The Amur River, Russia April 2001

"Street of Russian Goods Welcome!"

In a remote and still-sensitive border region Russians and Chinese are enjoying economic rapprochement
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Illustration by Greg Harlin

The Amur River, a 1,755-mile-long waterway separating Russia and China in the Far East, contains two of the few remaining parcels of disputed territory along the Russian-Chinese border—until recently one of the tensest, most highly militarized frontiers in the world. In 1997 Moscow and Beijing signed a treaty demarcating the boundary, which in many places had been ill defined. They could not, however, resolve a quarrel over two Russian-held islands in the river. Subsequent talks have produced no progress.

Moscow's insistence on retaining the islands derives from a feeling of vulnerability vis-à-vis China. Since the start of Deng Xiaoping's market reforms, in 1978, China's economy has quadrupled; following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Russia's has shrunk by half. More than 80 million people live in the Chinese provinces that border the Amur, and Beijing is encouraging further settlement; on the Russian side the population is five million and falling. As the Russian government has grown ever more disorganized and strapped for funds, it has become less and less able to support the regions along the river financially.

Russian officials often express fear that China is taking advantage of the disorder and carrying out a campaign of "creeping expansionism" in the resource-rich lands northeast of the Amur. But when I visited the area early last fall, I saw no signs of expansionism, creeping or otherwise. Instead I found a surprising amount of cross-border trade, of obvious benefit to both parties. Among other things, this trade is providing Russians with goods they could not otherwise obtain and income that partly compensates for Moscow's salary and pension arrears—economic benefits that are helping to palliate centuries-old Russian suspicion of and animosity toward the Chinese.

Some 203,000 people live in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, a patch of swamp, forest, and low mountains bordering the Amur. In 1934 the Soviet government formally declared the territory a "homeland" for the country's Jewish population, not because this particular patch of land had any connection to things Jewish but because it was rich in minerals and practically uninhabited—factors that could have made it a target for annexation by Japan, whose forces were then occupying China. And given the history of anti-Semitism in Russia, authorities no doubt viewed the territory as attractively remote from the heartland.

Several hundred Chinese legally reside in the oblast. Most work in farming, as field hands and advisers. Because of its short growing season, the Russian Far East has always suffered deficiencies in agriculture. Recent emigration from destitute state and collective farms and a lack of laws that would assure private farmers rights over their land have made matters worse, even as rising transportation costs have made the importation of food prohibitive. So the oblast has looked across the river for help.

One of the main employers of Chinese labor here is a 500-acre farm just north of the capital, Birobidzhan. The manager, a robust retired army officer in a camouflage jacket, showed me around. He explained that the farm employs nearly sixty Chinese as pickers and as experts in animal husbandry and the cultivation of crops with which Russian farmers have had little experience, such as watermelons and rice. They are not paid wages; instead the owner divides among them half of the farm's profits—an arrangement that requires no small amount of trust.

In the fields Chinese laborers stooped to pick tomatoes, filling their buckets and dumping them into a trailer nearby. This was backbreaking, monotonous work, but they were laughing, even singing. When I asked about their lives on the farm, their replies were uniformly cheerful: "The air is fresh." "There are few people here." "The Russians are honest with us." My translator, a young Chinese woman, echoed these sentiments. "We all feel this way," she told me. "In China there is no work, and it's very polluted, and there are too many people."

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An unlikely cross-border symbiosis exists in the realm of consumer goods, too. In Khabarovsk, a placid Russian city of 600,000 on the riverbank downstream, I took a battered gray Volga taxi out to the edge of town. On a dusty, sun-drenched eminence, surrounded by a fence of aluminum siding and rusted barbed wire, stood Vyborg Market—the locus for Chinese traders, who are discouraged by city authorities from selling downtown.

Khabarovsk Scenes
A collection of photographs of Khabarovsk. Posted by Internet Alaska.

I paid the one-ruble admission fee and entered a maze of gimcrack stalls made from pipes and blue-and-yellow plastic tarps. Near the gates sat Azerbaijanis and other traders from the Caucasus. Farther in, Chinese salesmen slouched on stools, rolling up their T-shirts to cool their midriffs and massaging their bare feet.

