On the banks of the Amur River, which divides Russia from China, are two monuments. The statue in the Chinese town of Heihe is a six-metre-high bronze of a woman with Caucasian features holding aloft a baby. On the statue’s base is an inscription. “It says ‘mother’, because the Amur River is the mother of both the Chinese and Russian cities on its banks,” says travel agent Lena Wang, wrapping her black mink jacket around her as she watches Chinese couples look through the binoculars mounted on the wall to gaze at Russia across the frozen ice.
The Chinese riverbank feels like a funfair, with stalls selling candied crab apples, snow sculptures of cartoon characters and laughing children careening down a helter-skelter made entirely from ice. Everything is new and gleaming, from the steel rails to the granite paving stones and apartment blocks with names such as Blue Gulf and New World City. “The local government has done it all up, and officials in Beijing say they will build this town up as a matter of national pride,” says Wang, who has run a holiday company taking Russians into China for the past 10 years.
In contrast the Russian side is desolate. On the riverbank in the town of Blagoveshchensk there are no strolling couples and the snow is dotted with beer bottles. The second monument, a gunboat war memorial, its cannons trained on the Chinese skyscrapers opposite, looms over the water. It’s not a bad metaphor for cross-border relations in this remote corner of the globe, but that could be set to change with the construction of a new pontoon bridge across the river. China and Russia share a 3,600km border that separates the frozen wastes of far eastern Siberia from the bustle of China. The two countries are locked in a tight but uneasy embrace. Siberia’s natural resources, from iron ore to timber, are vital for powering the juggernaut of China’s economy, while Russia relies on cheap Chinese goods and labour. “It’s a reciprocal relationship. China is depleting its iron ore assets, and we are using Chinese construction workers and companies to develop mines on the Russian side of the border.
Everybody benefits,” says Svetlana Kostromitinova, a petite blonde mining analyst who, like many young people who grew up in Russia’s far east, left the region for a job in Moscow as soon as she could (we meet her on her return for a business trip – she has no intention of hanging around). There is a long history of mutual hostility and suspicion on this border. In 1969, China and Russia fought a battle over a disputed island in the Amur. Dozens of soldiers died. The two countries only agreed on the border’s final demarcation in 2008.
Until the bridge opens in the winter, trade between Blagoveshchensk and Heihe is heavily dependent on the season. In the depths of winter you can drive across the ice, but as it begins to melt the river is impassable until it is finally fully ice free; then hovercraft can skim over the waters. Most heavy goods cross the border on the trans-Manchurian railway, which was built in the 19th century when Russia still controlled large swathes of northeastern China. Harbin, the capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province and a 12-hour train ride from Heihe, was once a Russian colony. The new bridge will not be strong enough to carry containers full of coal so the rail link will still be the main trade route for most cargo.
If Russia was once the stronger power, there is no doubt which country is now in the ascendant. The population of Russia’s far east, an area two-thirds the size of China, decreased from eight million to six million between 1998 and the last census in 2002. China, meanwhile, is bursting at the seams, with 110 million people in its three northeastern provinces alone. The vast emptiness of Russia’s far east is hard to imagine. To reach to the border town of Blagoveshchensk it’s a six-hour flight from Moscow over thousands of kilometres of unpopulated forests. The nearest large town is an 18-hour train ride across the tundra. Blagoveshchensk is a trading hub for businesses importing cheap Chinese textiles and electronics for the Russian market or timber and metals into China. It is one of the oldest towns in Russia’s far east but today its 200,000 citizens are far more likely to have holidayed on China’s Hainan island than to have seen their own capital. “People here like to holiday in China. They shop, eat and go to soak up the sun in Sanya (Hainan’s main resort), because everything is much cheaper in China and their money goes a long way,” says Wang.
“When Russians buy flats over here they feel rich. They can afford a much higher standard of living on this side of the border,” she says. Average income in China is €3,167 a year, while in Russia per capita earnings are €7,485 – but China is catching up fast. Heihe has grown from a village into a town of almost 200,000 in 15 years. It’s a rate of change that makes many Russians – who for years were more technologically and economically advanced than their Asian neighbours – feel more trepidation than admiration.
