CHITA -- So here they are, the Chinese people everyone has been talking about since we left Moscow. The great demographic "danger" that threatens Russia's eastern borders.

We had to wait until we reached the Ulan-Ude bus station to finally see them. Eight unknowing "ambassadors" of the world's most populated country on board with us. They are heading home to Manchuria, about 700 miles away. We're heading to the Russian border city of Chita. But we're all sharing the same minibus. Maybe because we too are foreigners.

This trip is going to be interesting. The young Russian who places himself behind the wheel of the minibus greets the Chinese passengers by shouting at them. The first of the Chinese people to speak to us says that Ulan-Ude, the southern Russian city we are just leaving, "isn't that great."

An hour into the journey we cross a beautiful steppe at sunset. The vehicle suddenly pulls off on the side of the road. One of the minibus' tires has just burst. As our driver quickly changes the tire, the passengers watch his every move. We get back on the road but soon stop again, this time at a gas station. Soon after we stop a third time, at a roadside restaurant to have a hot meal. In the parking lot, one of the Chinese passengers bursts out angrily: "We pull over too often." 

He's right. The young Russian drives too fast and takes too many breaks. At 5 a.m., while he is out eating without having warned the passengers beforehand, a young Chinese man takes out his walkman and plays one of his country's songs on a pair of portable speakers. The melodious female voice contrasts with the drum-based Russian music usually played on the minibus. When the driver returns, before starting the engine, he turns up the volume of his radio in order to drown out the Chinese song.

We enter the city of Chita under the dawn fog. Once the final destination is reached, the driver climbs on the roof of the vehicle and begins to throw down his passengers' luggage. The Chinese passengers remain undisturbed and immediately form a human chain to catch their bags and pass them to their respective owners.

Language as sign of times

Lina Razumova, a French teacher, welcomes us into the College of Foreign Languages at the University of Chita. She shows us around. The place is dark at this time of year because of the summer holidays. The English, French and German lessons are all given on the ground floor. The first floor is entirely dedicated to teaching Chinese.

"Look," says Lina, "you have pictures of China everywhere here." She says it surprised her a bit at first, but now she's used to seeing the images. "There wasn't much we could do about it. More and more young Russian people from around here think China holds a future for them," says Lina. "Why would they spend all their money to go to France to study a language that for them, belongs to the past?"

Lina knows China quite well, especially the border city of Manzhuli, which she visited several times. "In 1990, in [Manzhuli], Russians used to sell households appliances and buy a few clothes. Today, they sell nearly nothing and buy everything, even computers and television sets."

We speak with one of Lina's colleagues, Oleg Terechin, who admits that "yes, he fears Chinese expansionism." On Chinese maps, borders have been redrawn to now include Russia's Baikal Lake.  Sometimes they show Chinese territory as extending all the way to the Ural Mountains. "They will come and settle in our country without declaring war on us," says Oleg. "They will slowly infiltrate. There are more than a billion of them and they are smart. "

Lina says her colleague is going too far, and that Russia is a strong enough country to defend its own interests. But Oleg will hear none of it. Upon leaving us, he reveals that he did his national service as a border police officer back in the mid 1970s. At the time, Russia and China were locked in a bitter dispute over the Amur River, also known as the Heilong.

"I spent two years being afraid the Chinese army would jump out at us," he remembers. "Fortunately, nothing happened"

Read the original article in French

Photo - dobbs383