On May 18th the Heilongjiang Daily announced that a neighborhood and village currently part of Heihe, a city which sits across the Amur River from Russia’s Blagoveshchensk, would be renamed “Aigun.” The article said that the decision was meant to promote regional tourism and help preserve memories of the town’s “bitter history” for eternity.

What’s in a Name?

On May 28, 1858, Governor-General of Eastern Siberia Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky and Yishan, an envoy of the Beijing government, met in the settlement of Aigun, on the right bank of the Amur River. It was there that they signed a treaty transferring territory on the Amur’s left bank to Russia. China got to keep the right bank as far as the Ussuri (Wusuli) River. For a time, who the Ussuriisky Region belonged to was an open question—according to the agreement, the land came under the joint administration of both countries. Most historians in China consider the Treaty of Aigun (along with the Treaties of Peking and Tientsin) inequitable, arguing that a strong Russia forced a weak China to accept an unfair deal.

As the Chinese-Russian friendship blossomed in the 1950s, Aigun shed its historical name. The Soviet and Chinese “brotherly nations” sought to forget historical grievances, at least on paper. Around the same time, a town that had been named Otpor (meaning “resistance" in Russian) in memory of the conflict along the Chinese Eastern railway adopted a more neutral name, Zabaikalsk.

In China, they adopted a more clever approach, toeing the official line by avoiding acknowledgment of unfair treaties without openly objecting to them. New but similar-sounding characters were selected, forming the name “Aihui.” Nobody officially voiced political motivations behind the name change, but instead tactfully insisted that the old characters had been replaced because they were too rare and therefore simply too difficult to write.

It’s surprising that this new, “simpler” name, assigned in 1956, withstood the Cultural Revolution. During that period Chinese propaganda regularly cast incidents on the Sino-Soviet border as expansionist forays by Russia’s “new Tsars.” Likewise, unfair treaties forced upon China by imperialist Russia, including the Treaty of Aigun, were often mentioned—but still nobody thought to restore the name Aigun to the town.

Indirectly, this supports the idea that Mao Zedong’s oft-cited proclamation that the Soviet Union owed China 1.5 million square kilometers was little more than an emotional ploy or a tactical maneuver designed to speed up border negotiations with the USSR. The propaganda said one thing, but in actual fact China never raised the question of reclaiming Siberia or Russia’s Far East in laborious border talks with the Soviet Union. The Chinese authorities understood that such claims were delusive. Mao Zedong soon contradicted himself by asserting: “I never said that more than a million square kilometers must be returned to China. I only said that this was something that happened. There were unfair treaties that China was forced to accept.”

Of course even with the normalization of relations between Moscow and Beijing, it was impossible to ignore this sore subject. Deng Xiaoping’s call on May 16, 1989 to “close the past” in Sino-Soviet relations alluded, among other matters, to territorial claims. The Chinese leader reiterated the traditional belief that the agreements had been unfair, but he let his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev know that bygones could be bygones, and that the USSR and China could put these problems behind them.

The recent restoration of the name Aigun can be seen in the framework favored by certain Russian experts: China has simply bottled up its grievances against Russia, and will inevitably assert them again. However, starting from Jiang Zemin, each new Chinese leader has emphasized that the question of the Russian-Chinese border is officially closed, and there is no reason to doubt that they are sincere.

Furthermore, any admission that the Sino-Russian border treaties were unjust would undermine the legitimacy of the communist party, implying that Chinese party leaders had knowingly accepted a disadvantageous deal with Moscow and sacrificed national interests. Incidentally, this is exactly how radical Chinese nationalists interpret the history of relations between China and post-Soviet Russia, and a similar attitude is expressed on websites and printed publications by the outlawed organization, Falun Gong.

Online Reverberations

One thing can be said for certain: while the return of Aigun to the map will have no effect on government relations between Russia and China, it will fuel (and already has fueled) ultra-nationalists on the Chinese web. Even the subtlest suggestions in leading media outlets that the topic is a politically appropriate and perhaps even a good one have drastically boosted the position of radicals in the online community.

