As Chinese Flock to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, Local Russians Growl


LISTVYANKA, Russia — When Andrei Sukhanov saw that the Chinese-owned hotel rising next door was about to obstruct the sweeping view of Lake Baikal from his small, rustic motel, he steeled himself with a shot of vodka, grabbed his chain saw and chopped down eight wooden pillars buttressing the construction.

Nothing fell down, and far from being condemned, Mr. Sukhanov was treated as a hero for standing up to the Chinese, whose expanding presence around Lake Baikal is the source of deep resentment. His actions have become a rallying cry amid a growing stream of petitions, protests and court cases aimed at blocking the Chinese around the lake and surrounding areas.

“If we let them, the Chinese will take over,” said Mr. Sukhanov, 57, who fled St. Petersburg decades ago for a bucolic life by the Siberian lake, the world’s largest, deepest body of fresh water. “They will just steal all the money and the local people will get nothing.”

President Vladimir V. Putin pivoted toward China five years ago, after the annexation of Crimea soured relations with the West. China became Russia’s new best friend, allied through trade, diplomacy and even military cooperation to counter American influence globally.

The Chinese stand accused of not only running roughshod over local residents, but also of trying to siphon off the water itself.

This winter, the construction of a new bottling plant to export water to China from a village near Listvyanka prompted more than 1.1 million Russians nationwide to sign an online petition denouncing it.

A district court in Irkutsk cited environmental concerns in halting the construction of the plant in March.

What may rankle the most, local people say, is that the Chinese are not paying business taxes.

“They do not pay us a kopeck,” Mr. Sukhanov growled. “If they paid the 20 percent required to the local budget, we would get the infrastructure and the schools that we need.”

Caught in the middle between the Chinese business interests and local residents is Aleksandr A. Shamsudinov, the mayor of Listvyanka, population 2,122.

The influx revived Karl Marx Street, Irkutsk’s once-derelict main shopping thoroughfare, where one jeweler is selling a gold and amber necklace for more than $6,500. A sign in Chinese promises a gift to anyone who spends more than $1,200.

The Chinese tourists themselves, mostly oblivious to the grumblings, delight in Lake Baikal.

Recently, a honeymooning couple from southern China, snacking on lake fish bought at a small outdoor market, happily declared that they had never felt so cold.

Asked why they came, the couple used a smartphone to play a hit Chinese pop song “On the Shore of Lake Baikal,” about taking your love to the lake. It has inspired countless visits.

A Chinese-born businessman, Alexei Dzhao, 37, and a Russian citizen, sings a different tune.

Last year he built two large houses in the woods above Listvyanka. His Baikal Seal Guest House was originally meant to be a private home, he said.

It is a pleasant complex with whimsical birdhouses nailed to the surrounding trees and cozy, pine-lined rooms.

Mr. Dzhao said he would do anything to legalize the place, but his building permit was revoked and he expects a demolition order. Many Chinese owners are hoping to sell before the bulldozers arrive.

“Things are not calm in Listvyanka,” said Mr. Dzhao, who plans to move to Moscow. “There is all this nationalistic tension.”



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