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Outside View: Putin's China Strategy

Chinese Ambassador to Moscow, Liu Guchang. Photo copyright of China Radio International.
by Dmitry Kosyrev
UPI Outside View Commentator
Moscow (UPI) Mar 20, 2006
Sino-Russian relations must be built "on new mentality," said Chinese Ambassador to Moscow Liu Guchang at a recent on-line conference held by RosBusinessConsulting. It was devoted to the forthcoming official visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing, where he will open the "Year of Russia in China."

The Chinese ambassador's words have a serious subtext, as is always the case with the Chinese statements prepared in advance. In this context the phrase about the "new mentality" may be interpreted as a hint that as many Russians and Chinese as possible should meet anew. In other words, they should bring their ideas of each other into harmony with reality. If they can, they may use the experience of the 1950s when millions of citizens of both countries communicated with one another. But they should remember that half a century has passed since then, and both countries have changed beyond recognition.

In effect, this is the key subject of President Vladimir Putin's forthcoming visit to China. His contribution to the opening of the Year of Russia in China -- to be followed by the Year of China in Russia -- is not a routine event, but a massive response to what may be the main problem of bilateral relations.

The leaders of the two countries became aware of this problem two or three years ago, when a gap appeared between their smooth communication on the top level, and no ties at the grassroots level. The "great friendship" that flourished in the 1950s has ended now, with the retirement of the generations in both countries who used to understand each other well. Obviously, only weeds grow by themselves, whereas a blooming garden requires effort.

Here is an example from culture and the arts. Many Chinese of the older generations are fond of the Russian songs of the 1950s, which have been all but forgotten even in Russia. Up to now ballet, symphony and theater companies are a great success in China, but mostly those who won their popularity in the same golden years of friendship. In 2005, China played host to a total of 1,167 artists from 23 companies, which is not a big number.

The situation in literature is pretty much the same, after the Russian classics of the 19th century -- Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky -- and the Soviet masterpieces of the 20th century -- Sholokhov and Gorky, at least three epochs have changed in Russian literature. Today, people in Russia argue about modern writers and poets whose names are totally unknown in China.

China's knowledge of our culture is half a century behind reality, whereas the public in Russia has fallen into another extreme -- incredible interest in everything Asian, which is only comparable with the "discovery of Europe" in the 1990s. The current fashion in big Russian cities for everything Chinese is superficial. It betrays a lack of understanding of the Chinese classics, and the foundations of this ancient civilization. The Russian view of China is very far from reality. The reverse is true of many Chinese, too.

But the mutual interest and rapprochement between the two nations are obvious. At the same conference, the Chinese ambassador quoted the latest figures on booming Sino-Russian tourism. Last year the number of Chinese tourists in Russia for the first time surpassed one million, and some 2,150,000 people from Russia visited China. This compares with 690,000 Russian tourists in China in 1998. However, quite a few of them were petty goods peddlers rather than curious tourists.

The idea of the Year of Russia in China, and the Year of China in Russia was generated by the merger of these two trends -- the lack of multiple old contacts and a surprising growth of the new ones. In effect, this idea is a remake of the 1950s with the two societies, which are very different from what they were then. The Russians and Chinese are enthusiastically discovering for themselves Europe, America and the rest of the world. This is a kind of cultural competition with all its benefits and drawbacks.

The Year of Russia in China, which will open with President Putin's visit, is not merely an intensive cultural program. Impressive as it is, the cultural festival will only be a small part of the Year of Russia. Special attention will be paid to communication at business level. Boris Titov, chairman of the Russian-Chinese Business Council, told RIA Novosti about other events, such as the forum of business communities of the two countries due to take place during Vladimir Putin's visit, and a simultaneous presentation of joint economic projects -- the Russia-China Investment Week -- and a Russian national exhibition in Shanghai in November. Events in this sphere, just as in all others for that matter, have been planned for the next two years.

The accent on humanities in the forthcoming period is obvious. China has increased quotas for scholarships for Russian students of its culture and language. Apparently, Vladimir Putin will announce similar action in Beijing. Last year about 4,000 Chinese students expressed their desire to study in Russia. All in all, their number in Russia is around 15,000.

News agencies ITAR-TASS and Xinhua, RIA Novosti and Renmin Ribao, TV channels, Radio of Russia, and the International Radio of China have markedly stepped up their cooperation as well. Finally, Russia will attend the 13th Beijing International Book Fair in late August-early September as an honorary guest. Its books will be displayed at a record area of 1,000 sq meters.

It appears that the leaders of the two states bless the development of bilateral ties at a grassroots level. Only the next generations will be able to appreciate the outcome of this idea.

Dmitry Kosyrev is a political commentator for the RIA Novosti news agency. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

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