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Riches from Russia with love




On first inspection Sihe looks like a normal village: row upon row of brightly colored houses separated by blue and white fences. The houses are topped by solar panels and the village is surrounded by a sea of fields.
On closer inspection, however, you will notice that the piles of corn that usually adorn front yards in this rural area of Northeast China have been replaced by black sedans, while several homes have installed geothermal heating, which costs at least 100,000 yuan ($15,880).
The village is an oasis of opulence in the impoverished Jilin province countryside - and it is all thanks to Russian consumers.
"Since residents here started going to Russia to work, our lives have changed completely," said Zhao Baoqing, 35, one of the first villagers to head across the border in the early 1990s.
Now, instead of conversations about seeds, fertilizers and harvesting, residents chat about international financial markets and foreign exchange rates.
"I remember when this place was poor, no one wanted our men to marry their daughters - we were ruffians." That is no longer a problem, he said, offering as evidence the fact the village now has 22 Russian brides.
More telling perhaps is that Sihe - population 2,300 - reported an annual per capita income of 200,000 yuan last year and lists among its residents more than 200 millionaires and two billionaires.
Zhao, who now runs two small stores in Moscow selling imported Chinese goods, is one of at least 890 people who have been made rich by business interests in Russia.
The village, 220 kilometers from Changchun, the provincial capital, forms an area that used to rely on coal mining and agriculture as pillar industries. Yet, as resources have diminished, unemployment has risen and the local economy has stuttered.
With job opportunities becoming scarce, more people decided to look abroad.
Making money
Sihe workers first went to Russia in 1993. The initial trip, organized by the labor bureau in nearby Shulan city, simply involved 30 men going to plant vegetables on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk.
Fearing the prices of daily necessities would be expensive, the villagers stocked up on cheap Chinese products before crossing the border. However, they quickly discovered that whatever they did not use could easily be sold.
Coming so soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a large demand among Russians for everyday goods, even at prices several times above the going rate in China.
"That's when we realized there was a real business opportunity," recalled Lu Wenxin, 59, who made the first trip.
News in the village traveled fast, and the next time Lu hit the road he was joined by 35 neighbors. This time, instead of working on a farm, they set up three market stalls and sold Chinese garments.
Despite obvious difficulties, such as the language barrier, most villagers still earned more than they would have toiling in the fields around their homes.
"Life in the village was really miserable and hard back then," said Nie Haitao, who has been doing business in Russia for 19 years. "In 1993, my family of five was making a total of just 4,000 yuan a year from growing corn.
"Although my parents objected, I went to Russia the following year with 600 yuan in my pocket," added the 42-year-old.
Nie's first business was in Chelyabinsk selling bubble gum, which he sold for 2 yuan per piece, roughly 20 times the price he paid. Then, after making a little money, he began to sell sweaters.
Between September and Christmas 1994, he earned more than 10,000 yuan, an astronomical amount for a villager from Northeast China at the time.
Today, he is involved in wholesale jeans in Moscow and said his business is on the up and up.
Trading places
As more followed, the Shulan government established the Russia Labor Export Association to offer advice and guidance to people wanting to work, live or do business in the country.
Jilin shares a 232.7 kilometer border with Russia, which gives it a geographical advantage, while certain regions of Russia have sparse populations and lack strong labor forces.
Today, Sihe residents have businesses across the vast expanse of Russia, from Vladivostok in the east to Novosibirsk in the west.
According to official figures for Xiaocheng, the town that comprises Sihe, more than 90 percent of the 1,964 residents who worked abroad last year went to Russia, with the rest heading to South Korea and Japan. Together they returned with more than 120 million yuan, the local government said.
Many traders from the area have set up shop at a market nicknamed "Shulan Street" in central Moscow.
"My first business in Russia was at Shulan Street," said Zhao Baoqing. "It's safer to be with villagers in an alien country. The people who started doing business there early often helped latecomers.
"It's not easy to do business there, there are often disputes. But we're united when we face problems," he added.
Empty homes
Despite its wealth, Sihe cannot escape the one characteristic that is shared by all rural communities with large migrant workforces: a lack of young men.
Except for during traditional family occasions such as weddings and national holidays, the village is made up largely of women, children and the elderly. On evenings, less than half of its homes show any sign of life.
"Many of those people who earned money from working and trading in Russia moved to cities (in China)," said deputy village head Qiu Tingfa. "I went to Russia for business before, but I couldn't get used to the life there, so I came back. My sisters and brothers are still there, though."
He now runs a large leisure-activity center in Xiaocheng.
"Every spring plowing season, more than half of the people who appear in the fields of Sihe come from other places," he said. "The majority of Sihe's 400 hectares of farmland has been rented out."
Li Shaochun, 39, is among the many villagers who have used the money they have earned in Russia to renovate their properties. After he spent more than 100,000 yuan, his house boasts the latest electronic appliances and is more modern than those in major cities.
Yet, he hardly ever sees it. For this year's Lunar New Year festivities, a traditional time for family reunions, he stayed just five days before heading back to Moscow.
"My wife and son are there (in Russia), and I worry about them," Li said. "The conditions in our Moscow house are very poor. We co-rent with another family six people crowded in an area of 48 square meters.
"Compared with many newcomers, though, we've got it much better. They live in lodging houses where there are 10 people in rooms the size of 10 square meters."
Bring it back
With labor export now a pillar industry for Shulan, officials are attempting to persuade successful traders to invest some of their wealth back into their native communities and help others.
"Sihe's model is not easy to copy," said Dong Yanguang, director of Shulan's employment office. "We need to still encourage labor export, but we also need those who have become rich to come back and spend money here."
The city has introduced several preferential policies to achieve that goal, which had led so far to 767 original inhabitants returning and establishing 563 enterprises. With a combined investment of 600 million yuan, almost 8,000 new jobs have been created.
Yet, it is the success stories of villagers in Russia that are getting more attention from young people, especially in Sihe.
With their options still limited largely to working in fields, cadres expect to see even more pack their bags for trips across the border in coming years.
From togs to dogs, this trader is just glad to be home
Editor's note: Zhou Kexue, 51, is regarded as the richest man in Sihe village, Jilin province.

Before going to Russia, I did field work to make a living. My family owned just 1 hectare of farmland, and after an entire year toiling in the field we made less than 6,000 yuan ($950), far from enough to support a family of five.
We would have done anything to improve our living standards.
So, in 1993, we spent out entire savings 15,000 yuan on jeans and sweaters in Suifenhe, a border city in Heilongjiang province, and headed for Russia.
We couldn't afford to rent a stall anywhere, so we sold from a 4-meter-long plastic sheet on the ground in Chelyabinsk. Just like in China, where there are chengguan (urban management officers), we had to keep moving to dodge the Russian police.
That lasted for about two years. Thanks to the booming Sino-Russian relationship and China's fast growing economy, people were earning a lot of money.
With cash in hand, I rented two market stalls. I also cooperated with a man from Beijing to set up a market for more than 100 stalls, which was filled with Chinese traders and looked like modern-day Shulan Street in Moscow.
At the peak of my business, I not only had several containers stored at a port but also 13 stalls. Most sold slippers I bought from South China's Fujian province.
The golden days did not last long, though. Russia was hard hit by the Southeast Asian economic crisis in 1997, and the rouble quickly depreciated.
I lost two-thirds of my wealth overnight!
In an attempt to change my roubles into dollars, I spent my entire savings on pedigree dogs from Germany. Business was OK, and after two years of that I was left with some money.
The Russian economy gradually recovered, and I restarted my garment business. Since then, things have got better, and I have a steady supply of goods.
Although I had the money, I was careful not to show off in Russia, as it could have brought me a lot of trouble and put me in danger. Instead, I always looked forward to coming home at Spring Festival, as I can spend the money on whatever I want.
The longer I stayed in Russia, though, the more homesick I have become. "East or West, home is best," they say. Only after years of struggling in Russia do I finally truly understand the words.
Compared with the first few years, people are friendlier now, but I've always dreamed of coming back to China one day.
Now I can. I have entrusted my brother-in-law to take care of the business in Russia and have convinced my classmate to invest in a high-end paper factory in Shulan. With a startup of 150 million yuan, the factory can provide more than 200 jobs for local people.
When people ask me the secret of my success my face turns red. All I can say is, "No pain, no gain."
My son is 23 now and wants to go to Russia. If I'm honest, I hope he can establish his own business in our hometown and benefit the local people instead.
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