LONDON — I don’t suppose you read the piece in the Russian newspapers about customs officials’ activities in the Russian Far East, at the Poltvaka customs checkpoint in Oktyabrsky County in southern Primorski krai on the Chinese border? It was a very interesting article about how a truck, which had crossed the border, had been found to be carrying some contraband flowers.
The contraband consisted of too many roses and some boxes containing orchids, chrysanthemums, carnations and lilies instead of cheap decorative greenery for use in bouquets. Amazing!
What was amazing was that the truck was stopped and its contents reported to the newspapers. In such situations a small fee from the driver would normally have ensured that it went across the border without any problem. The point of this press release was to tell readers that the world has changed.
You might already have realized that the world had changed because you read the piece in Russian newspapers, which reported politicians’ speeches in the Kremlin saying that foreigners are no longer to be allowed to operate markets in Russia, or to have stalls in markets organized by Russians.
Phew! The mayor of Vladivostok was exaggerating when he said a few months ago that 100 percent of the city’s retail trade and 50 percent of its trade in services was controlled by Chinese. Russians in that province and the other three on the border do, however, depend on Chinese traders for a large part of their daily requirements of food, clothes and other basic consumer goods.
A few weeks ago, the Kremlin said that any Russians who want to go within 30 km of the border between Russia’s Far East province Primorski krai and China, or within 5 km of the borders in the three other provinces next to China, would now need visas (which will be hard to obtain).
Last month, President Vladimir Putin went out of his way to warn potential aggressors that Russia now has enough modern nuclear weapons to “destroy” them — actually, he meant to say destroy China, but protocol demands that you do not name the country. No other country has the capacity to frighten Russia in this way — and Moscow knows it could not “destroy” the United States.
Russians, especially those in the Kremlin, are terrified that China intends to invade Russia to take back Outer Manchuria — i.e., Khaboroski krai, Amur province and the Jewish Autonomous province as well as Primorski krai. Many actually believe that the invasion has already begun. They also believe that it is sponsored and supported by the Chinese government; maybe it is.
The border provinces and Sakhalin Island were taken by the strong czarist Russia from the weak and declining Qing Dynasty in two treaties imposed on China in 1858 and 1860. At that time Russia wanted to join the other countries grabbing a bit of China — Britain in Hong Kong, and Japan, Germany, France, Portugal and the U.S. in other places. All of these occupied areas of China have now been handed back — except the large oil and gas rich territory still occupied by the Russians, as every Chinese schoolchild will tell you. The Chinese want it back, as every Russian schoolchild and adult will tell you. And the Russians don’t want to give it back.
The Russian government is trying hard to work out ways to keep the Chinese out of the territory it took from them in the mid-19th century.
The problem is that Russians really do not want to live there and they are getting out as fast as they can. Most were there because Soviet leader Josef Stalin (and his successors) sent them there, to the gulags, or paid them substantial incentives to go and “look after” the people he had sent to the gulags. The border with China was heavily guarded by the army, with occasional fighting over disputed borders. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new open economy policy introduced by the Chinese meant that trade across the border grew rapidly.
The Kremlin is wetting itself from fear that the Chinese will move into Outer Manchuria; they believe that the Chinese are already moving in. The Chinese would certainly like to link the economy of Northeast China (Inner Manchuria) to the Russian Far East (Outer Manchuria); it would make a lost of sense.
The Chinese have suggested that they be allowed to build new railroads with dual gauges from Northeast China to the coast, to save a couple thousand kilometers of journey, and to dual-gauge the existing Tran Siberian railway from the Chinese border down to Vladivostok.
The Chinese have asked to be allowed to lease and develop two ports on the Russian coast, to save thousands of kilometers of wasted journeys.
The Chinese have proposed building several new bridges across the river borders between the two countries — there are very few across the 4,300 km.
The Chinese have proposed building several cross-border trade and tourist zones — they have begun to build them on the Chinese side.
The Chinese have actively developed cross-border trade to meet the needs of the Russians who live in Outer Manchuria. (The Kremlin has recently imposed a 300 percent tariff on this trade — up from 100 percent to allow for the two thirds of the trade it believes crosses the border without duties.)
The Kremlin has blocked all of these proposals, negatively impacting the quality of life of the Russians who live in Outer Manchuria — and giving them a stronger incentive to move out, which they are doing in droves. The Kremlin has introduced a new, desperate policy to attract Slav immigrants from its old colonies in Central Asia and persuade them to go and live along the “strategic border,” which is protocol language for China.
The governors of the four provinces do not want them — or at least they have said they would be willing to take just 40,000 over four years, to replace the more than one million Russians who have already moved out. Allegedly, they do not want too many new people to move in as this would threaten the profits of scarcity currently being extensively exploited by organized crime, with the full knowledge of the Kremlin.
The Chinese are not in a hurry, they know that they will eventually get back Outer Manchuria, Russia’s Far East. In the meantime they are happy to take advantage of Putin’s desperate desire to be friendly. This allows them to control the United Nations Security Council for one thing, to turn the world into a more Chinese-style place while U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair play pointless, unwinnable war games.
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