A few dozen Chinese and Russian scientists are leaving on board the Akademik Lavrentev Академик Лаврентьев for a month-long research expedition, informs China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA, 海洋局). The ship has left from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and will sail all the way to the Barents sea.
Sinohydro (中国水电) will study the Lena river May ice drift in preparation for the design of the Yakutsk bridge, says YakutiaMedia.
The Heilongjiang Economic Daily (黑龙江经济报) reports that Sinohydro has already presented the Russians with a proposal on the “basics” of financing for it. Once meant to be paid for the Russian government, with a degree of Chinese participation in the construction, the bridge is now expected to be built by a Chinese contractor with Chinese financing, to be eventually repaid in instalments, in rubles, after the bridge is finished.
Chinese SOE Sinohydro (中国水电) will propose a “basic financing model” for the construction of a bridge that will join Yakutsk to Russia’s transport network, says RIA quoting the federal road agency (Росавтодор). The proposal should materialise before the end of this month.
More on the Lena bridge project here.
Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve been up to in the last twelve months.
Largely unnoticed by English and Danish-language media, Greenlandic officials visited China during 2015 to discuss not just mining, but also infrastructure projects. Greenland’s coalition agreed soon afterwards on plans to renew existing airports and build new ones, as well as a container port in Nuuk and new hydro-power plants.
Meanwhile, two mining projects which China Nonferrous (中色) has signed (no-strings-attached) agreements to develop and buy into are moving towards getting production permits: GME’s rare earth and uranium Kvanefjeld deposit and Ironbark’s Zn+Pb project at Citronen fjord. If they do go ahead and Nonfezza does get involved, China’s SOE would become (by far) the largest actor in Greenland mining, but it’s too early to toast to that yet (think ore prices, domestic opposition in the case of the uranium project).
For background on Chinese interest in Greenland’s ores, there’s my post from March for the CPI blog. A new post there gave an update as of December, including the remark that the Citronen fjord project could make China Nonferrous (and of course Ironbark) not just the world’s northernmost miner, but their (largely foreign, quite likely Chinese) staff the inhabitants of the northernmost human settlement on dry land at 83°N.
2015 started with news of General Nice (俊安集团) acquiring production rights for the once promising Isua iron ore project. I wrote a long read on that company’s rather peculiar history, including plenty of data you won’t find elsewhere (at least in a Western language). Later updates on General Nice are also worth a look if you follow what is still Greenland’s only Chinese production permit holder.
Russia’s recent ‘pivot’ perhaps could be more adequately described as ‘away from the West’ than ‘to Asia’; admittedly increased cooperation with China in some domains has been overspun, especially by Russian and Chinese state media, to make up for the fact that trade between the two countries, and crucially between Russia and Heilongjiang, has actually gone down rather drastically. But the fact that Russia, and especially the Far East, needs Chinese investment more than ever before, means potential Chinese investors are being offered better conditions by the Russians (and sometimes, indeed, accepting them).
The Sakha Republic (Yakutia), specifically, has been quite active in trying to attract Chinese investment, for projects such as, first of all, the bridge over the Lena in Yakutsk, but also others like the Tirekhtyakh Тирехтях lead mine at 69°N, to mention one nobody else seems to have reported in English. For more, go check my posts on Yakutia.
Meanwhile in Vladivostok, or actually near it, Russia’s largest casino had its grand opening. As it was to be expected, most customers were from Mainland China even before they started advertising there at all.
Other than their projects in Greenland, China Nonferrous also have plans to build an aluminium smelter in Iceland. Their agreement is all non-binding and the plans didn’t look that serious at first, but (again unbeknownst to Western-language media) meetings in China in the last few months suggests they are planning to go ahead with the thing.
In July, car maker Geely 吉利 (Volvo’s parent) agreed to buy a stake in Carbon Recycling International, a methanol fuel producer.
Construction of the joint Chinese Icelandic aurora observatory is, to put it mildly, delayed, but it has finally started and should be working next autumn.
CNOOC (中海油) and local partner Eykon Energy have started exploring for oil in the Icelandic sector of the Jan Mayen area (Drekasvæði).
Ragnar Baldursson, Iceland’s representative at the Wuzhen internet conference last month, had the honour to become the only Western official to be quoted by Chinese media at the event. His comments (actually quite noncommittal) were spun as “high praise” for Xi Jinping’s ‘cyber sovereignty’, freedom-and-order speech.
