Heihe Postcard: Where The China-Russia "Friendship Of Convenience" Reveals Its Limits
Facing Russia, just across the Amur River, the Chinese border city of Heihe has complicated ties with its neighbor, revealing the scars of history and a shifting power dynamic between Moscow and Beijing.
HEIHE — Perched in the cab of his truck, Sacha is about to enter the customs clearance area, his lorry loaded with car parts and equipment made in China. "I make the trip two or three times a week," explains the Russian driver, his eyes as blue as the winter sky over the Amur River which marks the border between China and Russia.
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A road bridge spanning the river links the Chinese city of Heihe to Blagovechtchensk, on the eastern edge of Russia. The goods in Sacha's truck will be on Russian soil in just another kilometer's worth of road.
The two-lane bridge was inaugurated with great fanfare last June, with fireworks going off as the first trucks passed. Authorities in both countries presented it as a symbol of their rapprochement, and an example of the "unlimited friendship" sealed between the two in February, shortly before Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his army into Ukraine.
Heihe and Blagovechtchensk have been a symbol of the Sino-Russian rapprochement, which was underscored by Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Moscow. Only 500 meters apart, the two cities are the only ones to face each other on the 3,500 kilometers of shared border.
Broken streets, ghostly calm
After the border re-opened in 1989, the poor village of Heihe benefited from trade with Russia, growing to more than 200,000 people. The street names in Heihe are written in Chinese and Russian, and Chinese store signs are also written in Cyrillic. Russian dolls adorn the parks and some buildings are topped with Orthodox domes. The inhabitants of "Blago" used to cross the border on weekends for shopping, cheap health care, entertainment and business.
But the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down. China's borders were closed for three years, and the city of Heihe increased the number of lockdowns under the country's relentless zero Covid policy. "The Russians who used to live here all went back to their countries during COVID," says one resident.
Heihe has the air of a city in decline.
In Nov. 2021, local authorities promised a 100,000 yuan ($14,555) reward for information on the origin of the emergence of a few dozen COVID-19 cases. Vigilance on the banks of the Amur River has been stepped up for fear of a return of the virus from Russia by smugglers, poachers or cross-border fishermen.
China may have turned its back on zero Covid this winter and reopened its borders, but Heihe remains immersed in a ghostly calm, with the air of a city in decline.
The city's tall buildings may tower over the relatively flat Russian city opposite, but behind them, they hide broken streets and closed businesses. On the peninsula, the large three-story shopping complex, once popular with Russian shoppers looking for furs or clothes, is only partially open on the first floor. A few kilometers away, stray dogs run through the free trade zone.
Ice racing event part of the Russian-Chinese winter sports festival on the frozen Amur River.
If trade between China and Russia has increased since the beginning of the war in Ukraine (+30% in 2022, up to $190 billion), Heihe hasn't benefited. The first bridge linking the two countries is still little used. Where more than 600 trucks can theoretically travel every day, only five brand-new construction machines are heading for Russia when we pass by.
The huge customs clearance parking lot on the Chinese side is almost deserted. On the side of the road leading to the bridge, new trucks are parked for several hundred meters. "The drivers are waiting for their visas to be able to take them to Russia," explains Sacha. Traffic is even more scarce in the Russia-China direction.
As the bridge is reserved for freight, it is on a hovercraft that the Chinese and Russians have to cross the frozen Amur River. The border post reopened only a few weeks ago and is still rarely used. In the customs hall, Mrs. Lin is helping about fifteen young Chinese to complete the last formalities. Originally from the province of Guangxi, in the south of China, they are going to work in a gold mine for a few months, says one, the manager of a travel agency. Nearby, Zhihan, a 26-year-old economics student, is preparing to join the University of Blagovechtchensk after months of distance learning. Visas have not yet been issued for Chinese tourists.
In the opposite direction, arrivals are trickling in. In early March, Russian authorities urged Chinese officials to simplify procedures, lamenting that only a few drivers, entrepreneurs, and officials are allowed to enter China. Russian tourists are still not allowed to return to Heihe.
"Window to the world"
Heihe traders are waiting not only for the return of Russians but also for Chinese tourists who, before Covid, went to the border town to escape the pollution of the industrial cities in the north of the country and to offer themselves "a window on the foreign world."
Hope is slowly returning to the sleepy little town.
