N.P.Ryzhova, N.L.Simutina

The Russia-Chinese Border: Alienated — Co-Existent — Interdependent?

One of the implications of the modern world processes such as globalization, regionalization, and integration is changes in the status of the nationstates and their borders1 The authors are indebted to O.P.Belousova for translating texts from Chinese.1. In connection with this, the scientific community has rapidly become much more interested in the cross-border territories. The recent years have seen a good deal of works dedicated to the so called euroregions2 Stolpe 1997; Scott 1999; Perkman, Sum 2002.2; the problems caused by the intensification of the economic integration on the Mexican-American border3 Rosaldo 1989; Rodriguez 1996.3. The rapid economic development of the cross-border regions in Asia (for instance, between Malaysia and Singapore) is also of interest to the researchers4 See, e.g., Thant, Tang 1996.4.

Despite the universal tendencies, it is still early to talk about the formation of the stable cross-border zones along the perimeter of the Russian Federation. However, one can notice some progress on this topic. In this article we will try to provide evidence that already nowadays the cross-border topic is relevant for Amur oblast and the Chinese Heilongjiang province near the cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe. In order to resolve this matter, we will first analyze the most important characteristics of the cross-border regions and then trace whether they are present within the contact zone Blagoveshchensk— Heihe.

The Features of the cross-border regions

Since the end of the 20th century the problems of the state borders traditionally studied within such disciplines as geography, political science, political economy, international relations theory started to be actively elaborated within sociology, including the economic one, urbanistics, social anthropology. The reason for such disciplinary expansion was the functional modification of the very category “border”. Under the conditions when a state is removed from the center of the international life and the international (i.e. interstate) communication is replaced by the transnational one that can be performed along with and without a state, the borders are no longer the dominant dividing lines between the nation-states turning into the centers of formation of the cross-border institutions, markets, spaces5 As the research study conducted by D.Zalamans in the countries of the Baltic region indicates, the cross-border territory formations are developing more intensively than those being far from the border (see Zalamans 2004).5.

Despite the variety of the scientific approaches towards the researches on the borders and border areas, they can be restricted to two main directions — the traditional and the postmodernist one6 For more details see Kolosov 2003.6. The representatives of the first direction focus on the evident aspects of the cross-border territories formation that can be subject to the quantitative measurement, whereas the adherents of the second one concentrate on the self-perception of the nearborder communities.

The traditionalists’ important record is a research on the types of the borderlands and stages of their evolution as well as the cross-border flows classification. The conception of the American researcher O.J.Martinez deserves a special attention7 See Martinez 1998.7. Upon analyzing possible models of the borderlands’ interactions and their dependence on various changeable and constant factors (topography, distance from the country’s center, demographic characteristics, ethnic and cultural patterns, level of the economic development etc.). Martinez divided borderlands into the alienated, co-existent, interdependent and integrated ones.

1. Alienated borderlands. The border is in fact closed; the borderlands’ interaction is totally or practically absent. The international trade and contacts between people are extremely hampered if possible at all. The residents of the contiguous states perceive each other as “outsiders”. The atmosphere of tensions inhibits the attempts of normalization of life within the borderlands, which results in the low density of population and economic depressiveness of the borderlands.

2. Co-existent borderlands. The border is half-open for the limited binational interaction, but the contacts between the residents of two countries generally remain within the framework of the business relations.

The regime of co-existence between borderlands is usually established when the conflicting contiguous states manage to reconcile or mitigate the existing controversies between them. In this case, its establishment leads to the improvement of the social and economic situation in the borderlands. However, it can also be an obstacle to the development of the near-border territories if it is based on the purposeful policy of the respective central authorities fearing that too close connections with neighbors might undermine the country’s integrity.

3. Interdependent borderlands. The atmosphere on the border is stable. The economic and social complementarity of the borderlands is underpinned by the increasing cross-border interaction. The borderlands’ dwellers welcome friendly and cooperative relations.

