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China In Eurasia

A monument to Vladimir Lenin in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk. A growing number of Chinese visitors are traveling to the area due to its importance in history as the birthplace of the Soviet leader, whose birth name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.

ULYANOVSK, Russia -- From big gas projects to closer military cooperation and improved bilateral trade that reached a record of more than $110 billion in 2019, the China-Russia relationship has reached new heights.

But in Ulyanovsk, a region some 850 kilometers east of Moscow, a different portrait of Chinese-Russian ties is unfolding.

The city of 1.2 million -- and the wider region by the same name -- are home to a growing array of local initiatives connected to China that have been pushed against the backdrop of warming high-level ties between Beijing and Moscow.

At the local level, this has included deepening trade links, a burgeoning tourism sector, and future infrastructure deals -- including plans for a Chinese-funded highway project through Russia that is meant to connect Europe to western China.

There have been loud pronouncements from local officials about expanding ties with China and an eagerness from Chinese investors to explore opportunities across Russia.

But much cooperation in Ulyanovsk exists only on paper -- frozen due to budget issues and border restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unpacking this complex dynamic is the focus of a recent series by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. It takes an up-close look at ties between the two countries at the ground level.

Through interviews with local officials, activists, and experts, the Ulyanovsk region is seen as a potential future location for China's economic footprint to grow in Russia.

But this development faces pushback from local residents. There are also difficulties in translating deals into real projects on the ground, despite the partnership's top-level endorsement.

"Relations with Europe and the West are in a tense state and the Russian economy, in my opinion, needs cooperation because domestic production is poorly established," says Vitaly Kuzin, a member of the Communist Party who sits in the Legislative Assembly of Ulyanovsk Oblast.

"China is a locomotive for the world economy, so our country needs to deepen its cooperation," Kuzin says.

All Roads Lead to China

Ties between China and Russia have improved markedly since 2014 when the Kremlin declared it would pivot to Asia in the wake of Western economic sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and Russia's role in the war in eastern Ukraine.

The deepening relationship is best seen in the interactions between the leaders of the two countries: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

They have met more than 30 times since 2013, with Xi even referring to the Russian president as his "best friend" during a 2019 summit.

These ties have fueled a flurry of deals since 2014, mostly connected to Chinese investments in Russian extractive resources, such as its lucrative oil and gas sector.

But in recent years, Beijing has also begun to cautiously eye other sectors. It has invested in high-tech industries and is increasingly using Russia to transport goods to and from Europe.

In Ulyanovsk, which sits on the European side of Russia, local authorities have attempted to expand their links to China.

In 2020, the first direct train from China arrived in the region. Its 53 container cars carried a mix of automobile parts and industrial equipment into Russia, then returned to China with a cargo of grain and sunflower oil.

The area is also home to a Chinese-Russian Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Founded in 2019, it received a modest investment of $1.5 million to start setting up a local technology center.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2019.

But many local officials have told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that restrictions brought by the pandemic have frozen this nascent local-level cooperation.

In February 2020, Russia enacted strict border measures with China to curb the coronavirus outbreak. Beijing also restricted movement into China following several local outbreaks linked to travelers arriving from Russia.

"Travel on this railroad has stopped since the start of the pandemic and the closure of the borders, and has not started since then," Tatyana Fadeeva, a spokesperson for the Ulyanovsk Region Development Corporation, told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. "We don't have any information on when the movement will resume."

Ulyanovsk, Russia
Ulyanovsk, Russia


Vladimir Kazantsev, an independent sociologist in Ulyanovsk, says the frozen transport links, as well as the obstacles and limits on bringing in large sums of Chinese investment, highlight the disparity between deepening Russia-China political and military cooperation and the realities for more remote regions.

"It is unprofitable to build production [in Russia] in order to bring finished products to China," Kazantsev told RFE/RL. "The economics don't add up."

'Red Tourism'

One area that has seen extended growth in recent years is tourism between China and the Ulyanovsk region. A growing number of Chinese visitors are traveling to the area due to its importance in history as the birthplace of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

So-called "red tourism" within China, where tourists visit locations with historic significance for Chinese communism, has been a priority promoted by Beijing over the last several decades.

