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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