The situation of interdependence in the borderland emerges if near-border regions of the contiguous states are symbiotically connected with each other. Such complementarity becomes possible due to the stable international connections and favorable economic climate, which allows borderlands dwellers to implement projects attracting investments and labor force. As a result, the interdependent economic situation is established. The economic integration creates conditions for the development of the social connections and intercultural exchange, thereby encouraging the emergence of the elements of the symbiotic binational social and cultural system. The extent of interdependence of the near-border zone is determined through the policy conducted by the neighboring countries. The central authorities thoroughly follow the situation in the borderland leaving the border open until it meets national interests.

4. Integrated borderlands. The economies of borderlands are tied functionally; there are no barriers for movement of people and goods. The borderland dwellers feel that they belong to a single social system.

The integration of the borderlands of two sovereign countries is possible only under the conditions of political stability and high economic development of both states. Ideally, the level of development should be similar. Neither of the sides should feel increase in the migration pressure when the borders are opened.

It is obvious that cross-borderness is applicable only to the integrated and partly interdependent territories. If one summarizes their characteristics suggested by O.J.Martinez, the prospects of the formation of the borderland will appear to be related to such factors as political mutual relations between the contiguous countries, economic ties between the borderlands (capital and goods movement), migration exchange and borderland contacts between people. The interstate ties are of paramount importance among the factors listed above, since they impact not only closedness/openness of the borders and probability of the borderland conflicts, but also the “highness” of custom and visa barriers, and therefore — opportunities for the movement of goods and people as well as cross-border cooperation.

When there is an evolutionary movement from alienation towards integration8 It is worth noting that the development of borderlands is also of the involutionary nature: when the tensions at the state level aggravate, the interdependent territories often transform into the co-existent or even alienated ones.8, the natural-ecological interdependence emerges first, then the economic and only after that the social and cultural ones. It is of crucial significance that the socio-economic interdependence is mostly formed at the local rather than the state level. The favorable treatment at the “highest” level is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for the development of the cross-border cooperation.

A lot of researches emphasize the key role of the local contacts in the formation of the cross-border zones. The collective work under the editorship of M.Perkman and N.-L.Sum compellingly suggests that it is the cooperation between the borderland municipalities and districts that the euroregions and other forms of the institutionalized cross-border cooperation in Europe were constituted through9 Perkman, Sum 2002.9.

The idea of locality is being actively developed by the proponents of the postmodernist approaches, in particular A.Appadurai, whom the conception of translocality is usually associated with. Defining locality as a special local context for the interaction and at the same time as an aspect of the social life, Appadurai contrasts it to the “neighborhood” (that is the non-intersecting model of the borderlands’ development). He argues that, as a result of the transmigrational flows’ expansion, new forms of the national loyalty that are not strictly linked to the administrative-territorial division become popular, and the “neighborhoods” are replaced with translocal communities, or diasporas, which members retain their special ideological connection with their origin10 Appadurai 1995.10.

The champions of the postmodernist pay a good deal of attention to studying borders as social constructs, some types of symbols in the political, social, everyday life discourses. As the Finn researcher A.Paasi posits, the borders are constructed by the history, and therefore, the accompanying meanings are always changing. The USSR collapse alone created more than 20 new borders. 300 borderlands imply the concurrent existence of at least 300 different narratives with their own meanings and interpretations of the borders’ role in the national history11 Paasi 1996.11. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that within the cross-border zones their own narratives should emerge (local histories).

Apart from the symbolic meaning of the borders, the change in their status is being vehemently discussed: today a border is rather a place for meeting, neighborhood, or cooperation, rather than a bound. Such change of the border’s status leads to the mental deand reterritorialization, when the borderland dwellers have several identities, while the borders of the national idea’s spread do not correspond to the territorial ones12 See Nagata 1994: 63.12. In other words, the formation of the cross-border regions is accompanied with the shifts in the self-perception and self-identification of the respective territories dwellers.

The features of cross-borderness mentioned by the postmodernists are undoubtedly very important. However, the history of the integration of the borderlands along the parameter of Russia is not long enough so that one can talk about the deep changes at the mental level and formation of new and stable cross-border identities. The status of the Russian borders started to change little more than 20 years ago. At the beginning of the 1980s the Russian-Chinese cross-border territories were, in O.J.Martinez’s terms, alienated, whereas even the 30-year-old people remember the perception of Blagoveshchensk as the “last outpost of Russia”13 It is quite possible that it is the reason why in Russia the traditionalist conceptions for studying issues on borderlands and crossborder territories prevail (see, e.g., Makarychev 2004).13.

