Chinese Have Zero Interest in Taking Over Siberia

A simple way to understand that's true: Mongolia is even more sparsely populated than Russia's Far East - yet Chinese aren't moving there

This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at The Asan Forum

Another alleged concern about China-Russia relations that may undermine the potential for an alliance lies in demographic conditions. The issue of China being overpopulated and Russia, especially its Far Eastern territories, being underpopulated frequently appears in publications. Some talk about a “vast population of potential migrants” that may come from China. 

Others draw scary pictures of the disappearance of Russia’s ethnic identity, threats to Russia’s territorial integrity, and “creeping sinicization” that may happen because there are too many Chinese and too few Russians along the China-Russia border. 

According to Nye, one of the deep problems hindering the formation of a China-Russia alliance is that in Eastern Siberia, six million Russians live across the border from up to 120 million Chinese.Others write that Russia is reluctant to form an alliance with China because it is “demographically in decline,” and there are concerns about the uncontrolled migration of Chinese citizens into the sparsely populated areas of Russia’s Far East and Siberia, which may eventually be taken over by China.

Under closer examination, the statement that demography is what Russia should worry about when forming an alliance with China crumbles. First, Russia’s demographic decline is not the case any longer; the depopulation trend had been reversed by the end of the 2000s. In 2009, Russia recorded population growth, adding 23,300 people. In 2012, its population increased by 292,400 people.

 In 2013, Russia’s total fertility rate reached 1.707 children per woman and became the highest in Eastern, Southern and Central Europe; the trend of depopulation had been reversed, and natural population growth has started. Figure 1 reflects Russia’s long-term demographic trend, which refutes the statement that it is in decline demographically.

Figure 1: Population Dynamics in Russia


Source: Calculated based on data from ROSSTAT

Regarding the demographic gap between the border regions of Russia and China, the situation is not as troubling as it is pictured, and there are no reasons to expect mass Chinese influx to the Russian Far East. Table 3 compares population density in border provinces of China (first column) with that in corresponding border provinces/regions of Russia and Mongolia (second column). Column three divides the population density of a Chinese province by that of a corresponding Russian and Mongolian border province.

The average density of Russia’s krai and oblast bordering China is 17.83 times lower than that of Chinese provinces bordering Russia. In the case of Mongolia, which also shares a long border with China, this figure is 32.9. The population gap between bordering Mongolian and Chinese provinces is much larger.

China so far has not displayed the slightest desire to occupy the provinces of Mongolia (a state barely able to defend itself), which are much more underpopulated than Russian ones. If China does not occupy the bordering territories of Mongolia what would make China start occupying territories of a nuclear superpower?

Moreover, as Table 3 demonstrates, China has its own Siberia—Tibet and Qinghai—with population densities 60 and 20 times lower than in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, which border Russia. The natural population imbalance is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for migration.

Table 3: Comparative Population Density of Border Regions (people/km2)

Source: World Bank Provincial level data are from various sources, including provincial statistical reports.

Contrary to the assumption that China will be demographically expansionist, the demographic trends within China has entered a phase of extremely low birth rates for some time. In the early 1990s, the total fertility rate crossed the 2.14 mark, the natural replacement rate. By the late 1990s, the TFR had reached 1.8, and by 2011 it was 1.5, significantly below that in the United States, the UK, and France.

 According to China’s sixth population census, in large cities, the TFR had dropped to 0.88, which is one of the lowest in the world. The record low of 0.14 for the entire TFR history was registered in 2000 in the urban district of Jiamusi in Heilongjiang province, which borders on Russia. These dynamics caused a rapid aging population. China will need its working population at home in the years to come.

Most importantly, recent research on the patterns of migration reveals that the Chinese do not come to Russia and its Far East in large numbers. Most who do visit return home once their visas or work permits expire. This was the case during the early 2000s, when the population of Russia was in decline and China was poorer, and it is even more so now, when the trend of depopulation in Russia has been reversed and living standards in China have further improved.

The problem of the migration dimension was successfully dismissed by V.Ya. Portyakov in a series of articles on Chinese migration to Russia. The issue of Chinese emigration to Russia has been overblown by irresponsible media and Russian local politicians, who have tried to build political capital by creating an image that they are fending off the Chinese threat.

The essence of the phenomenon was expressed by a Russian journalist who wrote, “Russia is not a lusted-after land for the Chinese eager to settle there, while trips to Russia are simply a compulsory economic necessity.” 

Portyakov demonstrates that Russia is not a priority destination for the Chinese emigrants. Responsible voices of the representatives within the Russian academic community, who do not make “threats” out of nothing, are now gaining increasing force. It has become a consensus that Chinese immigration has no significant impact on the demographic situation in the Russian Far East and, when properly managed, can be in Russia’s geopolitical interest.

The myths and imposed stereotypes about Chinese migration to Russia are dissipating, and an adequate understanding of its nature as temporary migration is emerging.

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