Sino-Russian cross-border distrust in the longue durée

Sino-Russian cross-border distrust in the longue durée

The Sino-Russian border is an example of an international border that has been under recurrent and intense stress since its establishment at the end of the 17th century. During this long period, power misbalances and political mistrust between the two states pervaded territorial disputes, ethnic conflicts, the border clashes of the 1960s, the arms race of the late Soviet period, and the militarization of not only frontier spaces but also of peoples’ mindsets, which were poisoned by the suspicion that spies were everywhere at home. This situation of living in close proximity to a potential enemy was the foundation for the emergence of paranoia as a form of a ‘hard’ distrust – a generalized predisposition to distrust everyone coming from the other side of the border. This characterized both the domestic situation and the international relations of the Soviet Union during the Iron Curtain period, not only with the capitalist West but also with communist China.

   With this legacy of political distrust over several centuries, the political relations between Russia and China have been ‘reset’ only recently. The foundation of communist statehood in China in 1949 ‘softened’ distrust for a time in the so-called ‘honeymoon period’ of the 1950s, but it ‘hardened’ again with Mao-Khrushchev’s ideological disagreements and power competition. Only in the last few years has a certain degree of inter-state trust been rebuilt for economic and strategic reasons. But the question still remains: how long will it take to overcome the historical psychological state of distrust between the two countries and make people reconsider their default assumption of distrust – a question especially relevant at present when in official Russian rhetoric China is viewed no longer as a ‘potential danger’ but as a ‘strategic partner’. Did the latest political ‘reset’ of Sino-Russian relations in the 2000s bring a ‘reset’ to people’s minds, and more confidence and reliability in the human relations between Chinese and Russians?

   It is clear that the Sino-Russia borderlands have experienced different scales and grades of distrust (rather than trust) over time. More broadly, we can say that a certain distrust pervaded all aspects of social, political, and economic interactions, since a closely patrolled border is in itself a manifestation of distrust: an institutionalized device to manifest the perceived lack of trustworthiness of foreign subjects and the suspicion of outsiders. Given this history, I argue that distrust is still the baseline of human interactions in the Sino-Russian borderland, coloured by alternating periods of ‘cooling’ and ‘thawing’ in political relations. The question is, how do people negotiate this distrust and make it workable – what kind of appropriate caution do they exercise while moving from ‘bad’ distrust to ‘good’ distrust?

Beheaded Dragon and Poisoned River

A brief account of the history of interaction between the Russian and Chinese empires in the mid-18th century will be helpful for understanding the suspicion at the foundation of their initial relations. The bilateral Nerchinsk Treaty at the end of the 17th century, an instrument to reduce costly open conflicts at the margins of these empires, allowed both sides to limit their aggression and agree to start territorial and border delimitation. As international policy specialists have remarked, ‘the greater the distrust, the more detailed negotiators will insist that a treaty must be in order to cover all potential loopholes’. Mutual distrust motivated diplomats to craft additional agreements and numerous amendments, and to initiate new treaties with more detailed addenda and conventions. There were around a dozen further treaties, protocols, and conventions between Russia and China during the 18th and 19th centuries, in addition to numerous busy diplomatic missions whose task was to sense potential dangers and acquire information about the other country.    Perhaps the most vivid evidence of the Russians’ archaic distrust of the Chinese is the official coat of arms of the border town Kyakhta, which was established as the only point for direct trade between Russia and China after the Kyakhta Treaty of 1727 (Figure 1). The coat of arms shows a shield under the Russian imperial crown. The shield is divided into four equal parts, of which two depict Russian and Buryat border guards with a horn of abundance, symbolizing the two important aspects of the border (security and trade). The other two sections contain the head of a golden dragon. But this is not just a head of a dragon: as an 1861 document states, it was meant to depict ‘a severed head (Rus. otorvannaya golova) with red eyes and red tongue’; when the dragon as a whole signified China itself.

