Not a name on everyone’s lips but read on:
Perched in the cabin of a clunky Russian tractor, Li Chengbin, a 62-year-old peasant farmer from China, drove round and round in ever widening circles, ploughing a field to get it ready for planting . . . and rejoicing at the opportunities offered by untamed lands in the Russian Far East almost empty of people.
Back home in China, he said, he never had a plot anywhere near as big as the 82-acre spread that he and his son now farm in Russia. The vast majority of China’s 300 million peasants have barely two acres. Mr Li’s family farm in China is even smaller.
‘In China, this much land would make me the biggest farmer in the country,’ Mr Li said, yanking a rusty lever to try to get his puffing tractor to go faster. He and his son had bought the tractor, along with other decrepit farming equipment, from the remnants of a defunct Soviet-era collective farm.
They got their land through an arrangement with a local woman who leases the formerly state farm property and lets Mr Li and his son, Li Xin, farm it in return for cash.
The weather, scorching in summer and well below freezing in winter, is not much worse than what they are used to in northern China. But because most of the swampy land on the Russian side of the nearby border has never been drained, the area is infested with giant mosquitoes and other bothersome bugs. A swarm of hornets, attracted by the heat generated by Mr Li’s tractor, enveloped the vehicle in a black cloud.
Among Russian nationalists in Moscow and other cities in the west of the country, the presence of Chinese farmers on Russian land in the Far East has stirred frenzied fear of a stealthy Chinese takeover. It is a perennial obsession that, despite increasingly warm relations between the two countries’ leaders, still exercises many Russian minds.
Here in the Far East, however, local officials and many residents, while grumbling that they cannot keep up with Chinese work habits, tend to see China and its vast pool of industrious labour as the best hope of developing impoverished regions that often feel neglected by Moscow.
‘Our own people have been spoiled,’ said Lyudmilla Voron, the head of the local council for the district covering Opytnoe Pole and four other villages in the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area in Russia next to the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. ‘The men drink too much and don’t want to work. Locals,’ she said, ‘have much to learn from Chinese peasants.’
She said there were no real figures for the number of Chinese working in the area as full-time hired hands for Russian landowners, seasonal labourers or as farmers on land they lease for themselves. But, Ms Voron added, one thing was abundantly clear in a region that was originally set up by Stalin in the 1930s as a would-be Jewish homeland: ‘There are definitely many more Chinese here than Jews.’
With a Russian population of just 1,716 people, Ms Voron’s district has only two Jewish families left . . . all the others moved to Israel or elsewhere . . . but it has hundreds of Chinese.
Her daughter, Maria, who is the district administration chief, complained that many Chinese worked without registering and ‘sleep in the fields’. But she, too, cheered their work ethic. ‘They all work like mad,’ she said, praising them for turning previously unused land into productive farms.
Local men, many of them alcoholics, are less enthusiastic and curse the Chinese for getting up too early, using too much chemical fertilizer and overworking the land. Recently, the district administration was sent a video by an angry male resident that showed a Chinese-farmed field awash with bluish-grey slime allegedly created by chemicals and an irrigation project gone awry.
The district chief said she had sent the video to the prosecutor’s office for investigation.
The Chinese began moving across the Amur River to farm in Russia in significant numbers after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The mostly uncontrolled influx drew howls of protest from nationalist politicians in Moscow.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a tub-thumping rabble rouser, demanded that all Chinese migrants be deported from the Russian Far East. Stanislav Govorukhin, a film director, made a film warning that China was taking over and wrote a book claiming that the Far East was undergoing ‘massive Sinofication’ and would soon be more Chinese than Russian.
President Putin, looking to China to add some spark to Russia’s sluggish economy and to show Western leaders that he does not need them, has tried to calm the scaremongering. But Russia still spasms with bouts of anti-Chinese sentiment.
When the authorities in the Trans-Baikal region along China’s border announced last year that they planned to lease about 285,000 unused acres to a Chinese company for grain production, the proposed deal triggered a storm of protest, mostly in the faraway European districts of Russia. The plan seems to have stalled.
Under Mr Putin the Russian authorities have tried and, to some extent, succeeded in regaining control of the migrant flow from China. They introduced a quota system for Chinese workers and channelled much of the trans-border business through state-controlled entities.
The rules are often flouted, and official corruption makes enforcement difficult. At the same time, fear of an unstoppable tide of Chinese taking over Russia’s eastern lands is rooted in nationalist mythmaking, not reality, said Ivan Zuenko, a researcher at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok who has studied the Chinese involvement in Russian agriculture.
‘Moscow and St. Petersburg know nothing about the Far East and think that all Chinese want to come here,’ he said, adding that locals ‘realize that China means jobs and salaries.’
Mr Li and his son regularly hire Russians to help in the field, paying them the equivalent of nearly £10 a day. They said the Russians worked hard when they had to, but often showed up late. On a recent morning, two villagers turned up at the Li family’s field at 10:45 a.m. for what was supposed to be an early start. Mr Li shrugged and set them to work.
That Russia has so much spare land is partly the result of geography. Its Far Eastern regions are two-thirds the size of the entire United States and sparsely populated with only 6.1 million people. But it also stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it an elaborate system of subsidized collective farms. Land under cultivation in the Far East, most of it in a narrow strip of relatively fertile land along the border with China, slumped by nearly 60 percent between 1990 and 2006, leaving huge tracts of good land untended as Russian villagers drifted away to find work elsewhere.
Across the border in China at the same time, the opposite happened. The population soared, and even the most unpromising land came under cultivation, leaving millions of peasants hungry for soil. Heilongjiang, the Chinese region just 50 miles from here across the Amur River, has more than 38 million people, more than 200 times the population of the Jewish Autonomous Region.
The younger Mr Li, who is 35, said he had first come to Russia about a decade ago to work as a farm labourer. He learned some Russian and set up a pig farm with a local woman, Nelya Zarutskaya. He, his father and an uncle now live in a ramshackle farm building along with Ms Zarutskaya and her young son.
District officials say Mr Li and Ms Zarutskaya married, a common ruse used to jump bureaucratic hurdles that make it difficult for foreigners to get access to land. ‘We have lots of fake marriages,’ Ms Voron, the district chief, said. Mr Li denied doing this, and said Ms Zarutskaya was just a ‘co-worker.’
The pig business, he said, floundered as the price of pork fell, and he turned to soy beans, which are easy to grow and in great demand in China. His father, struggling to survive on a tiny family farm in Heilongjiang Province, joined his son in Russia three years ago along with the uncle.
Russia, the younger Mr Li said, is a ‘tough place’ to live, especially in the winter, but it has given him prospects he would never have had in China. ‘There are too many people in China, and there is nothing for people like me over there.’
Cut and pasted from the New York Times [without permission]