The Hålogaland bridge in northern Norway is already being built. The contractor for the steelwork is SRBG (四川路桥), a Sichuan SOE that won that tender in rather peculiar ways. Peculiar enough, in fact, that two people ended up in jail in Germany as a result. My modest investigation on the case is still the only English source of information on what’s the first Chinese transport infrastructure project in the Arctic.
Huang Nubo 黄奴般, poet, mountaineer, tycoon, has given up on buying land in Iceland for now. Plans to buy a plot in Norway are stalled as well, allegedly for political reasons.
Spurred by an article on Icelandic media (viz. Stundin) on China Radio International’s outlet targeting that country, I did some research on the state broadcaster’s ambitious network of ‘borrowed boats’, radio stations and news sites in several languages that help disseminate the views of the Chinese state while staying discreet about their status as part of the state media system. An July article of mine for the CPI blog focused on GBTimes, the arm of that network covering includes Northern Europe.
A Reuters report on CRI’s network came out in November. It had more of a US focus, but it did discuss GBTimes as well. I wrote an update a few days after that, including, as is my wont, some previously unpublished information e.g. on CRI’s affiliate in Mongolia.
A couple of weeks ago, CRI got a new partner, this time in Siberia. That partner also has an interesting background, in particular as a defence contractor.
All this reporting wouldn’t be possible without (often rather unrewarding) work on original-language sources, in English and Chinese of course, but also in Russian, Korean, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Mongolian and a few others. Those specifically interested in the linguistic angle might like my recent guest post on the names of the Lena river on Language Log; more than my post, I recommend the comments, where you’ll find remarks by experts in Tungusic and Yukaghir.
China Radio International (CRI) have signed an agreement to have their content broadcast through a regional network of radio stations in Siberia, reports Justrecently channelling CRI themselves. Their new Russian partner, MKR Media, is led by Ivan Polyakov, an Omsk-based businessman who chairs the Russia-Hong Kong Business Association and vice-chairs the Russian-Chinese Business Council (Российско-Китайский Деловой Совет, 俄中双边企业家理事会).
Cooperation between Chinese and Russian media organisations has intensified during 2015, and plans are for it to intensify even more during the next two years, named the “Years of Russian and Chinese Media”. Case in point: the Sino-Russian Media Forum last June in St Petersburg, whose (Chinese) motto was “Joining forces to tell the two countries’ story well” (sounds better in Chinese: 合力讲好两国故事), an elaboration on Xi Jinping’s ‘tell-well‘ catchphrase. Last month, Boris Gryzlov, former Duma speaker and a senior figure in Russia’s ruling party, suggested that the two countries should create an international news agency “tasked with conveying to a broad audience current information matching Moscow and Beijing’s interests.”
CRI has surely plenty to learn from its Russian counterparts. Outlets such as RT and Sputnik News have been, shall we say, more successful in entering the global media ecosystem than CRI’s own network of ‘borrowed boats‘.
CRI’s new Siberian partner, MKR Media, was established last year as the media branch of MKR, one of the largest companies in Omsk oblast. It controls regional TV and radio stations, including Radio Siberia (Радио Сибирь), the sender that has just partnered with CRI to broadcast China-related content and help promote CRI’s “Nihao China” («Здравствуй, Китай» 你好，中国) project. Radio Siberia’s stations cover most of the populated area of the Siberian Federal District, from Tomsk to Chita.
MKR (ОАО «Межгосударственная корпорация развития» or Interstate Corporation for Development) was created with the goal of “developing cooperation in science, industry and high technology between CSTO [aka ‘Tashkent Pact’] countries”. Here’s some information in English: Sputnik on their anti-wiretap system, RT on them sponsoring a Faberge egg exhibition in China, and indeed their own English website. In 2014 MKR bought a majority stake in a company behind the project to build a new airport at Fyodorovka near Omsk, a project now all but dormant.
MKR is (or was until recently) majority-owned by Relero aka the Popov Radio Factory in Omsk (Радиозавод им. А.С. Попова), established in 1948. The Popov Radio Factory is mainly a defence contractor whose products include telecommunication equipment (most recently in use in Russian bases in Abkhazia) and drones (such as the the Iskatel Искатель or ‘seeker’).
