Photos: Power struggles between dragon and bear on China-Russia border

June 19, 2012Jing Gao2 Comments, , , , , , , , , , ,

Photos from NetEase courtesy of Justin Jin, the photographer of the series


Since the days of the Tsars, China and Russia have been facing off each other along one of the world’s longest borders. In the recent two decades, with the yawning gap between the two economies, the roles that the two sides play have been shifting. To Russians, their ‘neighbor’ China is as much a reliance as is a threat.


The Russian Far East and Siberia have long been the distant and desolate land of the country. It is out of touch with the heartland of Russia both geographically and economically. The picture shows in Mirnaya, a deserted garrison town 160 kilometers away from the Russian-Chinese border, 10-year-old Sergei cycles past a stretch of rubbles. After a border agreement between Russia and China was signed in 2004, Russia pulled its army out of the region, which was a heavy blow to the local economy dependent on the military.


After the political change, Moscow, barely self-sufficient, has little to invest in the vast and sparsely populated land with abundant resources. Weak economic foundation, backward infrastructure, monotonous industrial structure, labor shortage and low-level of openness have hampered the economic development of the Russian Far East. The picture shows in Zabaikalsk, a town on the Russian side of the Russian-Chinese border, a cow looks for food in a pile of rubbish.


The picture shows in the town of Zabaikalsk on the Russian side of the Russian-Chinese border, a woman sits on the roof of a building, overlooking a stretch of land of rundown structures.


In contrast to the other side of the border inhabited by 90 million Chinese, only six million Russians live in the Russian Far East, and the population is decreasing due to low birth rates and the exodus of local residents. In 1987, after years of stalemate between China and Russia, the two country opened up border trade. Swarms of Chinese migrants started to cross the border into Russia to find a new life. The photo shows Chinese migrants working in a market in Khabarovsk.


Chinese migrants wash and shower in the dormitory after returning from work in a market in Khabarovsk. Khabarovsk is the center of the entire Russian Far East. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Khabarovsk has opened up border trade. At first, Chinese migrants came here and peddled cheap products on the streets before they moved into an ad hoc market, which is also an important trading hub and distribution center for Chinese exports.


Booming border trade has spawn numerous millionaires. Chinese business people have also started to dip their toes into other industries and employ local workforce. In the city of Blagoveshchensk on the Russian side of the Russian-Chinese border, Chinese real estate developer Li Lihua is flanked with two Russian engineers who work for her. Because Chinese labor is cheaper and more efficient, many newly constructed buildings in Blagoveshchensk as well as other parts of the Russian Far East were built by Chinese workers hired by Chinese construction companies.


In Khabarovsk, Chinese restaurant owner Qi Ke gives Russian waiters and waitresses a training session in his Chinese restaurant.


The deputy mayor of Zabaikalsk, a town on the Russian side of the Russian-Chinese border, at work in his office. Because Russia’s top decision makers in the Putin administration have been hovering between the East and the West on its foreign policy and view China’s export of labor and capital with much suspicion and caution, its Far East development policy has remained stagnant and backward. But after a shift in Putin’s diplomatic focus in Putin’s second term, Russia began to develop its Far East in prudent cooperation with China. dragonbear10

The global financial crisis in 2009 sped up the strategic cooperation between China and Russia: China’s money and technologies are invested in the Russian Far East in exchange for the energy resources in the region. A train travelling between Zabaikalsk and Manzhouli carrying Russian timber roars across the border into China. Contrasted with the giant border gateway to the Chinese border, the smaller one that belongs to Russia appears so tiny.


Russian timber stacked at a processing plant in Manzhouli, a town thriving on the cross border timber trade. Two thirds of China’s timber are imported from Russia. Each year, 700,000 trucks fully loaded with timber pass through the Russian Chinese border. The legal as well as illegal timber trade is destroying the Siberian coniferous forest. At the current deforestation rate, the majority of the coniferous forest in the region will disappear within 30 years.


Timber alone is far from enough to satisfy China’s appetite. Russia even built a 2,757-km long oil pipeline with funds and labor provided by China and has been transporting its oil nonstop to the energy-hungry Asia. The picture shows that in ‘Little Taiwan’, a Chinese village 20 kilometers away from the Russian border, overexploitation of its coal mines has caused the ground to bulge and crack and made the area too dangerous to live in.


Manzhouli is a business hub for the Chinese-Russian border trade. Before the two country opened up border trade in early 1990s, only less than 10,000 people in Manzhouli. But in the past two decades, the town has grown from a small village to a place inhabited by 300,000 people.


