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The Chinese Immigrant Experience in Russia

How have economic pressures shaped the fate of Russia’s Chinese immigrants?

March 5, 2007

How have economic pressures shaped the fate of Russia's Chinese immigrants?

After the collapse of the USSR, the situation in Russia started to change. Russia’s cultural and political influence plummeted, and some minorities no longer had the desire to be assimilated. Their numbers also increased in the Russian heartland, and the economic problems experienced by ethnic Russians turned a number of them against the minorities.

Economics is a major issue for many Russians who are perplexed that the windfall of all the fuel revenues has had little to no effect on their daily existence. In their distorted view, the minorities are responsible for this and other problems.

In the European part of Russia, people of "Caucasian nationality" — that is, people of various ethnic backgrounds who come from the Caucasus — are the major bone of contention. Meanwhile, in Siberia and especially in the Russian Far East, the Chinese are regarded as a major demographic threat. Their increasing numbers imply, in many Russian minds, the creeping annexation of Russian territory by China.

The Chinese, together with other minorities, are also blamed for the economic problems of ordinary Russians. It is assumed that they are responsible for the high prices of essential commodities and that they take the best jobs from Russians.

And there are many manifestations of rising anti-foreigner feelings among ethnic Russians. In the view of these ethnic Russians, the markets — major sources of food for many Russians — are occupied by foreigners. And these Russians assume that life would finally take a turn for the better if the foreigners — whether "Caucasian" or Chinese — were not present.

Receiving grassroots support, the “Movement Against Illegal Immigration” emerged in the early 2000s, proclaiming that the expulsion of foreigners — actually, of all non-Slavic minorities or non-Russian citizens — would be the solution to all problems.

For example, there was ethnic violence in Kondopoga, a city in the north of European Russia, in August/September 2006 — and a nationalistic "Russian March" that November. The participants in that march, predictably enough, called on authorities to clear Russia of "Caucasians" and Chinese.

These events indicated to the authorities that anti-minority feelings could potentially be a dangerous political problem, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. Using the conflict with Georgia as an excuse, the authorities expelled thousands of Georgians from Russia — and adopted a law that actually banned the presence of foreign traders from the markets.

Soon after the introduction of this law, the markets in both European and Asiatic Russia were indeed empty of foreigners. But ethnic Russians have had little to cheer about. They soon discovered that, after the expulsion of the foreigners, their own lives became not better — but worse.

Recently, Marina Maksimovskaia, producer of the Russian current affairs program Nedelia, stated that "The Moscow authorities are already saying that there is a shortage of traders on the market. The situation can only deteriorate."

At the same time, the departure of the Chinese seems to be the most devastating. She added, “In the Martine Territory, the situation is even worse. On the first day that the law was in force, operatives of the Federal Migration Service discovered that the markets were simply deserted. Experts are saying that price rises in the markets in the near future are unavoidable."

According to another report, after the deportation of Chinese, “The clothes markets in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk have all been paralyzed. And it is unlikely that it will be possible to replace the Chinese with Russians by the end of April, when the law takes full effect."

Ms. Maksimovskaia who reported how the departure of the Chinese had paralyzed trade in the Far East, "suggested that most Russians are not ready for the hard work and long hours that foreign market traders put in."

Echoing this statement, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov stressed that the "government must not allow shortages of goods or market closures," and ended his pronouncement by saying that "not only do migrants need Russia, but Russia needs migrants."

The problem here is not simply Russians' unwillingness to take a hard manual job or trade in the markets. Neither should it be seen as just a Russian problem, or a product of Russian xenophobia. After all, the same can be seen in many other parts of the Western world.

Indeed, quite a few Americans have blamed the influx of immigrants — Latin Americans in the current case — as a reason for the present economic problems of lower — to middle-class Americans. Immigrants are blamed for "Latinizing" the United States of America and dissolving it in an alien civilization. Europeans have similar concerns and fears.

All of this reflects the process of global integration and the increasing economic, demographic and geopolitical role of non-Western — and often non-European — civilizations and countries. And whether or not the West (most of the Russian elite and middle class would prefer to regard themselves as part of the West) likes this will not matter in the long run.

It would be better for Russia and other Western countries to find a way to adjust willingly to these global changes, rather than wait until geopolitical, demographic and economic realities show them more and more that it is not just that the East, taking the term broadly, depends on them — but that they increasingly depend on the East.