The Chinese blogosphere is abuzz about the fact that Xinwen Lianbo, the most ideologically cautious daily news program of China Central Television, covered the renaming of the town. The broadcast mentioned both the loss of large swaths of territory as well as the humiliating nature of the Treaty of Aigun. Unnamed experts were cited as saying that the decision of the Heilongjiang province government make it possible to “remember our history.” 

On one hand, the Chinese appear to understand that they are receiving mixed signals: it has become acceptable to revive the subject of unfair treaties in the same year that Moscow and Beijing are examining a “positive page” in their relationship, their joint victory in World War II. While the decision to change the name was made in March, it was only announced two months later, after Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Moscow to attend victory day celebrations and talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, the topic is still being widely discussed on the Chinese Internet, with a relative lack of anonymity and without intervention by the censors.

For example, Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Central Institute of Socialism, commended CCTV on his Weibo account for finally speaking out about the aggression of Tsarist Russia against China. He hailed what he said was a “clear signal” that a “correction” in foreign policy was under way.

The name change spurred all public figures from the nationalist end of the spectrum into action, including those who came into prominence for their anti-Japanese sentiments. Yin Minhong, a leading member of the Baodiao movement (a campaign for Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, Islands), called on Russia to apologize to China and restore the latter’s rights to lost territory. In a previous article he asserted that this year was the moment to commemorate not only the 70th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan, but also the 70th anniversary of its defeat by Soviet aggression—referring to the Soviet operation against Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria. 

The author of a publication on the popular political commentary website Gongshiwang (“Consensus”) praised the return of the name Aigun and criticized the joint firework show held in Blagoveshchensk and Heihe on May 9 to celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. He stressed that the fireworks held on Chinese soil “damage national self-respect,” and said that “narrow ideological illusions and a nearsighted political pragmatism inevitably lead to historical nihilism.”

Learning to Remember

Historical memory is an important aspect of national consolidation in China and, of course, of the so-called China Dream project. During a visit to the “Road Toward Revival” exposition at China’s National Museum in Tiananmen Square, Xi Jinping summarized the key concepts of his platform. He said that, as history shows, “all party members must remember well that backwardness is punishable and the only way to grow strong is through development.”

Consolidation based primarily on negative experiences (the so-called “century of humiliation,” from the Opium Wars to the formation of the People’s Republic of China) breeds a sentiment in contemporary Chinese society that British expert William Callahan has dubbed “pessoptism.” But the narrative of the “aggrieved nation,” especially in its most extreme forms, increasingly contradicts China’s real economic success, as well as its pragmatic foreign policy.

The pointed airing of past offenses and national grievances contradicts the image of the wise, peaceful, and harmonious China that Beijing’s spin doctors try so hard to promote. It also runs the risk of creating the wrong expectations, in which the population might demand the impossible of the government, egging them to take decisive actions in situations that require nuanced diplomacy. In this context, the idea of a Baodiao movement leader joining the discussion is quite telling.

The public nature of the discourse around renaming Aigun suggests that no diplomatic response from Russia is necessary. The ad hoc nature of the discussion indicates that it may soon fade away, and in any case has no potential to undermine the stability of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. However, it would be wrong to completely ignore the issue of historical memory, and those involved in public diplomacy and the promotion of Russia’s image in China should appreciate the complexity of the problem. If the history of Sino-Russian relations is such a sensitive subject for the Chinese public, it would be appropriate to find an adequate response, preferably through a joint effort between Chinese and Russian experts. For all the importance of the Russian-Chinese conference on the history of World War II, which took place in Moscow recently, there was not a single collaborative work among all the papers presented. The fight against the perversion of history was limited to a condemnation of “foreign falsifiers”—the Japanese, first and foremost—and lacked any serious examination of the differing viewpoints within Russia and China, including those that might be at odds with one another.

The last thing I would like to do in this analysis is fall back on conspiracy theories. It’s most likely that the name change in Aigun was motivated by the commercial interests of local authorities, and not initiated in Beijing. Developing tourism in the area and encouraging Chinese citizens interested in the “humiliating treaty” to visit Aigun may well bring revenues into the local budget. But is it a healthy sign for Russian-Chinese relations that such a destination is in demand?

Igor Denisov - Senior Research Fellow, Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations