Guest post: An Agricultural Going-Out? The Case of Russia’s Far East

May 31, 2013

This is a guest post by Jiayi Zhou (Institute of Social Studies, The Hague), who has done research on Chinese in the Republic of Georgia and is preparing to write a PhD dissertation on Chinese “land grabs” in the Russian Far East. Her literature survey has come up with some fascinating information on this little-known subject.

Agriculture, though one of the target sectors of China’s Going-Out policy, remains a very small portion of Chinese OFDI (0.82% in 2010) and lacks any macro-level strategy. Amidst concerns over the world-wide “land grabbing”, China’s NDRC has tried to make clear that overseas agricultural projects and land acquisitions are not a part of its national food security strategy. But though China does remain largely food self-sufficient, it has become increasingly dependent on imports of soybean and livestock feed, and still faces pressing challenges of limited water resources, environmental degradation, and urbanization. But currently, according to Remin University’s Zhu Xinkai, agricultural investment abroad reflects more the “individual behavior of enterprises.” Now whether or not they have strong state backing, the presence of Chinese agribusinesses in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America has been keenly noted by western media. Very little attention however has been paid to Russia, a fascinating case which might add much to analysis of the actors, motivations, and character of China’s so-called ‘Agricultural Going-Out’:

Russia borders China’s northeast, has vast amounts arable land lying idle, and is suffering from demographic decline and labor shortages – particularly in Siberia and the Far East. In recent years, Russia has been eager to stimulate foreign investment and agricultural production there, evident at the 2012 APEC summit, which was hosted in Vladivostok, and whose theme Russia chose to be global food security. Russia’s land-demography dilemma is the exact opposite of China’s, where in at least in one small village named Sunrise (太阳升村)in Heilongjiang province, peasants are grumbling about the ‘人多地少 ’  [too many people, not enough land] issue (see full story; Sunrise Village, in Dongning county, has only 1000 mu (67 hectares) of land for over 400 people. According to the source, as of 2011 it had some 50-60 villagers operating farms in Russia and even more going abroad as hired help). Chinese agribusinesses also have similar complaints, constrained as they are by village ownership rights – the Household Responsibility System – from easily acquiring large and contiguous plots of farmland (see Zhang and Donaldson 2010). Such factors can at least partly explain the phenomenon of Chinese agribusinesses, entrepreneurs, and peasants crossing the border into Russia to farm – where land is not only abundant, but also cheap.

Some of the larger-scale Chinese agricultural investment projects in Russia include that of Dongning Huaxin Group, with 40,000 hectares (ha) in Primorsky Krai; branches of the Heilongjiang Land Reclamation Bureau, which had some 80,000 ha in Russia’s Far East at the end of 2011; Baoquanling Far East Group, with over 6000 ha; among others (source).  Dongning Huaxin Group and Beidahuang Group have also collaborated to set up a ‘Friendship Farm’ which hopes to reach 200,000 ha by 2016. Larger businesses usually lease large plots of land (for up to 49-years), often in joint-ventures with Russians, and grow mainly soybean and grains, with some livestock projects as well. Export back to China seems to be the goal, but many of the afore-cited sources mention that due to shipping costs, tariffs, and a general lack of policy support from China, much of the production is still sold on the Russian market (source, source).

Nested within large-scale land deals are also small- and medium-sized enterprises, so-called ‘family farms’ [家庭农场], and individuals who cultivate through sub-leases and contracts. Wutong River Farm, for instance, which had “surplus labor, idle machinery, advanced planting technology – but no more available land on which to plant” signed an land concession agreement with Dongning Huaxin Group in 2010, for 3,000 ha of land near the city of Ussuriysk. There are also even smaller-scale Chinese ‘family farms’ which dot the landscape of Russia’s countryside, many of which operate independently and grow greenhouse vegetables for the local markets. One source even reported that Chinese farmers provide some three-fourths of the local vegetables in Russia’s Amur region.

