Sino-Russian Arctic expedition

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.

Yakutsk bridge: Sinohydro to study Lena ice drift

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.

Tempus fugit: Jahresrückblick 2015

Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve been up to in the last twelve months.

Greenland

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

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.

Iceland

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.

Norway

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.

Chinese media

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.

Languages

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.

CRI gets new Siberian partner

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).

Chinese-Russian ‘intergovernmental commission’ to discuss Yakutsk bridge: Russian sources

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.

near-Arctic gambling: Russia’s largest casino opens near Vladivostok, most customers Chinese

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).