Dispatch

China: Russia’s Land of Opportunity

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

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."

Photo by Joshua Kucera

Dispatch

Vladivostok’s Used-Car Dealers Are Mad as Hell

Where Russia Meets China: Part 4 of a 5-part series in cooperation with Slate.

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- The most remarkable thing about Vladivostok is how thoroughly Russian it is. It's 4,000 miles from Moscow, but only 600 miles from Tokyo and just a couple of hours' drive from both China and North Korea. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find many signs of Asian-ness amid the concrete block apartment buildings, Soviet war memorials, and overwhelmingly white faces. My translator, a freelance tour guide, said her charges are often disappointed by how "un-Asian" Vladivostok looks.

Russia's firm control over this remote outpost has to be counted as a great achievement, first by the Russian Empire, which founded Vladivostok in 1859 and made it the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and then by the Soviets, who made the city a naval base, closed it off to foreigners, and gave it the distinctive look it has today: concrete high-rises perched on the lush, steep hills that overlook the Pacific Ocean.

But today, Vladivostok's identity as a Russian city is undergoing a transformation. The city represents Russia's purported desire to open up to Asia -- Vladimir Putin has dubbed Vladivostok the "Gateway to the Pacific." And Moscow has promised to back up that rhetoric, choosing Vladivostok to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2012 and undertaking several ambitious new infrastructure projects, like business-class hotels and new bridges and roads, to help the city prepare for the event.

But in front of that "gateway" are some metaphorical barbed wire and guard dogs, as Moscow tries to figure out how to maintain its control over this strategic part of Russia in the face of a declining population and a rising China.

The European part of Russia can feel pretty far away. When Vladivostok's businesspeople and bureaucrats show up to work at 9 a.m., their colleagues in Moscow are sound asleep -- it's 2 a.m. there -- which makes it difficult to conduct business with the capital. Recently, President Dmitry Medvedev proposed a reduction in the number of time zones from 11 to three or four.

The government has tried other schemes to beef up ties between the Russian Far East and the rest of the country. One, designed to shore up the Russian population here, encourages ethnic Russians living in former Soviet republics, particularly in Central Asia, to move to strategically important but depopulated areas, most of which are in the Far East.

Another program tries to encourage people in the Far East to visit the capital by halving airfares on flights to Moscow. For whatever reason, the discounts are available only to people under 24 or over 60. Or, as Svetlana Kosikhina, the dean of the international relations department at Amur State University, put it, "The young, who don't have enough money to travel, and the old, who aren't healthy enough to travel."

Unfortunately, whatever effect these measures have had on winning over hearts and minds has been far outweighed by Moscow's attempts to shut down car imports from Japan.

It's not quite accurate to say that there is nothing Asian about Vladivostok -- if you look carefully at the cars on the street, you will see that well over 95 percent of them have the steering wheel on the right-hand side, even though traffic, as in the rest of Russia, travels on the right side of the road. That's because the cars are from Japan, the fruit of Vladivostok's most dynamic industry: used-car sales.

Until the beginning of 2009, hundreds of thousands of cars were imported every year from Japan to Vladivostok, where they were sold on to buyers in other parts of Russia. This trade provided people in Vladivostok with a good living (boosters say 100,000 of the city's 600,000 residents were employed in some kind of car-related work) and with cheap, high-quality cars.

(I asked several drivers of right-hand-drive cars if they felt it was dangerous-passing, for example, would seem to become much more treacherous when you're on the right side of the car. But every single one of them claimed that the cars were perfectly safe. One person even argued that right-hand-drive cars were safer, because when you parallel parked at a curb, you got out at the curb rather than in traffic. Official government statistics tell a different story, however: Right-hand-drive cars are twice as likely to be in an accident.)

Nevertheless, the Russian government is cracking down in an attempt to bolster the Russian domestic auto industry. At the beginning of 2009, the government increased customs duties on imported cars, prompting protests so serious that the government flew in riot police from Moscow to break them up.

At the beginning of 2010, the government is planning to prohibit the importation of cars without Vehicle Identification Numbers. Cars produced for the Japanese market don't have them. The 2009 fee increases "hurt this business, but the new rules will kill it," said Alex, a car dealer at Vladivostok's Green Corner, the open-air car market on the outskirts of Vladivostok that got its name from the large amounts of money that change hands there.

One company that imports cars from Japan, VladTrek, has cut its work force from 200 to 30 over the last year, and it sells only about a tenth the cars it used to, Roman Sultanov, the company's vice general director, told me. He received me in his office, which is dominated by a huge schedule of car auctions across Japan. The company is now shifting gears to import parts for the cars already in Russia, he said, but that is a far less lucrative business.

In all my stops before Vladivostok, I had heard about the problems with the car import business; the stories were usually offered up as Exhibit A in the case for "Why Moscow Doesn't Care About the Far East." As on America's frontier, there is a bit of a libertarian streak here, and government interference has stirred up a lot of resentment. "We [in the Far East] like to be independent," Sultanov said. "We don't need help, but we don't want the government to interfere with our business."

The fallout over car imports has had a clear political impact. In stark contrast to my previous stops in Russia, where I often faced reticent interviewees and dark warnings about the KGB, in Vladivostok, people freely and frequently volunteered slanderous opinions of the Russian government.

I heard anti-government sentiment all over town, but understandably, it's most prominent at the Green Corner, where business was down so much that there were more dealers sunning their paunchy bellies in the warm September sun than attending to customers.

One dealer told me that Putin shut down the Japanese imports because he has stock in AvtoVAZ, Russia's main car manufacturer, and thus loses money from Japanese imports. "Putin says, 'Why do I have to care about the Russian Far East? Just one Lada factory has more voters than the whole Far East,' " another, Andrey, told me. A third, Dmitry, told me that the government is just trying to horn in on the action: "This business will always exist, because people want used cars. But the question is, who will control it? It has been a private business until now, but probably some government people are going to come and run it."

Sultanov said flatly, "I'm against Putin. He's not smart, he's like Hugo Chávez or Alexander Lukashenko or the president of some African banana republic. People in other Russian cities don't know anything; they just watch TV. We can go abroad and see real freedom."

And he said something I had already heard several times in Russia: "Even in Communist China, it's more free than here." He described how in China, new businesses are exempt from taxes for three years, and interest rates are a fraction of the Russia rate. "In China, it's getting easier to do business. Here, it's getting harder."

Photo by Joshua Kucera