JPRI Working Paper No. 62: November 1999
The Chinese Diaspora, Mongolia and the Sino-Russian Frontier
by Robert Bedeski


In mid-July, 1999, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police intercepted the first of four shiploads of Chinese illegal immigrants off the wild western coast of Vancouver Island. Numbering 123, they represented only the latest evidence of Third World desperation to enter Canada via its long Pacific coastline. Public debate has focused on whether they are criminals and should be deported, genuine refugees and victims, who should be accepted, or even a windfall of hard workers to add to Canada's multi-ethnic mosaic. Most have applied for refugee status, and draw upon Canada's liberal welfare provisions while their appeals are heard. Few will be deported back to their country of origin, and more than half never follow through on their appeals--presumably vanishing into the U.S.

This phenomenon of illegal immigration is hardly unique to Canada and is mirrored by the illegal flow of Mexicans in the southwestern United States. Western Europe is also experiencing an influx of Chinese immigrants, and this problem is exacerbated by the end of documented border crossings within the European Union. Japan has also seen an upsurge of Chinese immigration--legal and otherwise. While Southeast Asia has been a traditional emigration destination for Chinese for over a century, the existence of anti-Chinese prejudice in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam has made immigration there more risky. Australia has also become a haven for what some see as a new exodus.

The reasons for this population outflow are not difficult to ascertain. China has a population approaching 1.3 billion people. Beijing has lifted some of the previous restrictions on travel and emigration as labor mobility becomes more important in economic development. Travel into and out of China has become relatively easier since the early 1980s, including cheap and frequent air flights, and rapidly expanding maritime traffic. A network of overseas Chinese in nearly every country provides a ready network for living and employment and also facilitates smuggling.

There has also been a softening of Western resistance to non-Caucasian immigration, accompanied by domestic and international laws, charters and declarations of human rights mandating acceptance of migrants who can satisfy minimal criteria of refugee claims. In most Western countries, a sector of the legal profession--often funded by governments--provides representation and advocacy for immigrants. Rapid economic growth has required labor inputs in receiving countries at all levels of skills. During the 1980s, high growth in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere created labor deficits often filled by imported labor. The entry of many local women into the workforce mitigated this need somewhat, but dirty and dangerous jobs were often filled by alien males.

Higher living standards in China have provided capital for travel and investment abroad. Reports of higher wages abroad have led many Chinese to attempt to improve their living standards through emigration. Illegal channels of immigration have grown rapidly to accommodate these Chinese pressures, and the high cost of passage on ships through the "underground network" is considered worthwhile by families who want one of their own to establish a beachhead in a wealthier country.

From the standpoint of the receiving countries, there are a number of negative outcomes from illegal immigration, whether from China or elsewhere. Without normal customs checks, illegal immigrants may be carriers of disease. Large-scale illegal immigration generates losses to local and state or provincial treasuries in the form of expenses for education, welfare, medical, and other costs, as they provide services to non-tax-paying residents. Such pressures led to the passage of a referendum in California denying welfare and other services to illegals.

Having entered a country illegally and often living on the fringes of mainstream society, illegal immigrants may also be tempted to engage in other unlawful activities, including drugs and prostitution. Large-scale illegal immigration often boomerangs against the legal immigrants, who will be regarded with suspicion by the general population on the one hand, and are often subjected to crime and coercion by illegal countrymen, on the other hand. Critics also argue that large-scale immigration--whether legal or otherwise--creates unfair competition for scarce jobs when an economy slows down. And favorable treatment of immigrants who already have relatives in the receiving country (family reunification) is an open-ended invitation to even further inflows over subsequent years.

Human rights and economics are the main driving forces in contemporary population movements. For example, in the past decade, thousands of Somalis have migrated to eastern Canada to escape the chaos and dangers of their homeland, and their increased presence has changed parts of Ottawa, the national capital. Vancouver and other Canadian cities are now home to significant numbers of Chinese and other Asians. Immigration tends to be an urban phenomenon, and the impact on housing, social services and schools is readily apparent. Chinese is now a major language in the province of British Columbia.

The overt racism of the past has not emerged to oppose this trend, and in Western Canada relatively little public discussion occurs over what is becoming an ethnic reconstitution of the area. But while race has not been a point of contention, nationality could emerge as a problem. Much of the past influx of Chinese came from Hong Kong before 1997, and from Taiwan--societies more notable as economic dynamos than as political powers. With the prospect of more mainland migrants, a new factor is entering into the equation. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is a major regional and rising global power, and citizens who leave there are not necessarily rejecting old allegiances--in contrast to migrants from Hong Kong who continue to worry about how long Beijing will tolerate the former British colony's autonomy. While Taiwan has been a brave bastion against Communist Chinese military threats, its former residents are also more likely to consider their move to Canada as a permanent one.

