It has been a challenging few years for residents of the China-Russia borderlands. Amid interrelated crises centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, East Asian territorial and trade disputes, and the 2014 and 2022 Russian invasions of Ukraine, local people have endured the effects of shifting great power ties, and broader “decoupling” dynamics in international relations at large. Yet beyond merely being subject to events and decisions happening on a global level, life in the borderlands sheds distinctive light on the China-Russia relationship, and the paradoxes that underlie it even in an era of supposedly blossoming friendship between Beijing and Moscow.
Early in 2020, the vast region where northeast China meets eastern Russia was among the first locations worldwide to see decisive cross-border action against the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On January 30 of that year, following the intensifying outbreak in Wuhan, the Russian government sealed the country’s 4,000-kilometer-long border with China to almost all traffic, allowing its citizens to return but otherwise indefinitely extending the routine closure around the Lunar New Year holiday.
As in many other parts of the world, in the months and years to follow, Moscow’s radical move created a sudden sense of panic. Friends and contacts, whom I know from 15 years living and conducting research in the region, told of chaos as Russians hurried to leave China. One friend who was studying in Harbin described navigating weeks of lockdowns and quarantines, as well as racist accusations that she as a “foreigner” had brought the virus to China. She left China in early March on a consulate-provided bus to her hometown near the border city of Khabarovsk.
Despite the closure of the eastern borders, Russia remained open to all countries except China. Consequently, as the pandemic took hold in Europe and spread quickly eastward, it was now the turn of Russia-based Chinese citizens to confront the virus’ spread – both as a health crisis and as a vector for racist outbursts. As politicians such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (who would himself later die of COVID-19), railed against the “Chinese flu,” panic swirled among Russia’s Chinese community.
In April, 500 Chinese workers in Khabarovsk locked themselves in an apartment building amid rumors of plans to deport Chinese citizens. Others left of their own accord, boarding flights and trains to eastern Russia and entering China overland. Some even took illegal back-country routes, crossing the frozen Amur and Argun rivers on foot and ruffling diplomatic feathers in the process. In a highly unusual move, on April 18, 2020, China’s ambassador to Moscow, Zhang Hanhui, sternly reprimanded those evading official crossing points.
Most legal repatriates congregated in the border town of Suifenhe, bringing sufficient infection with them from Russia to make this modest trade outpost China’s main coronavirus hotspot in early April. Sealed off from much of China by strict pandemic controls and located over 2,000 kilometers northeast of Wuhan, Suifenhe thus became the nexus of a viral chain that had made a 17,000-kilometer journey from Hubei to Europe and through Russia over a period of several weeks. Strict local lockdowns followed.
Whether traveling from Russia to China or vice versa in early 2020, many repatriates left entire lives behind. Russians in border towns like Suifenhe and Hunchun, or cities like Harbin, and Chinese residents of Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, or Blagoveshchensk, assumed they would be returning soon enough. But this initial period of panic was just the beginning. First announced as a temporary measure, the China-Russia border closure would end up lasting more than three years. Not until a cross-border delegation of officials from Suifenhe visited Ussuriisk and Vladivostok on February 1-2 of this year did a thawing in the pandemic freeze look possible.
Back in their countries of citizenship, returnees suddenly had to find new things to do. In Russian coastal communities such as Kraskino and Slavianka, people whose belongings and money-making opportunities remained just over the border in China now engaged in risky local enterprises, mounting fishing trips to pluck giant crabs from the freezing Sea of Japan. Now “home” for the first time in years, Chinese import/export merchants or construction workers had to reacquaint themselves with families and hometowns where opportunities were strangled by immobility and recurring lockdowns.