"They will come back when the temperature rises again," hopes an idle saleswoman at the supermarket Epinduo, the largest retailer of Russian products including chocolate, vodka and beer. After having fallen to -40°C in the middle of winter, the thermometer is still close to 0°C.
Hope is slowly returning to the sleepy little town. Sitting at Luna, a famous Russian restaurant in the city, a businessman working in logistics has come from Shenzhen (in the far south of China) to ask about the opening of the border. "Europe is no longer doing business with Russia, so we're taking advantage of it," his local partner said. China does not seem to be helping Russia directly to get around the sanctions, but Chinese suppliers have stepped up to fill the gap left by the departure of Western groups.
This is the first highway bridge connecting China and Russia across the Heilongjiang River.
"Pivot" to the East
Russia's "pivot" to the East, which began several years ago, has been accompanied by infrastructure projects along the border with China. In addition to the freight bridge, a cable car linking Heihe and Blagovechtchensk is due to be completed in 2023. And 500 kilometers to the east, a cross-border railway bridge is scheduled to start operation in August.
The huge "Power of Siberia 1" pipeline, which went into operation in 2019, runs a few kilometers from Blagovechtchensk, with an extension on the Chinese side from Heihe to Shanghai. The pipeline is to be twinned by the 2,600-kilometer-long "Power of Siberia 2," which will completely divert Russian gas flows from Europe to China.
In the Amur River region, the Sino-Russian relationship has always oscillated between mistrust and cooperation. On the Russian side, the sight of the tall buildings of Heihe has reinforced the feeling of the inhabitants of "Blago" that the Chinese city has been built on their backs.
This asymmetrical relationship is combined with a nagging fear of the inevitable Sinification of this region, which is marked by a strong demographic imbalance: some 32 million people live in the northern province of Heilongjiang, compared with some 8 million in the huge Russian federal district of the Far East.
The local Russian authorities have long dragged their feet over the road bridge project launched some 30 years ago, fearing a "yellow peril." Orchestrated by the Kremlin, the economic shift to the East has its limits in this territory, which is rich in natural resources but has long lacked infrastructure.
The Cossack "purification"
On the Chinese side, mistrust is also the order of the day. On the banks of the Heihe River, where the Russian flag flies on the other side of the river, Mrs. Wang doesn't have to be pushed very hard to let off steam about the neighbors across the river. "The Russians drink a lot and are not very hardworking," says the grandmother, wrapped in her parka. And half-heartedly, while looking at the Amur River, she says: "There was a massacre here. Go and see the Ahui museum."
Located a few kilometers away, this museum announces its colors at the entrance. "Here, it is forbidden to Russians. Show me your passport," a ticket office employee asks the foreigner passing by. Inside, reconstructions, with light and sound effects, recall the terrible violence caused by the Cossacks during the conquest of the Amur basin.
In 1858, the "unequal" Treaty of Aigun set the Sino-Russian border on the Amur River, forcing the Qing Empire to cede 1 million square kilometers to St. Petersburg. In 1900, the Cossacks decided to rid the Russian part of the Amur of all Chinese, throwing into the river or massacring some 5,000 people.
On the banks of the Amur River, Russia is no longer feared.
This past is still very much alive in Heihe. But when it comes to current relations, residents interviewed have no hesitation: "The Russians are our friends," says a cab driver. "We don't forget the past, but that shouldn't affect our good relations today," adds Mingze, a young man from Heihe who is visiting the museum with his girlfriend. He added that the Japanese invaders "were much crueler than the Russians."
In Heihe, the opinion expressed publicly on Russia or the war in Ukraine does not stray far from Beijing's official position: discreet about the "crisis" in Ukraine (the word "war" is banned), with little acknowledgement of Russian atrocities. The inhabitants' views also reflect their opinion of another superpower: the great American enemy.
Beijing and Moscow have come together to denounce "American hegemony," and China accuses NATO of having pushed Russia into conflict to defend its borders. "We have to help each other against the Americans," says one resident. "The United States is not friendly with China," another says. "The Americans brought COVID-19 to China and it is because of them that we have been confined for so long," Wang says.
On the banks of the Amur River, Russia is no longer feared. "We are a strong country now," Mingze continues.
Russia is seen not as a potential invader, but as a friend of circumstance in the conflict with an increasingly hostile U.S. In the museum, the voiceover of a staged scene of past atrocities concludes that Russian-Chinese relations are peaceful today, but that China must remain vigilant. "We must learn a lesson from history: if you lag behind, you will be defeated."