North of the border, Chinese reap a rich harvest

LAZAREVSKOYE, Russia — In order to enter Lu Binzheng’s pig farm, visitors have to dress in white lab coats, stand under an ultraviolet light to kill any germs and slosh their shoes in disinfectant.

Lu, a 37-year-old Chinese farmer from the town of Tsyamusy in China’s Heilongjiang Province, opened his farm in this village two years ago, following an invitation from the director of a struggling collective farm 87 km south of Birobidzhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia’s Far East. And he is serious about protecting his pigs from disease.

Lu and 11 other Chinese nationals run the 300-pig enterprise. He leases the land from the collective farm and employs Chinese mechanics, a veterinarian and a translator who communicates with Russian peasants hired to do field labor and clean the pigsty. It is one of three Chinese-run pig farms in the region, and Lu invested $10,000 to remodel the farm and buy pigs in Russia to get it going.

He and his wife have no plans to hurry back to China. “I plan to stick around,” he said. “I’d like to stay here for 20 years.”

In regions stretching from Central Russia to the North Pacific peninsula of Kamchatka, Chinese are making their impact felt in two areas: farming and trading. Nearly 100,000 Chinese illegally live in Russia as traders and laborers, federal officials estimate, and thousands more come on tourist or temporary work visas and stay on to work long term. While the government periodically launches initiatives against Chinese illegals, many who work with the Chinese say they provide valuable experience in farming and trading.

Hundreds of Chinese farmers are bringing new life to agriculture in this province, once designated by Stalin as a homeland for Soviet Jews (Jews now comprise fewer than 5 percent of the population). Along with other Chinese farmers and workers throughout the Russian Far East, they are bringing about a boom in agriculture in a northern land.

Vice Governor Valery Gurevich said the region began inviting Chinese farmers to work here because 50 percent of the agricultural land lay fallow, and there were not enough Russians to develop it. “They gave us a push and showed our people how to work,” he said.

Farmers in the cold region had long thought grain or melons wouldn’t grow here, until Chinese introduced them in 1999. This year, 565 hectares of grain is being cultivated, and potato production has increased to 72 hectares, from zero in 1998. Corn is also a new crop for the region, and it employs Chinese farming methods and seeds.

Chinese are not only coming here as landlords. In many places throughout the Far East, they work as field hands, as do Mexicans laborers in California. Vasily Shubin, director of Shubin Farm Co., is raising 350 hectares of soy, corn, vegetables and melons, and he also has a vegetable-canning facility. With the help of Chinese laborers, he sends pickled tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage as far away as Anadyr on the Bering Strait.

“The Chinese are our neighbors, so we should exchange experience,” he said. “Nobody does seed growing in Russia, but the seeds we get from China are really good: soy, corn, potatoes. I can’t even compare our potato with theirs, theirs is so much better.”

In Lu’s case, he plans to increase the number of pigs from 300 to 1,000. “I count on making a profit in two years,” he said. “I have already visited meat factories in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Birobidzhan and agreed to deliver the meat to them. Now there is little meat; these ones are pedigree pigs [for breeding].”

Labor is cheap and jobs few in rural Russia, and collective farms often just pay with crops at the end of the season. So Lu is able to hire collective-farm peasants at a rate of 10-15 rubles a day (about 33 to 50 cents). Two young Russian women clean the pigsty’s concrete floor and slop the pigs, and locals help with the crops grown as fodder for pigs.

Lyudmila Mokronos, chairman of the Lazarevskoye collective farm and Lu’s landlady, said she is a patriotic Russian to the core, but she is amazed at the Chinese work ethic contrasted with her countrymen’s laziness. “I have been to China six times and I was astonished at their industriousness,” she said. “It is very clear that they have no decent life in their homes, yet their fields are nice and neat. But for us, it is the reverse.”

Not everyone feels that way, however. Shubin said, “I’ve come to rely on Russians more than on Chinese. Times have changed. Maybe the Russians realize they have to work more than before. And they work better than the Chinese.”