Such immobility was a big shock for a region where, since the collapse of the Soviet Union met China’s accelerating post-Mao reforms in the early 1990s, cross-border movement has been the norm. Increasing in the 21st century, interaction between northeast China and eastern Russia has taken many forms, from shuttle trading in everyday goods to larger-scale commerce in seafood or automotive parts, as well as medical and visa-free leisure tourism. As cross-border trade volumes have increased, mutual cultural and linguistic interest has swelled: Chinese borderland traders often speak sufficient Russian to interact with visiting customers, while during my fieldwork in the region I have witnessed growing numbers of Russian students studying at northeastern Chinese universities and even increasing curiosity among Russian pensioners for Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Aside from interrupting these cultural and commercial dynamics, the pandemic border closure also made for a notable contrast with the atmosphere of the overall China-Russia relationship in recent decades. The era of border crossing has coincided with flourishing interstate “friendship” between Beijing and Moscow at the official level. The years since Presidents Jiang Zemin and Vladimir Putin signed a Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in Moscow in 2001 have seen numerous reaffirmations of this relationship, something that may explain why Moscow’s 2020 border closure attracted much less condemnation from Beijing than U.S. President Donald Trump’s banning of Chinese entries to the United States one day later.
Physical monuments to this friendship, defined as being “without limits” when Xi Jinping hosted Putin for the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, have emerged in the borderlands. Last year saw the opening of two new China-Russia bridges, under construction for years (at times, it seemed, deliberately sluggishly from the Russian side), at the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe (June) and Tongjiang-Nizhneleninskoe crossings (November). Such milestones of China-Russia connectivity would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago in these very locations. During the 1960s and 1970s, after the Sino-Soviet Split, Maoist propaganda was blared across the Amur River from Heihe to Blagoveshchensk, while a century ago in the same city Russian imperial Cossacks massacred much of the local Chinese population during China’s anti-foreign “Boxer Rebellion.”
The formal opening of these bridges to traffic was nevertheless somewhat paradoxical given that the border they spanned remained closed. Yet such paradoxes are the rule rather than the exception when studying the China-Russia relationship from a borderland vantage point. That two countries would celebrate a blossoming friendship even as they remained sealed off from one another on the everyday level is not altogether surprising when we consider that both Beijing and Moscow generally prefer to interact on the abstract level of international diplomacy rather than as direct neighbors.
When borders get involved, things get complicated, something that became apparent at the opposite end of Russia from China mere days after Putin and Xi’s renewed commitment to friendship. Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine has met with a mixed reaction in Beijing, with tacit support for the goal of standing up to the West mixed with behind-the-scenes displeasure at how badly Moscow has managed its efforts to expand its borders westward by annexing parts of Ukraine.
In eastern Russia there is no question over where borders lie: Several outstanding Sino-Russian territorial disputes were finally settled in 2008, and Putin is in no position to revisit this topic today. But this border also remains troublesome, despite signs in early 2023 of its reopening and a wider relaxation of China’s pandemic restrictions. The February 1 meeting between Suifenhe and Ussuriisk officials proposed increasing cross-border commercial traffic, but left unanswered questions over when Russians’ visa-free cross-border access to China would resume. At the time of writing in late February, no conclusive answer has yet been provided on this subject.
This slowness to reopen despite supposedly limitless China-Russia friendship can be read as a sign of a discomfort on each side with too much unregulated contact among people. Once the border does reopen fully, moreover, the current international situation could lead to further complications.
As widely documented, since Putin announced a partial military draft in September 2022 hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have fled the country to avoid being sent to fight – and possibly die – in Ukraine. Thus far, favored cross-border destinations have been Central Asia and the Caucasus, where visas are often unnecessary and Russian is widely spoken. But for those remaining in eastern Russia, where ambivalent feelings about the war are widespread given longstanding skepticism of distant Moscow and historical ties to Ukraine where many locals have ancestors or relatives, China could present an attractive destination if another mobilization were launched.
While Moscow would certainly be displeased with such a development, Beijing too would wish to avoid any suggestion that it was offering a refuge for draft-dodgers. As shown elsewhere in China’s northeastern borderlands, where North Korean refugees are forcibly repatriated by the Chinese authorities, the Chinese government has little appetite for complicating its relations with neighboring authoritarian states by hosting those who flee them.
Rather than merely being subject to central government whims, life in the borderlands thus has the potential to expose wrinkles in international affairs. In an era of uncertainty, one thing that does remain clear, therefore, is that borderland residents themselves will continue to navigate the multi-layered international situation, which their geographical location forces them to confront.