A view of the Baikal lake taken 11 December 2000 from the village of Listvyanka, 70 km from Siberian city of Irkutsk. Buryat ethnic Mongols settled the shores of Siberia's Lake Baikal long before the 13th-century conquests of Genghis Khan, and centuries ahead of the Russian fur traders who arrived in the 1640s. / AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV
The town of Listvyanka on Lake Baikal in winter. The town is popular with Chinese tourists and property investors © AFP

A sleepy tourist town on the shores of Siberia’s Lake Baikal has become an unlikely lightning rod among Russian nationalists after Chinese investors bought up properties on the town’s lakefront.

Russian newspapers have inflamed public opinion over the town of Listvyanka, running headlines about a Chinese “invasion”, “conquest” and even China’s “yoke” — a reference to the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages.

An online petition with 55,000 signatures (Listvyanka has a population of less than 2,000) claims that Beijing is seeking to transform the area into a Chinese province, and asks Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to ban land sales to the Chinese there.

The petition has received wide coverage in newspapers including Moskovsky Komsomolets, a national tabloid.

“The people are in a panic! The authorities are inactive, but if this situation will not change, we will continue to lose our underbelly! Our property!” reads the petition on the website Change.org published by Yulia Ivanets, who is identified by her page on Russian social media site Vkontakte as being from the neighbouring town of Angarsk. “We have let the goat into the garden,” she wrote. Ms Ivanets did not respond to emails and messages on social media.

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The message fuels familiar Russian fears about its more prosperous and populous neighbour — the sparsely populated and economically undeveloped eastern third of Russia is seen as vulnerable to large scale Chinese immigration.

But these local tensions are at odds with the diplomatic efforts of both countries’ leaders, and threaten to frustrate grand designs of a budding Russian-Chinese pseudo-alliance. 

The two countries have a “comprehensive strategic partnership of co-ordination [that] has continuously been running at a high level over the past year”, said Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, during a visit to Moscow last month.

Russia needs investment by China to help its economy, which has been hit by western sanctions in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, China has made a priority of investing in Russia and other Eurasian countries as part of its Belt and Road strategy of building infrastructure across the region.

But at a local level, mutual mistrust and cultural insensitivity threaten to undo the careful diplomatic work of both countries’ leaders.

Viktor Sin’kov, head of the legal department in Listvyanka’s municipal government, said Chinese property development in the town had angered residents.

“People really are worried about the Chinese buying everything here. They build huge hotels. They tear down and change the façades,” he said. “Their advertisements are everywhere, hanging from fences.”

An online petition against perceived efforts to turn the area into a Chinese province

While Ms Ivanets’ petition claimed that 10 per cent of the town’s prime real estate had been bought by Chinese developers, Mr Sin’kov said: “Ten per cent is an exaggeration. It’s a lot less than that.”

But he said that Chinese tour groups made a point of telling visitors that Lake Baikal — the world’s deepest freshwater lake — was part of China during the Tang and Han dynasties. “People here say this means they want it back,” said Mr Sin’kov.

Indeed, Chinese tourism websites claim that Lake Baikal was once part of China.

Cassia, a Chinese travel agency, advertised trips to Lake Baikal recalling its Chinese past: “It was called the Northern Sea during the Han Dynasty . . . it had been China’s territory for a long time in history.”

Chinese tourists report a largely friendly reception by their Russian hosts, especially in winter — traditionally the low season in Siberian tourism.

Shen Zhefan, a video producer from Shanghai, travelled to Lake Baikal last month, anxious to see the famous frozen lake and wide expanses of snow. He said that he had encountered no hostility. “When I was there, almost all the tourists were Chinese,” he said.

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