The sun goes down over ice-covered Lake Baikal in Irkutsk region, Eastern Siberia, Russia, now a popular holiday destination for Chinese tourists. Photo: AFP/Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik

On the global geopolitical stage, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are best buddies, united by shared interests and personal bonhomie.

But in Russia’s east, there is suspicion toward a capital that is far closer than distant Moscow.

Resentment toward Chinese tourists – who appear in huge numbers, often lack social graces and tend to patronize Chinese, rather than local businesses – is not unique to Russia. Nor is fear of China’s ever-growing economic clout.

However, in the vast, underpopulated reaches of Siberia and the Russian Far East, these factors are exacerbated by an age-old fear: That of being demographically and economically swamped by the giant next door.

The Baikal bottling battle

In Siberia, a China-funded water bottling project has sparked a major local backlash. The plant is sited in the village of Kultuk, on the southern shore of Baikal, the world’s deepest lake. Baikal holds one-fifth of earth’s fresh water and boasts UNESCO World Heritage status.

Construction on the 1.5 billion-ruble (US$22.7 million) factory started in January. A contract to supply 190 million liters of water per year to the thirsty Chinese market from 2012 has already been signed with the project’s Chinese investor.

But last month, a petition demanding the removal of the plant collected almost one million signatures. Baikal water “will be shipped to China,” the petition says, while the facility blocks local access to the lake. As a result, a Russian court has ordered building work to be stopped until complaints can be investigated.

Prominent Siberian environmentalist Alexander Kolotov agreed there are some issues with the plant’s location, but said the “anti-China factor is very clear” in the protest. It reflects “fears and prejudices of modern Russians that ‘China will gulp down our national heritage,’” he said.

“For Siberians, there are two things that are like a red rag to a bull,” Svetlana Pavlova, chief editor of the Irkutsk, a Siberia-based news website, said. “One is the Chinese who ‘have taken over everything and leave trash everywhere,’ and the second is their presence on the lake. Here, we have a company building a plant that is 99%-owned by Chinese nationals!”

A construction boom in illegal Chinese hotels infuriates Russians, who cannot get permission to build on the protected shore, while locals earn no money from Chinese tourists, who are serviced by Chinese firms. Concerns also hang over pollution of the lake.

But for local authorities, the flood of visitors is an opportunity for economic development in their remote region.

A dual-edged sword

More than 1.6 million tourists, mostly Russians, visited the region last year, according to the Irkutsk Tourism Agency. Among them were 186,200 Chinese, the largest foreign group. The number of Chinese jumped 37% over the previous year, and is expected to climb further. Beijing is only a two-hour flight away, versus six hours to Moscow.

Many Chinese tourists and honeymooners strolling around Irkutsk or Olkhon, an iconic island on Lake Baikal, are apparently inspired by hit Chinese pop-song On the Shore of Lake Baikal by Harbin-born pop star Li Jian – a song of love, break-up and reunion.

This is a change. In Irkutsk, for years, the only Chinese were poor vendors selling cheap goods in the city’s so-called “Shanghai Market.” No longer. A recent Chinese influx has completely transformed Karl Marx Street – Irkutsk’s once-derelict main shopping thoroughfare. Now, the avenue is dotted with upmarket shops and restaurants catering exclusively to Chinese.

Yet land prices are rising, forcing Russian businesses out of the market and there is litter and rubbish on the streets, while the disposable hand warmers that Chinese use are strewn around the lake shore in the winter.

Locals are also annoyed to see Chinese climbing the highest peak on Olkhon Island – which is considered virtually sacred – and littering its summit.

But something alarms Russians even more.

The great conspiracy

Locals grumble that the Chinese call Lake Baikal “The Northern Sea” – its ancient Chinese name – and were outraged when a group of Chinese tourists appeared on Baikal wearing T-shirts with Chinese characters reading “The lake is ours.”

Some are convinced that Beijing is secretly plotting to retake the lake and the vast, sparsely populated area around it that was ceded to Russia in an 1858 treaty that China has long considered unfair.

“Chinese have long regarded Baikal a part of their culture and history,” said Alexei Glushakov, a Moscow-based observer for Kitayskiye Novosti weekly who frequently visits the Baikal area. “And for some, a part of their territory.”

Aleksandr Liventhal, the governor of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Oblast – established in 1928 – says that 80% of land in the region, which borders China’s Heilongjiang Province, is now “controlled by Chinese.”

Moreover, Liventhal says, Chinese owners have sown 85% of the land they control with soy – a plant that “destroys the soil.”

A Chinese presence is unmissable in Blagoveshchensk, a Russian city some 5,600 kilometers east of Moscow, but just across the Amur River from China. There, students learn Chinese, buy Chinese-manufactured clothes and electronics and eat in Chinese restaurants. Most new buildings have been built by Chinese companies.

East of Siberia, there is also a growing Chinese community in the Russian Far East. Vladivostok and Khabarovsk host vibrant Chinese communities that date back to 19th century Chinatowns. Russians there, as elsewhere, are suspicious about the intentions of Chinese, who use their own name for Vladivostok – Haishenwa.

Dueling demographics

A demographic contrast is strikingly apparent. Asian Russia, which lies east of the Urals, makes up almost 80% of Moscow’s national territory, but hosts only 25% of its population – a population that is barely equivalent to two large Chinese cities.

Moreover, according to UN data, Russia’s population as a whole could fall by a third over the next 40 years. The prospects for Siberia and the Russian Far East are even worse. Many residents are moving from the climatically harsh regions, with their under-built infrastructure, to wealthier European Russia.

Between 1998 and 2005, Russia’s population east of Lake Baikal dropped from 8 million to 6 million between 1998 and 2005, and has continued falling since. Meanwhile, next door, the three provinces of north-eastern China – Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning – hold 110 million people.

And Russia’s eastern provinces offer exactly what China needs: fuel, raw materials and arable land. The area contains nearly all of Russia’s diamonds, 70% of its gold, huge deposits of oil and natural gas and vast expanses of unpopulated land.

These factors explain why Russians have been talking sotto voce for decades of a Chinese take-over.

If current trends continue, Chinese will be the second largest ethnicity in Russia by mid-century, said Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for Economic Forecasts.

Yet all is not suspicion and hostility – there is growing Sinophilia, too.

In the Russian Far East, Chinese is now more popular than English at universities, Chinese restaurants are immensely popular and many Russians travel to China’s Hainan Island on vacations and are even purchasing holiday homes there.

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