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Chinese reoccupying Russia

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VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — 2006 is the Year of Russia in China; 2007 will be the Year of China in Russia — if the current friendly relationship of the leaders of the two countries lasts that long. Friendly relations are not something that the peoples of the two countries support that much.

Among the noncultural things that Russian President Vladimir Putin did in China recently was to sign agreements to build two pipelines to carry Russian gas to west China. This was just a week before the Chinese signed an agreement with Turkmenistan for another pipeline to carry even more gas to west China.

This irked the Russian leaders as they regard the Turkmens as their own supplier of cheap gas. The contract could have been a slap in the face to the Russians for continuing to refuse to commit themselves to build an oil pipeline from Siberia into China as they keep open the option of supplying Japan instead.

Putin is applying a policy of triangulation between China and Japan, letting them both think that he will favor them in the final settlement of the direction of the pipeline. He will have to come off the fence eventually, but while he continues to sit he is upsetting both countries.

Russia, however, is the major supplier (almost the only supplier) of military equipment and technology to China. Russia may come to regret this. Whatever the basis of the love-in between Putin and Chinese President Jintao, the Russian and Chinese people on the whole hate and mistrust each other.

The 5 million Russians who live in Russia’s provinces bordering China’s northeast (population 107 million) are nervous and frightened. The Treaty of Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation that the two leaders signed in 2001 and the “final resolution” of the centuries-old border dispute earlier this year have done nothing to assuage that hatred and fear. Measures taken by the leaders do not have the support of either the people of northeast China or the people of Russia’s border provinces.

Chinese people are taught in school that the Russian provinces on the other side of the 4300-km border, or Outer Manchuria, are Chinese. They were “stolen” from China in two unequal treaties that the Russian czar forced on a weak China in 1858 and 1860 at the beginning of the Hundred Years of Humiliation. Not only their textbooks but all of their leaders up to Hu Jintao have told them that these provinces will return to China one day, just as Hong Kong and Macau did.

The Russians in the southern provinces of Far East Russia also are angry about the 2001 treaty, and about one in 2006. They believe the treaties give too much away to the Chinese.

The Chinese are living in the past they say: Territories that the Russians colonized in the 19th century were of no interest to the Chinese; the Chinese made no effort to occupy and develop the area, which only technically came under Chinese sovereignty in another unequal treaty that the strong Manchu emperor forced upon a weak czar, with the help of the Jesuits, in 1648.

In the province I am currently visiting, Primorsky Krai, Chinese and Russians lived in harmony, under conditions set by 19th-century treaties, until the 1930s. Chinese made up between 30 and 40 percent of the province’s population. The hostility of Stalinist Russia toward the Chinese ended this. Today nobody knows how many Chinese are in the province, but even the wildest estimates give a figure of less than 5 percent. There is marked tension between the two groups.

One of the things I wanted to do while I was here was to cross the border from Russia into China and back again. Thousands of Russians do this every day to shop. Consumer goods sourced in this way (duty-free under a special deal — with limits that Putin has just lowered) and brought back in thousands of canvas bundles each day make life tolerable for Russians here, who feel neglected by Putin.

I crossed into China by bus (with my Russian interpreter) without any trouble. While the Russians stayed on the bus for the first passport control check, the Chinese were made, very brusquely, to get off. The inspection took a long time. The problem for me was in coming back — remember, I look Russian to Chinese.

We bought our tickets for the return journey at the Chinese agency in Suifenhe, a town that exists only as a giant shopping center for Russians. Or at least we thought we did. We got on the bus to the border OK, standing like most of the passengers as most of the seats were covered by canvas bags.

We went through Chinese border controls (it took a long time for me as the officers had never seen an EU passport), but when we tried to get back on the bus we were stopped: Our tickets were counterfeit, we were told. They did look different from those held by other passengers.

A very noisy black-suited Chinese official kept shouting at us in Chinese for about an hour, telling us that we could not go anywhere. After an hour of waiting, he suggested that for a fee of about $35 he could arrange for a Russian minibus to take us to the Russian border control. We paid up and were taken across.

The people on the bus told us that they are frequently asked to do this; they do not see anything of the $35. Counterfeit tickets are apparently regularly provided to Russians traveling on their own.

While we were waiting in no man’s land, another Russian was sitting near us (we never did discover why). We were sat by a large flower pot. The Chinese guard who was holding our passports was digging in the soil with a wooden ladle. He suddenly loaded the ladle with soil and pushed it toward the mouth of the Russian and said “would you like to eat dirt?”

The hatred between local Chinese and Russians is palpable. Russians are moving out of this province and others that make up Russia’s Far East as fast as they can; Chinese are moving in — far more than officially admitted. Not a basis for long-term tranquillity and happiness.