Sanitation workers sweep snow away from in front of the Manzhouli government building. Manzhouli is a boomtown built on the cross border trade.


A couple gets married in a township 50 km from the Russian-Chinese border. Behind them is a vehicle loaded with firework projectors.


Chinese tourists in front of giant Russian Matryoshka dolls in Manzhouli, a boomtown built on the cross border trade.


Cheap Chinese products and services have also attracted many Russians to come for shopping and recreation. The picture shows Dima, a young Russian from Khabarovsk, enjoys a Chinese meal on a boat back to Russia from a shopping spree in Fuyuan in Northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province.


The cross-border trade has also created a new profession in Russia: brokers, who are nicknamed “silk worms” or “camels.” They travel to China several times a month and bring back Chinese cheap goods, such as denim jeans, razors, children’s toys and knock-off sneakers, and charge Russian distributors a commission. The picture shows Russian women from Khabarovsk carry bags of Chinese goods bought during in Fuyuan in China.


Viktoria, 39, from the Russian city of Khabarovsk 1200 kilometers away, comes to the border town of Heihe to get a manicure and do shopping.


He Wenan, one of the most successful Chinese entrepreneurs in the Russian Far East, stands next to his Bentley in front of a Russian Orthodox church. However, the vigorous development of their economic relations has so far failed to fill the psychological gap between the two countries. Despite the same slogan used by both sides of the Chinese-Russian border “Two Countries, One Town,” they never really get closer. In Blagoveshchensk, a Chinese entrepreneur named He Wenan built five shopping centers, is running the most expensive hotel and drives the first Bentley in town, whereas another Chinese entrepreneur has opened a brewery that makes  kvass, a light beer loved by Russians. All these have aroused aversion in locals.


Shi Xiaoyun and his Russian wife Natasha may be an exception. They have a 1-year-old son. Shi Xiaoyun has adopted a Russian name for business purpose. But he has never grown accustomed to Russian cuisines, so Natasha has learned to cook Chinese dishes. Shi Xiaoyun is an acupuncturist. When he is with his Russian friends, say, in a sauna, he tries his best to behave like a Russian. However, he is still an alien here after all. Sometimes, when he walks on the street, locals call him in his face “China pig.”


Today, Chinese investors have bought a former tank factory in Chita and are now manufacturing trucks. They control the markets in Russian border towns and have become the richest private business owners. “People from the neighboring country”, rather than their fellow Russians, have become the hope of Siberia. Russia, feeling the real threat, has rolled out a plan to attract Russian-speaking migrants to settle down in this sparsely populated area. The picture shows a migrant makes her new home in Ushakovo in Russia.


33-year-old Patvakan Akobian, his wife, their three children and his mother arrived in Ushakovo, Russia, from Armenia, and are living in their new home here. The Russian authorities gave them housing stipend, land, 14 calves, 2 cows and US$14,900 to help them start their new life. Patvakan plans to open a bakery. He wants to persuade other relatives to come.


In order to outshine the Chinese town across from the Amur River that separates the two countries, Russia built a riverside corridor in the city of Blagoveshchensk. On one side of the triumphal arch erected in Blagoveshchensk to commemorate the arrival of Crown Prince Nicholas in 1891, the inscription reads, “The earth along the Amur was, is and will always be Russian.”


The prosperity enjoyed by border towns is a marker of the sea changes brought to China by its economic reform, whereas on the other side of the border, development is at a standstill. Apart from fear over ‘population threat’, many Russian experts are also worried that the current model of cooperation may eventually lead Russia to fall into a raw material depot of China. The picture shows a couple play volleyball in a rundown neighborhood.


On the Russian side of the Amur River, a gunboat in commemoration of the victory during the World War II points its cannon at the Chinese city of Heihe. Russia was much more powerful from the era of the Tsars until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the widening gap between the two countries in terms of their economic development manifests itself along the border in the Far East, which has deprived Russians of any sense of superiority. In the foreseeable future, the dragon and the bear will maintain a tight grip on their respective bargaining chips while having fun in a game of their own.

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2 comments to “Photos: Power struggles between dragon and bear on China-Russia border”

  1. Anna | June 27, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Kvass is no beer, light or otherwise. An attempt at research wouldn’t come amiss.
    Apart from that, what passes for English in the texts appearing here is lamentable. But maybe it adds to the whole Eastern mystery thing so that’s ok. Eldritch is fine

  2. Ashley Cooke | August 18, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Ah..China and Russia. Two great giants of the political scene. I wonder who will survive the clash.

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