and other issues involving Russian migrants. The official apparently assumed I would be Russian, and when Bystritski introduced me as an American, the official’s eyes widened somewhat cartoonishly. He probably wasn’t the best person, he said, and in the end I couldn’t get anyone from the local government to talk to me.)

Still, I was able to meet several Russians who had moved here. Petr is building a small complex of apartment buildings for Russians. The Suifenhe government is so enthusiastic about the project that it is bulldozing the homes of the Chinese people who currently live in the area.

Viktor, a Russian engineer who moved here at the beginning of 2008, is working on a pollution-control technology that has excited more interest in China than it did in Russia. "The Chinese are more interested in innovative projects, so there are more opportunities here," he said. His wife, Natasha, works as a technician with Suifenhe’s pioneering (and, to a civil libertarian, rather ominous) "electronic security" system, in which surveillance cameras all over town are controlled from a spotless control room in a glass-fronted building called the Suifenhe Cyberport. She says she wants her 4-year-old son to be raised "in Chinese traditions," and she is making sure he learns Chinese.

"People are so friendly here, I feel so comfortable," she said. "This is my new home."

Joshua Kucera is the Caucasus editor of Eurasianet, based in Tbilisi.