It was less than a year ago that Liu Xingchuan, manager of a trading company in this Sino-Soviet border town, first crossed the Amur River to visit the Siberian city of Blagoveshchensk.
“I’ve now been to the other side more than 20 times,” Liu said in a recent interview. “We talk business and sign contracts. In the evening, we share a few drinks and congratulate ourselves. We’ve become old friends.”
A new era of harmony, readily evident in this long-isolated town of 70,000, has begun to blossom along the 4,300-mile Sino-Soviet border. The upbeat mood is supported by the likelihood that China and the Soviet Union will hold a summit meeting in Beijing next year, which would end three decades of estrangement between the one-time allies.
Bilingual Chinese and Russian signs--the Russian sometimes misspelled by inexperienced sign makers--have sprouted above trend-conscious shops. Among these are a jewelry store, a new restaurant and a supplier of meters for industrial use.
Tourist exchanges began in September, with residents of the two cities making day trips to the opposite side. The tour groups crossed the mile-wide river by boat until it began to freeze in late October. From mid-December, they will be driven across the ice.
This winter also will see thousands of truckloads of Soviet timber, cement and fertilizer cross the frozen river in barter trade for Chinese consumer products.
About 600 Chinese laborers from Heilongjiang province have gone to work in Siberia. Next year there will be thousands.
Even the armies of the two sides, which fought bitter border skirmishes in 1969, are promoting this new era of economic cooperation. Watchtowers are still manned on both sides of the river, but the atmosphere is relaxed.
Troops Serve as Trade Bridge
“The troops of the two sides are playing the role of a bridge in helping to carry out trade and economic cooperation,” Col. Anatoly A. Saiganov said in an impromptu interview after meeting with Chinese counterparts in Heihe. “We have done a lot to support this.”
Saiganov, deputy commander of Soviet troops in the Blagoveshchensk area, headed a small delegation that had taken a Soviet Hovercraft across the half-frozen river for a day of discussions.
The meeting was arranged to smooth out some problems that had cropped up in the expansion of economic ties, including two incidents in which Chinese laborers in Siberia got into fights or quarrels. One incident was a conflict with Soviet teen-agers, while the other was among Chinese.
“All problems have been solved very smoothly,” Saiganov said.
Heihe residents seem to like the idea of more contact with their Soviet neighbors.
‘We Want to Be Friendly’
“They’re making day trips to our town now, and we want to be friendly, so we put this sign up,” said Yang Fujun, manager of the industrial meter store with a bilingual sign. “The people of both countries want peace. They don’t want conflict.”
Li Dongsheng, a spokesman for the Heihe city government, said that what now is similar to the 1950s is that the Chinese and Soviet people “want to have a friendly border.”
“What’s different is that in the 1950s we thought of ourselves as members of ‘one big socialist family,’ ” Li added. “It was like the relationship between elder and younger brother, or between father and son. Now it’s not like that. We want friendship, but it should be friendship based on equality and mutual benefit.”
Trade between the two countries during the first eight months of this year was valued at $1.8 billion, up about 30% over last year, according to Chinese statistics. It is expected to reach about $2.8 billion for the full year, according to the official China Daily.
Still Lags Behind
This still lags far behind China’s annual trade with Japan, the United States and Western Europe. But it is more than 10 times the value of Sino-Soviet trade in 1981.
Most of this trade is organized by officials in Beijing and Moscow, with goods then shipped by rail across the border at crossing points such as Manzhouli, in Inner Mongolia. Local barter trade arranged in cities such as Heihe and Blagoveshchensk, which has resumed only in the past two or three years, is expanding at an even faster pace.
Liu’s firm, the government-owned Heihe District Border Trade Co., carried out the first local Heihe-Blagoveshchensk deal in September, 1987, when 208 tons of watermelons were traded for Soviet fertilizer. Heihe and Blagoveshchensk, which has a population of 230,000, are not the largest cities along the border, but they are the largest pair of cities directly across from each other. Local Chinese officials believe this will contribute to rapid growth in their trade and economic cooperation.
This year, Liu said, his firm has carried out about $10 million worth of trade with the Soviet Union. It has reached contracts for an additional $30 million worth of trade to be conducted before the river ice melts in the spring.
Much Depends on Summit
Just how rapidly China and the Soviet Union expand their economic ties depends partly on whether a summit between Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping actually takes place next year.
Chinese leaders have expressed optimism that a summit may be held during the first half of 1989, but they also have stressed that prospects for such a meeting depend on continued progress toward a settlement of the Cambodian conflict. Vietnam, which is backed by the Soviet Union, has an estimated 120,000 troops in Cambodia, while China supports a resistance coalition that is trying to force Vietnam to withdraw.
A summit “would definitely promote the development of trade,” Li said.
“We still don’t have normal relations between our governments and our parties,” he said. “If normalization is achieved, many unnecessary obstacles would be removed.”
Free Flow of Goods Forseen
Officials of the two countries appear to envision an era when the freer flow of goods, labor, capital and technology contributes to development on both sides of the border.
The Heihe District government is paying most of the expense of laying railway tracks along a line that by the end of next year will give Heihe a better link to the rest of China than the two-lane dirt road it depends on now. The railway line has been dormant since shortly after the end of World War II, when withdrawing Soviet troops tore up the iron rails and took them back to Siberia.
The railway, Li said, is part of a strategy for Heihe’s development that calls for the city to “link up south to the rest of China and open up north to the Soviet Union.”
Gorbachev, in a September speech in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, stressed the hope that East Asian countries will play a role in developing the underpopulated eastern part of the Soviet Union. One specific suggestion was that joint agricultural operations be established in the Blagoveshchensk region and other areas near the Chinese border.
Hopes Placed on China
Xing Wenzhao, deputy director of border trade for Heilongjiang province, said it appears that “in manpower, the Soviet Union places hopes on China, and in technology it would turn to Japan or other countries.”
“In the long term, we are optimistic about cooperation in labor,” Xing said. “But we don’t deny there are some problems we have to solve. The accommodations the Soviet government supplies Chinese workers are rather limited, and they don’t have enough pork and vegetables for Chinese diets.”
The official New China News Agency has reported that about 10,000 Chinese laborers are expected to be working in Siberia by the end of next year.
Xing said he believes this may be an overly optimistic projection, but that “it is likely that several thousand people will go.”
Gorbachev summarized his view of the overall situation in his Krasnoyarsk speech.
“There is ever more good will and trust in relations between the Soviet and Chinese people,” he said. “Their profound interest in one another has been resumed and is being filled with new content. Mutual attraction is growing.”