Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's official visit to Moscow last month signalled the growing importance of Sino-Russian relations. Building trade and investment ties have dominated recent meetings between Chinese and Russian leaders. Zhu and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov have now met four times. In December the foreign ministers of both countries pledged to develop their `strategic' partnership in the coming year.
In recent years China has become a major export market for Russia's cash-strapped defence industry. China is Russia's third-largest trade partner outside the CIS. Cross border ‘shuttle' traders account for about one'third of total bilateral trade. In 1998 border trade was estimated at US$1.57bn by Ji Qingfu, head of Heilongjiang's foreign trade bureau.
Yet while shuttle trade is of increasing importance, there is growing tension among Russia's border communities in the far east as their dependence on China grows. By concentrating on political and economic survival, Moscow is letting outlying regions fend for themselves. Russia's far eastern territories are facing shortages of fuel, heating, electric power and food, although the region is rich in energy and natural resources. There is a growing resentment here, both at Moscow's neglect and at the relative prosperity in neighbouring China.
"The Russian government takes from the territories the bulk of regional revenue in the form of high federal taxes and gives them nothing back," explains lawyer Alexander Samoilutf from Khabarovsk. "At the same time we see rapid economic development in neighbouring China. We also see an increase in the Chinese ethnic population in the Russian far east and the penetration of Chinese capital. Never in Russian history has any government treated its territories in this way."
Many Russians survive through border trade With China. Chinese traders give Russians their goods for delivery to Khabarovsk. It is an informal but effective system. Usually neither party asks for documents. A trader can be introduced to the other side by a regular merchant, and this serves as a guarantee.
The chelnok (Russian small traders) regularly cross into neighbouring China to bring back goods for sale. There are three categories of trader: chelnok, kyrpich (brick) and fonarik (flashlight). Kyrpich are responsible only for bringing the goods across the border They take commodities from suppliers it China and deliver them to Chinese retailers it major centres such as Khabarovsk. Fonarik are just merchant's helpers. They sell their duty-free allocation to the kyrpich Because Russians have relatively few problems obtaininE travel visas to China, the Chinese hire Russian as their transportation agents.
Most chelnoks are Russian women. "It's a really hard job, especially for women, to carry a 50kg trunk," says Khabarovsk reporter Sergei Mikhailov. In China the kyrpich employ pomogaika (luggage helpers) who are usually Chinese men of about 40. They carry the trunk, guard it and help to negotiate with suppliers. A pomogaika's services daily fee is Yn10-15 (US$1.20-1.80). But there are no equivalent services in Russia and the kyrpich has to carry the cargo through customs.
An individual is allowed to bring into Russia 50kg of duty-free goods each trip. There are also strict Russian customs limitations on the import of any single type of product. For example, an individual can bring in to Russia duty free only five pairs of shoes. However, often the kyrpich declare up to 15 pairs of footwear by dividing them into slippers, jack-boots and shoes. One trader will usually bring in a variety of goods from different suppliers, while trying to keep within the weight limit of 50kg. The kyrpich receive their payment at the destination point in Khabarovsk. The official earnings per trip are around US$17, but most earn much more by smuggling goods.
"Men and women attach plastic packs with vodka by tape to their bodies. One per-son can carry up to 25 litres of vodka," Mikhailov says. Frozen meat is smuggled the same way. "They can usually tolerate this for the two-to-three hours it takes to get through customs."
There is a growing resentment in Russia's far east against illegal immigration from China. Antonia Greshnikh, professor at the Far Eastern Police Academy, alleges that the Chinese government supports and facilitates the Chinese presence in the Russian far east. "We have watched the rapid growth of the Chinese diaspora in our southern regions," she said. They already exceed a number of our native peoples. The Chinese have rented land and established a number of official settlements. They often set up Chinese-Russian joint ventures just to get quotas and licences for the export of Russian strategic commodities. All these structures are basic support points for illegal immigration."
According to Greshnikh there are several well established channels for illegal Chinese immigration. The first is through the chelnok system. "They use profits received in Russia to rent land and to purchase real estate and counterfeit Russian documents through trusted Russians." Others enter Russia as contractual workers. "We also have a few examples of Chinese entering Russia with counterfeit passports and by registering false marriages," she adds.
Illegal Chinese immigration has led to an increase in criminal activities, she alleges. These include smuggling out of Russia hard currency, strategic commodities, medicinal herbs and marine products, in addition to drugs and firearms.
Note of protest
Chinese traders in Khabarovsk face their own problems, not least harassment from the police. Last November China's Consul General in Khabarovsk sent a diplomatic note of protest to the local chief of police about the actions of police officers towards Chinese salesmen at Khabarovsk city markets. "On October 9 three policemen stopped me at the central city market," explains trader Tsui Yunpin. "I showed them my passport and hotel check-in card. They said that I was a hooligan and detained me in their car for several hours. They checked my pockets and confiscated R1,000 (US$50) without any receipt."
Shan Gotun says that, late last year, two policemen approached him in the city market and asked him to follow them. "When I asked the reason, they held my arms and dragged me to their car and beat me inside," he explains. "One policeman lit a cigarette and stubbed it on my neck. It was very painful. After that they confiscated my R250 and kicked me out of the car."
There is a great ambivalence in Russia's far east. The population would like to develop closer trade and other links with China, but only as equal partners. Without support from Moscow this is not possible and the result is growing frustration and anger.