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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Changing Places on The Chinese Border

BLAGOVESHCHENSK, Far East -- Xu Yan remembers what she felt when she first entered the Far East of Russia from her native China 10 years ago and saw the empty green land stretching forth in every direction.

"I was amazed -- such a waste," she recounted recently. "I thought: ?This land is good, but no one cultivates it. How can you possibly live on the land and not work it?'"

At the time, Russia and China were just opening up to each other again after having fought a series of border skirmishes in the 1960s and 1970s. Xu, who had studied Russian, was coming to Russia as part of a delegation to do business. But that first impression of space and waste never left her.

Today, the 39-year-old Chinese citizen -- who now calls herself Natalya -- can be found in her leased field, directing a brigade of Russian and Chinese farm workers, planting watermelons, cabbages and tomatoes in the rich black soil of Russia.

But to many people in Russia, this hard-working, straw-hatted woman is the epitome of what they most fear: a gradual Chinese takeover of the huge chunk of Russia that is underdeveloped, underutilized and underpopulated.

In fact, one of Russia's foremost fears is that it might lose control of Siberia and the Far East in the new century.

Last month, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a 20-year friendship treaty that makes the countries officially strategic partners and lays to rest 99 percent of their border disputes. But Russians are not wholly reassured. Many still fear that Russian political and economic influence will wane in the Far East in future decades, while Chinese influence will rise.

Behind the fear is the fact that since the 1980s, China has been booming technologically, militarily and in population. And Russia has been falling behind -- particularly in Siberia.

Putin noted the threat when he dropped in on this city bordering China last year. "If you do not take practical steps to advance the Far East soon," he told residents, "after a few decades, the Russian population will be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean."

Some people say it is coming true already. Alexei Barsukov, an unemployed 37-year-old on a derelict collective farm outside Blagoveshchensk, said of the Chinese: "Slowly, we are becoming their slaves."

For most of its course, the 2,880-kilometer-long Amur River serves as the boundary between the countries.

North of the river, in Russia's Amur region, is a wilderness beautiful to behold. It holds deposits of gold and other valuable minerals, and hundreds of thousands of acres of timber-rich forest, with stretches of rich plains ideal for farming.

A shrinking population of about 1 million people lives on it. Just to the south, in China's Heilongjiang province, 38 million people are crowded onto the Manchurian plain, farming every available hectare.

The bigger picture is the same. China's population of 1.2 billion compares with 16 million Russians living in all of eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East -- an area larger than all of China. Given such imbalance, Russians themselves wonder if simple population pressure might one day cause China to reassert now-dormant historical claims to land north of the Amur.

From the late 1960s until the late 1980s, the Amur River was an armed confrontation line after an ideological falling out between the Communist leaderships in Moscow and Beijing. While the United States was preoccupied with Vietnam, China and Russia almost entered into a full-scale war against each other.

Chairman Mao Zedong said Russia had imposed unfair borders on China.

Until 1989, tensions were so high that Russia closed its riverside city of Blagoveshchensk. Foreigners were forbidden, and barbed wire lined the riverbank.

Today, on the Russian side at least, the only vestiges are heavy concrete bunkers with gun slits facing China. They're filled with trash and are a curiosity to the Chinese riverboats that swing close to shore so that tourists can get a snapshot.

Every day from June to September, a ferry plies the river between Blagoveshchensk and the Chinese city on the other bank, Heihe, laden with traders and goods. From November to March, an ice road on the frozen Amur takes over.

It was a small scene, but perhaps emblematic of what is happening in Blagoveshchensk. At this city's central market, a Russian teenager crouched with a bowl of noodles in one hand, dexterously feeding himself a quick lunch with a pair of chopsticks.

In subtle ways, this city of 200,000 people is being drawn into China's orbit. Every morning, its people put on cheap clothes bought from China. Its restaurants, almost without exception, serve Chinese food. The fruit and vegetables come from China, and increasingly, Chinese people are building houses on and farming the surrounding land. The only construction in evidence in the town is the work of a private Chinese company, Huafu, creating apartments notably more stylish than the concrete boxes thrown up in Soviet times.

With rare exceptions, Chinese are barred from settling in Russia, but there is an unrestricted right to visit for 30 days, and some Chinese are able to skirt these rules by marrying Russians or getting special dispensations from bureaucrats. Officially, there are only about 6,000 Chinese in the city, but police sources and residents said the real figure is at least three or four times higher.