When and how precisely this “farm panning” [种地捞金] rush began is unclear. One official suggests somewhere around the year 2000 (the first intrepid few from Sunrise Village to go farm in Russia left in 1998). According to the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, the farming boom in Russia is strongly correlated with the rise in the two countries’ cross-border trade (source). No credible statistics about Chinese agricultural activities abroad are collected at the national level, but some local governments have been keeping track: according to what is hopefully a reliable news report published in 2011, Dongning county’s official data showed that locals and locally-based businesses had concessions amounting to over 200,000 ha of land in Russia, with some 160,000 ha actually in development. For some perspective, Dongning county’s own arable land amounts only to some 50,000 ha. The city of Heihe’s data showed that as of 2011, Heihe businesses and persons had contracted some 60,000 ha of Russian land, with 40,000 ha in development.

Situating Chinese agricultural activity in Russia within broader discourses about China’s Going-Out and foreign economic activities, as well as global ‘land-grabbing’, will of course require deeper and more conceptual analysis – but it’s clear that the case of Russia’s Far East has much to add to the debate. Certainly, this is not the caricaturized case of a ‘weak’ state subjugated by a rapacious economically dominant one (a rather unhelpful framework; see Danielle Tan 2012). And it also does not seem that Chinese agricultural investments negatively contribute to local Russian food security or siphon off jobs – in fact, the opposite may be the case (see Anatolii M. Shkurkin 2002). Layered upon this are also Russia’s domestic politics and geopolitical considerations, which have resulted in policies towards Chinese investment and migration that are ’tangled and fickle’ to say the least.  In September 2012, the Minister of Development of Russian Far East Viktor Ishayev outright stated that in the field of agriculture, Russia prefers cooperation with Japan and South Korea to working with China. In 2013, Chinese agricultural workers have also been effectively banned from working in certain areas (the Amur and Krasnoyarsk regions, among others) for use of harmful chemical additives.


Anbound Consulting: Africa will solve China’s problems

March 30, 2013

On 15 January, the Peking consultancy Anbound released a report that argues that a Chinese “Marshall Plan” for Africa would not only solve China’s problems of an industrial transition (by offshoring labour-intensive low-tech industries and by creating markets for outdated products) but also slow the yuan’s inflation by creating a pool of the currency in Africa.

None of the suggestions are original in themselves — nor is the recommendation for China to radically increase funding for research on Africa and exchanges with African NGOS — but Anbound proposes all this under a comprehensive ten-year, $400bn government- financed plan that would help the expansion of Chinese exports and manufacturing. The last of the 12 recommendations is facilitating family migration in both directions: in China, African migrants are to rejuvenate an aging labour force, while in Africa, Chinese are to bring capital, technology, and kn0w-how. The price label, and of course the advocacy of a comprehensive plan that includes migration, is exactly what suspicious Western critics have always feared: a grand Chinese strategy to take over Africa.

I am not sure what Anbound’s standing in China is. It is very unlikely that the government will take their advice, but I would be curious how widely shared such views are in policy circles.

 

 


Chinese Muslim traders in Cairo

January 21, 2013

A short article by Su Junxia and Daniel Krahl recently drew an interesting sketch of Chinese Muslim traders in Egypt. As elsewhere in Africa, Eastern Europe and other low-income countries, there is a fairly large number of Chinese traders in Egypt who sell low-price consumer goods, mostly fashion. According to an earlier report by Heriberto Araujo and Juan Pablo Cardenal, some of them run garment workshops and many sell clothes door-to-door.

But Su and Krahl highlight a population of Chinese businessmen and -women who are Muslim, and many of whom came to Cairo to study Arabic or religion. Yet for most of them, these are not ends but instruments to build business networks and eventually head home: “their first chance to really take part in the Chinese economic miracle.” In other words, their motivations seem no different from their non-Muslim peers. They, too, often find Egyptians “uncivilised”.