Nevertheless, in Russia the directions of the analysis prescribed by the postmodernist paradigm are not on the research agenda yet. The real movement of goods, capitals, people, everyday business and social practices of borderland dwellers, causes and consequences of change of the barrier/contact border’s functions — this constitutes a set of issues that needs being studied within the modern stage of the Russian borderland development. It is important to evaluate prospects of the joint use of the borderland natural resources, analyze the parameters of the complementarity and competition between the near-border regions, opportunities of using the cultural and educational potentials of the near-border cities, the risks related to the implementation of the joint industrial, tourist and other projects as well as their potential effects. All of these tasks are rather tractable within the traditional approaches.

The Specificities of the Contact Zone Blagoveshchensk— Heihe

Changes of the border’s regime and functions. The last 100 years have traced both evolutionary and involutionary stages within the RussianChinese borderland development.

The density of the borderland contacts has not always directly hinged upon the intergovernmental relation. In this sense, the time period of the beginning of the 1920s is rather discernable, when despite the lack of the diplomatic relations between the contiguous states their territories interacted actively. In 1923 2955 private trade structures of the Soviet Far East out of 5903 (i.e. more than 50%) belonged to the Chinese subjects. The informal economic exchange, including smuggling, also developed14 Zalesskaya 2002.14. All of this suggests that the interdependent regime was established in the borderland.

However, in most cases the relations at the highest level exerted a decisive influence upon the borderland contacts. The proclamation of the People’s Republic of China and signing of the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between Moscow and Beijing led to the deepening of the formal as well as informal interaction. The border became relatively transparent — its crosses and everyday life contacts between people turned to a regular, usual practice. So in the middle of the last century the borderlands were also interdependent, but due to the then existing socio-political structure this interdependence was not of the market nature.

In 1969 the almost 20-year-long period of alienation began with its impetus being the sharp aggravation of the interstate relations that manifested, in particular, in the borderland conflicts. In 1983 the contacts at the highest level were restored, and since that moment the development of the borderland relations entered the evolutionary path. It is worth noticing that in contrast to the 1950s the main factor of the border’s function change was the micro-level interactions of the companies and people. The legislative-legal base of the borderland cooperation used to substantially lag behind (and still does) from the real practices.

The Chinese side made a little more progress in this direction. Already in 1884 the State Council of the People’s Republic of China issued the “Provision on the Temporary Ways of Regulating Borderland Trade”, in 1987—1996 the law passed that determined the general principles, tasks and limitations of the borderland trade, the status of its participants and competence of the state structures being responsible for this sphere. Simultaneously, the industrial documents that regulated the procedure of the mutual payments, creation of the borderland zones for the technical-economic cooperation, activity of the borderland “people’s” markets (on the Chinese territory), organization of the supplies’ flows through the border crossing points, the regime of residence in the borderland zones were put into effect. In other words, the lack of the intergovernmental agreement on the borderland trade between Russia and the People’s Republic of China did not prevent China from elaborating the respective national legislation. Regarding Russia, despite the declarations about the crucial importance of the borderland trade, its legislation lacks even the legal definitions of the key notions employed in the current Russian-Chinese agreements, including “borderland trade”, “territory of the borderland trade”, “participants of the borderland trade” and “borderland people’s markets”. There is not even a draft federal law on the borderland trade15 See Nyrova 2003.15.

By all appearances, it is this legislative vacuum that became one of the reasons for the informal economic activity’s dominance over the institutionalized one.

Complementarity of the borderlands. The answer to the question whether the borderlands of Amur oblast and Heilongjiang province complement each other is rather ambiguous. It is obvious that in various economic spheres the extent and forms of the “complementarity” of these regions are different.

The agricultural sector. By the beginning of the modern stage of the borderland interactions development both territories had been of the agricultural specialization. During the market reforms the volume of the agricultural production in the Amur River Region decreased several times. Despite the similarity of the natural-climate conditions, the capacity of many crops is much lower there than in Heilongjiang province. As a result, the latter has always been increasing the export volumes of the agricultural production into Russia. At the same time, the limits of the land resources for the agricultural purpose forces the Chinese farmers to increasingly actively use the Russian lands.