Recent U.S. charges of espionage by China and of illegal election contributions by Chinese nationals point to the use Beijing may be trying to make of the overseas diaspora. Even without the increasing presence of educated (and probably overwhelmingly loyal to the U.S.) ethnic Chinese in academic, scientific, and business sectors, emigration provides a number of benefits to China:

1. Emigrants often remit part of their earnings back to their families in the home country, and this represents a net gain to local and national income.

2. Valuable networks for trade and business are established between China and foreign countries through ethnic Chinese.

3. Chinese students who study abroad usually specialize in high-technology fields, and are found at the leading edge of a number of fields. While China is presently unable to provide either the facilities or prospects to entice these scientists and engineers back home, in a decade or two the country may find itself in a situation similar to Taiwan's in the 1960s and 70s--advancing growth with a deficit of sophisticated skills. Taiwan's solution was to greatly expand university and institutional opportunities to attract and recruit overseas Taiwanese students and specialists back home, thus reaping a windfall of highly-trained personnel.

4. Finally, China is overpopulated, and there are few social and environmental problems that would not be ameliorated with fewer people. Emigration offers a safety valve to those who might feel alienated at home. Educated people are the greatest resource in development, and it is in China's interest to encourage--or at least not impede--any movement out of the country of those seeking further education, who may return and contribute to China's pool of educated talent.

With the Canadian and U.S. experiences in mind, I would now like to consider a region much closer to China, in order to explore some of the dynamics of Chinese emigration and its potential effects. It is important to note that there is no evidence that the Chinese government is either encouraging or facilitating emigration, or that it has any plans to do so. There is always the danger that suspicions can inflame prejudice--as in Indonesia at the time of demonstrations against Suharto. Chinese transnational migration is, however, a growing phenomenon, and it demands objective analysis--not only from the perspective of Chinese national interests but also the interests of the societies receiving immigrants.

The Sino-Russian Frontier

The Chinese diaspora may be a truly global phenomenon, but areas closer to or directly on the borders of China will feel a greater effect than those further removed. Thus the Russian Far East, central Siberia, and Mongolia are likely to experience the greatest demographic pressures in coming years. The vulnerability of this region to population inflows is exacerbated by several circumstances:

1. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, control by the Russian state has weakened considerably. Mongolia's border defenses, which had depended on its Soviet protector, are also weakened.

2. There is considerable economic asymmetry, with Chinese growth and market expansion contrasting sharply with stagnation in both Russia and Mongolia.

3. While Sino-Soviet border claims have been settled for the time being, there remains a grey area of Chinese anticipated claims--for example, access to the Sea of Japan and the tentative acceptance of Mongolia as a sovereign state.

Low population densities along the Sino-Russian frontiers have focused Russian attention on potential scenarios of Chinese expansion. Russians have characterized the Tumen project as a Chinese initiative to gain access to the Sea of Japan (Eastern Sea), and while Chinese traders are welcomed for the needed consumer goods they bring they are also suspected as the vanguard of illegal settlers. According to researchers at Irkutsk State University:

The [new Chinese diaspora] began in the early eighties and nineties with a snowballing rush of "itinerant traders"--peddlers and retailers. Their number has now swelled to several million, they have established a fully functional infrastructure of Chinese retail markets, mixed ownership businesses and restaurants and hostels, a network of commission agents, and possibly illegal banking institutions. The purchase or renting of real estate is another field in which they are active. The migrants are endeavoring to create a channel for long- term marketing and permanent communities. Thousands of Chinese are setting up permanent establishments in Russia, receiving their vocational training here, marrying and legitimately obtaining the status of permanent residents. This is classical labor migration, and its pioneers have managed to perform their primary mission: they have become established in Russia, found their niches in the economy and have been given chances that would be closed to them in their native country. (Viktor I. Dyatlov, Dimid A. Dorokhov, Dmitri G. Lyustritski, Yelena V. Palyutina, The New Chinese Diaspora in Irkutsk and the Receiving Society [no volume, no date], p. 65.)

They go on to suggest that there will be tens of millions of Chinese living in Russia by the first half of the twenty-first century. In the 1989 census, there were 489 Chinese living in the Irkutsk oblast (province). Since that time, the Russian authorities have not been able to keep track of the numbers, and various estimates range from several thousand to 400,000. The most credible estimate comes from the 1994 data of the Ministry of the Interior: 40,000 legal and the same number of illegal Chinese immigrants. In the Irkutsk region, the "army of migrants" is seen as paving the way for a permanent resident community through different methods: marriage, study, guest worker, registered business, and buying property.

