Last week, a seemingly innocuous news item in China’s state media sparked an unexpected firestorm in China and Russia, exposing the shaky foundation upon which the much-hyped Beijing-Moscow united front challenging the West and the existing geopolitical order has been built.
On Nov. 4 official media outlets, including China News Service, Xinhua and the People’s Daily, carried a report on a ceremony that day in the northeastern border city of Hunchun to mark the official installation of five large granite markers along the border with Russia. The reports claimed that the new boundary markers signified a return of 4.7 square kilometers, or roughly 1.8 square miles, of land from Russia.
Tens of thousands of Chinese “netizens” quickly responded online, charging the government with failing to ask Moscow to return not just that tiny fraction but all of the “lost territories” Russia is said to have taken from China since the mid-19th century.
The public pushback illustrates the power of the Chinese Communist Party’s own decadeslong political indoctrination program, known as the “Patriotism Education,” which taught generations of students that, altogether, Russia grabbed over 580,000 square miles*, or more than twice the area of Texas, from China since the mid-19th century. That’s not including the Moscow-instigated declaration of Mongolian independence from China in 1924, an event that cost China another 580,000 square miles in territory.
However, in order to forge a strategic anti-West partnership with Russia, China signed an agreement in 2001 with the like-minded President Vladimir Putin, postulating that the two neighbors would renounce all territorial claims against each other and that there would be no more border disputes. To many Chinese, the agreement amounted to treason, a betrayal of everything they had been taught about these lost territories by the very Communist Party that has now given up a big chunk of their “motherland” to the Russians for political expediency.
The timing of the marker announcement could not have been worse. Nov. 4 is Russia’s “National Unity Day,” a tsar-era holiday celebrating the 1612 uprising against Polish occupation during the 1605-1618 Polish-Muscovite War. Although the holiday was abolished during the Soviet era, it was reinstituted in 2005 by Mr. Putin to boost Russian nationalism. On Nov. 4 close to 100,000 Russian superpatriots paraded in Moscow to express their nationalist pride when they heard the news from Beijing about the alleged land return.
Many more Russians took to the Internet and social media to vent and post anti-China diatribes about “lost” Russian land. The stories in Russia’s major news outlets featured headlines along the lines of: “Territory returned to China on National Unity Day.”
Surprised and buttressed by popular outrage, three days later the Russian government officially and categorically denied that any territory had ever been “returned” to China and insisted that there should be no more territorial disputes whatsoever between the two countries, per the 2001 bilateral agreement.
But public outrage in both countries continued to rise, forcing Moscow on Nov. 10 to issue another strongly worded denial of any land transfer back to China.
The Chinese communist government is suddenly caught on the horns of a dilemma of its own devising. It cannot afford to publicly denounce either Moscow or its own angry youths. To prevent events from spiraling out of control, and to save the Beijing-Moscow partnership from further damage, the Chinese government mobilized its powerful censorship machine nationwide in a bid to quietly but systematically delete all related news reports and online comments. One day after Russia’s second denial, Beijing-controlled online publications began to imply that the original Nov. 4 news report was untrue, a result of a misunderstanding by the Chinese media.
But the damage has already been done. Overseas Chinese Internet portals picked up the topic and continue to stick to the anti-Russian theme as many Chinese netizens ventured to scale the “Great Firewall of China” to vent their outrage — toward Russia and toward their own “perfidious” government.
Patriotism is, indeed, a two-edged sword.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com and @Yu_miles.
*Due to an editing error, the size of the land lost by China was misstated in the original story. The figure has been corrected.