The Coat of Arms and official flag of Kyakhta, Russia

The same symbol of the guillotined dragon became the official flag of Kyakhta town, which is still in use. It should be noted that a beheaded and vanquished dragon is one of the most popular motifs of Russian orthodox iconography, depicting Saint George’s victory over pagans. Indeed, the newly established border was perceived by Russians as the front line of the confrontation between European Christianity and Asian pagans. Perhaps this is one reason why Kyakhta was so rich in large Orthodox churches; it has the most outstanding and impressive ecclesiastical architecture in all of Asiatic Russia east of the Urals.

It was suspicion and distrust that drove Count Raguzinsky, the Tsarist envoy who signed the Kyakhta treaty, to establish this trading place at such a remote, desolate site, away from existing trade routes and the large navigable Selenga and Chikoi Rivers. He chose it because the Kyakhta stream was the only river to flow from the Russian side into China, meaning that it could not be poisoned by the Chinese. As a local border officer wrote, trying to justify Raguzinsky’s choice and the priority he gave to security over trade interests and convenience:

There were plenty of good places to establish a trade point, but there was a problem: all the rivers run from China to Russia. And what if a bad time comes, with mutual enmity, surely the Chinese will poison the water and Russians will die! What’s to be done? At whatever cost it was necessary to find a river that would flow to China. And he found the Kyakhta stream.” (quoted in Cherepanov, Sergei, 1867. Puteletatel’ i ego pis’ma: Obozrenie Rossii s ptichego poleta [Flyer and his letters: Bird’s-eye view on Russia]. Kazan’: Tilli Publishing House.)

But in reality, it was the Russians who ‘poisoned’ the water and polluted the small rivulet by building several factories on its banks, washing their clothes in it, and watering cattle – to the extent that was soon nicknamed Gryaznukha (‘the dirty one’). There were even public complaints published in a local newspaper ‘Baikal’ toward the end of the 19th century.

Despite Kyakhta’s flourishing trade of tea and fur, increasing turnover, and public rituals of friendship, such as joint celebrations of Chinese New Year and shared official banquets for Chinese and Russian border officials, and despite the establishment of personal trust with specific Chinese trade partners residing just on the other side of the border in Maimaicheng, Russians in Kyakhta still had mixed feelings about their Chinese neighbours. They constantly suspected them of cheating, giving underweight by using wrong-weighted scales, selling bad goods for high prices, making price fixing arrangements for tea, etc. In mirrored fashion, Chinese merchants likewise blamed Russian merchants for cheating: Siberian furs sold by weight had metal bullets sewn into their paws; silver-plated base metal was sold as pure silver; tea to resell to Europe was admixed with other leaves; and they even (rightly) accused the Russians of recycling and dying previously brewed tea (Russian ispitoi chai) to look like fresh tea, thus damaging the reputation of Chinese tea in the European market. All of these trade practices, with many precautions taken to reveal their partners’ bluff and disguise their own tricks, made distrust workable as a way to continue trade relations notwithstanding the often justified mutual suspicions.

Although the trade relations between merchants fluctuated around ‘soft’ distrust, which still allowed cooperation and exchange between the two sides, security dilemmas in international relations kept Chinese and Russian border officials in a condition of deep distrust: both sides built up military stations along the border. The Chinese side imposed trade blockades against Russia more than a dozen times during the 18th century as means of exerting political pressure; and both sides actively used intelligence and disinformation to protect their commercial and political interests. For example, Qing border officials issued a number of secret instructions for Chinese traders on how to spy on the Russian state and collect intelligence in Kyakhta. One such order from the end of the 19th century suggested that they should ‘behave politely with Russians [in order to build trustful relations] as if they were good friends,’ and also called on them ‘to exploit the friendly attitude [of the Russians] and misinform them in an intimate and sincere manner about the bad harvest of silk this year [to keep the price of silk high]’.

These historical cases of distrust and suspicion are still recalled in popular memory when present day Russian and Chinese trade partners face difficulties and misunderstandings in making deals. This gives rise to perceptions of déjà vu – the feeling of having ‘already seen and lived through’ such a situation – even if the historical recollections are sometimes erroneous.


Key Topics

Sino-Russian relationsChinaRussia


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