In response, Russia ended visa-free entry in early 1994, and since August 1996, itinerant traders have been subject to tighter taxation. Concerns about a Chinese influx are hardly a sign of xenophobia, since Irkutsk has long been a multiethnic society, with Europeans mixing with Asians (especially the native Buryats) for over a century. Even during the Sino-Soviet rift, sinophobia was probably lower there than in the European Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, concerns are rising. Russian society under Soviet Communism looked down on commercial activities as capitalism and has therefore been slow to adapt to the new realities of markets. Many Chinese have arrived to take advantage of the economic niche opportunities, selling consumer goods to Russian customers. As the initial aversion to trading declines among Russians, and more enter into competition with Chinese traders, friction is bound to occur. So far, at least in Irkutsk, a "kiosk economy" of single entrepreneurs appears to be emerging. With the decline of state-subsidized and planned manufacturing, a fragmented and deindustrializing economy offers many opportunities to Chinese traders, who only suffered through three decades of intense revolutionary and statist Communism (in contrast to the Russians' seven decades), and who therefore preserved their market instincts.

For Russia, the new Chinese diaspora carries several dangers. If the Chinese presence becomes too large, xenophobic racism may erupt into violence. Anti-Jewish pogroms were a frequent occurrence in Russian history, and opportunistic politicians and demagogues could once again seize on an ethnic, this time Chinese, scapegoat for economic problems. The spectacle of anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia is a reminder of this. Any threat to Chinese in Russia could create a new crisis in Sino-Russian relations and endanger the delicate rapprochement between them. A mitigating factor is that Chinese immigration probably contributes positively to the Siberian and Russian Far Eastern economy. Some depopulation has been occurring since the Soviet collapse, and an infusion of industrious and enterprising Chinese has had a productive effect.

Still, Russians in Asia are apprehensive about China's long-range intentions. In the early 1990s, Beijing reportedly offered Russia 2.5 million workers and farmers to settle the Russian Far East and to help develop the Tumen River project. (See David Arase, "Economic Cooperation in the Region Where China, Russia, and North Korea Meet," JPRI Working Paper No. 53, January 1999) Russia has been slow to support Tumen with the same enthusiasm as China for two main reasons: it will shift trade and development from Vladivostok, and it will strengthen Chinese demands for access to the Sea of Japan.

Mongolia--A Demographic Buffer?

Mongolia became a democratic but isolated state in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. It had been the first satellite republic of the USSR and enjoyed a number of advantages in this relationship--not the least of which was its defense by the Soviet Red Army. In August 1939, lest it be forgotten, Japanese expansion into central Asia was halted by Russian tanks at Nomonhan.

Today Mongolia faces a new challenge and has been seeking diplomatic links to meliorate its uncomfortable position between Russia and China. The U.S. has greatly expanded its presence, but the lifeline remains tenuous. Proffered Chinese aid is difficult to resist and a recent agreement promises to link the two economies more closely. Mongolia seeks to maximize its leverage abroad, and has even offered to help convince North Korea to restrain its missile testing. After leaving Beijing on July 10, 1999, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi met with the Mongolian President and Prime Minister in Ulaan Baatar. The Mongolian President said to Obuchi, "We are ready to talk with the DPPK to deter it from launching another missile."

Mongolia, with its small population (2,350,000, according to the 1998 China Statistical Yearbook, p. 923) and low population density (1 person per square km.), also appears virtually empty beside China, which has a population density 127 times greater. Now that Mongolia has lost the protection of the USSR, the non-military threat from China looms great. While most Chinese would-be emigres prefer the industrial societies of Western Europe and North America, the proximity of Mongolia offers opportunities of trade, as well as a transit point to more attractive countries. In June 1999, the national legislature (Hural) of Mongolia shelved a privatization bill, fearing that loopholes would allow foreigners (i.e., Chinese) to acquire land through local parties.

Illegal Chinese immigrants in Mongolia are estimated at around ten thousand, and Mongolian fears are exacerbated by the example of China's region of Inner Mongolia, where Han settlement and assimilation of native Mongolians are transforming that nominally autonomous region into an extension of China proper. Mongolian researchers also claim that Deng Xiaoping stated on several occasions that after solution of the Hong Kong and Taiwan questions, Mongolia would be next. Nor is the Republic of China on Taiwan much help in preserving Mongolian sovereignty, since it considers Outer Mongolia to be part of Qing dynasty irredenta. When Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader and possible Presidential candidate Chen Shui-pian visited Ulaan Baatar in the spring of 1999, it primarily underlined the two governments' mutual suspicions of mainlander hegemony.

