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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


Heihe (黑河) is a booming city in Heilongjiang Province, China, opposite the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk (Благовещенск). The Free Trade Zone established on a small river island next to Heihe is one of the most active site of exchange between the two countries. While it is lively, Sino-Russian exchange is concentrated essentially around commercial and industrial products, with very little cultural, social or symbolic interaction. It is also very imbalanced: Russians travelling to Heihe are largely small traders, while Chinese people visiting Blagoveshchensk are mostly tourists. And while most Chinese traders are at least commercially conversant in Russian, very few Russians are able to speak Chinese.










We were eager to understand better the relations between the two groups on the ground, and Heihe, as one of the most important sites of Sino-Russian exchange, seemed ideally suited. One important aspect we wished to investigate was the affective exchange between Russians and Chinese. We were struck that despite the renewal of ties between Russia and China over the last twenty five years, and despite a very vocal discourse of Sino-Russian friendship, there were so few intermarriages between the two groups. The very few cases that were found were nearly always between Chinese men and Russian women, and often seemed an arrangement of convenience. 

A very wide range of individuals were interviewed, from Russian citizens (such as university teachers) living in Heihe, to Department of Civil affairs officials, and from Russian traders to Chinese lawyers, marriage and introduction agencies, and Chinese teenagers. The research showed a continued prevalence of stereotypes and a deeply entrenched distrust on both sides of the border, both of which tend to discourage intermarriages. But this was not the full story, and as Gaëlle Lacaze’s research has shown, prostitution—notably of Russian women in China—is a booming business.