In 2014, formal cooperation between the Chinese and Russian governments was established to bring more tourists to Russia.

Directions for Chinese tourists on a street in Ulyanovsk
Directions for Chinese tourists on a street in Ulyanovsk

Due to its connections to Lenin, Ulyanovsk has become a focal point for this type of tourism.

During a visit to Ulyanovsk in 2013, the then-chairman of the China National Tourism Administration Shao Qiwei referred to the city as "the beginning of China's red history."

Since 2015, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Ulyanovsk has increased annually by 20 to 30 percent, according to the local tourism board.

Overall figures remain modest, however, with an estimated 7,000 Chinese visitors passing through Ulyanovsk on tours along Russia's so-called "red route" -- which includes historic sites in Kazan, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and is expected to expand to Yekaterinburg, Perm, Samara, Ufa, and Krasnoyarsk.

Chinese tour groups stand in line to see attractions in St. Petersburg, Russia. (file photo)
Chinese tour groups stand in line to see attractions in St. Petersburg, Russia. (file photo)

Expanding those links remains difficult because the pandemic has largely frozen the growth of tourism from China to the region. In fact, official statistics show an 86 percent drop in total tourism since 2020.

Despite these obstacles, many local officials see strong potential in communist-linked tourism from China and are pushing for more investment in the sector.

Aleksei Kurinny, a Communist Party member of the Russian State Duma from the Ulyanovsk region, told RFE/RL that, while investment with China is difficult to attract, tourism to the area has untapped potential.

"Investing in the tourism industry and attracting more tourists from China is not yet fully developed," Kurinny said. "We are considering moving in this direction as the main area for cooperation with China."

Navigating A New Era

This leaves deepening cooperation with China in the Ulyanovsk region at a difficult crossroads as ties continue to blossom between the Kremlin and Beijing.

Kurinny is apprehensive about how much direct investment his region can attract from China.

He says that he is aiming to attract projects focused on industries higher up in the supply chain, pointing to how his party moved against plans to build a Chinese cement plant in Ulyanovsk due to environmental concerns.

"The region today is interested in high-tech production, something that can contribute to its high-tech development and not simply aim to dig something up," Kurinny said.

Representatives of the Ulyanovsk Special Economic Zone and a Chinese medical company sign a cooperation agreement in February this year.
Representatives of the Ulyanovsk Special Economic Zone and a Chinese medical company sign a cooperation agreement in February this year.

It's for these reasons that Igor Toporkov, an Ulyanovsk-based human rights activist, is skeptical about the area becoming a regional hub for Chinese economic growth.

"There are some isolated projects, but I don't think there will be any big Chinese expansion to the Ulyanovsk region," Toporkov told RFE/RL.

Still, there are attempts to move large projects forward.

In November 2020, plans were announced to build a highway through Ulyanovsk that would serve as an important transit route for shipping goods between China and Europe through Russia.

The project has received high-level backing. But RFE/RL found there has been little public discussion about the plans and several legal procedures have been bypassed.

That has raised concerns about environmental risks during construction and how residents close to the planned highway route could be impacted.

"Due to the lack of public discussions, the rights of residents of those settlements near where the road would pass are being violated," says Aleksandr Nikolaev, a lawyer from nearby Chuvashia who focuses on transport issues.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin will both attend the summit virtually, reinforcing the SCO's reputation as a hollow talk shop with little practical follow-through.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

We’ll be doing things a little bit differently this week. This is a special edition of the newsletter that is focused on September 16’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and all of the plotlines to watch. In order to not miss a beat, I’ve assembled a special all-star group of experts who follow the region closely.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what to follow at the SCO summit.

Beijing's Leadership Gets Put To The Test At The SCO

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has taken on many forms in its 20 years, but the bloc now grapples with its greatest test in how it can respond to the situation in Afghanistan.

Finding Perspective: The SCO -- a Eurasian security bloc that consists of China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has long faced questions over its relevance and been criticized as a hollow talk shop with little practical follow-through.