The secret of Chinese agricultural successes lies in their methods of soil processing, and hybrid seeds yield two or three times more crops than Russian seed. The industriousness of the Chinese workers also plays a role. Kiyashko said, “They get up early and go to the field and work until 10 p.m. Nobody forces them to do it; it’s in their blood.”

To the southeast, in the region surrounding the town of Ussurisk, nearly 600 Chinese work in agriculture, said Tatiana Sorokina, a federal migration official there. In recent years, Chinese have done everything from working in a brick factory (now closed) to trading in the market. And 24 farms now attract Chinese labor.

One of the largest is Ariran-N. A combination farm and produce wholesaler, the company has 140 Chinese working in five teams. While the mechanics repairing its tractors and trucks are Russians, the field labor and crop management is done by Chinese, said general director Nikolai Kim.

“All those who work in the greenhouses or on the fields are Chinese, because they can work at night and they can work in the rain,” he said. “They don’t have fixed hours. They have this field, and they themselves decide how long they’ll work. They come here to work, to earn money.”

Kim, an ethnic Korean Russian citizen who moved here from Kazakstan, where Stalin had exiled his grandparents, lives in the style of a stereotypical wealthy “new Russian.” His office is in a sprawling house surrounded by a spike-topped fence and guards toting automatic rifles. Behind his desk sits a 10-liter bottle of a “ginseng snake wine,” Chinese spirit complete with roots, berries and dead snakes, but his connections with his Chinese employees go somewhat deeper than that. Like him, most of them trace their ancestry to Korea. They come from Yanbian Korean Autonomous Province, a Chinese region bordering North Korea which has many ethnic Koreans. Using a Chinese recruiting company, Kim hires peasants every year who are willing to work as sharecroppers. The field hands till Russian soil without pay until the end of the season, using equipment and seeds provided by Kim. If the harvest is successful, they get paid both in crops and money. In a good year, they will earn $1,500.

Most years, the Chinese profit, because their families stay at home working the fields there, so the cash they earn in Russia is pure spending money. But after serious flooding last year, the Chinese workers went home empty-handed. Another summer of typhoons this year may cause the same problem.

Kim also praises the labor-intensive Chinese approach to raising vegetables. “They use fertilizer more effectively than we do,” Kim said. “Our machines just throw it around. They put a little under each seed.”

Ky Syu Tsen, 40, who hails from Yanbian Province, manages one of Kim’s farms. In China, she has a large three-bedroom apartment that is luxurious by Chinese standards, she says. But she is in Russia in order to earn money (her 17-year-old son, who speaks Russian fluently, attends university in Ussurisk). “The land is big here and people feel free,” she said. “In China, you take a step, and you step on someone else.”

Traders are also finding more elbow room in Russia — particularly in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. Five years ago, Lee Feng Tsung and his wife Zo I Tsu scraped together their savings, borrowed from relatives and came to Russia with $7,000 worth of leather and fur coats. The couple from Jilin Province rented a store in Zarya, a “trading hotel” in which every room is taken over by Chinese merchants who live and sell from their rooms.

“I came here because there is work, and I earn more here,” Lee said. “The stuff sells worse than before the 1998 [economic] crisis, because Russians have little money. But still, even during the worst month we earn up to $500.”

This small city of crumbling apartment blocks, set amid carrot fields and abandoned military bases of the Russian Far East, might seem an unlikely candidate to become a major Chinese trading center. But Ussurisk — 100 km north of the Pacific seaport of Vladivostok — has become famous for its Chinese market and trading hotels, where Russians from throughout the region come for bargains on everything from toys to fur coats.

In the decade since Russia and China opened their borders for visa-free visits by tourists, the Chinese market, Ussuri-Center, “has become a significant part of the regional economy,” said Sergei Simakov, the market’s general director. With its 1,100 Chinese traders, it has sparked spinoff trading points such as Zarya.

