Russia's Shift To China, From Farmlands To Geopolitics

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, China, on Jan. 5, 2020.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing, China, on Jan. 5, 2020.
Anna Akage

MOSCOW — Nowadays, if you want to hear the Russian language spoken properly in Moscow, you have to go to an upscale restaurant. Anything less posh is occupied by people coming from Central Asia, any one of the ‘stan republics lying between the titans: Russia and China. But beyond the Ural Mountains, they say, it is all Chinese.

The geopolitical course of the Russian Federation has been debated for decades, but the gravitational forces towards Asia are now obvious for all to see — if you just bother to go look. For more than 15 years, stories circulated about some Chinese businessmen or another taking over a farm in the Russian Far East, where the great Amur River marks the borderline between two empires. Recently BBC's Russian-language service sent its correspondents to check if the reports match reality.

According to the official numbers released by the state land register, Chinese citizens either owned or leased at least 3,500 square kilometers of Far Eastern land in Russia, which is about 16% of all the cultivated lands in the area. But the BBC learned that the actual proportion could be higher, as many farms are registered on false Russian names. Local authorities questions do not hide this reality, and say there are many more migrant workers and farms then is officially declared.

The highway bridge connecting China and Russia across the Heilongjiang (Amur) River.— Photo: Wang Jianwei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Mostly these lands belonged to bankrupted Soviet communal farms and were abandoned until Chinese, who have more people land, starting coming in the late 1990s. Chinese farmers do not take Russian citizenship, do not learn the Russian language and do not communicate with the locals, living quietly and working hard behind the tall farms' walls. In these far-from-Moscow lands, Chinese are the only willing investors, even as locals look at them with great suspicion.

Yes, customs statistics can tell as much about a country as opinion surveys. Russian newspaper Kommersant published just such a statistical analysis from Alexander Gabuev, a Carnegie Moscow Center fellow and the chair of Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program on the China-Russia economic relations. Rather than citing declarations and trade deals, Gabuev looked solely at numbers from the customs on import-export activity between countries.

One of the key factors affecting Chinese customs statistics for 2019 was the trade war with the US, as exports increased by only 0.5%, the lowest figure in three years, while imports dropped by 2.8%. Meanwhile trade between Russia and China grew by 3.4%, Russian exports grew by 3.2%, and Chinese by 3.6%. And this, as the analyst says, is a serious sign: the overall Russian economy grew in 2019 by 1% at best, and the real incomes of citizens stagnate, but Russian consumers are beginning to buy more and more Chinese goods — and it's not only household appliances or smartphones but also cars.

Economically, it doesn't even play in the first division.

According to the European Businesses Association, Chinese brands Haval, Geely and Changan showed explosive budget growth - by 282%, 186%, and 86%, respectively, becoming market leaders. Gabuev, meanwhile, forecasts that the coming decade will see only closer ties: from major energy pipelines connecting industries across the border, to the growth of Russian households turning to cheap Chinese imports.

This Russian turn toward China has come as Ukraine positioned itself to eventually join the European Union, which was followed by Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, notes veteran Austrian diplomat Martin Sajdik, who served as Special Representative of the OSCE to the Trilateral Contact Group on the implementation of the peace plan in the eastern Ukraine from 2015 till the end of 2019.

In a recent interview with Kommersant, Sajdik said he believes that Russia has chosen its geopolitical path for the future, even if their leaders don't fully realize it. "It was very difficult (working with Russia). What is your country? European? Asian? The largest country in the world territorially. But economically, it doesn't even play in the first division." And while its neighbors, like Ukraine and Georgia, started to take the EU and NATO path, Russia went just the opposite way.

"I often say: when Russians speak with Europeans, they speak with an Asian face, and when they speak with Chinese, with a European one," he said. "From my point of view, you have already decided and do not want to admit it: Towards China."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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