Saturday, May 25, 2024

Putin’s Visit to Harbin Speaks Volumes about Growing Chinese Self-Confidence

Paul Goble

              Staunton, May 20 – During his time in China, Vladimir Putin for the first time visited Harbin, a city in northeastern China near the Russian border that was founded by the Russian Empire in 1898 to house the headquarters of the Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railroad and became an important center of the Russian emigration after the Bolshevik revolution.

              Because of these Russian ties and because the Russians in the city enjoyed extraterritorial status until 1920, Ivan Zuyenko, a China specialist at Moscow’s MGIMO says, Beijing did not like recalling let alone highlighting this past (

              “But in recent years, the situation has sharply changed,” the Russian scholar says. And now, “Harbin considers itself to be a cosmopolitan city for which the interrelationship of Russian and Chinese civilizations serves as a key element of identity” and even plays up its Russian past to attract tourists and visitors like Putin.

              The Kremlin leader’s stay in Harbin was in complete conformity with all of that, Zuyenko says. Putin laid flowers on the war memorial to Soviet soldiers who died fighting the Japanese during World War II, but he then visited and made a gift to the Orthodox Church of the Intercession, the only operational Orthodox church there (

              According to the MGIMO researcher, the Chinese side had originally proposed that Putin visit the Sofia Cathedral, the largest of the Russian churches there but now a museum and symbol of the city. Putin, however, preferred that he go to a working church and so he visited the Church of the Intercession instead.

              In the course of his visit, Putin met with students and staff of the Harbin Polytechnic and took part in the opening of the Russian-Chines EXPO and then spent the night at a villa on the banks of the Sungari River which was frequently celebrated in the works of Russian émigré writers.

              Putin is not the first Russian president to come to Harbin. Yeltsin visited in 1997; but the first Russian leader’s visit was not a great success. Under the weather and possibly drunk, he kept the small group of survivors of the first Russian emigration there waiting for more than an hour and then met wit them for only about 90 seconds (

              What Zuyenko did not mention in his article about Putin’s visit is the way in which Chinese attitudes about a Russian outpost on Chinese territory contrast so sharply with Muscovite ones about any foreign past on Russian territory be it in Kaliningrad or the Russian Far East or elsewhere.

              Unlike Moscow, China is now sufficiently self-confident that it is prepared to call attention to that past rather than see it as something that has to be minimized less it threaten Beijing now or in the future, a completely different attitude that many in the Russian capital in Putin’s time have.    

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