Chinese contracts put media in a tizzy

At the beginning of this week, Russian business daily Vedomosti published an article that outlined a set of agreements to be signed by Russian and Chinese Prime Ministers during Vladimir Putin’s visit to China.

On Tuesday, after the agreements were successfully signed, the daily ran an article trying to defuse what they called “a number of panicked replies” – media opinions that claimed that Russia was turning into China’s resource base, or even a colony.

This was not the first time the Russian media has spread such panic, but before the reports of Chinese threat have not yet made it to front pages of conventional media and officials so far have not commented on the subject. Thus, it is important to understand how the second article appeared in Vedomosti and what the real attitude to possible Chinese expansion is in Russian society and media.

The article in question dealt with the reaction to the published program of economic cooperation between Russian and China. Vedomosti editors partially admitted the threat when they wrote that the question of whether Russia would “sell Siberia to China” or “use Chinese investments and workforce for the benefit of Russian economy” depends on the will of the Russian government.

The program deals with 205 joint projects on Russian territory near the Chinese border. The Russian side provides the mineral mining, and the Chinese side provides processing enterprises manned by Chinese workers and often stationed on Chinese territory. The report caused a number of Russian news sites and blogs on the internet to report about the Chinese threat and recalled other deals with China, such as the transfer of several tiny islands in the Amur River delta in 2004.

Thus, the whole topic of an encroaching Chinese threat is not new. But, despite existing for many years, it has not drawn much attention from authorities, opposition politicians both of right and left wing or even the conventional media. Nevertheless, the reports regularly appear on the same obscure websites. What can be behind these relentless attempts?

The direct approach yields no results. As with many media outlets in Russia the websites and news agencies do not disclose information about their founders and sponsors. However, the fact that the Chinese threat reports do not touch upon any particular players or interests inside Russia is itself interesting. RT’s sources in the PR industry said that, while the origin of the rumors was not clear, the agencies that spread it were not working for any particular client and rather maintaining their own reputation.

When viewed from this angle, the situation becomes clearer. While being a very promising topic for creating a scandal, the “Chinese threat” issue is unlikely to create any problems for anyone inside the country. Moreover, as Chinese businessmen and officials are not hiring Russian PR specialists, the scandal is unlikely to backfire from this direction.

The fact that the authorities choose not to react is also indicative. In case the Chinese threat was real in any way, it would be important either to take steps against it, or at least to calm down the public opinion. We see neither. The opposition also has not played the Chinese threat card yet, at least those parties who have seats in parliament, or those who had them before.

This happens because the concept can hardly stand any criticism. As it was pointed out in the Vedomosti article, the Russian Far East lacks both the infrastructure and human resources, while the Russian economy needs investment. China is ready to provide money, manpower and enterprises, while in return the Chinese can get only resources and probably preferences in pricing – under Russian law foreign partners in joint ventures have very little rights and cannot get control, especially in strategically important branches of economy. And lastly, China has problems in developing its own Northern territories, so it is really too early to talk about Westward expansion.

Unless, of course, the reason for the discussion is discussion itself, as it happens to be in the recent case.

Kirill Bessonov, RT