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Book: ‘Black Dragon River’—Russia’s Wild Window into China

Russia’s Far East is supposedly a strategically important area for President Vladimir Putin’s administration, with the government repeatedly declaring that development of the remote territory is one of its top priorities. But, as any Russian expert will tell you, many governments have made such claims over the decades, and yet nothing much has actually happened. Despite its vast natural resources, the region continues to stagnate.

This may be changing. A new book, Black Dragon River, looks at the great Amur basin, which forms a large part of the border between Russia and China. Written by The Economist’s Asia editor Dominic Ziegler, the book frames the region as central to Putin’s plan for Russia’s future, a future that sees increasing trade between Russia and Asia—especially China—as Russia draws away from Europe.

One of the ways to do so would be to exploit the regions along which the Amur flows, one of Asia’s mightiest rivers. This includes an amazing range of ecoregions: from tundra to boreal taiga forests to steppe grasslands, deciduous temperate forest, and wetlands. China may be the ideal partner for Russia in exploiting the region’s natural resources—not that they are not already being exploited. The varied regions are also facing varied threats from logging, mining, and hydropower.

There is only one problem. The area has been, and could well again become, contested territory between Russia and China.

People’s Friendship

By Davide Monteleone
  • A pair of Russian Cossacks ride their horses near Moghilovka, a village in the Lazo region, where two rivers, the Amur (or Heilong, in Chinese) and Ussuri (Wusuli), form the borders of the northeastern-most corner of China’s Heilongjiang province.
    A pair of Russian Cossacks ride their horses near Moghilovka, a village in the Lazo region, where two rivers, the Amur (or Heilong, in Chinese) and Ussuri (Wusuli), form the borders of the northeastern-most corner of China’s Heilongjiang province.
  • A food vendor awaits customers on the bank of the Songhua River in Harbin, beneath bridges used by Chinese Eastern Railway. Chinese in name alone, the railway was built on a strip of land controlled by Russia that was exempt from the jurisdiction of local Chinese law in a deal brokered between the two countries after China lost the Sino-Japanese war. The old bridge, seen at left, was built by the Russians at the beginning of the 20th century; the newer one was built by the Chinese.
    A food vendor awaits customers on the bank of the Songhua River in Harbin, beneath bridges used by Chinese Eastern Railway. Chinese in name alone, the railway was built on a strip of land controlled by Russia that was exempt from the jurisdiction of local Chinese law in a deal brokered between the two countries after China lost the Sino-Japanese war. The old bridge, seen at left, was built by the Russians at the beginning of the 20th century; the newer one was built by the Chinese.
  • A Russian family sits at a riverside café in Komsomolsk-on-Amur at dusk. The town was largely built using volunteer labor from the Communist youth organization Komsomol, hence its name. Construction of the town was aided by the use of slave labor from nearby prison camps.
    A Russian family sits at a riverside café in Komsomolsk-on-Amur at dusk. The town was largely built using volunteer labor from the Communist youth organization Komsomol, hence its name. Construction of the town was aided by the use of slave labor from nearby prison camps.
  • A team of lumbermen works in the Lazo region. Six laborers make up a team and live on-site for stretches of three months.
    A team of lumbermen works in the Lazo region. Six laborers make up a team and live on-site for stretches of three months.
  • Construction workers take a break from building the new “Matryoshka Village,” an amusement park that pays tribute to the famous nesting Russian dolls. It is an extension of an earlier “Matryoshka Square,” in Manzhouli, China.
    Construction workers take a break from building the new “Matryoshka Village,” an amusement park that pays tribute to the famous nesting Russian dolls. It is an extension of an earlier “Matryoshka Square,” in Manzhouli, China.
  • A Russian bride and groom celebrate with members of their wedding party on the banks of the Amur River in Troitskoye, Khabarovsk Krai.
    A Russian bride and groom celebrate with members of their wedding party on the banks of the Amur River in Troitskoye, Khabarovsk Krai.
  • A group of Chinese people picnic on the bank of the Songhua River in Harbin. Formerly a small fishing village, the city expanded rapidly in the 19th century as Russian engineers constructed the eastern portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
    A group of Chinese people picnic on the bank of the Songhua River in Harbin. Formerly a small fishing village, the city expanded rapidly in the 19th century as Russian engineers constructed the eastern portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
