Who’s Afraid of the First China-Russia Road Bridge?

There have been numerous examples of Sino-Russian cooperation in recent years, such as the opening of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline to the Chinese northern border, the deal for controversial Chinese telecom firm Huawei to develop 5G in Russia, Russian military planes flying around Taiwan, and Russia helping China build its missile defense system. Among these collaborations, the establishment of the first road bridge between the two, connecting Blagoveshchensk in Russia’s Far East with Heihe in northeastern China, has become a controversial issue. Some scholars and media outlets, especially in the West, insist on the stereotype that this bridge may accelerate the demographic expansion of China in the Far East, but I argue that the logic has confused the historical sentiments with the current reality of increasing trust in Sino-Russian relations.

Admittedly, the Chinese demographic expansion myth, and more general Sinophobia, has a long history in Russia, reflected in the fact that China’s part of the bridge had been built years ago, while the Russian part has only just been completed. This mentality is based on the adjacency of China and Russia and the huge disparity in population along the border. General Alexei Kuropatkin, minister of defense and commander of the Russian army during the Japanese-Russian War, once claimed that “If we were to abolish the Russo-Chinese border and allow the Chinese to enter Siberia as the Russians, Siberia would soon be Sinicized and the Russians would be moving beyond the Ural Mountains.” In 2006, the Russian government issued a decree to outlaw foreign immigrant workers, forcing some illegal Chinese laborers to leave Russia. Professor Yuri Tavrovsky from the People’s Friendship University of Russia argues that when China offers to undertake development projects in the Far East, Russian leaders are vigilant and keep these concerns in mind, albeit without mentioning anything openly.

Russia’s concerns are bolstered by maximalist territorial ambitions among China’s most fervent nationalists. There are continuous complaints in the Chinese public sphere and academia rebuking Russia as the country that benefitted the most from the decline of modern China in the Qing Dynasty. This is an interesting phenomenon given the censorship in China — the open expression of these sentiments suggests the tacit approval of the Chinese government. In 2011, a famous Chinese song “Baikal Lake,” written by Li Jian, triggered laments from Chinese citizens over their country’s past territorial losses to Russia. Meanwhile, the strong interest of Chinese businesses in this lake led to great investment around this area, resulting in a Russian protest in 2019 against the potential pollution the new Chinese factories may bring. According to Tavrovsky, this territorial history is embedded deep in the national psyche or “collective imagination” of both Russians and Chinese.

However, do negative imageries and the frictions inherent in cooperation really matter if the states involved – in this case, the two biggest authoritarian countries — avoid weaponizing and manipulating these sentiments to distract from internal issues and enhance the stability of domestic politics? In fact, similar issues have appeared around the world in relation to cooperation with China but do not affect the essence of bilateral relations, even in democratic states where public opinions can be fully expressed. Taking Sino-Japanese cooperation as an example, despite their well-known historical hatred, current territorial conflict in the East China Sea, and some trade disputes, bilateral trade has boomed for decades, reaching $327.7 billion in 2018.

Furthermore, there is no factual evidence of a Chinese mass migration into Russia. According to the Federal Migration Service, there were 11 million foreigners in Russia in May 2015, mainly labor migrants. Chinese accounted for a mere 3 percent of that number (about 330,000), ranking tenth after Ukraine (23 percent), Uzbekistan (19 percent), Tajikistan (9 percent), Kazakhstan (6 percent), Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan (about 5 percent each). Also in 2015, the head of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, said that there is no evidence illustrating Chinese expansion in Russia, and pointed out there are only 10,000 to 20,000 more Chinese migrants in Russia than Germans.

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Sino-Russian relations have traditionally been referred to as “hot in politics, cold in economics” and “hot at the official level, and cold at the people’s level.” But nowadays this situation has been transformed. China has been Russia’s largest trading partner for nine consecutive years. Sino-Russian trade surpassed $100 billion for the first time in 2018 and continued to grow in 2019. In November 2019, Russian Far East Investment and Export Support Agency investment manager Vasily Libo revealed that China’s foreign investment accounted for almost 60 percent of foreign investment in the region.

And in terms of people-to-people exchanges, in 2018, there were more Russians (2.5 million) traveling in China than Chinese travelling in Russia (2 million). Most interestingly, regardless of the collective imagination, in the Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey from the Pew Research Center, Russians had the most positive attitude toward China — 71 percent favorable, up from 65 percent favorable in 2018 — showing the growing understanding between Chinese and Russians.

The West has viewed the Sino-Russian border through colored lenses for decades, mainly echoing historical sentiments without regard for modern-day realities. In fact, the warmer climate and more lucrative salaries in China are more attractive to the majority of Chinese than the prospect of working in Russia. Furthermore, Professor Alexander Lukin from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations argues that “the PRC has never made official territorial claims against Russia, even in the most strained periods of Soviet-Chinese relations.” On the contrary, during the chaos of the formation of the Russian Federation, the Chinese government proposed to solve the territorial issues on the basis of equality and discussion, and constantly advised Chinese citizens in Russia to obey local laws and contribute to their host country’s economic development. More importantly, both sides have adequate military power to demolish each other and face similar pressure from the United States, factors that incentivize peaceful bilateral relations.

The Chinese demographic expansion is just a myth and will only be a myth.

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