A Chinese teenager exclaimed in broken Russian, "Adidas cheap! Nike cheap!" His "Adidas" track suits, sprouting errant threads, their labels sewn on crooked, went for the equivalent of fourteen dollars. "Nike" track suits went for eleven. The wares at other tables, from Van Damme videos to DiCaprio T-shirts to calculators, were clearly modeled on Western goods but were of a far lesser quality. Still, it was easy to see how they found a market: they were much cheaper than genuine Western items would be. At one stand I stopped to examine "designer Italian" sunglasses and struck up a conversation with the merchant and his wife. Sasha and Lena (the Chinese working in Russia often use Russian names) were from Harbin, 400 miles to the south. They found it impossible to make ends meet in China, so they had taken to "suitcase trading"—hauling bags filled with wares by bus and ferry from Harbin to Khabarovsk. Selling these shoddy goods enabled them to pay their bills, but just barely. Contrary to the Russian officials' fears of expansionism, merchants like Sasha and Lena—corralled in this wire-and-siding pen, firmly under the control of the authorities—pose no possible threat to the region.

Cross-border trade is more central to the economy in the Amur Oblast city of Blagoveshchensk, 400 miles to the northwest. Here Chinese goods are not relegated to remote flea markets; they fill the downtown stores. In 1994, in order to promote trade, the governments of the Amur Oblast and Heihe, the Chinese port across the river, established a policy of visa-free entry for citizens of each other's countries.

One of the main venues for Chinese goods in Blagoveshchensk is Kitayskaya Yarmarka ("the Chinese Fair"), a department store just outside the city center. The store is a head-spinning conglomeration of neon, plastic, polyester, glass, and crystal. The walls are draped with coats, dresses, shirts, and slacks; virtually every inch of floor space is stacked high with shoes, toys, and appliances; the ceilings are hung with lamps and chandeliers for sale. As in Khabarovsk, the selection reflects a ransacking of Western culture for themes and designs. For the most part, though, the quality is good.

But when I stopped in, the crowd was buying little and the merchants looked bored. Xin Guo Kun, one of the first Chinese merchants to set up business there, showed me a leather coat. She said that before the latest Russian economic crisis hit, in 1998, she could clear a profit of a hundred rubles on such a coat. Now she's lucky if she makes twenty. Everywhere the story was the same. Still, those who had managed to survive had no plans to close up shop and return home, given the surplus of goods and people in their own country.

The coat Xin showed me was manufactured in Shanghai from Russian leather—a combination that points to a general inequity in Russia's trade with China. Russians sell raw materials to Chinese entrepreneurs and state enterprises at low prices; the Chinese resell them to their country's resource-strapped manufacturers, using the profits to buy Chinese consumer goods for export to Russia. Such trade doubly benefits China, which acquires both raw materials and a market for its goods. Russia gains access to cheap goods but forgoes production-tax revenues and manufacturing jobs. Thus it is Heihe, on the Chinese side of the river, that profits most. "Heihe was just a dirty village when I first came here, in the 1980s," Victor Gaidin, the Amur Oblast's chief trade representative, told me. "Now it's a city of seventy or eighty thousand."

Gaidin, a Sinophile and a fluent speaker of Mandarin, accompanied me on an excursion to Heihe. From across the river the city looks impressively modern. Its skyline is studded with dock cranes and towers with windows tinted in hip shades of azure, red, and yellow. Close up, however, it has an aura of prefab shoddiness and impermanence, as if it might be blown down by a strong wind. The sidewalks are cracking, and many of the plastic Chinese characters affixed to exterior shop walls are peeling off.

Near the waterfront hung a sign in ungrammatical Russian: STREET OF RUSSIAN GOODS WELCOME! At one table I saw what I took to be used Russian military binoculars. High-powered, compact, and almost indestructible, these have been among the most popular Russian items on sale in Heihe. I picked up a pair. They were feather-light, made of flimsy plastic. When I peered through them, they seemed to diminish the objects in their view. They were counterfeit, of course—but they were selling.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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