July 25, 2021

Eco-Scandal on Lake Baikal: "Chinese Invasion" or Distraction?

Eco-Scandal on Lake Baikal: "Chinese Invasion" or Distraction?
Dragon statue in Irkutsk, Siberia rezendi, Flickr

The pandemic stopped Chinese tourism to Russia’s Lake Baikal, but the slow reopening of borders begs the question: will they begin to flock to Baikal again? The issue has garnered much press in Russian media over the past five years, including in The Guardian and The New York Times, with special attention to tourism’s environmental impact.

The oldest and deepest lake in the world, Baikal contains more than 20 percent of Earth’s above-ground fresh water. Surrounded by white-capped mountains, it is home to more than 2500 different species, two-thirds of which are unique to the region.

lake baikal ice
Frozen Lake Baikal | Wikimedia Commons

While the nearly pristine ecology of the lake is a rare beauty in our heavily polluted world, a probe into local concerns reveals that responses to the Chinese are more than just environmental; they're also tinged with xenophobia and nationalism.

Some Baikal locals do not censor their bile. “We have to get the Chinese out of here!” Galina Bogdanova, a former councilwoman of the village Kultuk, exclaimed in a report for the Russian language publication Meduza.

Dylan Hebert, who received his master’s degree in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies from Harvard’s Davis Center, confirms that residents of Siberia and the Lake Baikal region see the Chinese as a disruptive foreign presence. While local resentment boils, Hebert believes there are more pressing concerns for Lake Baikal’s ecology.

pedestrian zone irkutsk
Shoppers and pedestrians in Irkutsk | Honza Soukup, Flickr

Hebert lived in Irkutsk, a city on the edge of Lake Baikal, for a total of about two years between 2016 and 2019 as an undergraduate and then a master’s student conducting research on the environmentalism of Lake Baikal in the city’s archives.  His work explored the history of the Baikal region from the Soviet period through Glasnost and into the contemporary period with emphasis on environmentalism and eco-nationalism.

“Baikal became an especially popular tourist destination in 2011 when Li Jiang, one of China’s most popular musicians, wrote a song called ‘On the Coast of Baikal’ after a visit to the lake,” Hebert explained.

baikal town
A view of Lake Baikal | existangst, Flickr.

There are also many Chinese residents of Baikal. “In Irkutsk, the two primary bazaars are named ‘Shanghai Siti’ and ‘Kitai gorod’ [China City]. ‘Shanghaika’ is frequently used in the local vernacular as a substitute for the word ‘bazaar.’”

Russian avowals reveal varying attitudes toward Chinese presence, many of them anxious. “During the Sino-Soviet Border War in the 1970s, many Siberians feared that China would attempt to annex Siberia,” Hebert noted. Others worry that the Chinese will “drain” Baikal.

baikal mount village
   A village on Lake Baikal | 
UnorthodoxY, Flickr

While there are positive dispositions toward the Chinese (many see Chinese as a language of opportunity, and investors as a positive force), disregard for Chinese tourism is pronounced. “People really detest the Chinese tourists there.”

Chinese tourists arrive in caravans of massive coach buses that hold a couple dozen people in each bus. “Wherever they go, the serenity is eliminated by the large groups of loud people,” Hebert said.

According to Hebert, the tourist destinations themselves often operate illegally and “very rarely act in accordance with environmental regulations and this leads to increased pollution… Many of these guesthouses and tourist centers are owned and operated by Chinese businesses or people with close connections to China.”

However, the Chinese tourism industry may not be as severe of an ecological threat as residents of Siberia and Lake Baikal worry. There are only two places that see most of the Chinese tourism: Listvyanka and Olkhon, resort towns where the Chinese “own many hotels and restaurants that cater primarily to Chinese tourists.”

Lake Baikal is massive, Hebert explained, with more water than all the Great Lakes combined. It would take millions and millions of tourists to have much of an impact, which suggests that local angst toward the Chinese might be burgeoning elsewhere.

frozen siberia baikal 1990
Lake Baikal, frozen in 1990 | Jim Linwood, Flickr

Remember those tourist caravans? Most people in the area litter, Hebert said, but because Baikal is viewed as sacred and a symbol of Russian identity, the reaction of locals is different when a Chinese tourist does it. The Russians who adhere to these views want to protect Lake Baikal, and nature more broadly, because it is their homeland. This is an example of eco-nationalism.

