What the Mainland Media Say

What's in a name? Plenty, when it reopens an old wound

A decision to restore the old characters ofa northern city has fuelled rumours about China's changing relations with Russia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 May, 2015, 3:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2015, 3:53am

Territorial issues are a sensitive issue often likely to fan the flames of nationalism among the Chinese public.

Disputes between China and Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, plus conflict over areas of the South China Sea that are also claimed by nations including the Philippines and Vietnam, easily spark anger among Chinese.

So when a story was aired on primetime TV by the state broadcaster about the renaming of a northeastern city in China and the detailed history of how it was the venue of a treaty that gave away large tracts of land to Russia, some viewers were intrigued.

The programme said that the government in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang had approved the city of Aihui changing the Chinese characters of its name back to their original form before they were changed in 1956. The pronunciation remains the same, but the old characters will be reinstated.

What prompted interest was that the report went into detail about how a treaty in the city in 1858 granted about 600,000 sq km of territory to Russia at expense of the Qing dynasty.

Aihui itself remained in China, but such a very public reminder of a sore point in the nation's history.

"Experts say restoring the city's name will help the public remember its history," state television CCTV said.

Some wondered if the news signalled a change in the central government's warmer relations with Russia, one week after President Xi Jinping attended a second world war anniversary victory parade in Moscow and state media lauded the countries' stronger relations.

Moscow is keen to improve ties with Beijing, amid Western nations' criticism of Russia's support for separatists in Ukraine.

Wang Zhanyang, a scholar at the Central Institute of Socialism, posted on his social media account that he believed the report did signal a shift in policy or attitude towards Russia.

"The authorities have long been silent about the history of Russia's invasion, including taking a large chunk of land from China. Now it's suddenly back in the news," he said.

"Something must be wrong with the relationship with Russia. China previously played up the Russian invasion when the ties were sour with the former Soviet Union."

His comments were later retweeted over 5,000 times on social media, although some people challenged his conclusion and said he was too hasty or oversimplifying the matter.

Wang responded: "Changing the name itself is not a big deal, but it is a big deal that it was reported on CCTV's main news programme, together with the history of the loss of land."

Amid the speculation among the public, especially those who have been critical of the closer ties between China and the Russia, newspapers tried to play down the significance of the name change.

"As China-Russia ties get warmer, the move by the Heilongjiang provincial government has attracted a lot of public attention, and even debate," the Global Times said. "Some even thought that something must have happened to China-Russia ties."

The newspaper, affiliated to the Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily, called such speculation naive.

"Considering power and the international reality, Russia could only choose to stay close to China," it said.

The Qianjiang Evening News adopted a similar tone, saying it was unnecessary to read too much into the report.

It would be too narrow-minded to focus on the past as China and Russia had already settled their territorial disputes and moved on, it said.

"The border has become testimony to the friendship and brotherhood between China and Russia. Renaming Aihui does not mean we'll be reopening this historical case," the newspaper said.