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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Will Chinese Roots Grow?




On Sunday, crowds thronged the streets for the 140th anniversary of Vladivostok and soaked up the entertainment. Contortionists tied themselves in knots near the central square, while down by the harbor a choir of women in peasant costumes sang to the accompaniment of an accordion. A soldier boomed out Soviet patriotic songs, girls in gauzy blue pantaloons danced, and Pacific Fleet sailors bummed cigarettes off passersby.


As you wander through the crowd, the anomaly of Vladivostok sinks in. Here, 45 kilometers from China, you see fewer Asians than in Seattle or Vancouver, across the Pacific.


It is easy to assume that Vladivostok will always be Russia's anchor on the Sea of Japan. But Russians know better than anyone that borders change and empires fall. And given Moscow's neglect of the rural Far East, it is possible the Primorye region - which includes Vladivostok - will not always be part of Russia.


Travel anywhere in the Russian Far East and you will see farms once plowed up now standing fallow. Roofless, windowless buildings stand on the edge of abandoned military towns, and entire villages are losing their populations.


Just across the border, China has occupied every square centimeter of arable land. Border cities are booming. And although the Chinese government is not making claims on Russian land now, influential voices in China have argued that Russia should cede tracts of its sparsely populated territory.


According to U.S. historian John J. Stephan, writing in his 1994 book "The Russian Far East: A History," Mao Zedong himself declared in 1964 that Russia had "taken too much land," meaning the Primorye region. Deng Xiaoping later made similar arguments. After border clashes in 1969 along the Ussuri River, Beijing declared Primorye and the land along the Amur River to be "historically Chinese." By 1981, some Chinese historians claimed the Arctic Ocean was their nation's northern frontier in the 13th century.


In a recent e-mail, a Chinese academic - who asked not to be identified because he fears the authorities - told me that Russians are naive about Chinese interests in the Far East. Coming days after the Federal Border Guard Service reported that 1.5 million Chinese have illegally entered Russia since January 1999, his thoughts are worth considering.


For centuries, Chinese settlers lived in what is now the Russian Far East, and many Chinese still consider the land to be theirs. "Among the prominent Chinese scholars, for example, He Xing, who is well-known for defending the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and is a leading advocate of nationalism in the '90s, openly views Siberia as the key for the future prosperity of China," my correspondent writes. "He Xing ... strongly influences China's leadership, including president and party leader Jiang Zemin."


Lately, Chinese authors have begun arguing that this land should be theirs. "In one of the books published recently, the authors claim that if China had sovereignty over Vladivostok and the lost territory, not only Chinese, but also Russians would benefit," the academic writes. "How many Russians would agree with this?"


Another book calls for the return of territory east of the Ussuri River, including both Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. "In Chinese, this land is called the 64 villages east of Ussuri River," my correspondent writes. "This issue is also commonly raised on Internet postings among the Chinese community."


This is not an argument for the mistreatment of Chinese in Russia. Russia is belatedly learning a respect for human rights, and the U.S. experience shows that people assimilate within a generation, as long as their children are schooled in the national language.


Besides, Russia must face a more difficult point here: The reason rural lands are unproductive has to do with Russians, not Chinese. The Soviet Union spent most of the 20th century declaring war on its peasantry. When the Bolsheviks weren't engineering famines or sending successful farmers to the gulag, they impoverished the peasantry by setting impossibly high grain quotas to send to the industrial centers. In tsarist times, Russia exported grain; today, it begs the United States for frost-damaged grain.


Collective farms proved catastrophic, and Russia should turn over unused land to the remnant of its peasantry. (Other recipients: the Russified Korean farmers whom Stalin expelled to Central Asia.)


Otherwise, the mathematics are simple. There are 1 billion people south of the border. And if Russia can't figure out how to use its land, China, it appears, would be willing to give it a try.