Although their numbers are small, the pull of the Chinese is irresistible. Moscow is six time zones and nearly 9,000 kilometers away, and there is no decent road from here to there. Harbin, a northern Chinese city nearly as big as Moscow, is just a few hundred kilometers away on the Russian-built Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Russians settled permanently in the Amur region in the mid-1850s after Russia obtained the north bank of the Amur in a treaty with the Chinese emperor. At the time, China said the grant was temporary.

Early Russian settlers used the Chinese and Koreans whom they found living in the Amur region for cheap labor. Now the roles are reversed. As often as not, Russians are hired by Chinese for menial work.

"Look at me -- I am a Russian coolie," Irina Nagibina cried out as she hefted a sack filled with merchandise onto her back at a workers dormitory.

The building has been taken over by Chinese traders, who share rooms in the facility and transform some into shops packed floor to ceiling with jeans, raincoats, T-shirts and other goods.

Because it's backbreaking work, and because Russians are more effective at getting cargo through Russian customs than the Chinese, the traders have hired hundreds of Blagoveshchensk residents to carry goods from China into Russia.

Called "bricks" because of the brick-shaped heavy plastic duffel bags they use, the Russians earn 250 to 400 rubles ($8.50 to $13.60) a trip and make 15 to 20 trips a month. They pick up their merchandise in Heihe and deliver it to the Chinese vendors in the central market in Blagoveshchensk, which draws shoppers and resellers from all over Siberia.

Rather than being grateful, many "bricks" are ashamed of what they do. They complain that the employers treat them with contempt, like beasts, at times even slapping or kicking them when they're in China.

"I have an education in trade ... I taught at a college. And now I have been doing this work for five years," said Lyubov Loginova, interviewed after dropping off her goods and arranging for her next trip.

When Blagoveshchensk residents rant about the border, discussion quickly comes around to the topic of prostitution. This town is awash with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of garishly dressed Russian girls and women drawn from great distances to make money off Chinese visitors to the city.

Architecturally, Blagoveshchensk hasn't changed much. It is still a low-rise place with wide streets, early 20th-century brick buildings, a tsarist-era garrison and streets lined with old log houses, painted in dark blue and green.

What has changed is the Chinese community opposite. Only 20 years ago, Heihe was a village. But with China's boom and a government directive to develop Heihe as a trade zone with Russia, it has become a shining city, with skyscrapers and a five-star hotel topped by a revolving restaurant. Its embankment has a promenade freshly paved in bright white stone.

To many Russians in Blagoveshchensk, it's as if the Chinese built it to show up their town, using the profits they earned in Russia.

Alexander Filonenko, 59, the editor at the town's newspaper, Amurskaya Pravda, calls the growing Chinese presence a "dark concern." The Chinese rule the Russian city's open-air markets, he said, and they also are believed to trade in drugs and operate protection rackets. Some have begun to employ middlemen to buy real estate.

Residents are alarmed that many seem of military age, provoking rumors that they are some sort of infiltrators rather than simple traders, Filonenko said.

In fact, some Chinese merchants at the market said they consider the Amur region historically Chinese. "Of course this land is ours," said one.

But the dominant strain of their conversation was that they would much prefer to be back in China and that they have come only out of economic need.

"They just don't understand us," businessman Meng Qingsai, 45, said of the Russians. "I would do business in China and avoid living here 200 days a year without my wife ... but the prospects are better here -- there is less competition."

Some in Blagoveshchensk are beginning to recognize the benefits the Chinese bring to the region.

For the second year in a row, Alexander Kuksenko, a 33-year-old farmer, has hired workers and an agronomist from China to help him cultivate his 25 hectares.

On the day he was visited by a Western correspondent, Russians and Chinese were working side by side, planting watermelons. In an assembly-line operation, they were putting in seedlings, rolling out plastic sheeting over them, staking the plastic down and cutting holes for the leaves to grow through. It is a method Kuksenko learned from the Chinese that allows him to plant earlier in the season and get more profits.

Kuksenko effusively praised the employees from China for their skill and devotion to any task at hand -- traits he found lacking in many of his own compatriots. His advice to his fellow Russians?

"Work together with the Chinese, and you won't have any problems."