Ussuri-Center opened in 1994 as Chinese traders and Russian businessmen realized there was a market for cheap consumer goods here. With Russia’s industry in a state of postcommunist decay, people were eager to buy foreign goods. But Western and Japanese goods were too expensive for most people, so Chinese traders stepped in to fill the gap. Chinese “shuttle traders” began arriving in Russia — ostensibly as tourists — but laid out their wares and began selling their goods. Now there are at least 10 buyers per trader each day, and the crowds grow larger on holidays and weekends, said Simakov.

The market has seen an enormous transformation in just three years. At first, the aisles between the stalls were dirt or paved in asphalt, and Chinese lived in train cars and empty cargo shipping containers around the market. Now the administration is paving the market in brick, and most of the shabbiest housing has been cleared out. Many traders still live in steel rooms the size of shipping containers above their stalls.

With its plethora of outdoor stalls, Ussuri-Center is obviously a success. Roads around it are jammed with cars, and the market is crowded with buyers searching for American flag towels, fake Nikes and Adidas, golf caps, linoleum for kitchens, teakettles, slippers, nightgowns, clocks and other household items.

There is even a night market from 2:30-8:30 a.m., where people can buy on discount, Simakov said. “In every village or little town around the area, you can see a market at which Chinese goods are sold,” Simakov said. “And Russians are trading during the day, and the night market gives them a chance to restock at a discount.”

The success of the market drew more Chinese to local trading hotels. The rooms double as miniature stores, filled with leather coats, dresses, scarves, stuffed animals, wristwatches, batteries. The Chinese sleep on platform beds that are hidden behind curtains or leaned up against the wall behind a rack of clothes during the day.

The hotel receives television broadcasts from China and South Korea — the latter is of interest to ethnic Koreans from Yanbian. Around dinner time the hotel is filled with the aroma of Chinese food as traders cook on woks in their rooms. “All the clothes have to be washed before you can wear them,” complained one buyer.

Vya Myn Seng, 33, runs a toy story selling a range of kitsch playthings: a giant stuffed frog, a bear wearing oversize shoes and a T-shirt with the “Beijing 2008” logo, plastic guns, a toy piano, watches and clocks, key chains and little girls’ dresses. “I came here because I want to live in Ussurisk,” she said in halting Russian. “It is very clean and beautiful. I earn normal money here.”

Tyang Tai San, 46, came from Mudanjiang, China, two years ago. “I had grown rice for 20 years before I came here with my wife,” he said. “My son is 22, and he studies in Harbin. I only came here recently, but it is very interesting.”

Ussurisk is not alone in hosting a population of Chinese traders. In scores of cities from Omsk in Siberia to Magadan in the far north, markets are bustling with them. They live in dormitories in Blagoveshchensk, apartment blocks in Vladivostok and train cars in Ussurisk.

“They try to get into Russia through any possible pretext,” said Sergei Pushkaryov, head of the regional office of the migration service. “They might come to Russia as translators, but knowing no Russian, or as truck drivers, but having no truck or driver’s license.”

For some Russians, the Chinese spark suspicion and even paranoia. Ivan Fedotov, chief of the service’s immigration directorate, said their presence could lead to a future Chinese military intervention in the Russian Far East, if China should ever feel its citizens need protection.

The Chinese in the Far East are most visible in the Chinese markets they have established in nearly every major city in the region. The city of Nakhodka attempted to encourage Chinese business by opening a trading street that is a kilometer long and decorated in Chinese styles. But Chinese shuttle traders eschewed the street, with its higher rents, and instead sell out of a local outdoor market.

Ussuri-Center boasts mazes of stalls and wholesale warehouses offering goods from Harbin, Suifenhe, Mudanjiang and other cities: wallpaper, fabrics, calculators, sweaters, sauce pans, televisions, pastel golf caps emblazoned with the Chicago Bulls emblem, bath towels decorated with naked women.

“The quality’s not great, but it’s cheap,” said Yelena Romanova, a physician who was shopping in Ussuri-Center recently. “Where else can I afford to buy around here?”

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
Coronavirus banner