VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Chinese Premier Li Peng was having the time of his life. First, academics at Far Eastern State University bestowed a doctorate of law on him. Then women dressed in white and beaded caps like boyars’ daughters on their wedding day danced to traditional music. And Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of the far eastern province of Primorye, praised his “comrade” and echoed Li’s calls for “strategic cooperation” between the countries.
All in all, Tuesday’s events were a successful conclusion to Li’s eight-day trip to Russia. The visit began with a chat with former President Boris Yeltsin. Li then met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of the Parliament and engaged in the obligatory “exchange of views about a wide range of issues of mutual interest.”
As Li said in Vladivostok, “China is ready to work together with Russia toward a multipolar world.”
Translation: Let’s join forces to counterbalance the United States. No doubt this was music to Putin’s ears, who has been stirring up resistance to Washington’s proposed antimissile system. Nazdratenko has made no secret of his disdain for that Western poison permeating the liver of honest Russia: democracy.
For decades, from the 1960s until the Gorbachev era, Russia and China were enemies facing each other across an impermeable border, and Russian and Chinese soldiers even clashed at Damansky in 1969. The neighbors had little to do with each other.
When the 4,300-kilometer border opened in 1992, there was a boom of interest in China. And with the current realization of their common weakness in the world, Russia and China are finding reasons for cooperation on issue such as NATO’s war on Yugoslavia and America’s proposed missile defense system.
But amid all the cheer, is “strategic cooperation” between these two misunderstood eastern giants really on the horizon? To state it negatively, why do Russians nurse a greater dislike for China than any other Asian country? Some might put it off to racism — and Russia, like in any other country, has its share of racists. Nazdratenko himself is fond of whipping up anti-Chinese sentiments and of stating that most Chinese visitors come to Russia in order to commit crimes.
But the distrust goes deeper than one xenophobic governor. Russian Far Easterners, who admire Koreans and Japanese, tend to regard the Chinese with scorn. This was not historically the case. A century ago, Russians in the Primorye region, which included Vladivostok, regularly married local Chinese and faced little social opprobrium. But nowadays, Russians see China as a source of illegal laborers who displace native workers. And at a time when local industry has all but collapsed, China has flooded markets here with worthless imports: tennis shoes whose soles rip off the first time a kid kicks a soccer ball, shower sandals that crumble when wet, phones whose number 0 doesn’t dial (a serious flaw in a country in which emergency numbers begin in 0).
As Russians grew disillusioned with Chinese products and Chinese businessmen bogged down in the Russian economic morass, cross-border trade fell from $70 billion in 1992 to $5.7 billion last year.
Li, who studied in Moscow in his youth and delighted his audiences by essaying a few stiff phrases in Russian, recognized some of these gut-level tensions. He suggested that direct trade links be established between Russia’s regions and China in order to reduce the number of poor-quality Chinese products on the Russian market. If “Made in China” ceases to mean “will fall apart next week,” Li might be amazed at how much good will his visit might generate. Likewise, as Chinese complain about the difficulty of even making a simple wire transfer into Russia, perhaps businessmen here will come to understand that international business can’t be conducted out of suitcases full of dollars.
But there is another cause for tension. Although Russia has had a foothold on the Pacific since 1647, this feels like a tenuous boast alongside a 4,000-year-old civilization with a billion inhabitants. Russians are all too aware of the vulnerability of their vast country. At least judging from the news reports, Li did not address fears Russia has of being overwhelmed by illegal Chinese immigrants. Throughout history, Russia’s neighbors have lusted for its territory, underestimated it, invaded it and been beaten off at a cost of enormous suffering. And rightly or wrongly, many Russians are convinced “the Chinese want our land.”
In the coming decade, Russia and China will find much common ground in ways that could benefit both nations — and won’t always please policymakers in the West. But before any “strategic cooperation” creates a new common front against the world, the two nations have a long list of mutual problems to face. And as both countries move toward a market economy, they may find themselves less interested in retreating into Fortress Eurasia when faced with the seductions of the developed West and Japan.
After all, it is harder and harder to turn back. In the foyer of the hall where Li received his award, several long tables were covered with computers, printers, encyclopedias and other gifts the Chinese leader donated to the Russian university. The computers, made in China, were powered by Microsoft.
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