The industrial sector. Due to the peripheral position vis-à-vis the state centers, both territories have been traditionally characterized by the prevalence of the extractive industries. However, in the recent years the vectors of their development went apart. In Heilongjiang province the process industries started to develop (in particular, machinery, as well as light and food industries), whereas Amur oblast underwent deindustrialization: the share of the industrial branches in the Gross Regional Product reduced from 45% in 1995 to 25% in 2004. If 20 years ago Amur oblast still exported (reexported) machinery to Heilongjiang, now it imported it. The import of the Chinese mass consumption goods is also constantly increasing.

Natural resources. Heilongjiang and the Amur River Region have similar and in some respects the same natural resources potentials. Both regions are rich with coal with the confirmed coal deposits in Heilongjiang amounting to 54.2 billion tons, whereas in Amur oblast — to 3.82 billion tons. Although the volume of the forecasting coal resources of the Amur River Region 20 times exceeds the volume of the explored ones (65.8 billion tons16 Sheingauz 2005.16), one should hardly expect the Chinese interest in the Amur coal, the more so as it is practically non-transportable.

Despite the fact that Heilongjiang province as well as China on the whole experiences difficulties with the energy supply, its dependence on Amur oblast in the energy sphere is hardly probable. The high tariffs for the Russian electrical energy scare away Chinese consumers.

The main item of the Amur oblast export is timber, more than 80% of which is being exported to China. However, in the future China can reorient towards the Siberian wood, since its quality is significantly better than the Amur one.

Labor resources. It is common knowledge that the Russian Far East, including the Amur River Region, was settled by the migrants. After the collapse of the system of the “organized labor recruitment” in the 1990s the regional need for labor resources already can not be satisfied through the migrant flows from the Western part of Russia17 See Blyakher 2004.17. Under these conditions Amur oblast really has to attract the Chinese labor force. In its turn, China suffering from the overpopulation needs Amur oblast as the potential source of the workplaces. It is no accident that the Chinese researchers often state that the use of the Chinese migrants is “the most optimal solution to the problem of the labor resources shortage” arguing that “the economy of the Russian Far East obtained its chance only thanks to the Chinese”18 Nju Yanping 2006.18. Nevertheless, the complementarity in this sphere is by no means fully materialized, which is explained by the crisis phenomena in the Amur River Region’s economy decreasing the demand in the labor force as well as the Russian side’s fear of the “Chinese expansion”.

Migrational exchange. Despite the popular myth about the hundred thousands of the Chinese in the Russian Far East spread through the mass media19 Similar figures are cited in some scientific publications. For their criticism see Perevedentsev 2000; Larin 2001.19, the real number of the Chinese citizens who migrated into the region, in particular, into Amur oblast, for the permanent residence is rather small. According to the official statistical data, migrants do not play any significant role within the labor market as well as in the economy on the whole.

Thus, in 2006 only a little more than 30% of the officially employed within the Amur enterprises were citizens of the People’s Republic of China20 It is to be noted that the official statistics does not take into account the Chinese without the Russian citizenship.20, whereas at the turn of the centuries this indicator was almost minimal. Moreover, it could not be different since as a result of the crisis the industrial and agricultural companies did not demand labor force, and the economic niches occupied by the Chinese entrepreneurs (construction, lumbering, service sector and trade) do not need much personnel. It is these personnel and the Chinese entrepreneurs (including the so called “people’s” traders) themselves that generally the Chinese immigrants consist of. By the way, in Heihe, Harbin and other Chinese cities there are Russian employees. The latter are also broadly represented within the oblast’s companies created by the Chinese citizens.

However, it would be wrong to make judgments about the intensity of the migrational exchange according to the cited data. The figures characterizing the dynamics of the Russian state border’s crossing through the transitional points in Amur oblast (see Table 2) reflect the situation much more accurately.

As it is seen in the Table 2, in 2005 115.1 thousand of foreign citizens entered the oblast, whereas 362.1 thousand of the Russians left it, or 40% out of the total population of the oblast. Of course, these indicators are of rather conventional analytical value since the same person can cross the border several times per year. It is exactly what is happening in practice.