  • The city of Wudalianchi, in Heilongjiang province close to the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk. It is also becoming a new resort destination for Russians with some help from advertising campaigns touting Sino-Russian cooperation and tourism.
    The city of Wudalianchi, in Heilongjiang province close to the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk. It is also becoming a new resort destination for Russians with some help from advertising campaigns touting Sino-Russian cooperation and tourism.
  • Soldiers line up to patrol an airfield during a public event for the Sukhoi Aviation Company, a Russian government-controlled company, in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The company, which produces both military and civilian aircraft, is the only major employer in the city, and almost half the city’s 250,000 residents work for it.
    Soldiers line up to patrol an airfield during a public event for the Sukhoi Aviation Company, a Russian government-controlled company, in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The company, which produces both military and civilian aircraft, is the only major employer in the city, and almost half the city’s 250,000 residents work for it.
  • Tourists visit a wooly mammoth statue, built to commemorate a fossil discovery, in Mammoth Park in the Jalainur district of Manzhouli.
    Tourists visit a wooly mammoth statue, built to commemorate a fossil discovery, in Mammoth Park in the Jalainur district of Manzhouli.
  • A Russian-style building in the “Russian Village” in Harbin. Once a fishing town, Harbin became a destination for Russians with the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway and their numbers swelled following the October Revolution in 1917. The Russian “Harbinsky” population brought onion-domed cupolas and art nouveau architecture to the city.
    A Russian-style building in the “Russian Village” in Harbin. Once a fishing town, Harbin became a destination for Russians with the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway and their numbers swelled following the October Revolution in 1917. The Russian “Harbinsky” population brought onion-domed cupolas and art nouveau architecture to the city.
  • From across the Amur River in Blagoveshchensk, Russia, the Chinese city of Heihe glows in the night.
    From across the Amur River in Blagoveshchensk, Russia, the Chinese city of Heihe glows in the night.
  • Travelers wait for a bus to take them to Russia from the border town of Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia. In 1992, a border trading district was established in Manzhouli, making it one of the first land border cities designated as an international port of entry, transforming it into a prosperous trade hub.
    Travelers wait for a bus to take them to Russia from the border town of Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia. In 1992, a border trading district was established in Manzhouli, making it one of the first land border cities designated as an international port of entry, transforming it into a prosperous trade hub.
  • Li Lihua and her husband Vadim sit with family members in their Blagoveshchensk home. Li moved to Russia from Harbin in 1993 after the Soviet era ended and migration was once again possible. Today, she runs a successful business in construction and restoration. Prior to the mid-19th century, most Chinese migrants to Russia were convicts, hunters, fishermen, or traders.
    Li Lihua and her husband Vadim sit with family members in their Blagoveshchensk home. Li moved to Russia from Harbin in 1993 after the Soviet era ended and migration was once again possible. Today, she runs a successful business in construction and restoration. Prior to the mid-19th century, most Chinese migrants to Russia were convicts, hunters, fishermen, or traders.
  • A woman wears a facemask and holds a fishing net while standing knee-deep in the Songhua River in Harbin. A tributary of the Amur, the Songhua is another point of connection between the two countries. An explosion at a Chinese chemical plant in November 2005 spilled 100 tonnes of nitrobenzene into the Songhua—a spill local officials were unable to conceal when it became clear the pollutants would quickly drain across the border into Russia.
    A woman wears a facemask and holds a fishing net while standing knee-deep in the Songhua River in Harbin. A tributary of the Amur, the Songhua is another point of connection between the two countries. An explosion at a Chinese chemical plant in November 2005 spilled 100 tonnes of nitrobenzene into the Songhua—a spill local officials were unable to conceal when it became clear the pollutants would quickly drain across the border into Russia.
  • Pi Jun, 53, from Jalainur, looks up from his lunch break on the construction site for the new “Matryoshka Village”—a Russian-doll-themed amusement park— in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia. From 2008 until 2014, Pi worked in Chita in Zabaykalsky Krai, almost 400 kilometers away, where he earned the equivalent of 4,500 RMB per month. At the time, he says, that was more than what he could have made in China.