That reputation will be difficult to shed, especially as both China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will not attend the Dushanbe summit in person. Although that may have less to do with the SCO than other factors, as Xi has not left China in more than 600 days and Putin is in self-isolation after COVID cases were detected in his entourage. Both leaders will be attending virtually.

But as Luca Anceschi, a professor of Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, told me, just because the SCO is a talk shop doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, especially because the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has created new opportunities for Beijing to allow its own “regional order to emerge.”

This view is shared by Charles Dunst, an associate with Eurasia Group's Global Macro team, who says that while the SCO is far from being a catchall for Chinese leadership, it can continue to grow in the future.

“The Afghanistan crisis has the potential to breathe more life into the SCO,” said Dunst. “But the fact that the group operates on consensus will probably prevent it from making a significant difference there.”

Why It Matters: The bloc has long focused on what it calls the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism -- areas where its largely authoritarian members have tended to see eye to eye.

Moving forward, those talks will only become more relevant as China becomes even more preoccupied with terrorist threats coming from Afghanistan.

As Niva Yau, a researcher at the OSCE Academy in Kyrgyzstan, put it, the SCO isn’t the only arrow that Chinese policymakers have in their quiver.

The organization has its limits, especially with key differences over Afghanistan between rivals India and Pakistan, as well between Tajikistan and the Taliban.

But it can still make headway on issues like drug trafficking, refugees, and terrorism in Afghanistan, according to Yau, and agreement on these are the most likely deliverables for a joint statement to materialize from the summit in Tajikistan.

Pulling back, the SCO also fits into Beijing's future ambitions.

“There is this long-term idea that once there is more consensus about things like security and trade, that the region will then bound together around Beijing and see China as the best provider for these matters,” Yau told me.

Read More

● For a wider look at how the situation in Afghanistan shakes up Beijing’s security calculations in the region, check out this article from Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL’s Pakistani service, and myself.

● My colleagues Bruce Pannier and Muhammad Tahir have a new episode of the Majlis podcast focused on how the Central Asian states have accommodated Beijing over its Xinjiang policies.

● For a more detailed look at the upcoming summit, read this breakdown that I did about the SCO’s interesting history and Afghanistan taking center stage.

Expert Corner: Who Rules The Supercontinent?

Readers asked: “Is China now the leader of Eurasia?”

To find out more, I asked Peter Frankopan, a historian and professor of global history at Oxford who wrote the best-selling books Silk Roads and New Silk Roads. Peter was kind enough to offer an extended contribution for this special edition of the newsletter:

“The tumultuous developments of recent years have helped feed assumptions about U.S. decline on the one hand and of the continued rise of China on the other.

"Certainly, the chaotic leadership of President Donald Trump, the existential problems of the European Union (including Brexit), and the shambolic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan seem to suggest the sun is setting on an Age of the West.

"This is often conflated with ideas about ‘power vacuums,’ about regional and global leadership roles, and about how China will steer unwitting states, not only in Central and South Asia, but elsewhere, too, into its arms through a combination of sweet incentives, access to markets, and the poison pill of debt-trap diplomacy.

"Those who know what they are talking about try to keep a safe distance from the hype, the smoke, and the mirrors that have a nasty habit of confirming biases, fanning fears, and shifting narratives from reality into the imagination. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, has been highly visible but extremely problematic, with many projects failing to deliver their promised fruits.

"There is no question that China plays an important -- even a central role -- in what is happening and will happen in Eurasia, because of the size of its population, its economy, and its role within global supply chains. That is a seismic change from the world of two decades ago.

"But then again, as we mark 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is not just China that has been on the move. The world has been changing and will continue to do so.

"That process is not plain sailing for anyone -- though as a boring historian will tell you, it might be worth looking to the past from time to time to figure out what happens when the wheels of history go through the kind of rapid acceleration that has marked the first 21 years of the 21st century.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From The SCO

1. Tajikistan’s Diplomatic Dance

One of the more intriguing storylines to watch is Tajikistan’s hostile relationship with the Taliban and how this could be a wrench in China’s plans to reach an agreement on Afghanistan.