This is clearly not an in-depth study, but to the extent that it is correct it is a reminder of the limited ability of transnational networks to erode the power of the national imaginary, in China perhaps more than elsewhere. What I read reminded me of Antonella Diana’s study of the Dai in Sipsongpanna, Yunnan, whose reconnecting with ethnic kin across the border in Laos resulted not in weaker but in stronger identification with the Chinese nation, which seemed by comparison strong, prosperous and modern. Chris Vasantkumar’s work indicates that such reactions are not entirely absent even among Tibetans who move between Tibet and India.


News reports on North Korean workers

December 9, 2012

Stories on foreign labourers — from Vietnam, Burma, and North Korea — have been circulating in Chinese media for some years (see an earlier post here). The news aggregator World-Story has made a compilation of recent media stories, some of them focusing on North Korean workers. This was occasioned by reports in South Korean media suggesting that North Korea was planning to send 120 thousand guest workers to Northeast China before the end of the year. The articles, reprinted in Chinese papers, suggested that these workers, including ICT specialists, had originally worked in South Korean-invested enterprises in the North but lost their jobs after the deterioration of North-South relations.

Global Times writes that a Singapore suit maker has moved its garment factory from Pyongyang (!) to Dandong, on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, where power supply is more stable, but continues to operate with over 400 North Korean workers. A Taiwanese investor based in Shanghai is also planning to open a factory in Dandong and hire North Korean workers. These workers earn around 1,500 yuan a month, compared to between 2,000 and 3,000 for Chinese workers. This figure, however, is a fiction because the workers themselves only get 150 to 200 yuan, while the rest goes to the North Korean government. (Another article, in 中国经济周刊, suggests a less drastic cut of 60%.)  It appears that the workers are mostly women, and according to the article, there are over 20 thousand of them in Dandong.

Although North Korean regulations only permit North Korean citizens to work in North Korean-owned businesses abroad, the article says that some of the workers have trainee visas. Dandong reached an agreement with North Korea that allows the workers to extend their visas without returning to North Korea. The workers are not allowed to leave the premises of the factory or to change employers. According to an article on 经济观察网, Dandong is “in the process of establishing a plan for North Korean labour.”  Two other border cities, Tumen and Hunchun, are said to have plans to bring in 10 to 20 thousand North Korean workers on intern visas, apparently modeled after the Japanese and South Korean systems that also use this euphemistic visa to bring in labourers. In fact, Hunchun apparently signed an agreement back in 2010 for 2,000 North Korean workers, and Tumen has set up a North Korean Industry Park 朝鲜工业园, with the North Korean ministry of trade and a company from Hebei Province as partners. But none of the articles reports any evidence yet of a massive influx of North Korean labour on the scale mentioned in the South Korean reports; in fact, applying for North Korean workers is described as a complicated process that sometimes ends in rejection.

The articles show how, at a time when China does not have a national immigration system, various municipalities are beginning to experiment with their own systems. The regime that seems to be in the making with North Korean workers is an extreme example of the type of exploitative labour migration regimes, in force in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, that deprive workers of most rights while maximizing profits and minimizing the burden on the states involved. It is also another example of the logic of exception, i.e. the suspension of prevailing rules and protections in particular areas, that has been crucial to China’s development since the creation of the Special Economic Zones in the late 1970s.

At the same time, it is clear that as Chinese cities pursue such arrangements, they will be running against central interests. While Dandong hopes to create a new industrial boom on the backs of cheap North Korean workers as industrial wages go up in China, the central government is concerned about the potential for social unrest if there is an impact on Chinese wages or employment.

Finally, just as Aihwa Ong has suggested that the thrifty and self-providing Asian immigrant has become the ideal subject of the American economy, in neoliberal times the North Korean (and the Vietnamese) migrant seems to have become the model worker for China: self-disciplined, well-organised volunteering for overtime without being asked to, doing the work of two Chinese workers — or so the Chinese entrepreneurs cited in the articles say. “Most importantly, they are honest workers who don’t try to bargain,” one said. The idolization of North Korean workers comes at a time when Chinese workers are increasingly prone to strike for better labour conditions and higher wages, not only in China but also abroad. The recent illegal strike by Chinese bus drivers in Singapore for equal pay made headlines as the first in 25 years. In such conflicts, media in China is increasingly likely to take the side of Chinese nationals and demand better protection for them, as in this report on China Radio International.So China is becoming a source both of particularly onerous examples of the “East Asian migration management model” and of challenges to it.