Ivan Polyakov led the Popov Radio Factory for years, before handing the reins to his sister a few months ago. He remains at MKR’s helm. Some of his recent activities, including the acquisition of company behind the airport project, the foray into the media industry and indeed the increased participation in contacts with China, have been attributed by local observers to his political ambitions (specifically plans to become mayor of Omsk).
An “intergovernmental commission” including vice-premiers Zhang Gaoli 张高丽 and Igor Shuvalov will look into proposals for Chinese companies to build the long-awaited bridge over the Lena river and join Yakutsk to the Russian transport network. That’s according to a press release from the Yakutian railway company ОАО (behold the nested quotes: ОАО «АК „Железные дороги Якутии“»), jointly owned by the federal and Yakutian governments. This information has been reflected in media reports by Interfax and others, but so far all Chinese reporting is just sourced to Sputnik’s Chinese service.
The information about the remarkably high-level involvement comes in the context of an agreement signed a few days ago in Moscow between the Russian side and Sinohydro (中国水电) and somehow related to the construction of the bridge. Again, this information is still based only on Russian reports, and not of the highest quality (as evidenced by a miscyrillisation of the name of Sinohydro chairman Song Dongsheng 宋东升 in the Interfax story, a sign that suggests reporting involving no Chinese expertise).
I’ve discussed the background of the Lena bridge project in some detail in the past. In a nutshell, long-term interaction between the Sakha Republic (i.e. Yakutia) and Heilongjiang governments, originally mediated by private businesspeople, has led to increasingly concrete plans for Chinese contractors to build the much-needed bridge, but funding from the Russian federal government failed to materialise after Crimea’s accession to the federation reshuffled infrastructure development priorities. While the Yakutians have been actively looking for Moscow and/or the Chinese to finance the bridge, the federal government seems to need some more convincing. For an analysis of how much importance Chinese (and specifically Heilongjiang) government entities are likely to attach to infrastructure development in the Russian Far East, you’ll have to wait for my forthcoming writeup on the topic.
After running for one month on a trial basis, a casino near Vladivostok managed to attract more customers from Mainland China than from anywhere else, despite not having yet advertised there.
Melco Crown, chaired by Lawrence Ho (何猷龙), the son of Macau’s ‘King of Gambling’, have just grand-opened the ‘Tigre de Cristal’ (水晶虎宫殿) casino on Ussuri bay, near Vladivostok. Specifically, it’s in the “Gambling Zone Primorye” being developed on a certain Muravyinaya bay (or cove: бухта Муравьиная; more about the name later). The general area along Ussuri bay is locally popular as a holiday destination. The specific location of the ‘gambling zone’ has not only a bay, but also a small lake and low hills. In short, enviable fengshui.
Possibly even more than the geomantic appeal, the casino’s location near northern China has meant that around 60% of its customers during the trial period after a ‘soft opening’ were Chinese. And that, says Bill Hsu (徐明哲), chairman of Firich Enterprises, a Taiwanese investor in the casino, before even advertising the casino to Mainland customers: they “came on their own.” After such a success, adds Hsu, “adjustments” will be made to the facilities to appeal more specifically to Chinese players. Casinos are illegal in Mainland China.
Gambling holidays, offered to Mainland customers through junket operators, are scheduled to begin next month.
The casino is being described as the largest in Russia.
The location of the casino is literally called ‘Ants’ cove’ in Russian, but I’m not sure the name literally refers to an insect infestation. Another possibility that comes to mind is an allusion to Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, a diplomat who played a major role in acquiring territory for Russia in the Amur basin (and the ‘Amursky’ title for himself). It was Muravyov who signed the Treaty of Aigun with the Qing Empire in 1858, later denounced as an “unequal treaty” (不平等条约). For China, the treaty meant the loss of the lands that now include Vladivostok, but on the positive side it also means Chinese people can now legally gamble there.
The myrmecological toponym is itself rather new. Like many other geographical features in the area, Muravyinaya cove used to be known by a non-Russian, most likely Chinese, name. Toponyms were Russified wholesale in 1972, but some of the old names are still in use by the local population, as well as by Chinese visitors and tourist guides. Gamblers at the Crystal Tiger might prefer to avoid the offending allusion to Count Muravyov and the unequal treaty by calling the bay by its older name, Tavayza Тавайза, etymologised as Chinese Daweizi (大崴子 or 大嵬子).
Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in the Russian Far East, could at last be joined by land to the rest of the country if an agreement is reached with Chinese state investors to build a bridge over the Lena river. Although the project, and a degree of Chinese involvement in it, have existed for quite some time, the likelihood that it will actually be built is increasing as Chinese investors take a more central role and get more favourable conditions from the Russian side.
The bridge project was talked about last week at the event formerly known as the Harbin International Economic and Trade Fair (哈洽会), which Li Keqiang and Medvedev agreed last year to rename the China-Russia Expo (中俄博览会). The name change, fitting to the climate of cooperation between China’s Northeast and Russia’s Far East, implies a change of venue as well. Next year‘s edition will be held in Russia, and the city of Khabarovsk has already come up as a candidate to host it.
Yakutsk was founded in the 17th century on what, from the point of view of today’s existing transport infrastructure, looks like the wrong side of the Lena river. The river can be crossed by ferry in summer, on ice in winter, and not at all the rest of the year. Once on the other bank, things aren’t necessarily easy, but they used to be worse. One option is to drive east through the world’s coldest inhabited area on the road (called the ‘Kolyma road‘ (Колымская трасса)) to Magadan 2000km away. The road in the other direction was once known as one of the world’s scariest, but it has recently been paved. The railway is also about to reach Yakutsk: a line that took nine years to construct now links Nizhny Bestyakh, just opposite Yakutsk across the Lena, to the national network.
The missing link is thus the Lena bridge. It has been planned for years. Funds were earmarked for it, and a tender to build it was won by a Russian consortium (which I understand already included the Chinese contractor as a partner), but then the federal government’s priorities changed, allegedly as a result of Crimea’s accession to the Federation. (One of Crimea’s infrastructure needs is also a bridge, the one over the Kerch Керчь strait, that will link the peninsula to the rest of the country.) The fund reallocation meant the Yakutians would have to wait until 2020.
Yakutian officials haven’t given up though. Yakutia has been quite active in the last couple of years looking for Chinese (as well and Korean and Japanese) investment to develop the region, something I’ve written about on a few occasions. In the Chinese case, most of the exchanges I know about have been facilitated by a few businesspeople with heavyweight SOE contacts (the most visible names can be found in my earlier post on the Yakutsk bridge), and the main state interlocutors have been the Heilongjiang provincial government and a few municipalities.
Chinese interest seemed to have been successfully aroused last July, when representatives from China Railway 24th Bureau (中铁二十四局集团), a subsidiary of the state-owned CRCC (中铁), showed up in Yakutsk to go into the technical nitty-gritty of the project. Even more auspiciously, Russian media quoted Chinese (private) interlocutors as explicitly referring to the possibility of Chinese financing for the project. Although I haven’t read it in so many words in Yakutian sources, Chinese financing is what the promotion activities Yakutian officials have been so busy at recently regarding the bridge project (first at the East Russia Economic Forum (Восточный экономический форум) in Vladivostok, now at the Harbin Expo) are conceivably about, given that a contractor for the actual construction has already been found in the 24th Bureau.
The 24th Bureau (ultimately owned by the central government) is likely going to be involved in the Yakutian project in partnership with the Heilongjiang provincial government, through a jointly owned company such as Zhongtie Longxing (中铁龙兴), that is already active in projects in Siberia. (More details on companies called Longxing, sometimes mistransliterated ‘Lunsin’ from its Palladius Cyrillisation Лунсин, in my previous post on the subject.) It was indeed with the Heilongjiang gov’t that Yakutian officials agreed to form a “work group” on the bridge project, and the same group of Heilongjiang companies is also getting ready to make other investments in Yakutia (notably the Tirekhtyakh Тирехтях lead mine in Ulst-Yansky Усть-Янский district, at around 69°N and just 200km from the Laptev sea).
There’s also talk of favourable conditions being advertised to convince Chinese investors to come over and get the thing built. Aleksey Zagorenko Алексей Загоренко, director of Yakutia’s investment development agency, has said the concession agreement will guarantee the investors “an acceptable level of profitability”. What’s more, unlike in the previous attempt to build the bridge, the contractor will be chosen (or has been all but chosen already) under new fast-track rules that don’t require public tender procedure before awarding them the project.
Certain details about the project remain unclear, such as how much it will cost, who will pay for it, and, crucially, whether it will be a road and railway bridge from the start, or first a road bridge to be later made railway-and-road somehow.
