On the Sino-Russian border, new ties are being forged against the United States over Ukraine


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HEIHE, China — On the bank of the Amur River opposite Russia, Wang Xuzhen sat scrubbing shoes on a sunny afternoon.

Wang, 67, has lived for decades within sight of Russia here on China’s northeast border, but she never felt pressured to take the short ferry ride to see Blagoveshchensk. She remembers how scary the fortified border was before trading began in the 1980s. She tells her grandchildren not to forget a Russian massacre of Chinese residents more than a century ago. Near the water, a sign encourages vigilance against spies.

Despite the lingering mistrust from across the river, Wang knows where she stands. Ultimately, she says, Russia and China are on the same team, resisting what she sees as America’s global interference. She says Ukraine should have accepted its place in Russia’s sphere of influence instead of courting the United States and NATO.

“I support Russia,” she said. “Two neighbors have to stick together so they don’t get intimidated.”

Wang’s vision mirrors that of many of his compatriots. Around the world, ideological lines are hardening. In the United States, politicians and secular citizens increasingly view international affairs through the prism of great power competition against China and Russia. The same is true in China, where many see the war in Ukraine as a proxy conflict with the United States.

Beijing chafing at Moscow’s demands for support, Chinese officials say

Western governments have rallied to the cause of Ukraine in Europe and Taiwan in Asia, calling them bastions of the “free” world that must not fall. In China, these movements are seen as disturbing attempts to strengthen the Western sphere of influence on the doorstep of Russia and China.

The widening ideological chasm gives water to the Chinese government to shore up its domestic position by playing on nationalist sentiment, galvanizing citizens against a foreign enemy to divert attention from domestic unrest. It also increases the risk of new international conflicts, as governments and militaries step up preparations for any great power confrontation.

In Heihe, many residents’ views on the war in Ukraine do not stray far from Beijing’s official position, and it is hard to tell where government propaganda ends and popular opinion begins. The propaganda effect is particularly strong in China, where news programs are tightly controlled, many international websites are blocked and social media comments are censored.

People are routinely punished in China for political speech that strays from the official line, and some in Heihe feared saying too much about the war in Ukraine. “We shouldn’t talk about it in the countryside,” said Chi Xiude, a 78-year-old who grows cabbage on the outskirts of town. “It’s a war. It hurts ordinary people.

Wang, however, could hardly contain his anger at US geopolitical interventions abroad. She named her toy poodle “Trump,” after former President Donald Trump, so she could scold the dog, “Can’t you behave? What are you biting now?

Although sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainian civilians, she blamed Ukrainian leaders for failing to pacify Moscow.

“Once a little brother, always a little brother,” Wang said. “You should help each other. What are you doing, running with the United States and these Earth scum? »

Sino-Russian relations have long been tenuous. After close cooperation between the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China in the early 1950s, relations soured, leading to military clashes along the northeastern border in the 1960s.

In recent years, Moscow and Beijing have made common cause against the West, with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin touting a “limitless” relationship in February. Yet the two countries have no formal alliance and the bond is often described as a marriage of convenience.

On June 10, China’s first road bridge to Russia was opened at Heihe, connecting it to Blagoveshchensk. The 4,200ft bridge was a symbol of Beijing’s commitment to supporting Moscow – a symbol Xi touted in a phone call with Putin on June 15. Local Chinese authorities said the bridge would reduce shipping costs on the river.

But this symbol of friendship is not so clear: the construction of the bridge was completed in November 2019, but the opening was delayed due to China’s strict pandemic controls and toll negotiations. Although it can accommodate more than 600 trucks a day, the red-lined bridge saw little use on a recent afternoon, with only a single empty flatbed truck seen arriving from Blagoveshchensk.

China imported more Russian crude oil in May than ever before

China has been wary of violating Western sanctions on Russia that could trigger secondary sanctions against its companies. Nor is it willing to relax its “zero covid” measures in the name of commerce. Russian tourists have not yet been allowed to return to Heihe, leaving the tourist town quiet and ghostly. The two shores sometimes greet each other when their boats pass from a distance on the coffee-colored waters of the Amur.

Chinese purchases of Russian oil and other raw materials have soared, and Xi has recently promised that trade with Russia will hit new records. But China’s exports to its northern neighbor remain well below pre-war levels, according to a study by the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Beijing has pushed back on requests from Moscow for more support in recent weeks, according to Chinese and US officials, The Washington Post reported.

“The Chinese side has been very, very cautious about the type of trade going on,” said Jacob Gunter, senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany.

Despite Beijing’s cautious efforts, the Commerce Department on Tuesday put five Chinese companies on a trade blacklist for allegedly supplying Russia’s military or defense industry. China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Fishing on the bank of the Amur River, a Heihe resident who gave only his surname, Wang, said the war in Ukraine had little to do with them except the rise in gas prices. But he said the people of Heihe had followed the news and knew what was happening.

“There’s no way we’re supporting Ukraine,” he said. “The Americans are trying to stir up trouble.

Another Heihe resident, Liu Hongyao, 57, agreed, saying China’s fate was tied to Russia’s, so the two should stick together. He called Ukraine “cannon fodder”, saying he believed Western countries had somehow provoked it into a self-destructive confrontation with its powerful neighbour.

“If America annihilates Russia, then China is toast too,” he said.

Beijing has avoided calling Russia’s assault an invasion and has rejected Western demands for it to publicly denounce Moscow. The International Criminal Court is investigating evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

A handful of figures in China have publicly criticized Moscow, including a group of university professors who published an open letter in February. “As a country once ravaged by war, where families were destroyed, where people everywhere were starving, … [w]We sympathize with the pain of the Ukrainian people,” he said.

Chinese authorities have suppressed recent news of Russian atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. But there is a different collective memory here in Heihe that is allowed.

In 1900, amid Russian-Chinese clashes, Russian Cossacks pushed Chinese residents across the Amur into the river, killing thousands. Today, the people of Heihe continue to recount the horror in vivid detail, even though it happened long before they were born. “The river was full of blood,” Liu said.

The Aihui History Museum, on the outskirts of Heihe, keeps alive the memory of that massacre at Blagoveshchensk, as well as other Chinese humiliations, such as when the Qing dynasty ceded a strip of land across the river to Russia in 1858.

Wang said she took her grandchildren to the museum twice.

“I said to the children, ‘Never forget the humiliation of the nation,'” she said. “A country must have a strong national defense. Or watch what happens. They cut the barbed wire fence and pushed the peasants into the river.

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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