The “Angola model” reaches Europe, finally

June 27, 2011

OK, not quite the “Angola model,” as Hungary has no oil and few minerals. But, after a few tentative infrastructural investments in the poorer parts of Eastern Europe and a recent fiasco in Poland (see News, 14 June 2011), the package approach, in which a slate of agreements on investment and credit are signed at once and which is familiar from Africa, has arrived in the European Union. On 25 June, during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Budapest, Chinese and Hungarian government and corporate officials signed 12 agreements, covering among others

  • investment in railways, a citric acid and a lightbulb factory, and a European  regional support centre for telecom giant Huawei;
  • a “Central European Hungarian-Chinese Trade Logistics and Development Cooperation Zone;”
  • a China Development Bank credit line of 1 bn euro to cover these;
  • a Bank of China credit line of  1.1 bn euro to BorsodChem, a chemical company already majority-owned by a Chinese state enterprise;
  • purchase of Hungarian debt by China (which has already bought Greek and Spanish debt);
  • the establishment of cultural centres in each other’s countries (this is intriguing since China has no cultural centres overseas, apart from Confucius Institutes, which Hungary already has);
  • the setting up of a bilateral trade council (this too is interesting, since to my knowledge China only has multilateral trade bodies, such as with certain African or Pacific countries);
  • and scholarships for 150 Hungarian students to study in China.

This seems to be, as Chinese officials like to say, all-round success for Orbán Viktor, Hungary’s prime minister, who while holding the EU’s rotating presidency likes to talk about how the wind is blowing from the East and berates the IMF. The fact that anti-Communism is central for the legitimizing ideology of Orbán’s party is only ironic at first sight. In fact, both ruling parties use an increasingly hegemonic discourse of national harmony used to justify denying  autonomy to courts and media; feed a discourse of history in which ideological conflicts are erased and great national heroes are presented in a seamless succession; replace legal arguments with moral ones in justifying criminal prosecution or violations of civil rights; rhetorically exclude dissenters from the nation and automatically associate them with foreign interests; and institutionalise nationalist symbols and rituals. Orbán justified the adoption of a new constitution by saying that the old one was not “consistent with the Hungarian spirit.” The legitimacy of both governments rests upon depicting their predecessors and enemies — Communist or anti-Communist — as puppets of alien interests. As the critic Szilágyi Ákos points out, both government boast of their bravery in withstanding the pressures of international capital and international human rights organisations or media.

Indeed, there are reports of Tibetan demonstrators being assaulted by police during Wen’s visit, and other Tibetans who live in Hungary being summoned to the immigration authority without explanation. (If this is true, it could only have happened in direct cooperation with Chinese authorities, since the Hungarian government does not have information on the ethnicity of immigrants.) According to the spokesman of an opposition party, the government also banned a demonstration by Falungong members. (Both Tibetan and Falungong protest is assumed by the Chinese government to be fuelled by interests inimical to China – a view that is akin to that of Gypsy protests in Hungary.) Wresting banners away from demonstrators and using pretexts to make sure potential demonstrators are safely away from the risky sites are methods used by Chinese police, and someone has had to teach the Hungarians these methods. They will come in handy when dealing with their own dissidents.

The fact that Orbán’s party, back in 2006, campaigned against Chinese immigration — despite the fact that there are only 10 to 15 thousand Chinese in Hungary, 80% of Hungarians in surveys consistently express their opposition to their presence — does not matter either, since the Chinese government does not care very much about the fate of its private citizens abroad. On the other hand, the choice of Hungary for the first full-scale Chinese investment package in Europe, in addition to Orbán’s politics and Hungary’s dire finances, probably does have to do with the country’s role as the region’s earliest hub of post-1989 entrepreneurial migration. The new contracts will no doubt energise Hungary’s languishing Chinese businesspeople, who will try to get pieces of the pie.