The Holdout: As my colleague Bruce Pannier explained in a recent blog post, Tajikistan is strongly opposed to the Taliban and there will be no Afghan delegation at the summit, despite the country being an official observer of the SCO.

Dushanbe’s position is driven by Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s authoritarian president, who has called for a more inclusive Afghan government and is positioning himself as a regional protector of ethnic Tajiks, which make up about one-third of Afghanistan.

My colleagues in Dushanbe at RFE/RL’s Tajik Service told me that the local Afghan Embassy had asked to participate in the summit but was rebuffed. There are also unconfirmed reports that Amrullah Saleh, the ousted vice president of Afghanistan, could also attend, but that would be a dramatic development.

A key move to watch, says Edward Lemon, an expert on Central Asia at Texas A&M University, is how much Beijing and Moscow are willing to lean on Tajikistan over the Taliban and how far Dushanbe is willing to bend

“This policy is obviously out of sync with the other Central Asian countries and Tajikistan's main external partners: Russia and China,” said Lemon. “I don't doubt that the Russian and Chinese sides will raise this. And it will be interesting if we see Dushanbe moderate its tone.”

2. Bringing Iran Into the Fold

Beyond the attention being put on Afghanistan, full membership in the group for Iran is said to be on the table at the upcoming summit, with recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi slated to attend.

A New Member: Iran had faced resistance toward full SCO membership in the past and is currently an observer in the bloc, but as Nicole Grajewski, a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, explained to me, Tehran’s appeal as a member and the SCO’s own values have shifted.

“[Tehran] has substantial experience in dealing with narco-trafficking and refugee flows from Afghanistan, which in many ways elevates the importance of Iran in regional security,” she said.

Beyond that, ties have continued to warm between China and Iran, with the two countries signing a 25-year cooperation deal in March.

“If Iran’s application for the SCO is approved, it will likely indicate the organization’s attempt to project its identity as a more comprehensive regional security organization,” Grajewski said.

3. The Kremlin Is Ready To Flex

While much attention has been paid to how the Taliban’s takeover is an opening for China, it is also a moment for Russia to bolster itself across the region.

The Big Guns: Moscow still views Central Asia as part of its “sphere of influence” and the Kremlin has long feared spillover from Afghanistan destabilizing its neighbors.

In recent weeks, Russia has stepped up its military cooperation and held several exercises with the Central Asian countries through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led military bloc that does not include China.

But as Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, sees it, it’s still an open question whether this is Russia’s way of showing its “influence over China, or whether it is in fact a demonstration by Moscow of the value it can offer to Beijing in helping stabilize their shared Eurasian backyard.”

“It has been interesting to see the degree to which China is keen to coordinate with Russia and let them take the lead,” he said.

Across The Supercontinent

The Xinjiang Picket: Police in Almaty, Kazakhstan, have dismantled tents set up by protesters in front of the Chinese Consulate as part of an overnight protest over the disappearance of their relatives in Xinjiang, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.

Bidding War: Three foreign companies (one British, one Turkish, and one Chinese) have all expressed interest in getting the contract to build a thermal power plant in Bishkek, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

Stonewalled: Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ rights chief, said that her attempts to gain access to Xinjiang to investigate the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have not succeeded.

Breaking Ground: Construction of the first Chinese vaccine factory in Europe, set to produce Sinopharm, began in Belgrade, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

A Growing Footprint: A new study from the Center for the Study of Democracy finds a connection between an influx of Chinese capital into a country and a negative impact on its environment and the quality of governance. Read my interview with one of the report’s authors.

One Thing To Watch

Taiwan is sending a delegation to Central and Eastern Europe to bolster ties as it seeks to take advantage of growing disenchantment in the region toward mainland China.

The 65-member delegation will visit the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Slovakia in October. The trip comes on the heels of a deepening spat between Beijing and Vilnius over the Baltic country opening a diplomatic trade office in Taiwan.

Taiwan has long-standing relations with the region that have been boosted during the pandemic as many Central and Eastern European countries have donated vaccines to Taipei.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox on Wednesdays twice a month.

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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