    Pi Jun, 53, from Jalainur, looks up from his lunch break on the construction site for the new “Matryoshka Village”—a Russian-doll-themed amusement park— in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia. From 2008 until 2014, Pi worked in Chita in Zabaykalsky Krai, almost 400 kilometers away, where he earned the equivalent of 4,500 RMB per month. At the time, he says, that was more than what he could have made in China.
  • Qiu Changli, from Bianjiangzhen, a border town in Heilongjiang province whose name literally means “border town,” was once an actor. He was born in China to Russian parents and therefore is not a Chinese citizen. Approximately one third of Bianjiangzhen’s population is of Russian or Chinese-Russian descent. Some are descendants of Chinese workers who migrated to Russia to build railways or to do business and started families with Russian women. Many of those families escaped to China during the Sino-Soviet conflict of 1929. Some are descendants of women who fled the Russian revolution and married Chinese men in Bianjiangzhen. In 1954, ethnic Russians were officially recognized as one of China’s 55 “minority nationalities.” In 2003, the Chinese government designated Bianjiangzhen as a Russian “Ethnic Village”—a district officially designated for one of China’s official “minority nationalities.”
    Qiu Changli, from Bianjiangzhen, a border town in Heilongjiang province whose name literally means “border town,” was once an actor. He was born in China to Russian parents and therefore is not a Chinese citizen. Approximately one third of Bianjiangzhen’s population is of Russian or Chinese-Russian descent. Some are descendants of Chinese workers who migrated to Russia to build railways or to do business and started families with Russian women. Many of those families escaped to China during the Sino-Soviet conflict of 1929. Some are descendants of women who fled the Russian revolution and married Chinese men in Bianjiangzhen. In 1954, ethnic Russians were officially recognized as one of China’s 55 “minority nationalities.” In 2003, the Chinese government designated Bianjiangzhen as a Russian “Ethnic Village”—a district officially designated for one of China’s official “minority nationalities.”
  • Visitors take pictures in front of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin. The original church, built on this site in 1907 to mark the 1903 completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, was constructed from timber. In the 1990s, the church was rebuilt, and it is now a tourist destination used primarily as a backdrop for wedding pictures.
    Visitors take pictures in front of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin. The original church, built on this site in 1907 to mark the 1903 completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, was constructed from timber. In the 1990s, the church was rebuilt, and it is now a tourist destination used primarily as a backdrop for wedding pictures.
  • A replica of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral used as a science museum stands in the Jalainur district of Manzhouli, China.
    A replica of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral used as a science museum stands in the Jalainur district of Manzhouli, China.
  • Russian Orthodox in Harbin attend Sunday prayers in a private apartment not far from the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God, officially closed for renovation. The Chinese government does not recognize Orthodox Christianity as an official religion, but in October 2015 the Russian Orthodox Church ordained former banker Yu “Aleksandr” Shi, of Harbin, its first Chinese priest to be ordained in 60 years.
    Russian Orthodox in Harbin attend Sunday prayers in a private apartment not far from the Church of the Protection of the Mother of God, officially closed for renovation. The Chinese government does not recognize Orthodox Christianity as an official religion, but in October 2015 the Russian Orthodox Church ordained former banker Yu “Aleksandr” Shi, of Harbin, its first Chinese priest to be ordained in 60 years.
  • A shoe peddler sets up his wares in the city center of Heihe where the city street transforms into a huge market for Russian customers arriving from Blagoveshchensk, across the Amur River. Until a decade or so ago, it was a rural backwater, but a special economic zone was established in the city in the mid-90s, and the city has since grown to a population of close to 2 million.
    A shoe peddler sets up his wares in the city center of Heihe where the city street transforms into a huge market for Russian customers arriving from Blagoveshchensk, across the Amur River. Until a decade or so ago, it was a rural backwater, but a special economic zone was established in the city in the mid-90s, and the city has since grown to a population of close to 2 million.
  • Passengers disembark at the Manzhouli railway station.
    Passengers disembark at the Manzhouli railway station.
  • Night falls in Manzhouli.
    Night falls in Manzhouli.