Hebert recalls seeing nationalistic messaging while living in Irkutsk. In 2018, he passed a large billboard on the city’s “Lenin Street” that said, “To Save Nature is to Save the Motherland.” He also remembers xenophobic graffiti in broken English in Listviyanka: “foreigners stop kill our lake.”

However, some politicians may have used the controversy of a Chinese-owned Akvasib bottling factory as a political bid for power during a period when elections loomed, ostensibly in the name of environmental protection. Understanding the local resentment toward the Chinese, they used xenophobic bombast as a rallying cry, Irkutsk politician Sergei Bespalov told Meduza reporters: "Both sides — United Russia and the Communists — have used anti-Chinese rhetoric.”

baikal factory
A factory on Lake Baikal | Clay Gilliland, Flickr

Xenophobia, nationalism, and environmental concern in the Baikal region are deeply intertwined.

However, as Hebert sees it, the greatest ecological threat to Baikal is the logging industry. In 2021, Baikal Daily reported that illegal logging has tripled in Russia, and many Siberian regions have become leaders in the ranking of regions with the largest share of illegal timber felling. The Chinese also engage in illegal logging in the Baikal region, and China makes up most of the black-market demand for lumber.

birch trees
A birch forest in Siberia | Tatters ✾, Flickr

Despite its link to the Chinese, logging has not seemed to garner as much attention from local Russian government as Chinese tourism. Rather, high-ranking officials in both China and Russia seek to develop the logging industry in Siberia further.

In 2018, Vita Spivak of Moscow’s Carnegie Center wrote that, since the 2000s, the responsibility for regulating the health of Russian forests has shifted from federal to regional authorities. This means, for example, that “local officials are ready to sign even the most dubious project from an environmental point of view… in order to fulfill the KPI [key performance indicator] to attract Chinese investments to their region.”

baikal distance
White-capped mountains in the distance of Lake Baikal | scjody, Flickr

Spivak also notes that foresters are more frequently ignoring illegal logging, and that customs officials are easily bribed to allow unlawfully harvested trees across the Russian border. Ecologists, however, argue that the main problem is the “consumer attitude” to the forests: the Forestry Code, the legislation that governs forest protection, barely notes reforestation, and treats the taiga as a “deposit of logs.”  At the same time, it is the Chinese business, not the profit-seeking local officials, that draws the ire of Siberians.

Just as the presence of Chinese loggers seems to frustrate local Russians more than the logging industry itself, Hebert believes the Chinese tourism on Lake Baikal is in some ways a distraction from problems in the industries, in particular logging, that do real environmental damage.

portable sauna olkhon
A portable sauna on Olkhon Island | amanderson2, Flickr

The local Russian government does not take much issue with the anti-tourism movement, Hebert believes, because not too many people benefit from tourism. In 2018, Anton Romanov, a former deputy of the state Duma and Irkutsk Oblast Legislative Assembly, complained about the lack of benefit Chinese tourism brings to the community. “Chinese tourists spend hardly a kopeck… due to the fact that they have their own tour operators, hotels, drivers, kitchens, etc.”

bus stop baikal
A bus stop on Lake Baikal | Kyle Taylor, Dream It. Do It, Flickr

The question for Baikal residents now is whether the Chinese tourists will return as before when pandemic restrictions lift, and what is to be done about it.

What it might come down to, like with the logging industry, is profit.

In a June 15, 2021, article written for the paper “Number One” and posted to the site Gazeta RB, journalist Dmitry Rodionov explored the question with Former Khambo Lama (senior lama of a Buddhist monastery in Mongolia) Choy-Dorzhi Budayev.

Budayev explained that the Chinese are attracted to the region because industrial China is polluted, and Baikal “is still one of the cleanest places on earth.” Local Russian firms are also purchasing larger plots of land along the lake that are investments intended for resale. Since Western and European businesses are not investing in the Baikal tourism industry, it stands to reason that “the Chinese will come.”


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