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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Far East Ethnic, Economic Tensions Run Deep

KHABAROVSK, Far East -- In one stall of the teeming marketplace, Chinese merchants with chopsticks pick at plastic containers of noodles. Across the way, a gaggle of aging Chinese men hunch over their mah-jongg game. A loudspeaker blares out announcements in Chinese as other Chinese sellers collect wads of rubles for plastic sandals, compact disc players and leopard-print bikinis.

Outside the market's entrance sits a different group of men who are playing cards and grousing. They are Russians working as gypsy cab drivers -- men who once had it better. There is a former engineer, a former teacher and several former military men.

Look at that Chinese with the fancy foreign car, grumbles one, who gives his name only as Sergei. "They'll take over and invade our country without weapons. Eventually, they will kill us."

The tense divide between Russia and China is on display every day at the market here in Khabarovsk, the Far East's capital overlooking the picturesque Amur River that for much of its course separates the two giant powers. The "River Love," as one author called it, in fact bisects a region of hate -- or at least suspicion, envy and fear.

The Chinese have been slipping across the border for the last dozen years. At first, they were a welcome flow of low-wage migrant workers willing to do the menial construction and farming jobs that did not interest Russians in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse. But as the years wore on, the Chinese began putting down roots here and starting their own businesses. The Russians who once hired them now often find themselves as employees.

Today, according to regional experts, at least 200,000 Chinese live in the Far East, a region roughly 5,000 miles from Moscow, and many more stay for long stretches of time. They have helped transform the towns along the border in their own image. In Nakhodka, on the Pacific coast, a shopping center built to resemble the Great Wall beckons customers. The Chinese who have settled in Vladivostok, once closed to foreigners as home to the Soviet fleet, have taken to calling the city by its old Chinese name, Haishenwei.

Here in Khabarovsk, nine Chinese restaurants, two Chinese hotels and 300 other Chinese businesses have opened, while ferryboats carry shuttle traders with packs of cheap Chinese consumer goods each day to and from Fuyuan, on the other side of the border.

The demographic arithmetic helps explain the tension. On the Russian side of the border is vast, empty space, rich with natural resources and occupied by a dwindling population of 7 million Russians. On the Chinese side is a bursting-at-the-seams society desperate for breathing space and raw materials to feed its modernizing economy. About 77 million Chinese live in three provinces that border their northern neighbor.

"Nature doesn't tolerate emptiness," said Sergei Drozdov, head of passport and visa services in Khabarovsk. "When there's a full bottle there and it's empty here, at some point the bottle will burst and spill over to here."

President Vladimir Putin warned a couple of years ago that if Russians in the Far East did not do more to regenerate their region and economy, they would all be speaking Chinese or some other Asian language. Local officials decry Chinese men marrying Russian women. Some locals suspect the Chinese of poisoning Russian rivers.

"When things don't work, they all scream, 'The wolves are coming, the wolves are coming' -- and the wolves are the Chinese," said Chen Gopin, the Chinese consul general in Khabarovsk. "This isn't even hidden anymore. They all talk about the Chinese expansion." For the record, he disavowed any aspirations of a Chinese takeover of the Far East as "nonsense."

Li Tianzeng, 22, who arrived two years ago, complained: "They don't want to be friends. Why should they be afraid?"

Russia and China have a long history of tension along their 2,200-mile border. In the mid-19th century, after hundreds of years of expansion and conflict, Russia secured much of the Far East by treaty with the Chinese emperor and claimed control of the port city of Vladivostok in 1860 as a bulwark against China. In the 1930s, during Joseph Stalin's rule of terror, the Russians forced out many of the Chinese who had been living alongside Russians for decades.

For a time following the Communist takeover in China in 1949, the two powers enjoyed a closer relationship. But they fell out in the 1960s and fought border clashes. Barbed wire fences went up along the border and Russian guards would smooth out the ground so they would see footprints of intruding Chinese.

Russians have long expressed worry about Chinese designs on their land. Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were both quoted as saying that the Russians took too much territory more than a century ago. Mao reportedly even said Vladivostok and Khabarovsk by right should be Chinese.

