A report from the borderlands, where a shared cynicism is binding two countries closer
Print edition | China
Dec 6th 2018
The high speed train from Changchun to Vladivostok would be a fine symbol of Sino-Russian friendship, if someone would finish it. The line’s Chinese leg is a modern marvel: a silk-smooth ride through a blur of birch trees and red-roofed farms. Then the line ends at buffers in Hunchun, a border city near Russia.
At first Hunchun’s residents are wary of discussing why their home town—a drab but friendly city of fewer than 230,000 people—is the terminus of a high-speed rail line from Changchun, the nearest provincial capital. The line, which cost 42bn yuan ($6bn), opened in 2015. Public records show that the surrounding province, Jilin, invited Russia to help lay the track as far as Vladivostok, the Russian Far East’s largest port. Russian selfishness scotched that plan, Hunchun’s residents mutter. “Russia said, ‘If you want it, you can build it,’” alleges a Chinese business owner. It will take 20 years for high-speed trains to cross that border, he sniffs.
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Hunchun is a good place to hear how ordinary Chinese and Russians talk about each other, even in a city where they meet every day. Russian signs hang in shops and hotels. City clinics profit from Siberian medical tourists (Russian teeth are “not so good”, says a dentist, delicately). Local seafood-importers turned to Russian suppliers after un nuclear sanctions limited Chinese access to North Korean crabs. But suspicions lurk. Lang Yulin, a seafood dealer, blames Russian bureaucracy for the five days it takes goods to reach Hunchun from Vladivostok, 300km away by road. Worse, Russian partners will never work late or at weekends “no matter the financial hit”, he grumbles.
There is a patriotic edge to Hunchun’s main tourist site, an hour’s drive away at Fangchuan. It marks a three-way border with North Korea and Russia created in 1860 when tsarist forces took advantage of imperial China’s weakness and swiped a swathe of coastal land, leaving Jilin province landlocked and the sea a tantalising 15km away. That would never happen now, ventures a tourist from Sichuan province: “China is a strong country.”
Economic ties between the two neighbours have long been disappointing. Despite growing exports of Russian natural gas, timber and other commodities to China, trade lags behind targets set by national leaders, says Xing Guangcheng of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government research institute.
Mutual coolness explains some of this slow growth. Mr Xing has devoted his working life to studying Russia. Still, when asked to explain trade volumes, he unhesitatingly contrasts the work ethic in China, a crowded, hyper-competitive country lacking in natural resources, with the languid pace of life in Russia, a country blessed with land and mineral riches to spare. He describes scenes of bafflement when Chinese farmers rent land in the Russian Far East, rising before dawn and working until after dark. When they pause for swift lunches in the fields, Mr Xing says, Russians circle them and stare, asking, “Why do you work so hard?” For their part, Siberian farmers think Chinese farmers use too many chemicals.
One barrier to co-operation used to involve fears about Chinese migrants overrunning the Far East, where just 6m Russians live. In the 1990s nationalist politicians lobbied against visa-free entry for Chinese citizens, thundering about Chinese men taking Russian wives. Fears were eased by a Russian government study, some four years ago, that found 600,000 Chinese living in Russia, mostly in the European west, rather than the millions commonly supposed. Still, the public is easily inflamed. Recently, Russian newspapers have fulminated against Chinese firms logging Siberian forests.
Russian elites long viewed China with racially tinged scorn, says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. He recalls a Russian official, just before the financial crisis in 2009, scoffing at China’s supposed modernity, calling it a Potemkin village whose big gdp reflected “millions of poor people who will work for a bowl of rice”.
Such rudeness leads Westerners to doubt whether the two countries can grow very close. “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China,” America’s defence secretary, James Mattis, said in September. Wiser Chinese and Russian heads argue that ties are stronger because they are based on coldly calculated interests. In Soviet times, China signed deals as a junior partner, says Mr Xing. Today logic dictates whether Sino-Russian projects happen because relations are more normal, he suggests: build a fast train to sparsely peopled Siberia and who would take it?
Hunchun may be a fine place to see how underwhelming Sino-Russian friendship can be at ground level. But with the right catalysts, state-to-state relations deepen fast. That has been especially evident since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea provoked Western sanctions that left the Kremlin turning to China in search of capital, technology and markets, says Mr Gabuev. In September 3,200 Chinese troops trained alongside 300,000 Russians in eastern Siberia: a remarkable show of trust between countries that fought a border war in 1969. Russian arms sales to China had slowed in 2005 after spy scandals, including China’s theft of designs for a Russian fighter jet. They are booming now. A rising China will soon not need imported weapons, so Russian arms-makers are rushing to cash in. China does not want a military alliance—it views Russia as alarmingly hot-headed. But the pair work at the un to promote a worldview that puts sovereignty and iron-fisted order ahead of universal rights. China copied Russia’s law curbing foreign non-governmental organisations. Russian spooks are fascinated by Chinese surveillance technology.
Chinese and Russians still view each other with striking cynicism: just ask residents of Hunchun about trains to nowhere. But a shared cynicism about the world unites their governments—and survives the complicating factor of an amoral American president. For some neighbours, friendship is not the point.
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "What’s love got to do with it?"