“Apparently forgiven and forgotten (for now) . . . is a gargantuan Russian grab of territory from China the scale of which dwarfs all the better remembered Western depredations in the Victorian period—Hong Kong, Shanghai and the other Treaty Ports,” Ziegler says in the book’s prologue.

Postcard

01.18.16

A People’s Friendship

James Palmer
It takes a brave man to jump off a moving train for the sake of a sale, but the clothes hawkers had the easy courage of men who did this on the regular. I watched as they leapt off the front carriage as the train chugged into a station with no stop...

The Russian campaign of 1854 took from China an area about the size of France and Germany combined, all without firing a shot, a situation the author compares to Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. “If Russia can tear up agreements and treaties to grab Crimea, what kind of example does that set for an increasingly assertive China that might one day awake to feel longings for its former lands beyond the Amur?” the author writes.

Ziegler explores the Far East territory where it meets with the Amur River on the Russian-Chinese border, visiting both its wild and its more developed areas. He sets out the case, through historical accounts and lived experiences, why heavily-populated China may long for this area, and how the lightly-populated Russian area may be vulnerable.

Peace through Conservation

In poignant prose, the author conveys the wildness of the territory around the river itself. Entirely lacking dams along its main trunk, the Amur is one of the few rivers to still run free. The reign of peace among nations at the borderland has been aided by efforts to maintain the region’s biological diversity, especially in Dauria, or Transbaikal, the mountainous region beyond Lake Baikal, according to the author.

“Conservationists understand the importance of preventing Dauria from being carved up, fenced, drained, and domesticated. The work of a handful of Russians, Mongolians, and Chinese in keeping the place wild has helped lower the frontier antagonisms among the three big countries,” Zeigler writes.

Listen to “China’s ‘Town of Underwear’”
This may not last. According to joint research released in 2015 by WWF and the Russian companies EN+ Group and EuroSibEnergo, Chinese, Mongolian, and Russian companies are developing plans to dam the Amur and its tributaries at potentially dozens of points. WWF and the Russian companies EN+ Group and EuroSibEnergo are working together to develop environmental standards and assessments to lessen the environmental impacts of planned hydropower projects, many of which are certain to move forward given the enormous potential for power production in the Amur basin.

Zeigler testifies to the inspiring state of the natural areas in the Amur basin throughout the book, including cranes and millions of other birds using seasonal wetlands as a stopover along the East Asia-Australasian Flyway; 2 billion acres of boreal forests of larch and pine; critically endangered Amur kaluga sturgeon; and thick runs of five million salmon. The author’s describes the, “wild redemptive places that the Amur basin promised thanks to both its scale and to its biological diversity, which is extraordinary.”

This wilderness is threatened by human encroachment, as the drive to extract the region’s forests and mineral resources intensifies amid difficult economic times in Russia. Development of tourism is also a focus, with Russian wilderness protection laws allowing development of tourism and related infrastructure inside protected areas. On the Chinese side of the basin, the population has doubled over the last three decades.

Zeigler reports the existence of Chinese sturgeon hatcheries, where wild female kaluga are captured, fed with hormones to induce reproduction, and stripped of their roe. The hatchlings are raised until they are big enough to sell to restaurants. These hatcheries are currently the biggest threat to the critically endangered species, according to the author. The fish also face threats from poaching, of course, as kaluga caviar is part of a “criminal conveyor belt” of goods coming out of Russia to China via the region’s only high quality road, with drugs coming back the other way.

Russia’s timber exports to China are growing by 18 million cubic meters per year, though much of the trade is illegal and total numbers are only estimates. “The impact on fragile ecosystems is profound, and not only from the forests’ fragmentation,” Zeigler says, noting the negative impact on the Amur tiger, of which only about 500 remain.

Meandering History

Features

09.14.15

Sino-Russian Trade After a Year of Sanctions

Alexander Gabuev from Carnegie Moscow Center
After a year of intense flirtation, the Sino-Russian relationship is beginning to look like a one-sided love affair. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last week—his first since the United States and European Union enacted...

For the better part of the text, the author details the history of Russians settling in the Far East in hopes that the lush Amur River would be a new America. He recounts the stories of key historical figures and the methods of subjugating the native populations, accepting sable pelts as a form of tax payment. The more recent history of the use of the territory as a distant work camp for those sent to the gulag is also covered in detail.

The book meanders not only along the Amur River today but also through Russian history, weaving impressions of the contemporary journey in the Far East with tales of the Russian aristocracy from the founding of St. Petersburg to revolutionary rebellion, stories familiar to every Russian or foreign student of Russian history or language.

China Perspective?

A major shortcoming of the book is its focus on the Russian side of the Amur, despite the book title’s use of the Chinese name for the river and the fact that the majority of the population in the Amur basin is Chinese.

The book begins with an interesting account of the author’s trek to the source of the Amur River in Mongolia. But for the rest of the text the author ventured across the border to China on only one occasion, revealing a stark contrast to the relatively uniform state of vodka-soaked decay and lethargy in the cities, towns, and trains on the Russian side. Toward the end of the book, we are taken to Heihe, the Chinese city across the Black Dragon River from Blagoveshchensk.

“It was a thriving Chinese city, with a promenade along the waterfront and a bustling market behind, counters gleaming with river fish and farmers coming from the countryside in motorized carts piled with vegetables, mutton and live chickens,” the author writes. The discovery was extraordinary to this reader, and I could only wonder about the unexplored Chinese side of the Amur River’s contemporary story.