June 7, 2014 by AK
A year or two back I read about Russian pensioners in Blagoveshchensk, the Russian city by the Chinese border on the Amur river, leasing out their apartments and renting flats in Heihe, the city on the opposite, Chinese bank. You get better value for money there, they said. Residents of the two cities can cross the border freely and the ferryboat across the Amur is much like a city bus.
Some of the present-day Amur oblast, of which Blagoveshchensk (“Annunciation City”) is capital, was technically under Beijing’s sovereignty until 1858, although Siberian Cossacks had occupied the area in 1856 and founded a military outpost that would soon become a booming commercial town.
During the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Yihetuan shelled Blagoveshchensk for two weeks in summer 1900, and the Russian government ordered all ethnically Chinese residents to be expelled across the river. This resulted in what is known as the Chinese pogrom, or massacre, of 1900, when up to 5,000 Chinese were killed by Russian militias or Cossacks. However Chinese workers continued to move to the area until the 1917 revolution.
Since the late 1980s, Blagoveshchensk residents have witnessed the small town across the river, Heihe, transform itself into a modern city. Officially, the population of Heihe and Blagoveshchensk is about the same at 200,000 but the Heihe city district has over 1.6 mln residents, twice as many as the Amur oblast. Naturally, Heihe City and Blagoveshchensk form a major trade hub and many locals are active in cross-border trade on a large or small scale. (Blagoveshchensk has even erected a statue of a small-time “shuttle” or “suitcase trader”.) Chinese farmers are a major presence in the Amur oblast as well.
I’ve come across an interview with a Russian entrepreneur living in Heihe, who complained that it was impossible to take out Chinese citizenship. This pragmatic attitude – he’d become a Chinese citizen if he were allowed too because it’s more convenient – seems to be common across the Russian Far East. Watching the turmoil in Donbass, one wonders if China may take advantage of it one day. Not in the same heavy-handed way as Russia, of course.