“You cross the river and see this Chinese town with so many people and so much progress in such a short time and you think the whole world is going to be dependent on China. Frankly, it’s frightening,” says Galina Davidovich, a Muscovite who works for a chocolate company headquartered in Blagoveshchensk, one of the only manufacturing companies left in the Siberian town. She is buying green tea with a group of Russian tourists in a teashop in downtown Heihe. The new pontoon bridge took years to build because although the Chinese offered to pay for the construction, the Russian authorities vetoed that, saying they had to finance half of the construction on strategic grounds.
“The problem is the Russian side had no money,” says Nikolai Kukharenko, the Russian director of the Chinese-government-run Confucius Institute, which promotes Chinese culture in Blagoveshchensk, hosting tea ceremonies and martial arts performances. Finally, the Russian side agreed to provide five barges and the Chinese side agreed to build the road over the floating pontoons.
Elena Pavlova, editor-in-chief of the Amur Pravda newspaper, took Monocle on a drive through woodland along the Russian side of the river. She tried to take us to the bridge site but was told it was out of bounds to foreigners. Standing in the snow she points across the ice at the Chinese boomtown. “We say that all those skyscrapers were built with Russian money,” she notes with a wry smile. Russians can cross into Heihe visa-free for a short visit, but the Chinese can’t do the same to Blagoveshchensk. Chinese tourists used to cross the border to visit local casinos five years ago when the Russian city was known as Blagovegas, but in 2007 China began an anti-corruption drive to prevent gambling by officials and then outlawed its citizens gambling in Russia altogether. The following year the Russian government shut down the casinos, dealing a blow to the local economy.
Russia’s reluctance to engage with its more populous neighbour can be seen at a glance. While Heihe is emblazoned with street signs in Russian, there is almost no Chinese to be seen in Blagoveshchensk. And few people in the shops and restaurants speak any Chinese. In the Chinese town every retailer accosts western-looking customers with a stream of pidgin Russian, but in its Russian neighbour Chinese workers are rarely seen on the streets, and most of them live and work in Chinese-owned shopping centres, rarely venturing out to mix with the population at large. “I haven’t learned much Russian; just enough to sell things. We keep to ourselves. We don’t socialise with Russians,” says Liu Yanshi, a 30-year-old from central China’s Hebei Province who sells hats in a Chinese-run mall frequented by Russian shoppers.
At Blagoveshchensk State Pedagogical University, former immigration official turned history professor Andrei Druzyaka says there is little racial tension in the Russian town because there is so little integration between the locals and the 3,000 Chinese who live there. “Outside of the shopping centres, we almost never run into Chinese people. Not on the streets or on the subway,” he explains, musing that anti-Chinese rhetoric and racism is stronger in Moscow than in Blagoveshchensk, perhaps because there is so little mixing between the races. “There are no skinheads here and Russian traders work closely with Chinese shopkeepers because they know that without them they would have a lot less business.”
Liu bears out his story when she walks to a 19th-century arch on the waterfront to have her picture taken. She has lived in the Russian town for six years and her children are in a Russian school but this is the first time she has ventured out to Blagoveshchensk’s main tourist site. “We keep ourselves to ourselves. We’re here to work and eventually we’ll move back home,” she says.
One Russian who has moved to China and doesn’t intend to move back home is Irina Yefimenko, a glamorous redhead who runs a tourism and trading business in Heihe. Standing in a stockroom filled with sample boxes of Chinese factory goods, she slips a “Chanel” bag off her shoulder and says: “I remember 18 years ago when you could still see farmers driving their pigs down the main street of Heihe and it was just a village.” Originally from Blagoveshchensk, she moved across the river to China six years ago, pulled by the sense that it is easier to make hard work pay off on the Chinese side of the border.
She pulls a face when asked why Blagoveshchensk feels so backward compared with the new Chinese city and says it’s simple. In China, official money is ploughed back into the growth of the city while in Russia it just ends up in officials’ pockets. “When you see Heihe at night it’s lit up like Las Vegas. It makes me feel so proud to be a part of it,” she says.