Broken dreams of Russia's Chinese workers

By Tony Cheng, BBC News, Monday 19 August 2002, 23:09 GMT 00:09 UK

The long unguarded Sino-Russian border has seen huge numbers of immigrants moving across it in the last 10 years.

While many move on to Western Europe, increasingly large numbers are staying in the Russian Far East—where an estimated five million Chinese nationals now live illegally.

The city of Khabarovsk sits on the northern tip of Russia's border with China, and has been a focus point for Chinese immigrants looking for new economic opportunities.

Walking through the thick snow, outside the tourist hotels, signs in Chinese advertise luxury expeditions to St Petersburg and Moscow.

Lengthy stay

But sightseeing does not seem to be on the agenda for Mr Liu and his two companions, who have just arrived from Heilongjiang in China.

Instead of cameras and backpacks, they are carrying boxes of instant noodles and an electric wok as if they are planning a long stay.

“We are tourists… we have come as tourists. The purpose of this trip is looking around and doing investigations on this side of the border to find some opportunities,” Mr Liu explained.

“Now it is rather difficult to do business in Russia,” he warned though.

It is indeed difficult to do business on a tourist visa, and the police impose heavy fines for those they catch breaking the rules.

But the rewards are too great to ignore as Wang Baoling, chairman of the Khabarovsk Sino-Russian Business Association told me.

“From where we are to Yakutsk is about 800 kilometres. It takes just over an hour to get there by plane. That's a very cold place but there are excellent business opportunities. Goods sell fast at high prices. Chinese people go there without proper procedures,” he said.

Rough justice

But the authorities are cracking down.

Despite the freezing conditions Khabarovsk's open markets are open and business is brisk. Most of the traders appear to be Chinese, and one of them, Mr Lu, described a recent encounter with the police.

“The patrolling police came to demand money from me. I said I had no money, so they said they would fine me. When I said I should have a receipt, he said ‘Why do you ask for a receipt?’ and then hit me,” Mr Lu said.

“When he finished hitting, he said this was Russia not China, you have to obey Russian law,” he added.

Trader's fear

And random fines are not the only problem. Xiao Cui, an ethnic Korean from Jilin province in China, says that most of the traders in the market cannot even protect themselves from thieves.

“The policemen come up to our stalls, pocket what they want, say thank you and then walk away. We don’t dare to ask for money. If we did, we would get into even bigger trouble,” Mr Xiao explained.

“When we catch a thief, we don’t dare take him to the police station. If we go there we’ll be fined… the thief will be released after they have been scolded a little,” he added.

Shattered dreams

Many of the Chinese living in Khabarovsk are finding that the streets are not paved with gold.

In a large canteen I met Mrs Jin, a widower who had left her two children behind to make her fortune in Russia.

She arrived, like many others, with a tour group, but now seems to be regretting her decision.

“Though I wish to go home, I’m not able to… fines, taxes and the travelling expenses to get home are enormous,” Mrs Jin said.

“If I had known what it would be like here I wouldn’t have come. Now that I have come I can’t go home empty-handed,” she added.

So while the huge flood of illegal Chinese in this desolate part of the world shows no sign of slowing, like so many immigrants the dreams of riches often promise far more than the reality.