China’s Influence in Russia’s Border Regions

The topic of Russia and China’s neighboring border regions is quite fascinating … we often hear about Moscow’s concerns about its Far East, the relative lack of influence the central government has out there against the surging economy of China.  Over at Slate, Joshua Kucera has a good travelogue piece from Blagoveshchensk, which is right across the Amur river from the Chinese city of Heihe – beloved by Russians for cheap shopping and other attractions – though the matryoshka-doll trashcans were not such a hit.

The Russian Far East, the eastern edge of Siberia that borders China and the Pacific Ocean, has only 6 million people, and that number is dropping fast. Just across the border, though, the three provinces of northeastern China have about 110 million people. Meanwhile, the Russian Far East has substantial reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, which China needs to run its supercharged economy.

All that has led many Russians to fear that China will eventuallyexert control over the region. “[I]f we do not step up the level ofactivity of our work [in the Russian Far East], then in the finalanalysis we can lose everything,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedevsaid last year. Kukharenko of the Confucius Institute spelled it outfor me: “It’s a law of physics, a vacuum has to be filled,” he said.”If there are no Russian people here, there will be Chinese people.”(…)

In one telling episode, in 2007, in an apparent attempt to play upits Russian connection and appeal to tourists, Heihe placed garbagecans that were designed to look like Russian matryoshka dolls aroundthe city. Some excessively sensitive Russians saw this as aninsult–Russian culture was trash. The mini-scandal made national TVnews in Russia, and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested.So Heihe’s government painted the trash cans over. (I later sawpanda-shaped trash cans in another Chinese city, which suggests thatthe matryoshkas were, in fact, a friendly gesture.) In Blagoveshchensk,meanwhile, a new government-run cultural center was originally namedAlbazin, after the fort built by early Russian settlers to defend theterritory from China, until local historians petitioned the governmentto change it, saying the name was unnecessarily provocative.