A lot of Chinese entrepreneurs use the commercial visas that restrict the duration of stay on the Russian territory, which forces them to go home from time to time in order to come back soon (may be even the next day). The same applies to the Chinese Gastarbeiters with only some of them formally registering as employees. The Russians from Amur oblast dealing with the shadow import of goods as well as cash transfer also actively use the short-term visas. Students, both the Chinese ones who study in Russia and the Russians who study in China, regularly cross the border. Lastly, such an important factor of the intensive migration as tourism should be mentioned. The Russians from Amur oblast, who due to the high transport costs can not afford vacation in Turkey, Greece, or Egypt, often go to China, not only to the far-away resort zones such as Baidahe, Dailan and Hainan, but also to the neighboring Heihe for a weekend.

In other words, the migrational exchange between Amur oblast and Heilongjiang province are of a pendulous nature, which without a doubt encourages active contacts between their dwellers.

Movement of goods and capitals. The share of Amur oblast in the external turnover of the Far Eastern Federal District and People’s Republic of China is rather small —around 5% according to the average annual estimation (the share of the population — 13%, of the GRP — 9%). However, China is practically a monopolist in the external economic ties of the Amur River Region (see Table 3).

The goods export structure is rather stable and traditional. Today Amur oblast mostly exports the raw materials: round timber, black metals etc. The structure of the import is less stable with the most important goods being food, textiles, and toys. In the recent years the absolute value as well as the share of the imported machines (trade one, for the food industry) has been growing, i.e. along with the dependence of Amur oblast on the People’s Republic of China in the sphere of the consumer goods there is also the technological dependence. The analysis of the countercurrent flows indicates that the trade between Amur oblast and Heilongjiang province takes shape of the inter-industrial exchange based on the use of the competitive advantages.

The increase in the industrial goods import in the Amur River region and the oblast specialization on the raw materials export demonstrate the formation of the relations “the developing country— the developed one”. However, the conclusion to be made is not that obvious, since the substantial share of the Chinese export belongs to the agricultural production. According to the official data, the cost of the goods imported to Amur oblast from China amounted to $130.9 million, whereas that of the exported ones — $100.8 million. However, similarly as in the case of the migrational exchange, these figures do not reflect the real situation. It is supported, in particular, by the bank statistics tracing the money transfers through the direct correspondent accounts between the banks registered in Blagoveshchensk and Heihe (see Table 4).

The table clearly shows that the amount of the money exported to China significantly exceeds the cost of the imported goods (in 2006 — 4.5 times). This discrepancy results from the activity of the “people’s” (“shuttle”) traders.

The payments to China are performed mostly from the Chinese citizens’ accounts that they open in the banks in Blagoveshchensk depositing to them the money obtained from selling their goods in Amur oblast. It should also be noted that the turnovers of the accounts of the non-resident individual persons exceed the amount of money transferred to China (see Table 5). Some money obtained by the Chinese entrepreneurs is left in Amur oblast, which, in our view, indicates that they are dealing not only with trade, but also with other types of the economic activity.

The share of the external trade turnover in the GRP of Amur oblast taking into account the activity of the “people’s traders” amount to almost 30%, which means that the influence of the trade relations in the Amur River region is far greater than we usually think. It is absolutely obvious that the restoration of the border’s barrier function will heavily hurt the oblast’s economy. Moreover, the further procrastination with the elaboration of the cross-border integration strategy that will be beneficial to the Amur River region might be no less destructive.

The use of the border’s resource. Studying the business practices that have become popular in the recent years in Amur oblast and Heilongjiang province allows to determine several forms of the activity related to the use of the border’s resource21 For the detailed analysis of these practices and forms of activity see Ryzhova 2003, 2004.21. They include the following ones:

1) “shuttleness” — purchase and delivery of the Chinese goods through the informal, tourist channels with the purpose of selling them in the markets of Amur oblast on one’s own;

2) “brickness” — purchase and delivery of the Chinese goods through the informal, tourist channels with the purpose of selling them in the markets of Amur oblast by the Russian and Chinese retail traders;

3) “realization” — construction of the distribution channels by the Chinese manufacturers through attracting the Chinese citizens as “shuttles” who take goods for the “realization”;

4) “intermediary” — assistance in searching for the potential counteragents (both Russian and Chinese), sharing the commercial information, settling problems with the authoritative bodies.

