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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 13:59 GMT
Vladivostok's Chinese puzzle
Vladivostok seafront
Vladivostok's markets are filled with Chinese goods
In a series of special reports from Russia's Far East, BBC East Asia Today reporter Francis Markus examines the identity, the problems and the potential of this unique region.

In a windy open air market, where the only structures are built out of disused shipping containers, mid-morning shoppers browse among the clothes, shoes and household goods. Almost everything here is made in China.

"The Russians just don't have these things, their light industry is no good because they've always concentrated on heavy industry," says one Chinese trader in his thirties.

The Russian customers picking over the merchandise acknowledge that if it weren't for Chinese products, they would for instance have no affordable footwear.

I don't like them... I think in the future they will occupy our territory

Russian shopper
"I have a medical background, but I'm retired and my pension is only 1,400 roubles ($50) per month, so there's no way I could afford French or Italian shoes," says an elderly Russian woman, wrapped up against the wind in a brown overcoat.

But while they welcome cheap, Chinese consumer goods, Russian shoppers almost without exception voice concern about the increasing numbers of Chinese visiting and working in the Russian Far East.

"I don't like them because there are a lot them in our country and I think in the future, they will occupy our territory," says one young Russian even as she browses among the stock of shoes at a Chinese-run stall.

Chinese 'ambitions'

The fear of China's vast population and its potential domination of Russia's resource rich Far East is nothing new in this country's history.

In his office amid the shabby corridors of one of Vladivostok's universities, China expert Andrei Alexandrov brandishes a Chinese historical atlas, which he says Beijing is using to reinforce its claim that large swathes of territory that's now part of Russia's Far East, used to belong to China:

The vast majority of Chinese people have no intention of staying here

Chinese market trader
"They're trying to present this material as if it was the territory of the Ming dynasty Chinese state, whereas in fact it was territory which belonged to the Manchus," he says.

"Even if people haven't studied this atlas, they will have certainly been to museums or read the media where the Chinese authorities put their ideological slant on it."

Comments by some of the planeloads of Chinese tourists visiting Vladivostok, would seem to back up Dr Alexandrov's assertions.

Vladivostok street scene
The streets can be tough for Chinese traders
"I've heard that this place was once part of the People's Republic of China," says one Chinese visitor to the city's fort. "We've come to have a look at it."

When asked whether Chinese people wanted to retake control of the region, which has historically passed backwards and forwards between China and Russia, he replies: "Sure we want to, when our country is great and strong, we'll take it back."

The laughter from his companions which greets the remark makes clear that it was intended in a tongue-in-cheek spirit.

Useful lessons?

Not all Russian analysts shares a gloomy view of China's long-term intentions.

Another China scholar Galina Romanova thinks the fears have their roots in Russian political discourse and instead of fretting about Chinese expansionism, Russia should try to emulate some of China's economic reforms;

"When China's reforms started the Soviet Union didn't understand them and thought they would undermine socialism and be a switch to bourgeois capitalism.

"The fact that they chose economic reforms is a plus for them. We are now following our own way but it's still worth learning from them because we have a lot in common."


But the reality of Russian-Chinese co-existence on the mean streets of Vladivostok can be a different story, both from talk of geopolitical rivalry and that of peaceful co-operation.

In the cramped apartment building near the market where many of the Chinese traders live, one man displays a still fresh looking bruise to his face. He says he was attacked by a group of young Russians trying to rob him.

"This kind of thing happens to Chinese people here all the time," he says.

"Because we're foreigners here and at the end of the day there's no-one to defend us and stand up for our interests."

Two Chinese women say they only feel secure in a large group and a prey not only to violence but also to bogus policemen who try to force them to hand over their passports.

"Maybe many Russians are worried that the Chinese will settle here permanently," says the man with the bruise, "but in practice, the vast majority of Chinese people have no intention of staying here long term."

See also:

04 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Vladivostok at the crossroads
07 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
On the trail of the illegal loggers
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