SCMP Saturday, July 21, 2001
Putin fears southern discomfort
When Vladimir Putin and President Jiang Zemin signed their "friendship and co-operation" treaty this week in the Kremlin's gilded Marble Hall, the Russian President might have been motivated in part by a quite different emotion: fear of Chinese invasion.
Not fear that the People's Liberation Army will someday storm across the frontier to reclaim land many Chinese still believe is rightfully theirs, despite all those "unequal treaties" signed long ago with the tsars. That prospect is highly unlikely. Instead, it would have been fear of invasion by seepage, of Chinese settlers and traders moving steadily into a depopulated hinterland as Russian residents decamp for the more congenial European parts of their vast nation.
The explanations lie more in demographics than politics. Crowded China's population rises by some 25 million per year, but Russia's population is in long-term decline - by nearly one million annually, with the rate increasing. This happens as more Russians flee the northern and eastern extremes of their country. Those rugged spaces no longer enjoy huge Soviet-era subsidies, making life increasingly harsh for those left behind.
"If demography is said to be destiny, the destiny of Russia for the next 50 years or more is appalling," says Murray Feshbach, an expert on Russian population trends at Washington's Georgetown University. From Mr Putin's Kremlin perspective, the outlook must be grim. His goals, in the words of CIA director George Tenet, include restoring "some aspects of the Soviet past status as a great power, strong central authority, and a stable and predictable society". But working against him are demography, history and economics.
Mr Putin presides over a nation with more real estate - and perhaps more natural resources - than any other, but with steadily fewer people to occupy and develop it. Public health is in a parlous state, with a decreasing percentage of the population in their most-productive years: by 2050, those aged from 15 to 59 might be only half of today's total. This cannot be reversed in the short term, and that has grave implications for the economy. Some experts call Russia's condition terminal.
The causes are well known, with the effects accumulating rapidly. For example, the average Russian drinks 14 or 15 litres of alcohol annually, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) says major health problems arise at the eight-litre level. Medical authorities say heavy smoking among Russians means 20 to 30 per cent of all deaths come from heart disease or cancer. Drug-resistant tuberculosis has reached 76 cases per 100,000 people; WHO calls the 40-case rate an epidemic. Aids is spreading rapidly. Toxic chemicals and other deadly pollutants kill many thousands each year.
Yet the country's resource-starved health system ranks only 130th (of 191) in terms of effectiveness, according to a WHO survey. The average Russian male's life expectancy has fallen below 60 years, down from nearly 65 in the mid-1960s. Women do not live as long as they used to, and the fertility rate has dropped to 1.14 children per woman, about half the population-replacement rate.
All this produces some grim projections for this proud nation of 146 million. By 2015, the population will drop to 134 million, according to Yury Shevchenko, a former Russian health minister. A recent United Nations study predicted it would fall further, to 104 million, by 2050 - putting it below 16 other nations, including Vietnam and Iran. But the more pessimistic Mr Feshbach (and some Russian colleagues) believe the total might actually be only 80 to 100 million in 2050, about the same as today's Germany.
"This cloud has no silver lining," Mr Shevchenko has said.
The problem of overall population decline is aggravated by internal migration. In Soviet days, vast sums were spent to make life tolerable in the far north and east; in effect, islands of civilisation were created and subsidised to keep settlers in place and productive. But Moscow can no longer foot these bills, the existing infrastructure is crumbling, and people are leaving. This creates a vacuum for Chinese migrants to fill, and it creates political worries. Last December, a report by two United States intelligence agencies concluded: "In the increasingly depopulated Far East, Moscow's concern about the security implications of Chinese immigration will heighten".
History complicates things, for China has long claimed much of this space. Back in the early Qing dynasty, its armies battled Russian troops for control of such fortified stockades as Albazin. A major border war threatened twice in 1969, and years later, visitors to northeast China still saw propaganda posters warning against the northern "Polar Bear". Nineteenth-century treaties resolved many border disputes in Moscow's favour, creating a lingering resentment. Despite their new treaty and some recent negotiating, Mr Putin and Mr Jiang were unable to settle remaining border issues this week.
Thus the Chinese urge to migrate north is an old one, and modern economics feeds it. Countless migrants cross the border daily in search of jobs or trade, with many staying, legally or otherwise. Like migrants elsewhere, Russia's new ethnic-Chinese residents are both welcomed and feared. Moscow is clearly concerned these regions will become de facto Chinese territory even if official frontiers never change.
The worst might never happen, of course. A Russian economic revival - which might have begun - could moderate the more dire forecasts, letting higher living standards reduce health and poverty problems. Likewise, better social-welfare programmes, such as reform of the antiquated medical system, would help.
So far, however, Mr Putin has not tackled these issues seriously, partly for lack of funds. The US intelligence study said Moscow "does have the capability, if not yet the demonstrated determination, to reverse or slow negative trends". But the study also concluded that making a major difference will take at least 20 years, even if timely action begins soon.
Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, has warned that "between 1950 and 2000, Moscow moved out from the centre of the global stage toward its edge. Russia's adverse population prospects will hardly aid the Kremlin's ongoing campaign against geopolitical irrelevance".
In brief, as Mr Putin sipped champagne with Mr Jiang the other day, he had a great deal to worry about.
Robert Keatley is the South China Morning Post's Editorial Adviser.