New ties are forged on the China-Russia border against the United States over the war in Ukraine

A man from Heihe fishes on the Amur River, overlooking Russia’s Blagoveshchensk (photos: Washington Post/Eva Dou) (Eva Dou/)

On the bank of the Amur River, facing Russia, Wang Xuzhen sat polishing shoes on a sunny afternoon.

Wang, 67, has lived within sight of Russia here in China‘s northeastern fringe for decades, but has never been moved to make the short ferry ride to see Blagoveshchensk. She remembers how terrifying the fortified border was before the exchanges began in the 1980s. She tells her grandchildren not to forget a Russian massacre of Chinese residents more than a century ago. Near the water, a sign urges vigilance against spies.

Despite persistent caution on the other side of the river, Wang is clear on his position. When push comes to shove, she says, Russia and China are on the same team, resisting what she sees as global meddling by the United States.. She says that Ukraine should have accepted her place in Russia’s sphere of influence instead of courting the United States and NATO.

support for Russia“, said. “Two neighbors have to stay together so as not to be bullied”.

Wang’s perspective mirrors that of many of his compatriots. All over the world, ideological lines are hardening. In the United States, politicians and ordinary citizens alike are increasingly viewing international affairs through the lens of great-power competition against China and Russia. The same is true in China, where many see the Ukraine war as a proxy conflict with the United States.

Western governments have joined the cause of Ukraine in Europe and Taiwan in Asia, calling them bastions of the “free” world that must not fall. In China, these moves are seen as worrying attempts to increase the Western sphere of influence at the gates of Russia and China.

A shopkeeper in Heihe, China, near the border with Russia, arranges souvenirs on June 27, 2022. The tourist town has been hurt by pandemic restrictions against international visitors.  MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Eva Dou.
Russian products are common in Chinese stores in Heihe (Eva Dou/)

The widening ideological gap is a source of information for the Chinese government to strengthen its position in the country, tapping into nationalist sentiment and galvanizing citizens against a foreign enemy to distract them from internal problems. It also increases the risk of new international conflicts, as governments and militaries increase preparations for any confrontation between great powers.

in hehe, the opinion of many residents about the war in Ukraine is not far from the official position of Beijing, and it is difficult to say where the government propaganda ends and the opinion of the citizens begins. The effect of propaganda is especially strong in China, where news programs are tightly controlled, many international websites are blocked, and comments on social media are censored.

In China, people who express themselves politically differently from the official line are regularly punished, and some in Heihe were wary of talking too much about the Ukraine war. “We shouldn’t talk about it in the countryside,” said Chi Xiude, a 78-year-old who grows cabbages on the outskirts of the city. “It is a war. It hurts ordinary people.”

Wang, however, could barely contain his anger at US geopolitical interventions abroad. He named his toy poodle “Trump,” after former President Donald Trump, so he could tell the dog off: “Can’t you behave yourself? What are you biting now?

Although sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainian civilians, he blames Ukraine’s leadership for failing to pacify Moscow. “Once little brother, always little brother,” Wang said. “You should help each other. What are they doing, running with the United States and that scum of the Earth?

Relations between China and Russia have long been tenuous. Following close cooperation between the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China in the early 1950s, relations turned sour, leading to military clashes along the northeastern border in the 1960s.

In recent years, Moscow and Beijing have found common cause vis-à-vis the West, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announcing a “no-limits” relationship in February. Nevertheless, the two countries do not have a formal alliance, and the bond is often described as a marriage of convenience.

On June 10, the first road bridge from China to Russia, connecting it with Blagoveshchensk, was opened in Heihe. The 1,200-meter bridge was a symbol of Beijing’s commitment to supporting Moscow, which Xi touted in a phone call with Putin on June 15. Chinese local authorities have said the bridge will reduce transport costs across the river.

But this symbol of friendship is not so clear: the construction of the bridge was completed in November 2019, but the opening was delayed due to China’s strict pandemic controls and negotiations on tolls. Although it can handle more than 600 trucks a day, the red-trimmed bridge saw little use on a recent afternoon, with only one empty flatbed truck seen making its way from Blagoveshchensk.

A truck drives from Blagoveshchensk, Russia, to Heihe, China, over the first highway bridge between the two countries on June 16, 2022. The bridge was opened on June 10, 2022 after a more than two-year delay.  MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Eva Dou.  (Photo by Eva Dou/The Washington Post)
A truck heads from Blagoveshchensk to Heihe (Eva Dou/)

China has been wary of violating Western sanctions on Russia that could trigger secondary sanctions on its companies. Nor is it willing to relax its “zero covacha” measures for the sake of trade. Russian tourists have still not been allowed to return to Heihe, leaving the tourist town in eerie silence. The two sides sometimes greet each other as their ships pass at a distance over the brown waters of the Amur.

China’s purchases of Russian oil and other raw materials have soared, with Xi recently promising that trade with Russia will hit new records.. But Chinese exports to its northern neighbor remain well below prewar levels, according to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Beijing has balked at Moscow’s calls for more support in recent weeks, according to Chinese and US officials. Washington Post.

“The Chinese side has shown very very cautious about the kind of trade that is going on,” said Jacob Gunter, senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany.

Despite Beijing’s efforts to be cautious, the Commerce Department on Tuesday placed five Chinese companies on a trade blacklist for allegedly supplying Russia’s military or defense industry. China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Fishing on the banks of the Amur River, a Heihe resident who only wanted to give his last name, Wang, said the Ukraine war had little to do with them, except for rising gas prices. But he said Heihe residents followed the news and knew what was going on. “There is no way we are going to support Ukraine,” he said. “The Americans are trying to cause trouble.”

Wang Xuzhen, 67, stands beside the Amur River where she is scrubbing shoes in Heihe, China, on June 17, 2022. She named her dog
Wang Xuzhen, 67, poses by the Amur River (Eva Dou/)

Another Heihe resident, Liu Hongyao, 57, agreed, saying China’s fate was tied to Russia’s, so the two should stick together. He called Ukraine “cannon fodder,” saying he thought Western countries had somehow provoked it into a self-destructive confrontation with its powerful neighbor. “If the United States kills Russia, then China is fried too“, said.

Beijing has avoided calling the Russian assault an invasion and has rebuffed calls from the West to publicly denounce Moscow. The International Criminal Court is investigating evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

A handful of figures in China have publicly criticized Moscow, including a group of university professors who published an open letter in February. “As a country that was once ravaged by war, where families were destroyed, where everywhere people were starving, .[westandinsolidaritywiththepainoftheUkrainianpeople”thelettersaid[nossolidarizamosconeldolordelpuebloucraniano”decíalacarta

The Chinese authorities have silenced the recent news about the atrocities committed by Russia against the civilian population in Ukraine. But here in Heihe a different collective memory is allowed.

In 1900, in the midst of fighting between Russia and China, the Russian Cossacks threw Chinese residents across the Amur into the river, killing thousands. Heihe people still recount the horror in vivid detail today, even though it happened long before they were born. “The river was full of blood,” Liu said.

The Aihui History Museum on the outskirts of Heihe keeps alive the memory of that Blagoveshchensk massacre, as well as other Chinese humiliations, such as when the Qing dynasty ceded a strip of land across the river to Russia in 1858.

Wang said that he had taken his grandchildren to the museum twice.

“I told the children: ‘Never forget the humiliation of the nation‘”, said. “A country must have a strong national defense. If not, look what happens. They cut the wire fence and pushed the peasants into the river.”

© Washington Post 2022

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