Sunday, November 7, 2004

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Less than a decade ago, Sui Hui Ling, a Chinese trader, first crossed into Russia carrying a bag of nylon tracksuits and cheap shoes.

Now 39, he runs an import-export company with a multimillion dollar turnover, has a young Russian wife, two smart apartments in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok and a Japanese sports car.

“Life is so much better here,” he said. “In China, the competition is cruel and there is huge pressure on people. Here there is space and nature. I can walk by the sea or feel the fresh air in the forest. In China, there is barely a tree left.”

He was one of the first Chinese to cross into Siberia and the Russian Far East, among the most sparsely inhabited areas on earth, looking to make a living in the resource-rich region.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have followed the path north. Each year the pace is accelerating. Such is the influx that locals and some analysts predict a seismic demographic shift.

They say the Chinese will change the ethnic makeup, and there are fears that they eventually may gain control over huge swathes of eastern Russia.

Sergei Buchma, the deputy president of an association of Russian-Chinese entrepreneurs, runs a business center in Vladivostok where eight Chinese companies with an annual collective turnover of $10 million are based.

“Ten years ago they were all shuttle traders,” he said. “Now they are big managers, some of them turn over millions of dollars a year. They already control half of the economy here. Within 30 or 40 years they will have economic control of this whole area.”

Statistics fuel the Russian fears. In the Vladivostok region, the population density is 15 times lower than in the Chinese areas just across the border.

The local Russian population numbers 2.1 million. About 280,000 Chinese are working in the area officially, but the real number may be many times higher.

Some local politicians blame lack of financial support from Moscow and its indifference to the far-flung regions.

Nikolai Markovtsev, a national legislator from Vladivostok, said: “If official policies don’t change, within 30 years the Chinese will dominate the Russian Far East. Last year alone, 40,000 Russians left the coastal regions.” Tens of thousands of Chinese farmers are tilling the land throughout Siberia, working up to 16 hours a day.

Despite the fears, many Russians welcome the economic benefits the Chinese have brought to the region. The visitors bring consumer goods that are cheaper and superior to what Russian industry can offer and a work ethic that is rare among Russians.

“It’s very simple,” said Ivan Rugansky, a Russian farmer who employs a Chinese laborer. “They are cheaper, they work harder and they work longer. Our people are so lazy, they don’t want to work. They only want to drink.”

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