Russia as a 'land of opportunity'

Flow of Chinese migrants seeking jobs in Russia's Far East may

Two years after leaving China to study in Khabarovsk in Russia's Far East, Li Tuan Shan has made himself quite at home in Russia.

He has a Slavic nickname, Maxim, and a Slavic girlfriend, Katya. He hangs out with Russian friends in the one trendy club in this city 25 miles from the Chinese border. After he graduates, Mr. Li says he'd like to move to Moscow.

"There's not enough work in China these days," explains Li, sitting in a dorm room he's brightened up with plastic flowers and a technicolor bedspread from China. "Russia lets us in, so we come here, but other countries won't take us."

Such views make some Russians nervous.

Since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of borders, Russia has become for many Chinese what the US is to poorer Mexicans: a land of opportunity to the north. Though Russia has been in the grips of an economic crisis since last year, there are still jobs Russians can't or won't do that many Chinese are willing to take.

Some Chinese, such as Li, come to study, but most are traders and laborers who can triple their income working in Russia.

Demographers estimate that about 300,000 Chinese now live in the Russian Far East. If migration continues at the current rate, Russia's Chinese population could near 10 million by 2050, says demographer Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. That would make Chinese the largest ethnic group in Russia behind Russians themselves, outstripping such communities as the Tatars and Ukrainians.

Most Russians don't look kindly on foreigners, especially anyone of non-European appearance. But those along the border with China feel the brunt of the changing relationship between their two countries, and they're profoundly ambivalent about the Chinese. Those Russians understand their economies have grown so intertwined that any break could mean disaster.

Still, "Russians are afraid that they will become an island in a vast Chinese sea," says Ms. Zayonchkovskaya.

The slowdown of the Asian economy, which began well before Russia's, and China's efforts to restructure inefficient industries have driven up unemployment to 20 percent in some regions and sparked a global exodus.

"No other country can match China for sheer numbers of immigrants moving through the world," says Wilya Gelbras, a Sinologist at Moscow State University.

China abuts a Russian territory that is emptying as the birthrate falls and as more people move to the relative comfort of western Russia. The nine regions of the Russian Far East have a population of 7.4 million, while the three Chinese provinces just across the border are home to 300 million.

Official trade between Russia and China amounted to just $5.5 billion in 1998. But real trade, which includes small merchants shuttling between the two countries, is at least double that. About 30 percent of the economy in Khabarovsk is tied to China, estimates China expert Ms. Gelbras.

In Khabarovsk, store shelves are lined with Chinese fruit and vegetables. The granite fountains in the town's central square and countless buildings were built by Chinese laborers. And every weekend, Russians crowd into the Vyborgsky market to buy everything from cheap thermoses to tennis shoes hauled here by Chinese traders.

Russians admire the Chinese for their eagerness to work but fear the desperation behind that drive.

"I'd like to hire fewer Chinese, because I feel bad for the Russians," says Anatoly Krutko, a Khabarovsk building contractor. "But I end up thinking, 'Why can't the Russians work like the Chinese?' "

Like poor migrants everywhere, many Chinese in Russia are willing to live in grim conditions - often 10 to a room. Most of the money they earn is sent home.

Every summer, Chinese farm workers toil in fields abandoned by decaying Rus-sian collective farms. They live in shabby housing without indoor plumbing. Yet "their harvest is better," says Yekaterina Motrich, an economist at the Khabarovsk branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "They set a good example for the Russians, who themselves have started working harder."

Most Russians, however, would prefer that the Chinese do their jobs and leave. The wariness stems in part from a history of border skirmishes between the Chinese and Soviets that continued until 1970. If the old Soviet Union was a political and military match for China, the new Russia isn't, which makes Russians feel particularly vulnerable.

"The Chinese themselves say from time to time that the Far East is their territory," Mr. Krutko says, "and we feel the danger."

BUT younger Russians seem more willing to accept the Chinese presence, and there are signs of a turnabout: Competition is stiff for a place at Khabarovsk's special Chinese-language grammar school.

In hallways decorated with red lanterns and murals of dragons, students frantically copy one another's homework as others rush to class. First-graders stand to greet visitors in Chinese and determinedly scratch out simple characters on the blackboard.

The older students at School No. 4 have moved beyond their parents' mind-set to a more pragmatic view.

"The situation between the countries is only going to get closer," says teenager Tanya Boroznyak. "Our future is with them."

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