If all goes well and everyone agrees on everything by next year, construction could start in 2017 and finish in 2022 on time to celebrate the centenary of the end of the Yakut Revolt and the establishment of the Yakutian ASSR.
It wouldn’t be the first time Chinese intervention gets such a project done after Russian funding fails to materialise. The rail bridge that will link Tongjiang 同江 in Heilongjiang to Nizhneleninskoye Нижнеленинское in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast across the Amur river, could be finished by early 2017 now that the Chinese companies building the Chinese half (with which they say they’ll be done before the end of the year) have agreed to do the Russian half as well (the Russians hadn’t even started). Auspiciously for the Yakutians, some of the companies involved in the Yakutsk project also have interests in the Amur bridge. Perhaps a bit less auspiciously, the international bridge over the Amur is considerably more important for Chinese economic interests (including, serendipitously enough, for General Nice through IRC) than the Yakutsk bridge, well inside Russia.
Nor would it be the first Chinese-built bridge in the (near-)Arctic. The steelwork for the Hålogaland bridge, near Narvik in northern Norway, is being built by Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (SRBG, 四川路桥). That deal was technically won through a tender, but SRBG’s bid was found to have been prepared in, shall we say, involuntary symbiosis with a better known German company. The case earned the engineer who led SRBG’s winning bid four years in a German jail, but the project went on anyway. (I wrote about the German court case last December. The story has recently reached (paywall) Norwegian local media.)
There’s an old argument over whether Lenin chose his alias after the Lena river. From what I’ve read, he didn’t, since he was already signing ‘Lenin’ years before the Lena Massacre alleged to have motivated the choice of the moniker, and when his earlier Siberian exile was spent near the Yenisei, not the Lena. Whoever came up the modern Chinese name for the river (勒拿) seems to agree with that view: the modern name has nothing Leninist about it (instead it rhymes with the Chinese for ‘Saint Helena’). A more Leninny name (列拿) can be found here and there though. The earliest Chinese name for the river is the one that appears in (at least some) Qing documents, namely 里雅那江 Liyana jiang. That’s a word of some historical significance. The negotiations between the Qing and Russian empires that led to the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 started off with Qing official Langtan 郎坦 announcing his side wanted the border to be as far as the Lena. The Chinese name itself looks like a transcription from a Manchu intermediate form, and it indeed makes sense for the name of the Lena to have entered the Chinese language through a Manchu rendition of the Russian name. Nerchinsk negotiations were carried out in Latin through Jesuit interpreters, and documents were translated into Russian and Manchu. (Manchu was possibly the primary language of several of the Qing representatives, including Songgotu, the leader of the Qing delegation, and indeed Langtan.) The ‘Map of the Nine Rivers of Jilin’ (吉林九河图) used by the Qing side at Nerchinsk has place and river names in Manchu only (as reproduced here on the website of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, unreadable at this resolution though; look for the Lena near the top left corner).
Now you’re waiting for me to say that perhaps Langtan would rejoice at the sight of a Chinese-built bridge over the Liyana, three centuries after he angered the Russians by throwing that name in. But I won’t.
Meetings with Chinese companies at the East Russia Economic Forum (Восточный экономический форум) in Vladivostok have resulted in agreements to build an IT park in Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. There have also been further talks on an oil refinery project said to be backed by CNPC.
The Chinese partner is Huaqing Housing Holdings (华清安居控股有限公司), a developer established by research institute of Tsinghua University (‘Huaqing’ is just ‘Tsinghua’ spelt backwards) and backed by SOEs and state financial institutions. As I’ve been describing in a series of posts during the last few months, Huaqing have been one of the Yakutian government’s main interlocutors in talks on potential Chinese investment in the republic, and Zhu Chunyu 朱春雨, the company’s chairman, is a frequent visitor to Yakutsk.
Huaqing has also signed an agreement to cooperate with Almazergienbank Алмазэргиэнбанк, the largest in Yakutia, which has been increasingly partnering with Japanese and Chinese institutions, including China Construction Bank (建设银行).
A Rostec subsidiary is in talks with Chinese partners to extract rare earth elements in Russia with Chinese technology. Rostec, together with Aleksandr Nesis’ ICT and other investors, own TriArk Mining, with rights over two major sources of rare earth elements: Th+REE monazite concentrate stocked in Krasnoufimsk near Yekaterinburg since the ’40s, and large REE deposits in Tomtor, in the Far Eastern region of Yakutia.