To quote again from Szilágyi’s vision of a new European “barracks capitalism,” possibly beginning in Hungary: “Democracy and the rule of law will be “tightened” to the extent to which freedom of expression and assembly (…) labour rights (and) civil society hinders the withdrawal of resources, accompanied with banners bearing national slogans, from social welfare systems,” resulting in a “state that commands both labour and capital, and in which both restriction of consumption and restriction of freedom becomes morally condoned, indeed a new national, nay European, ethic.”


How China joined the moral panic about human trafficking

June 27, 2011

World-Story, the news aggregator on China and development issues that is linked to the Chinese NGO Moving Mountains, recently circulated a list of articles that had to do with the trafficking of women, particularly from Southeast Asia to China. Opposing human trafficking is, like terrorism, one of those nice issues that all states can agree on, and the State Council approved a five-year action plan on fighting the trafficking of women and children back in 2007, but it was really last year’s cover story in China Economic Weekly, entitled “Rescuing the Burmese Women,” that marked the entry of Chinese journalism into the global hand-wringing.

The scale of migration of Burmese women (and men) to China seems fairly massive. According to a recent report bythe Palaung Women’s Organization, Stolen Lives: Human Trafficking from Palaung Areas of Burma to China, in one Palaung village, 31% of the population have left, and 70% of those went to China. In Jiegao, a border town, Burmese factory workers are paid around 750 yuan a month (although this information may be outdated), which is double the pay in Burma. In Nongbie village near Ruili, more than half of the wives, including that of the village head, are from Burma, according to a Global Post article. But illegal Burmese migrant workers have been apprehended, and abducted women sold as wives rescued, as far as Shandong (see News, 25 May 2011) and Gansu. Between 2005 and 2009, 835 women have been “rescued,” according to the China Economic Weekly story. In one case, 90 suspects were arrested in a village populated by ethnic Tai, in a border region where, according to one of the accused, “thousands” are in the business of importing brides.

All reports agree that most women who end up in forced marriages or in brothels have been tricked by promises of jobs. In some cases, however, the parents sold them knowingly. Some of the women were “resold” by their husbands, but some were released/expelled by after failing to conceive. All reports also agree that the recruiters are locals, often relatives or acquaintances, and in many cases women (one, in the Palaung report, was a nun).

Where the Chinese articles seem more nuanced is the issue of rescue. While the Global Post, like most Western reports, has little time for ambiguity, both the China Economic Weekly and Lanzhou Chenbao note that while some women have run away and others are grateful to be rescued and swear they will never set foot in China again, yet others — notably those who have had children — are torn but generally choose to stay if they are allowed to, or emphatically refuse to leave altogether.

The Lanzhou paper in particular succeeds in bringing out the complexity of the stories. In this instance, Guan Junming, a Gansu villager who worked, illegally, in the Kokang special region of Burma in 2005 came back with a Burmese wife for whom he only paid a bride price of 20 thousand yuan, compared to the 70-80 thousand that is the going rate in his very poor mountain village (as one peasant quoted in the article says, the poorer the village the higher the bride price, since few women are willing to marry into it). Guan’s fellow villagers implored him to help them get wives from Burma too.  Guan did so in 11 cases, for rates of 28 to 38 thousand yuan, which presumably included some modest profit. In some instances, the bridegrooms-to-be went to Burma with Guan, wishing to follow the proper procedure of xiangqin, visiting the bride’s relatives to ask for her hand. This was the case of Zhao Wenyi (pseudonym), described as an uneducated but good-hearted man. Zhao says he got along well with the chosen bride, introduced to him by two Burmese women, and she showed no opposition to the marriage, although when he asked to visit her family he was told that they live too far away. (The wives do not speak Chinese, suggesting that they aren’t actually from Kokang, which is a Chinese-speaking region.) Guan’s male fellow villagers were so grateful to him that, when he was arrested and tried for trafficking, 80 of them signed a letter to the court affirming his good character.

