At a workshop on Law and Finance in Rising Powers, held at the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, Caroline Humphrey, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, and Sayana Namsaraeva, Research Associate Department of Anthropology, University of Cambridge, presented their insights into trade across the Chinese-Russian border. In a podcast interview following the presentation, they give an overview of their research findings.
Summarising her research on ‘Cross-Border E-trade and is Vicissitudes’, Humphrey said:
“My paper was called e-trade between China and Russia and it was about the objective facts of how e-trade is taking place these days. One the one hand it is greatly encouraged and the relationships between China and Russia are getting much closer and this is a lovely high tech thing that could develop but on the other, in practice it has all sorts of problems.
“The problem is the big Chinese internet firms don’t accept payment from Russian banks and cards, and also the cheapest and best sites are in the Chinese language so they need interpreters to find out what the information is on those sites. They use mediators, middle men firms that have mushroomed up in Russia, and that helps them get access to the goods but it means that it is much more expensive for them and rather slow and cumbersome.
“I think there are some perils of trading. There are perils that the goods may be incorrectly described or that they arrive in the wrong quantity, that kind of thing, but there isn’t much come-back for the Russian consumer, the legal situation is not good at all. Deliveries from China to Russia have to go through several complicated ways of crossing the border and they have to pay big customs duties.
“You can send goods back if they are absolutely wrong in relation to what you ordered but if it is a minor issue, or it doesn’t look like it did in the catalogue, you certainly couldn’t. There is a certain amount of muddle, particularly in the Russian postal service that is coping with a gigantic numbers of parcels from all over the place, and things do often seem to get lost in there. Bribery is absolutely very common indeed particularly when crossing the borders.
“At the moment it is a punt if you want to buy something online and whether and how fast that will change is very difficult to say. But it is also exciting, because with the internet you have access to this huge range of goods and almost all of it produced in China.”
Namsaraeva described her work on ‘The Effect of Exchange Rate Changes Post-Ukraine on Trans-border Trade between China and Russia’:
“My research is on women border traders who do regular shuttle trade between Russia and China to buy things cheap and to sell dear on the Russian side.
“I think this kind of shuttle trade is very important for the local economies both for Russia and for China but at the same time, the border economy exists in the shadow economy of both countries.
“Border traders work in the professions in the week, they may be nurses, doctors, teachers but at the weekend they go to China and become shuttle traders to resell it. This is how they survive and how they support their families.
“The younger generation can go online and do this click and delivery thing but the elder generation that is not familiar with the internet still prefer to go to the real shop and touch and feel the real thing.
“Until recently border trade was also associated with tourism from Asia because as well as buying things they also spent quite a lot of time enjoying life in China, going shopping, eating out, visiting parks and saloons, and learning more about Chinese culture.
“Now there is a growing economic disparity between Russia and China, because once the Soviet Union was a very powerful regional super power State, but recently with China’s economic growth, the power balance has changed, and Russia has moved from being an older brother to the position of the younger sister.
“Nowadays people are really in an uncertain financial situation and with the devaluation of the Ruble they can’t plan their futures and because of this 40 per cent devaluation crossing border points are half empty. People need to save money in order to survive.“
More podcasts from the workshop on Law and Finance in Rising Powers,
Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, December 9th 2014