From Russia, with love and roubles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2005, 12:00am

Booming trade and tourism on Russian border attest to claims by leaders that relations are strong

On sunset cruises of the Heilongjiang - the northeast section of the 4,300km Sino-Russian border also known as the Amur River - passengers wave greetings at each other as the music plays.

A shopping mall on nearby Great Heihe Island is packed with Russians, with visitors of up to 600 seen on weekdays rising to more than 1,000 during the weekends.

The bustling activity has put Heihe on the map as a leading border town for trade. In the first five months of this year, trade with Russia rose 87 per cent to US$157 million.

Indeed, trade and tourism attest to claims by leaders on both sides of the border that relations are at their strongest ever.

Premier Wen Jiabao was upbeat during a trip to Moscow in September - a sentiment echoed a month later by Russian President Vladimir Putin while visiting Beijing to mark the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties.

The high-level meetings continue. President Hu Jintao , who attended a gathering of international leaders to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Moscow last month, will again meet Mr Putin on Friday in Moscow.

And for Heihe residents the economic boom is evident. Russian-Chinese bilingual tour guide Li Yao points to street fruit vendors, saying: 'Any Chinese willing to work can make a decent living here.'

The island's 3,100-square-metre shopping mall houses 200 merchants who are mostly from coastal provinces. Rents have risen 30 to 40 per cent since last year, with leases on prime sites costing at least 1,000 yuan a square metre. But the cost is worth it - one candy shop had a turnover of more than 10,000 yuan on Mother's Day.

Heihe has become a 'backyard playground' for Russians from Blagoveshchensk, capital of Amur province on the north bank of the river. With the Russian economic recovery, shoppers had become much more willing to part with their roubles, Heihe shopowners said.

They come shopping, dining, ordering custom-made suits and having their bodies pampered with massage and grooming services - similar to Hong Kong people visiting Shenzhen.

Russians can visit Heihe without a visa, but there is no reciprocal arrangement for Chinese yet. Full reciprocity on visa exemption is expected in August.

The two cities have become economically interdependent and a tense standoff in the 1960s is a dim memory. But a reminder of an as yet unhealed and deeper wound for the Chinese lies in a museum in Aihui, 35km from Heihe.

In 1858, as the Imperial Qing government fought the joint expedition forces of Britain and France, the local governor signed a treaty that ceded the north bank of Heilongjiang to Russia. Museum visitors are exhorted to remember the 'shameful event' and learn that China must be strong lest history repeat itself.

But a grocery store owner said: 'People in Heihe normally don't curse the Russians who come to spend money.' Old grievances bubbled to the surface only when Chinese citizens were treated roughly in Russia, he added.

Blagoveshchensk, where about 6,000 Chinese merchants live and do business, is a 20-minute ferry ride across the main channel from the Great Heihe Island. Chinese tourists visit the casinos and nightclubs in major hotels.

The friendship treaty concluded by Jiang Zemin and Mr Putin in 2001 formally buried the hatchet and a lingering border dispute was resolved at Fuyuan (or Khabarovsk about 1,000km downstream from Heihe).

Russia also plans to build a spur line from its east Siberian oilfields to Daqing in Heilongjiang province , a move Chinesse media hailed as pointscoring against Japan.

Japan's proposal on the Siberian pipeline from Angarsk was approved by Moscow in January, after protracted bidding by Beijing and Tokyo on the route. But Russia warned Japan in April that details were still to be finalised when Tokyo threatened to pull funding for the project if China was first granted access to the oil.

Qin Xuanren , an expert on Russia at University of Trade and Economics in Beijing, said doubts remained given Moscow's constant delays on a decision. 'The [Hu-Putin] summit next month will be crucial,' he said.