ASPAC Notes: Demographics and States

Historian of Empires Niall Ferguson [via Ralph Luker] recently wrote:

Since 1989, the Russian mortality rate has risen from below 11 per 1,000 to more than 15 per 1,000 – nearly double the American rate. For adult males, the mortality rate is three times higher. Average male life expectancy at birth is below 60, roughly the same as in Bangladesh. A 20-year-old Russian man has a less than 50/50 chance of reaching the age of 65.

Exacerbating the demographic effects of increased mortality has been a steep decline in the fertility rate, from 2.19 births per woman in the mid-1980s to a nadir of 1.17 in 1999. Because of these trends, the United Nations projects that Russia’s population will decline from 146 million in 2000 to 101 million in 2050. By that time the population of Egypt will be larger.

This echoes what Kyle Hatcher told us in his ASPAC paper (panel 1) on Chinese migrants to the Russian Far East (RFE). Like so many nations with declining populations (and the RFE is declining faster, I suspect, than the rest of Russia), immigration could be a key component of economic and social revitalization. But Russia, like so many of the nations struggling with this issue, is unaccustomed to integrating immigrants. Mr. Hatcher’s work involved surveying Russians about their attitudes towards Chinese immigrants, and what he found is not good news.

Russian attitudes towards Chinese immigrants are terrible. They are viewed as untrustworthy, insular and territorially aggressive. They are considered a drain on the economy, taking jobs away from locals and putting very little back into local businesses. Russian immigration laws have been steadily tightening over the last few years, making casual labor migration across the border more difficult (and likely expanding illegal migration). This is fueled in large part, Hatcher found, by a vicious and shameless press, which plays up stories of Chinese crimes, overestimates the numbers of legal and illegal Chinese immigrants, and regularly cites anti-Chinese nationalistic scholars and politicians.

In fact, Chinese work at jobs in the RFE that Russians won’t do, even tough unemployment among ethnic Russians is very high. And Chinese buy most of their goods from Russian-owned businesses who make no effort to cater specifically to Chinese tastes. China has shown little interest in the RFE territory, and even if it had, the numbers of immigrants (at best guess) is well below the levels at which rational observers would consider it a threat of separtism, etc. Chinese immigration offers the RFE’s primary extraction industries (logging, fishing, furs, mining) and decaying mercantile economy their best chance of revitalization, but Chinese are not welcome.

For obvious economic reasons, many Chinese have gone to the RFE (the numbers are in the tens of thousands, at least), but legal and social restrictions make it impossible for the numbers to be large enough to make up Russia’s demographic and economic and institutional weaknesses. The starkly different social and economic conditions on either side of the Russia-China border call the concept of this as a “region” into question; I’ve never entirely bought the argument that Russia was an “Asian Power” just because it had some Pacific Rim beachfront. Interestingly, Chinese labor in the RFE had a “heyday” in the early 20th century, but was pushed out by increasingly nationalistic positions, culminating in the almost total removal of Chinese from the RFE at the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the late ’50s.

Needless to say, Russia’s post-Soviet collapse is of great concern to China (and, as Niall Ferguson points out in the essay cited above, the Chinese model of economic development without political liberalization is very intriguing, if unreachable, to many Russians) and the continuing decline and instability of the northern Pacific region has to be counted as a problem that will have to be addressed at some point in the future.


  1. The Hatcher paper sounds quite interesting. Having not been there I have two questions.

    -Does he do any comparative stuff on how this reaction to Chinese compares to others in Indonesia or wherever, i.e. fitting it into a global (and maybe historical) Yellow Peril context?

    -More interestingly, does he fit it into “Russian” attitudes towards other outsiders? I ask because it reminded me of a story from the early 90’s or so, which I read or heard from a colleague. Some Russian academic/medical types were lamenting the state of post-reform society, and particularly how grubby black marketers with pushcarts were making more money than they were. When the America suggested that they get a pushcart, open a clinic (or, in Chinese terms jump into the sea) they replied “Do we look like Africans or something?” I suspect that the Chinese are getting attached to a lot of anti-commercial attitudes as well as crime and job-taking.

    I realize that these are big questions for a single paper, but I was wondering where he was taking this project.

  2. Mr. Hatcher is a Russia specialist, so the latter would be more likely, but his focus is more on economic development than on attitudes. The paper doesn’t really go much beyond RFE development, and there’s more to do on the basic project — for example, studying the extent to which Russian impressions about the numbers of Chinese in the region are accurate; getting data from Chinese about their attitudes — before it goes to broader questions.

    I agree, though: those are both interesting questions.

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