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KHABAROVSK (Russia): In one stall of the teeming marketplace, Chinese merchants with chopsticks pick at plastic containers of noodles. Across the way, a gaggle of aging Chinese men hunch over their mah-jongg game. A loudspeaker blares out announcements in Chinese as other Chinese sellers collect wads of rubles for plastic sandals, compact disc players and leopard-print bikinis.

Outside the market’s entrance sits a different group of men who are playing cards and grousing. They are Russians working as gypsy cab drivers — men who once had it better. There is a former engineer, a former teacher and several former military men.

Look at that Chinese with the fancy foreign car, grumbles one, who gives his name only as Sergei. “They’ll take over and invade our country without weapons. Eventually, they will kill us.”

The tense divide between Russia and China is on display every day at the market here in Khabarovsk, the Russian Far East’s capital, which overlooks the picturesque Amur River that for much of its course separates the two giant powers. The “River Love,” as one author called it, in fact bisects a region of hate — or at least suspicion, envy and fear.

The Chinese have been slipping across the border for the last many years. At first, they were a welcome flow of low-wage migrant workers willing to do the menial construction and farming jobs that did not interest Russians in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But as the years wore on, the Chinese began putting down roots here and starting their own businesses. The Russians who once hired them now often find themselves as employees.

Today, according to regional experts, at least 200,000 Chinese live in Russia’s Far East, a region roughly 5,000 miles from Moscow, and many more stay for long stretches of time. They have helped transform the towns along the border in their own image. In Nakhodka, on the Pacific coast, a shopping center built to resemble the Great Wall beckons customers. The Chinese who have settled in Vladivostok, once closed to foreigners as home to the Soviet fleet, have taken to calling the city by its old Chinese name, Haishenwei.

Here in Khabarovsk, nine Chinese restaurants, two Chinese hotels and 300 other Chinese businesses have opened, while ferryboats carry shuttle traders with packs of cheap Chinese consumer goods each day to and from Fuyuan, on the other side of the border.

The demographic arithmetic helps explain the tension. On the Russian side of the border is vast, empty space, rich with natural resources and occupied by a dwindling population of 7 million Russians. On the Chinese side is a bursting-at-the-seams society desperate for breathing space and raw materials to feed its modernizing economy. About 77 million Chinese live in three provinces that border their northern neighbour.

“Nature doesn’t tolerate emptiness,” said Sergei Drozdov, head of passport and visa services in Khabarovsk. “When there’s a full bottle there and it’s empty here, at some point the bottle will burst and spill over to here.”

President Vladimir Putin warned a couple of years ago that if Russians in the Far East did not do more to regenerate their region and economy, they would all be speaking Chinese or some other Asian language. Local officials decry Chinese men marrying Russian women. Some locals suspect the Chinese of poisoning Russian rivers.

“When things don’t work, they all scream, ‘The wolves are coming, the wolves are coming’ — and the wolves are Chinese,” said Chen Gopin, the Chinese consul general in Khabarovsk. “This isn’t even hidden anymore. They all talk about the Chinese expansion.” For the record, he disavowed any aspirations of a Chinese takeover of the Far East as “nonsense.”

Li Tianzeng, 22, who arrived two years ago, complained: “They don’t want to be friends. Why should they be afraid?”

In the face of often open hostility, Chinese as well as the Japanese and South Koreans living here largely stick to themselves. While virtually everyone drives a right-hand-drive Japanese car in the Russian Far East, the streets have fewer Asian faces on them than, say, San Francisco or Seattle. Even on one recent night, when a Japanese bank put on a fireworks display along the riverfront to celebrate the opening of its first branch in Khabarovsk, the crowd was predominantly Russian.

Russians have seen their trade grow with China — exports to China from Khabarovsk alone increased from $82.4 million in 1997 to $628 million last year, according to an official. Yet because the Russian exports consist largely of timber, oil and other raw materials, many Russians fear the Chinese are simply stripping the Russian side of natural resources.

Russians here grow particularly sour as they look across the river and see rapidly developing Chinese cities with gleaming new buildings, radiating the wealth that some Russians are certain China has been stealing from them.

“In the past, Chinese were considered cheap labour and Russian employers tried to get as many of them as they could,” said Alexei Mortsev, 30. Mortsev is a former Russian navy sailor from Fokina, a city between Vladivostok and Nakhodka where submarines were built and that is still closed to outsiders. “Now the Russians are cheaper labour. Russians aren’t owners anymore.”

Lyudmila, 65, a retired teacher, groused about the Chinese as she lugged a couple of sacks of Chinese goods out of the market here. “They’re behaving as masters of the land,” she said. Lyudmila said she was convinced that Khabarovsk’s days as a Russian city were numbered. “Why did we warm up the place for them? They’re building their economy on us.”

And the men who work as gypsy cab drivers continue with their card games and sullen grievances. Slava, who spent 20 years in the Soviet navy and who, like the others, would not give a last name, said it was time to take action. “They have to be kicked out because Russian Ivans should work this land,” he said. If not, he added, “soon we’re going to be refugees.”

Russia and China have a long history of tension along their 2,200-mile border. In the mid-19th century, after hundreds of years of expansion and conflict, Russia secured much of the Far East by treaty with the Chinese emperor and claimed control of the port city of Vladivostok in 1860 as a bulwark against China. In the 1930s, during Joseph Stalin’s rule of terror, the Russians forced out many of the Chinese who had been living alongside Russians for decades.

For a time following the Communist takeover in China in 1949, the two powers enjoyed a closer relationship. But they fell out in the 1960s and fought border clashes. Barbed wire fences went up along the border and Russian guards would smooth out the ground so they would see footprints of intruding Chinese.

Russians have long expressed worry about Chinese designs on their land. Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were both quoted as saying that the Russians took too much territory more than a century ago. Mao reportedly even said Vladivostok and Khabarovsk by right should be Chinese.—Dawn/The LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.