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Far Eastern Russians Quake At Chinese Invasion Myth

KHABAROVSK, RUSSIA (dpa) – Quiet, unassuming and extremely hardworking, 20-year-old market trader Yang Xinen may not seem like the face of rampant Chinese expansionism.

But for many residents of the Khabarovsk region of the Russian Far East, 7,000 kilometres east of Moscow, that’s how he is seen, with thousands like him who make a modest living selling cheap household goods and clothing.

Yang comes from Harbin, capital of the neighbouring northern Chinese province of Manchuria, and for the past three years he has shuttled to and from Khabarovsk’s main street market using six-month Russian travel visas.

“Once a month I go there to get new goods,” says Yang, standing at the T-shirt stall he runs with his young Russian assistant, Natasha.

He pays about 7,000 roubles (222 U.S. dollars) rent a month says Yang. The return train and bus journey to Harbin costs him almost half that again.

Asked how much profit he makes, he grins slyly and says only that he does not have to live in the traders’ hostel by the bazaar, but can afford to stay in a “proper hotel”.

Two thirds of the market’s 1,000 stalls are run by Chinese and the rest are run by Koreans, Vietnamese and Russians.

Since the two Communist powers – the Russian-led Soviet Union and China – ended their ideological battles 10 years ago and opened the 4,000 kilometre long river border, Chinese traders have leapt into the gaps in the local economy.

And while the locals are largely dependent on their southern neighbours for affordable goods, they feel threatened by the rising activity by the Chinese, who they say are “everywhere”, stay illegally – and are taking over.

“I don’t like it that the Chinese regard the Far East as their own region – it’s occupation without war,” a Russian officer says on Lenin Square. The view is typical in this city of 600,000.

“The Chinese at the markets get cheekier all the time,” adds a woman, who says many of the visitors work as cheap cobblers, tailors, building workers and farm workers.

Where no Russians will lift a finger for less than 20 roubles (about 60 cents) an hour, a Chinese will toil for six or seven roubles.

And the most commonly held belief is that the Chinese enter into fictitious marriages with Russians to receive residence rights.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, the leadership is worried by the broader picture in the vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East. Here live a mere 10 million Russians compared with some 100 million Chinese crowded into the immediate regions on the other side of the border.

Khabarovsk was founded in 1854 as a military frontline outpost against China, and the region along the Amur river was secured for Russia four years later under a treaty with China. Despite its location about 40 kilometres from the border, Khabarovsk is about as European as a Russian town can be.

There are few signs of its Asian location, apart from the traders and the ubiquitous Japanese cars – two thirds of the vehicles here are right-hand drive Toyotas, Nissans and Mitsubishis.

“Politically we are part of Russia and that will never change,” said Oleg Lekhovitser, spokesman for the Khabarovsk region governor, Viktor Izhayev. “Culturally we belong to Europe.”

But as the local press points out, the economic future of the 700,000-kilometre-square region depends on its Asian neighbours.

“We must orient ourselves toward the Asia Pacific rim,” Lekhovitser agrees.

The largest trading partners are China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea and the main export is wood. Each day huge barges laden with tree trunks move up the Amur to China while Russian patrol boats buzz along the river intercepting Chinese smugglers and poachers.

But not all Russians in Khabarovsk share the creeping fear of China.

“It’s a great neighbour,” said Valentin Romanov, a former rector of the city’s pedagogical university who for 40 years has belonged to the Russian-Chinese friendship society.

He believes anxieties about the Chinese are deliberately stoked on the Russian side by politicians wishing to capitalise on the sense of insecurity.

Indeed, reduced to its statistical bones, the “Chinese problem” in the Khabarovsk region evaporates altogether.

“About 2,000 Chinese live here with permanent residence permits, and another 1,626 with a limited permit, mainly traders and farm workers,” says Yury Knyazev, head of the local branch of the Russian federal migration service.

That’s fewer than 4,000 people among a regional population of 1.4 million inhabitants – hardly a takeover.

And of 17,000 Chinese who came to the region in 2001 as tourists, only 500 left after their documents expired. Only 17 vanished, Knyazev said.

Even allowing a 25 per cent margin for error, he’s not worried – “The figures show there is no creeping expansion,”

He is particularly amused by the myth of the fictitious marriages – in the whole region exactly 20 Russian-Chinese marriages have been registered since 1991.

According to market trader Yang, the Khabarovsk police check the Chinese methodically to extract unofficial “fines” from those lacking the right documents.

“The militia is bad,” he says, adding that his countrymen pay between 50 and 100 roubles to police just to avoid problems.

His assistant, Natasha, is a trained accountant. But book-keeping jobs are hard to come by now, and she for one isn’t bothered that her employer is Chinese – “That’s normal”.

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