No Warm Welcome: Siberian Animosity towards Chinese Economic Activity
As a nation of 1.4 billion people, it is not hard to decipher why China’s ambitions and potential influence in neighboring Siberia, an area home to a shrinking population of about 25 million, has long been a cause of concern for Russians. This imbalance is expected to increase with time, as China’s quickly expanding economic and political clout continues to eclipse a Russia suffering from economic and demographic stagnation. Despite this, there is no end in sight to increasing ties between Beijing and Moscow, leaving many local Siberian anxieties unconsoled. For policy makers in both capitals, it should be obvious that failure to address these concerns is politically dangerous and economically unsustainable.
The most vocal resistance to Chinese ventures in Siberia manifests in the area surrounding Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, which garnered Chinese interest due to an appetite for water across the border. This demand prompted Russia’s agriculture minister, Aleksandr Tkachev, to propose diverting some of the region’s river water to China in 2016, which has more recently taken the form of either bottling the water or developing a pipeline to pump it into the province of Xinjiang. As the lake occupies a special place in the minds of many Russian people, and serves as an important part of their national patrimony, it was no surprise that the proposals motivated around a million people to sign a petition against the plans and sparked protest against them this past month. These actions were eventually successful in deterring the project from being carried out, although there is reason to believe that backtracking on the part of the Kremlin may have damaged prospects for Chinese foreign direct investment to Russia overall. It is important to note that a great deal of recent Sino-Russian economic cooperation is due to Western sanctions placed on Russia since 2014, after which the nation turned eastwards to mitigate its losses. Failure to elicit confidence in the face of its smaller pool of international investors, and the Chinese in particular, will certainly pose issues for the nation’s economy.
With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that this is just one of a multitude of Chinese-involved economic projects in the region. It is also not the only one that has drawn local tension, as anxiety over Chinese forestry projects and real estate consumption have also become quite pronounced. Due to the close proximity and vastness of Siberia’s forests, Russia is China’s premium supplier of timber, and the Chinese forestry business’ presence in the area has only grown over time. In an effort to mitigate Russian tariffs put in place in 2007, much of the industry decided to migrate to Russia itself and establish sawmills there. In 2008 there were 152 Chinese forestry companies located across Russia, but by 2018 this number jumped to 564. While this has lead to the conception that China is destroying the Siberian environment in a manner similar to what they have done domestically, the fact that significant numbers of Chinese migrant workers have also accompanied the industry’s trek, and only Chinese equipment is used in the work, has not helped with local perceptions.
There has also been serious resentment towards wealthier Chinese purchasing property on the banks of Lake Baikal, and some constructing hotels and resorts there. This has similarly lead to petitions for government action against what locals have called an “invasion” or a Chinese “yoke” (a reference to medieval Mongolian invasions), specifically with the intent to ban the sale of real estate to Chinese citizens in certain parts of the region. This frustration comes, in part, due to the fact that the constructions are often illegal, and that the Chinese often act with seeming impunity.
Frustration towards these kinds of practices are something that can lead to backlash, negating potential benefits for both Beijing, Moscow, and Siberian residents. That being said, it would be wise of China to actually deal with these concerns. This means employing more local workers rather than relying on Chinese labor, as well as bolstering the local economy in general by using Russian equipment and facilities. Strict adherence to local laws, especially environmental regulations, is vital, especially in culturally important landmarks such as Lake Baikal. This also includes replanting trees in accordance with logging agreements, and ceasing to log in protected forests. Although perhaps good for domestic advertisement, local Siberian anxieties would be largely calmed if Chinese tourist agencies refrained from exhibiting Lake Baikal as a former Chinese territory, and if they made a greater commitment to reducing pollution and utilizing Russian-owned resorts and services.
The Russian government must also take serious steps to alleviate these grievances, as many across Siberia blame the Kremlin and business-oriented oligarchs for being permissive of China’s actions. While Russia’s current geopolitical difficulties have limited its bargaining power, it should remain keenly aware of its own interests and sovereignty. Moscow should never hesitate to enforce its own laws when it comes to illegal logging and construction, as public backlash has also shown that a failure to do so can damage long-term economic potential. This comes as failure to address fears over immigration recently prompted the entire Siberian Sakha Republic to ban migrants from 33 fields of work. Considering the ethnic animosity that has already begun to simmer towards the Chinese due to temporary migrant workers, it is not unreasonable to consider that similar decisions could be made elsewhere in the region if this continues.
Russia’s east has always been in need of economic development, and in many ways the rise of China could prove a blessing for the people who inhabit Siberia. However, one-sided resource extraction and disregard for cultural concerns is certainly not a viable way to undertake this task. If this continues, trust in the Russian government will continue to plummet, regionalism will likely experience an ascension, and long-term prospects to use China as an economic substitute for the West in the face of sanctions will suffer. A positive path forward can be determined by choices made in Moscow and Beijing, but it would be wise to remember that the people of Siberia do have a say in the region’s future.