If bride price and go-betweens are part of custom (some might even say heritage), then where is the crime? The problem is, after Zhao’s bride’s arrival in Gansu, her mood changed: she cried and tried to run away, but was caught and beaten by Zhao; but once she stopped running away he treated her well. Only after a year did she learn enough Chinese to tell Zhao that the Burmese go-betweens had told her Zhao was a very rich man whose household was entirely run by machines, such that she wouldn’t need to work at all; she had only to press a button and a machine would put food in her mouth. Other brides too have tried to run away. Zhao’s wife, Lulu, has reluctantly opted to stay with him, but while her attitude to Zhao is ambivalent, she hates Guan. The reporter notes that, in this aspect, male villagers’ and the Burmese women’s views differ sharply. He adds that villagers must have known the women had been tricked, as several of them tried to run away or cried during the wedding ceremony.

The Gansu story, then, brings to light the difficulties of defining trafficking in both of its key aspects as defined by the UN and international agreements: the economic transaction involved and lack of consent (which, as the story highlights, can change in the course of the events). The preferred solution of the women who have had children, the article says, would be to legalize their status so they could freely move between China and Burma, but the papers they need to register their marriage under Chinese law — even if they were allowed to stay in the country — would be hard for them to obtain.

Further, this article — as well as the other reports — highlights that perpetrators are often ethnic or actual kin of the victims, rather than gangsters from Chinese cities. And finally, it shows the mutual impact of bilateral migrations: it is the appearance of Chinese investors and workers in Burma that created the mass appetite for Burmese brides on the Chinese side and the fantasies of Chinese modernity and wealth on the Burmese side.

 


Chinese workers in Libya

May 7, 2011

Acccording to a feature in Nandu Zhoukan, 36 thousand Chinese workers have been evacuated from Libya with an efficiency that, the paper claims, astounded the world. The largest operation belonged to China State Construction Engineering (CSCE, 中国建筑工程总公司), which alone employed 10 thousand Chinese workers. The paper interviewed an engineer working at a smaller operation, China Transport Construction Group (中国交通建设集团), which employed a total of 5,000 workers in Libya. This engineer, from Henan Province, worked on the real estate project near Benghazi that comprised the construction of 5,000 houses.

At the end of February, armed Libyan rebels assembled in front of the work site and commandeered two trucks. The Chinese workers assembled into units armed with crowbars and bricks; they barricaded the entrance with more trucks and threw stones over the wall. The attackers retreated, but the offices atanother, unguarded work site were looted. The article refers to these Libyans as thugs and provides no political context, but the engineer is quoted as saying that Chinese workers have encountered hostility and have even been thrown stones at before. He attributes this to causing a rise in the price of consumer goods such as cigarettes: the price of Rothmans has doubled since Chinese visitors have been buying them up. The article quotes a Chinese researcher, Liu Zhirong, as saying that the Chinese media’s portrayal of African friendliness towards Chinese is skewed. The reality, it suggests, is more mixed, just as Chinese see Africa in a mixed light (they like that cars let pedestrians cross the road).

The engineer featured in the article makes $1,700 a month, or 3-4 times what he made in China, plus a “substantial” living allowance, and has almost no expenses since accommodation, meals, and transportation are provided by the company. In less than a year in Libya, he has saved over 100 thousand yuan, while his total savings before he left China were just 5,000 yuan. An ordinary construction worker makes 4-5 thousand yuan a month, while a skilled carpenter makes around 10 thousand, or over $1,500.

Workers have 2 days off in a month. At these times, the company sometimes organised a barbecue at a nearby restaurant, a shopping trip to Benghazi, or a trip to the sea. They are not allowed to leave the site on their own — to avoid incidents such as a mass fight between Chinese workers and Algerians in Algiers in 2009. (Another article says that at a work site in Mali,  there is also a sign saying “It is not allowed to become too close to local women.”) 

It is not clear if the reporters, Zhou Peng and Wu Guixia, actualy visited  Africa, or if the article is based on interviews. The fact that Lome, the capital of Togo, is described as being on the Mediterranean coast raises suspicions of the latter.