VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Inspector Alexander Torenko is in a philosophical frame of mind as he drives toward a staging point for a raid on a compound of warehouses and makeshift apartment rooms where Chinese illegal aliens live.

Everybody tries to find his place under the sun, says this official with the federal Department of Visas and Registration, and the Chinese tourists who stay on to work in the Russian Far East are simply trying to get by.

But as uniformed policemen and plainclothes inspectors muster at a crossroads a kilometer from where the raid will take place, he becomes more brittle in aspect, less sympathetic with those he will soon arrest.

“Our boys will go in first and close the entrances,” he says. “Then we’ll head in and sweep them up.”

Torenko and his team are on the frontline in an action known alternatively as Operation Foreigner and Operation Regime, an aggressive effort to stop Chinese tourists entering this southeastern finger of Russia from illegally staying on as construction workers, restaurateurs, roadside shoe repairmen and traders in the open markets. The Chinese immigrants have parallels among low-wage workers elsewhere as in the American Southwest, which draws Mexicans and Central Americans in search of a living. Yet the battle here against Chinese immigrants is more visceral, for it has roots in the historical struggle over a vast, sparsely settled land that is bordered by the world’s largest population.

For thousands of years, parts of what are now the Russian Far East were the home of aboriginal peoples and occasional Chinese traders and settlers. Vladivostok’s bay was once known by a Chinese name, Haishenwei, named by the sailors from China who would harvest trepang here.

But as Russia made its eastward push to the Pacific from the 16th to the 19th centuries, its Cossack regiments claimed the land in the name of the czar (Vladivostok itself means “possess the east”). And nowadays, Russian Far Easterners who otherwise are quite admiring of foreigners are often openly hostile toward Chinese.

Government officials express fears that without vigilance, Chinese could take over someday. Nikolai Yurman, head of the migration control department in the regional office of the Federal Migration Service, says, “If we don’t control the migration process, then eventually we’ll have to live under Chinese rule, rather than them following our rules.”

In cities ranging from Omsk in central Siberia to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky in the northeast, Chinese traders have filled many of Russia’s outdoor markets since the border opened with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nearly 100,000 Chinese illegally live in Russia as traders and laborers, federal officials estimate, and thousands more arrive legally on temporary worker visas. Their numbers have been growing so rapidly, in fact, that the head of the Federal Migration Service warned two years ago that they could become the dominant population in much of the Russian Far East later in this century.

The Chinese come from a land where small manufacturers crank out pots, pans, picture frames, watches, electric teakettles, Mickey Mouse T-shirts, packets of seeds, table-tennis rackets, sponges, flimsy blue basketballs. They have found a lucrative niche: selling cheap consumer goods to Russians, whose domestic industry has largely collapsed but who cannot afford expensive imports from America or Europe.

Like Vietnamese traders in Vladivostok, many Chinese say they are here short-term and intend to go back. Yet it is not uncommon to find those who have lived here five years or more.

In the raid on the trading compound, several dozen uniformed police fan out around the prefab concrete walls to make sure nobody hops over and escapes. A number of Chinese live here on the grounds of a trading company whose warehouses are heaped with carrots and cabbage. When the police show up, Inspector Torenko and other officers squeeze through the gate and order a security guard to show them around. Everyone grabs a rock as a defense against the guard dogs that are snarling in the yard, but the animals are chained.

The officials find a dozen Chinese in various single-room dwellings, cooking dinner on woks or watching television. All appear to be confused, angry and resigned as inspectors force their way in, tromp around in their outdoor shoes, and peer underneath the beds. Within an hour, the officials, a little disappointed at their meager catch, load 12 Chinese with improper documents onto a bus and haul them to headquarters. Those who are simply staying in a place where they are not registered will be fined and released. Anyone caught working on a tourist visa will be sent home.

After the raid, Torenko says Operation Foreigner has been a success. The number of Chinese with bad documents is gradually decreasing, thanks to regular joint raids with the police. In 1997, 4,016 Chinese were deported from the Primorye region; in 1999, the number was down to 3,430.

Chinese illegal aliens have been entering Russia for nearly a decade, since the border opened to tourists after the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1994, 90 percent of the Chinese who came in tour group visas disappeared, officials say. Most of them went to trade on the markets and did not return home. Some migrated to other parts of Russia or even tried to go to third countries from Russia.

In 1999, 72,000 Chinese tourists came to Russia. Of those, 1,496 were caught working illegally, but officials reckon the real number is much higher.

Russia’s concerns about Chinese immigration are not only historical. Economics plays a role, particularly in the depressed Far Eastern region. Yurman says illegal aliens put a financial strain on the country.

“Since they don’t pay taxes, they offer their services at much cheaper rates, but they use the electricity and public services,” he says. “So eventually, they do it at the expense of Russian citizens.”

Since 1995, the Migration Service has ordered inspectors at all 14 crossborder points in the Far Eastern region known as Primorye, which lies alongside China, to grill foreigners about their intentions. Often the Chinese are refused entry. Sometimes groups of men arrive claiming to be tourists, but inspectors find construction tools in their bags. Often they end up confessing that they intended to work all along.

Ninety kilometers north of Vladivostok, thousands of Chinese live and trade in Ussurisk, a town of 120,000 people. The town has at least four trading hotels, where Chinese live in rooms filled with merchandise, and local people can wander the halls buying goods such as leather coats, shoes or denim.

In the market known as Ussuri Center, the conditions are often primitive, with 2,000 Chinese traders living in abandoned train cars or over their shops in rooms without running water.

For Lyu Dochu, a 25-year-old trader, Vladivostok is not his first choice of a place to work. “But I can make money here,” he said, “so I stay.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.