5) “figurehead” — performing functions of the official head of the enterprise that is in practice headed by the resident of another country;

6) the entrepreneurship as such in the sphere of the external trade, i.e. signing official export-import treaties;

7) the entrepreneurship activity of the Chinese citizens in Amur oblast and the Russian citizens in Heilongjiang province. It is of paramount importance that the “business schemes” used by both

sides are similar and their implementation would be impossible if it were not for the close contacts of the borderland dwellers. At the same time, it is worth mentioning that most of such schemes are based on the non-institutionalized norms and are of a shadow character. The informal cross-border business develops mostly in the network forms with the respective networks often including both the Russians and the Chinese.

Joint projects. Despite the 20-year-long borderland cooperation history, the elaboration and implementation of the joint projects between Amur oblast and Heilongjiang province have not seen much progress. Building a bridge over the Amur river is perhaps the most famous among the unrealized projects.

Such bridge was thought of as a large logistic channel for transferring the Chinese production to Russia and exporting the Russian goods to China. However, in this situation the time seems to be missed — especially taking into account the already functioning channels as well as the projects offering alternatives to the bridge crossing bear Blagoveshchensk. The Chinese experts view the following channels as the most promising ones: Harbin continental logistic channel in Manzhouli and Zabaikalsk and the logistic channel Harbin — Suifenhe City (Mudanjiang — Suifenhe City — Grodekovo — Ussuriysk) with the exit to the sea channels22 Li Tao 2006.22. Even the logistic channel Harbin—Tunjiang crossing the Amur River near the town of Nizhne-Leninsky is more preferable today since the float along the Amur river opens an exit to the sea. The discussion on the possibility of the bridge’s construction near Blagoveshchensk can be restarted if (which is also rather obscure for now) the broad development of Amur oblast’s natural resources starts.

The introduction of the mutual payments in the currencies of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation is one of the most important materialized projects. In 1993 a number of the financial structures of the Amur River Region started negotiations with the People’s Bank of China on the establishment of the direct correspondent relations. However, the real shifts in this direction took place later, in 1996—1997, on the level of the commercial banks, which was encouraged by the changes in the national bank systems and currency regulations as well as enhancing the borderland trade. The Chinese side encouraging the “people’s” trade fully realized that its development requires special mechanisms that would allow the Chinese traders to transfer their profits to their homeland. At first, the payments were performed in the freely convertible currency, which decelerated and complicated the respective operations.

In 2002 the Central Bank of Russia and the People’s Bank of China signed the agreement provided for the use of the national currencies (rubles and yuans) in the inter-bank payments within the borderland trade. The zone Blagoveshchensk — Heihe was chosen as a platform for the “bank experiment”23 Vragova, Rozhkov 2006.23.

Finally, in 2005 the People’s Bank of China approved the payments from the correspondent accounts of the Chinese and Russian banks to the benefit of the legal entities and individual persons of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Since the second half of 2006 the geographical bounds of the “bank experiment” were expanded beyond Blagoveshchensk and Heihe.

Obviously, it is the development of the trade connections that gave impetus to the inter-bank cooperation between two sides: the faster the money from a buyer reaches a salesman and the fewer the losses are, the more actively he sells and the greater the amount is.


To sum up, the article presents the arguments suggesting that the zone Blagoveshchensk — Heihe might be interpreted as the cross-border one: the border performs the contact rather than barrier function; the migrational, being mostly of a pendulous character, is growing; the goods and money flows are increasing; the citizens of both territories are interacting with each other gaining the commercial profit out of the border’s resource. At the same time, one can not ignore that all of these processes take place in the institutionally undetermined borderland field. As a result, the cross-border interaction is mostly of an informal nature and is often performed in accordance with the priorities of the Chinese side. Such statement does not mean that we share the alarmist moods of the Russian politicians and journalists discussing different “expansions” and “threats”. It is not China implementing its own policy within the borderland territories that is alarming, but rather us lacking a clear strategy of the cross-border economic development.


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