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Russia Sees Chinese Tourist-Traders

July 16, 2000

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (AP) _ Like most of the Chinese tourists who pour across the border every day, Piao Ming Yu would be hard-pressed to name any of the sights in Vladivostok.

As soon as she arrives in the Far East city, Piao takes up her post behind a market stand, selling cheap denim dresses from her homeland, even though the Russian stamp in her passport says she’s a tourist.

The 45-year-old doesn’t come to Vladivostok to relax. She’s here to make a living.

``It’s hard to find a job in China,″ Piao says through a translator. ``And trade here is better than at home.″

According to the Federal Migration Service, Chinese make up the biggest group of foreign citizens in Russia, though no numbers are available because, in part, many enter the country illegally. Most of the Chinese are concentrated in Far East cities like Vladivostok, 4,000 miles east of Moscow.

On any given day, about 30,000 Chinese tourists are in Russia’s Far East, the migration service said. In Ussuriysk, just north of Vladivostok, they’ve congregated in a small Chinatown, with its own hotels, casinos, and restaurants.

Russian officials complain that while the Chinese are engaged in successful trade in Russia, none of their profits find their way into the local economy. Instead, they say, the money ends up back in China.

``Such economic expansion is observed throughout the entire Russian Far East,″ said Sergei Pushkaryov, chief of the region’s migration service branch. ``All the profit is theirs.″

Besides selling cheap clothing, toys and other consumer goods, Chinese tourists are increasingly involved in illegal timber and scrap metal exports through elaborate trading networks, said Pavel Gladkikh, a migration service official.

He said that Chinese businessmen hire unemployed countrymen and send them to Russia as tourists. Afterward, they ship containers of goods for the tourists to sell on the Russian markets.

Receipts from the sales go to firms that the same businessmen establish in Russia. The money is then used to buy timber and scrap metal. They then create Russian shell companies to send the shipments across the border to China.

The shell companies then dissolve before it’s time to pay Russian taxes, Gladkikh said.

Eighty percent of the 80,000 Chinese who entered and left Russia legally since the start of 1999 make a living in such schemes, migration officials said.

Chinese tourists also repair shoes, work at construction sites, farms, and restaurants and camp out to pick ferns and ginseng or hunt frogs.

``A group of tourists comes in and goes straight to a construction site,″ Pushkaryov said. ``It leaves 30 days later and another group comes in to replace it.″

The migration service says that the Russian Far East has also become a magnet for Chinese trying to reach the West. In 1997, border guards nabbed 18 would-be migrants hidden behind crates of goods at a checkpoint, Pushkaryov said.

``I can assure you that there are groups here that facilitate relocation,″ he said. ``A (tourist) group comes in and registers at a hotel. The next day it may vanish forever.″

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