Revive border trade between China, Russia
Published: Jul 19, 2017 08:28 PM
Standing on the top of the monumental gate into Russia at the border city Manzhouli and looking north, I can see Zabaykalsk, the final stop of the Far Eastern Railway within Russia. The Russian town is also an important pivot of the Belt and Road initiative. Many of the freight rail lines linking Chinese cities with European countries that opened in the past year pass here.

To its south, Manzhouli, of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, looks like a Russian city. Colorful church domes and tall buildings contrast with the vast expanse of grassland and the modest bungalows in Zabaykalsk in the neighboring Russian territory.

A freight train loaded with logs and timber from the Russian side slowly passed through the border crossing, heading toward a collection and distribution center not far way. One of my friends told me that logs and timber, as well as raw materials such as minerals, are the main Russian exports to China.

Manzhouli is the largest land border crossing between China and Russia. More than 1,000 China-Europe train trips were made through here last year. China mainly exports electronic products and accessories, garments, home appliances and daily necessities to Russia.

There is an underground commodity market in the downtown of Manzhouli, the main customers of which are self-employed Russian retailers. But I only saw a few Russians inquiring about orders there.

A local guide told me that a few years ago when the Sino-Russian border trade was in full swing, Manzhouli was filled with Russian merchants.

A story about a Chinese wholesaler from Yiwu earning over 1 million yuan ($147,900) a month by selling jeans has been widely circulated among locals, but now, it is only a tale of the past.

I talked with some Chinese stall owners there, and they all said the drop in business was a result of the ruble devaluation caused by Western sanctions. Trade at the China-Russia border is still settled in dollars. In view of a sharp depreciation of the ruble, the Chinese businessmen had to raise prices.

The slump in China-Russia border trade is in stark contrast with trade at the China-Vietnam border, which I witnessed during a trip last year.

Pingxiang, in China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, has risen to become China's largest border  entrepot in recent years. People on both sides of the border have depended on trade to get rid of poverty. 

Is there any way to revive Manzhouli? At a Belt and Road seminar with Russian scholars and officials I attended last year, two officials from Zabaykalsky Krai also raised this question. Agricultural cooperation may be a feasible way to benefit both sides.

Russian agricultural products enjoy a high reputation in China. There are many imported agricultural products available at the Manzhouli market. Russian flour, cereals and edible oil are popular with local people. So are Russian sausages. Although Russian sausages are not allowed through customs, tourists always manage to bring some back.

I saw a variety of flour, cereals, sausages and cheeses in supermarkets in Russia. Some enterprises in Heilongjiang have started agricultural cooperation with Russia. The China-Russia joint venture ARMADA in Primorsky Krai which integrates planting, breeding and processing has become the biggest agricultural cooperation project between the two countries.

Zabaykalsky Krai is a traditional farming area and a main source of fine wool. Exports of related products take a lion's share of the region's foreign trade. Animal husbandry has a great potential.

Advancing agricultural cooperation between the border areas of China and Russia can help perk the enthusiasm of people on both sides for cooperation and is conducive to transforming the simple act of selling and buying into a cooperative mechanism of joint production and mutual benefits.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina