The Bear Watches the Dragon: Russia’s Perceptions of China and the Evolution of Russian-Chinese Relations Since the Eighteenth Century by Alexander Lukin, Anglo-Chinese Encounters since 1800: War, Trade, Science, Governance by Wang Gungwu
<strong>Two new books explore the history of China’s interaction with two imperial powers: Russia and Britain.
The Sino-Russian border has got to be, mile for mile, the most under-exploited border in the world. There are many reasons for this (some of which are dealt with in Alexander Lukin’s excellent and timely new book The Bear Watches the Dragon: Russia’s Perceptions of China and the Evolution of Russian-Chinese Relations Since the Eighteenth Century), but the forces of economics and geography are ultimately unstoppable: the Sino-Russia border may never reach the level of economic importance and integration of the US-Mexican or US-Canadian borders, but the synergies between the economies are such that the Sino-Russian relationship will become far more important than it is today. We can see this process starting with the recent negotiation about energy pipelines.
Russia is a unique, and some might say surreal, country: in the West, it borders on the EU (or soon will) while in the East, it borders on China and North Korea. Vladivostok is a time zone or two east of Hong Kong.
Britain may have interacted with China as a temporary sojourner on its territory and America may have dealt with China as a geopolitical fact, but neither had the country as a neighbor. On one side of the Amur River is the land of Confucius, while just the other side is the land of Tchaikovsky and Pushkin.
There are many problems in looking at the Sino-Russian relationship, as is common, from the perspective of the Anglo-American relationship with both countries. Most obviously, the economic synergies between the two countries are largely ignored by those who deal in bilateral economic relationships with either Russia or China. The same is undoubtedly true for the broader cultural and political aspects of the relationship.
Asia, and in particular China, has both attracted Russia (so much so that it has at times claimed to be a “Eurasian” culture) and repelled it due to fears of the “yellow peril” (Russians take note with certain regularity of Chinese territorial claims on Siberia, the population imbalance, etc.)
The broad outlines of Sino-Russian history and relations are well-known, and Oxford-educated Lukin (who is now at MGIMO, the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations) can supply only a few surprises, such as several Taiwanese requests during the anti-Japanese rebellion of the late 1890s that Russia in effect annex the island—and the oft-forgotten fact that Chiang Ching-kuo spent many of his formative years in the Soviet Union.
But Lukin supplies the human element behind the historical facts, quoting everyone from politicians to polls to poets to illustrate views, perceptions and prejudices. The Russian-Taiwan relationship shows, indeed, how very different the Russian view can be: rather than being seen as the capitalist counterpoint to Communist China, Taiwan’s economic development has been called a case of a successful implementation of the early USSR’s New Economic policy (NEP)!
It is the post-Soviet era and, in particular, the section on the Russian Far East, that the reader is likely to find the most interesting and relevant. Any major Sino-Russian project is going to have to pass physically through this region. Lukin succeeds in popping several myths that even I had accepted, for example, that up to a million Chinese were living illegally in the Russian Far East, exceeding 10% of the population. This “fact”, accepted as writ by just about everyone I recall meeting and reported widely in the papers, would appear to have been hogwash: the number of Chinese actually in the Russian Far East seems to be, and to have been, minuscule.
If I have a criticism of this fine book, it is in the relatively relaxed way Lukin deals with chronology. Examples are drawn from what appear to me substantially different periods (in the post-Soviet period, even couple of years might be significant), and often presented in reverse chronological order, which tends to blur whatever progression there might have been.
The Bear Watches the Dragon: Russia’s Perceptions of China and the Evolution of Russian-Chinese Relations Since the Eighteenth Century should be required reading for anyone wanting to play in what may very well be Asia’s biggest economic game of the twenty-first century.
Wang Gungwu’s book Anglo-Chinese Encounters since 1800: War, Trade, Science, Governance, while covering much the same period, focuses on that other imperial power: Britain. What it is lacking in footnoted and tabulated detail (relative to Lukin’s heavily annotated work), it makes up for in insight and eloquence.
While superficially very different, both books emphasize cultural and intellectual interplay between China and the outside, implictly arguing that to understand the future of China’s place in the world, one must understand—at a level beyond mere politics and economics—the subtler relationships of culture, ideas, perceptions and people.
Wang is one of East Asia’s most distinguished academics, and his book is based on a series of lectures he gave at Cambridge in the year 2000; the fluidity of prose reflects the text’s oral origins, making the book a delight to read.
Wang’s views may surprise many: he argues that China learned a great deal from Britain, even (or perhaps especially) from its observations of the administration of Hong Kong, and, somewhat going against conventional wisdom, that the links due to and based on the English language are far deeper and more important that most people realize. I must say I am not convinced: the Chinese are undoubtedly becoming more conversant in English, but I doubt that much of this is due to some lingering cultural and intellectual sympathy; rather, I suspect that most just want to be able to surf the Internet more efficiently or get a better job (reasons not to sneezed at, however, and which are likely to have the same effect).
The book is structured around a phrase of Arthur Waley’s, written in 1942, where he mentions those who went to China “to convert, trade, rule or fight”, words that Wang says still “describe the core issues in the history of Chinese relations with the English-speaking peoples”. Each of the main chapters uses one of these words as a theme.
I mention this because it works, but second, because it also illustrates the tone of the book: Wang is an academic and these lectures on which the book is based were, surely, originally directed to others “in the know” who could appreciate these academic references and who knew Wang and his own work. One feels that Wang is talking to knowledgeable friends whom he knows are interested in what he has to say, and the resulting tone is an appealing combination of erudition and gentleness: no axes are being ground here.
Another strength lies in the book’s comparison of Anglo-American influences (Wang considers America to be the inheritor of Britain’s imperial mantle) with those of Japan, Portugal and other countries that interacted with China in the imperial and immediate post-imperial periods. Indeed, considering the short-term success of Japan’s cultural interaction with China (the number of books translated from Japanese into China in the single decade or 1900-1910 was 50% more than the total number of books translated from English in the four decade prior), it would appear that Japan’s military forays were decidedly counter-productive: if Japan had concentrated on the pen rather the sword, modern Asia might be very different.
Both books remind us that China’s place in the world of the 21st century will not be a result of merely, or even primarily, short-term geopolitics and, the current “War on Terror” notwithstanding, shifting alliances; rather, it is the subtler and longer-term interactions, at the level of individuals as well as cultures, economics and ideas, that ultimately underpin relations between countries and regions.