"This is a very old question in our history," said German Dudchenko, a Russian scholar and co-author of a book on ethnic migration to the Far East.

What makes it fresh again has been the arrival of Chinese immigrants in recent years. Russian leaders have responded alternately with open arms and clenched fists. They agreed to visa-free travel to encourage trade but then imposed new restrictions on Chinese trying to live here permanently.

Chinese say that Russian police regularly demand to see their documents, and insist on bribes even if the papers are in order. "If you don't have a passport, the police treat you badly," said Wei Zeze, 42, a merchant who has lived in Russia for 10 years. "If you do have a passport, he looks at it and says, 'This is no good, you need to pay a fine.'" Such fines can run from 500 to 2,000 rubles, or $16 to $65.

The more successful the Chinese become, the more extensive the attention. Li Kai, 36, a former teacher who runs a trading firm with ventures like a Chinese restaurant and hotel, may be one of the most prominent entrepreneurs in Khabarovsk. At his restaurant, Eastern Dragon, most employees and customers are Russians and the menu is filled with meat and potato dishes. Like many Chinese, he has adopted a Russian name, Valentin.

But his attempts to assimilate seemed to fall short early on the morning of May 20, when a squadron of government inspectors burst in to his restaurant. One of them carried a video camera. Footage showing spoiling potatoes was later shown on government television and portrayed as the type of food Li was serving diners.

"We lost a lot of customers," he lamented. "Maybe I crossed somebody. The authorities here, if they work on order, it's really hard for us. We don't feel any security from the state."

Many top Russian officials bemoan such harassment, saying they understand how important good relations are. "All our political leaders, all our bureaucrats keep saying we have to have relations with China," said Viktor Larin, director of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography at the Far East branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "But their concrete actions very often are directed at limiting the Chinese presence here."

Maxim Tarasov, a China specialist who works as an aide to the vice governor in Khabarovsk, acknowledged the police shakedowns and said steps have been taken to stop them. "The response was the guilty ones were found and that it would never happen again," said Tarasov, who has a Chinese calendar scroll mounted in his office. "Of course this kind of thing happens. We are trying to struggle against it."

Officials scoffed at the fears expressed by ordinary Russians here. "If the Chinese wanted to take over Primorye, they could populate us in two and a half hours," said Sergei Pushkarev, head of immigration for neighboring Primorye province. "We're not going back to the Iron Curtain. There's no way back."

In the face of often open hostility, Chinese as well as the Japanese and South Koreans living here largely stick to themselves. While virtually everyone drives a right-hand-drive Japanese car in the Far East, the streets have fewer Asian faces on them than, say, San Francisco or Seattle. Even on one recent night, when a Japanese bank put on a fireworks display along the riverfront to celebrate the opening of its first branch in Khabarovsk, the crowd was predominantly Russian.

Russians have seen their trade grow with China -- exports to China from Khabarovsk alone increased from $82.4 million in 1997 to $628 million last year, according to an official. Yet because the Russian exports consist largely of timber, oil and other raw materials, many Russians fear the Chinese are simply stripping the Russian side of natural resources.

Russians here grow particularly sour as they look across the river and see rapidly developing Chinese cities with gleaming new buildings, radiating the wealth that some Russians are certain China has been stealing from them.

"In the past, Chinese were considered cheap labor and Russian employers tried to get as many of them as they could," said Alexei Mortsev, 30. Mortsev is a former navy sailor from Fokina, a city between Vladivostok and Nakhodka where submarines were built and that is still closed to outsiders. "Now the Russians are cheaper labor. Russians aren't owners anymore."

Lyudmila, 65, a retired teacher, groused about the Chinese as she lugged a couple of sacks of Chinese goods out of the market here. "They're behaving as masters of the land," she said. Lyudmila said she was convinced that Khabarovsk's days as a Russian city were numbered. "Why did we warm up the place for them? They're building their economy on us."

And the men who work as gypsy cab drivers continue with their card games and sullen grievances. Slava, who spent 20 years in the Soviet navy and who, like the others, would not give a last name, said it was time to take action. "They have to be kicked out because Russian Ivans should work this land," he said. If not, he added, "soon we're going to be refugees."