Copyright The Japan Times, May 5, 2006
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — 2006 is the Year of Russia in China; 2007 will
be the Year of China in Russia — if the current friendly relationship
of the leaders of the two countries lasts that long. Friendly relations
are not something that the peoples of the two countries support that
Among the noncultural things that Russian President Vladimir Putin did
in China recently was to sign agreements to build two pipelines to
carry Russian gas to west China. This was just a week before the
Chinese signed an agreement with Turkmenistan for another pipeline to
carry even more gas to west China.
This irked the Russian leaders as they regard the Turkmens as their own
supplier of cheap gas. The contract could have been a slap in the face
to the Russians for continuing to refuse to commit themselves to build
an oil pipeline from Siberia into China as they keep open the option of
supplying Japan instead.
Putin is applying a policy of triangulation between China and Japan,
letting them both think that he will favor them in the final settlement
of the direction of the pipeline. He will have to come off the fence
eventually, but while he continues to sit he is upsetting both
Russia, however, is the major supplier (almost the only supplier) of
military equipment and technology to China. Russia may come to regret
this. Whatever the basis of the love-in between Putin and Chinese
President Jintao, the Russian and Chinese people on the whole hate and
mistrust each other.
The 5 million Russians who live in Russia’s provinces bordering China’s
northeast (population 107 million) are nervous and frightened. The
Treaty of Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation that the two
leaders signed in 2001 and the “final resolution” of the centuries-old
border dispute earlier this year have done nothing to assuage that
hatred and fear. Measures taken by the leaders do not have the support
of either the people of northeast China or the people of Russia’s
Chinese people are taught in school that the Russian provinces on the
other side of the 4300-km border, or Outer Manchuria, are Chinese. They
were “stolen” from China in two unequal treaties that the Russian czar
forced on a weak China in 1858 and 1860 at the beginning of the Hundred
Years of Humiliation. Not only their textbooks but all of their leaders
up to Hu Jintao have told them that these provinces will return to
China one day, just as Hong Kong and Macau did.
The Russians in the southern provinces of Far East Russia also are
angry about the 2001 treaty, and about one in 2006. They believe the
treaties give too much away to the Chinese.
The Chinese are living in the past they say: Territories that the
Russians colonized in the 19th century were of no interest to the
Chinese; the Chinese made no effort to occupy and develop the area,
which only technically came under Chinese sovereignty in another
unequal treaty that the strong Manchu emperor forced upon a weak czar,
with the help of the Jesuits, in 1648.
In the province I am currently visiting, Primorsky Krai, Chinese and
Russians lived in harmony, under conditions set by 19th-century
treaties, until the 1930s. Chinese made up between 30 and 40 percent of
the province’s population. The hostility of Stalinist Russia toward the
Chinese ended this. Today nobody knows how many Chinese are in the
province, but even the wildest estimates give a figure of less than 5
percent. There is marked tension between the two groups.
One of the things I wanted to do while I was here was to cross the
border from Russia into China and back again. Thousands of Russians do
this every day to shop. Consumer goods sourced in this way (duty-free
under a special deal — with limits that Putin has just lowered) and
brought back in thousands of canvas bundles each day make life
tolerable for Russians here, who feel neglected by Putin.
I crossed into China by bus (with my Russian interpreter) without any
trouble. While the Russians stayed on the bus for the first passport
control check, the Chinese were made, very brusquely, to get off. The
inspection took a long time. The problem for me was in coming back —
remember, I look Russian to Chinese.
We bought our tickets for the return journey at the Chinese agency in
Suifenhe, a town that exists only as a giant shopping center for
Russians. Or at least we thought we did. We got on the bus to the
border OK, standing like most of the passengers as most of the seats
were covered by canvas bags.
We went through Chinese border controls (it took a long time for me as
the officers had never seen an EU passport), but when we tried to get
back on the bus we were stopped: Our tickets were counterfeit, we were
told. They did look different from those held by other passengers.
A very noisy black-suited Chinese official kept shouting at us in
Chinese for about an hour, telling us that we could not go anywhere.
After an hour of waiting, he suggested that for a fee of about $ 35 he
could arrange for a Russian minibus to take us to the Russian border
control. We paid up and were taken across.
The people on the bus told us that they are frequently asked to do
this; they do not see anything of the $ 35. Counterfeit tickets are
apparently regularly provided to Russians traveling on their own.
While we were waiting in no man’s land, another Russian was sitting
near us (we never did discover why). We were sat by a large flower pot.
The Chinese guard who was holding our passports was digging in the soil
with a wooden ladle. He suddenly loaded the ladle with soil and pushed
it toward the mouth of the Russian and said “would you like to eat
The hatred between local Chinese and Russians is palpable. Russians are
moving out of this province and others that make up Russia’s Far East
as fast as they can; Chinese are moving in — far more than officially
admitted. Not a basis for long-term tranquillity and happiness.
David Wall is a research associate at the East Asia Institute of the
University of Cambridge and an associate fellow of Chatham House.
DAVID WALL – The Japan Times
Copyright The Japan Times, May 5, 2006