HEIHE Song Yuxiang’s the store shelves are full of Russian delicacies, even though we are in China. On the shelves of a small shop, you can see row after row of vodka, chocolate and ground candy.
– Russian dark chocolate or hazelnut chocolate. That’s what customers like. Also Russian perfumes and toothpaste, Song displays products embroidered with Russian letters.
Song has run a shop on the Russian border in Heihe for nine years after retiring. In China, the retirement age for women starts at 55.
Heihe has lived on border trade. Russian tourists brought a good living.
– I don’t know how much these cost in Russia, but here in China they are cheaper, Song shows other hit products: Russian mayonnaise for a couple of euros and pickle jars for one euro.
Their popularity among Russian tourists is based on the fact that they can find Russian products there cheaper than in their home country. In the same way, Finns have hoarded butter or beer from Tallinn.
The neighbors’ coexistence has lasted longer than at the beginning of the Ukrainian war, when Russia and China declared a solid partnership. Before opening the store, Song Yuxiang also lived on the Russian side of the border for a few years when her husband ran a restaurant there.
The cities of Heihe and Blagoveshchensk are separated by only a few hundred meters across the Amur River on the northern border of China. From Heihe’s side, you can watch the big Russian flag fluttering in Salo and the horizon of high-rise buildings and smoke-blowing factory chimneys on the opposite bank. Chinese soldiers guard the border in the middle of the frozen river.
The corona virus blinded cross-border trade
The street named the street of Russian products is lined with brick-and-mortar shops. Street signs and store names are written in both Chinese and Russian.
Song’s shop is also located here. Before, the street was teeming with tourists from the neighboring country. Now there are no Russians to be seen.
Three years ago, the corona pandemic hit and the border was closed. You can still get to the city from Russia only with a business visa. However, Song is looking forward to better times.
– It seems that times are changing. I see more and more Russians. I might even extend my opening hours soon, he reflects.
Cars and gas pass through them
The city of Heihe, with a couple of hundred thousand inhabitants, is becoming a larger point of connection in the relations between China and Russia. Since the leaders of China and Russia pledged a strategic partnership during the Beijing Olympics, trade between the two countries has increased by a third. It is now done even more through Heihe.
On the edge of the city, a kilometer-long red bridge across the Amur River to Russia has been opened. On the Chinese side, in front of the bridge, a Russian driver is waiting in a truck for a border crossing permit. There are light green loaders on the truck. Next to it is another truck with a large closed container. Brand new trucks line the side of the road for kilometers. They are all exported to Russia.
More cars, machines, electronics and chemicals have been exported from China to Russia, while imports from the West have dwindled due to sanctions. The United States accuses China of intending to export supplies to Russia that aid in warfare. China has denied this.
But China’s trade partnership boosts Russia’s economy. After the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has become China’s most important energy importer. It buys oil at the price determined by Russia, not at the sanctioned price of the West.
The gas pipeline has been built through Heihe under the Amur River. When the pipeline from Siberia to China is opened to its full extent at its destination in Shanghai, almost as much gas will come from Russia through it as the Nord Stream 1 pipeline brought from Russia to Europe.
According to Song Yuxiang, a new bridge over the Amur River became necessary.
– We were satisfied with the opening of the bridge. We get more Russian products and our Chinese goods get to Russia faster, he says.
According to him, the Russian gas pipeline has already benefited the locals. The gas connection has been extended to the new apartments. Song says that the cost of the energy used to cook food has dropped by a fifth.
The cable car got stuck in sanctions
The US and European Union sanctions against Russia are also felt to some extent in Heihe. A ropeway project worth tens of millions of euros on the banks of the Amur River is stuck. According to the Russian authorities, France is not supplying parts because of the sanctions.
The modernly designed terminals designed by the Dutch architectural studio are semi-finished. The cable car is supposed to transport a couple of million people across the Amur River each year. It would be the world’s first cable car between two countries.
Putin is supported at the Chinese border
In Heihe, it is clear that the residents support Russia.
In a large shopping center for Russian products near the cable car, asks people who shopped in the store about Chinese relations with Russians. Everyone says they want the Russian tourists back. Many have themselves been on the other side of the border on vacation or to do business.
Everyone says they support Russia in the war in Ukraine.
– My opinion of Putin is very good, he says Wanga man named
Gao– man says he buys Russian products to support Russia.
– They can impose sanctions if they want. We can buy Russian products, Gao gasps.
He says that he follows the war in Ukraine from the Chinese media and believes that it is due to the US’s efforts to cover up Russia and China.
A seller of pineapples and strawberries on the shopping street Wang– man also says he supports Russia because Russia and China are friends. He considers the United States a bully.
– If I were a leader, I would help Russia fight against it. Putin is smart and brave, he says.
Song Yuxiang has also noticed in her store that purchases are sometimes made for political reasons. Especially before the Chinese New Year, Chinese customers bought Russian products from Song’s store as gifts.
– People are patriotic. Many support Russia because supporting Russia means supporting China. China and Russia are friends, Song thinks.