At the same time, China has become an important partner for Mongolian economic development. In mid-July, 1999, President Jiang Zemin visited Ulaan Baatar for three-days and discussed with Mongolian President Natsagiin Bagabandi building a possible gas pipeline and a high-voltage power line from the PRC to Russia. Jiang also oversaw the signing of an agreement for US$3.5 million in technical aid to Mongolia and a cooperation pact to fight forest and grassland fires in their adjoining border areas. A third document updated a 1990 health pact to let patients from either country cross the border for treatment in hospitals. The PRC wants Mongolian support for the PRC's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), of which Mongolia is a member. China is also the lifeline connecting Mongolia with the Pacific region, through the port of Tianjin. Plans are in the works to build a rail link to Tumen, but this will require passage across China's northeastern provinces.

China outwardly accepts Mongolian sovereignty and carries on state-to-state relations that should provide considerable security and comfort to Ulaan Baatar. Nonetheless, Mongolians remain nervous about these developments and the expanding trade. Chinese buyers, who are able to pay the highest prices, are increasingly penetrating the cashmere industry. Export of cashmere to China for processing and manufacture removes a raw export product, which previously provided a source of domestic industry and employment. Sino-Mongolian trade passes through any of six border crossings, and Mongolians also point to the rapidly growing prosperity of these ports-of-entry on the Chinese side as a sign of one-sided profit.

Chinese cultural intrusion is another area of potential resentment. Inner Mongolia is already rapidly assimilating into China proper, and its autonomous status has become a legal and symbolic factor only. Genghis (Chingis) Khan, the national hero of Mongolia, has been incorporated into Chinese history as a dynastic founder. Mongolians see a creeping cultural imperialism that has eclipsed minority identity in Inner Mongolia, and also threatens the Republic of Mongolia.

The U.S. has enhanced its ties with Mongolia, and a number of other countries--including Canada, South Korea, and Japan--have increased their presence with aid, trade and investment. After the Soviets withdrew their garrisons--creating virtual ghost towns in the process--and the economy went into a decline, the Russian and East European presence plummeted. Mongolia once again depends upon implicit protection from major powers. Now that China has become a major economic and military power in Asia, with no Soviet Union to countervail, the Chinese may become the major threat to Mongolia's independent survival. The nearest neighbors can provide little help. Although ethnic affinities exists between Koreans and Mongolians, reinforced by historical relations, South Korea would not be likely to take Mongolia's side in a quarrel with China for fear of endangering its large trade with and investment in China. North Korea, which has good reason to distrust China, is also too dependent on it. For the U.S., Mongolia is a strategic listening post between Russia and China. From the Chinese standpoint, however, this presence may be an irritant and a reminder of the still unstable Sino-American relations.

So far Mongolia has no charismatic spokesman such as Tibet's Dalai Lama nor the passionate foreign partisans who mobilize support against Chinese intervention in Tibet. It has little of the economic and military power of Taiwan. Although there is no immediate danger of Chinese military intervention into Mongolia, demographic, economic and cultural pressures are steady.

To insure survival of Mongolia as a nation-state, the U.S. and other countries can increase their diplomatic and economic involvement--as well as encouraging Mongolian participation in international activities--including peacekeeping. Mongolia might also be involved in the KEDO lightwater project to replace North Korea's nuclear reactors on the basis of the nation's links with both Pyongyang and Seoul. Mongolia's involvement in the Tumen River project's planning could be increased. Mongolian territory could also be designated as a World Heritage environmental site, promoting greater development of ecotourism. Its pastoral society has long enjoyed a sustainable life-style, which would be fatally imperiled by industrialization and urbanization.

From an American perspective, China's transition from hardline Communist autocracy to market authoritarianism has been a major validation of democracy and capitalism and a refutation of socialism. But rather than subsuming all issues under this historic transformation, one must examine other consequences--especially those that can overshadow the economic benefits of these changes. One consequence of the Chinese turn to markets and greater openness is that it has liberated hundreds of millions of Chinese from some (but not all) of the totalitarian strictures of the past. The desire for a better future for themselves and their families drives many of them to emigrate abroad. Hundreds of Chinatowns throughout the world testify to this.

Most of the past Chinese emigration occurred during periods of imperial decline or civil war or Communist oppression. By contrast, the new wave of emigration coincides with a period of rapid economic growth and military confidence. The combination of cultural loyalty and a Chinese state with solid accomplishments in national power means that many emigrants will retain at least part of their allegiance to mainland China, the country from whence they came. This factor, and territorial proximity, make the Chinese diaspora of special concern to Mongolia and Asian Russia.

ROBERT E. BEDESKI is Professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada, and is the author of The Fragile Entente: The 1978 Japan-China Peace Treaty in a Global Context (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983) and The Transformation of South Korea: Reform and Reconstitution in the Sixth Republic under Roh Tae Woo, 1987-1992 (London: Routledge, 1994). He has served as consultant to the Canadian government on East Asian affairs and edited several works on arms control.

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