The rise and fall of China-watching in Russia


Russia’s relations with China have long been governed by need and fear, even when they were supposedly linked by common ideology. Now China’s financial might means it can offer seductive loans to its cash-light neighbour. But Russia has so few specialist China-watchers to offer proper advice, says Alexander Gabuyev.

Alexander Gabuyev
21 January 2013

In their time, both imperial Russia and the USSR were home to many outstanding sinologists. Russia today is very considerably more dependent on China than she was even 20 years ago, but the levels of knowledge about her eastern neighbour have fallen dramatically. This deterioration could well lead to miscalculations in Russia’s policy decisions as regards China, entailing significant risks for Moscow.

The pipeline project

The autumn 2009 agreement signed in the Kremlin by Prime Minister Putin and Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was described by both sides as historic. After negotiations lasting many years, Russia agreed both to construct an oil pipeline from eastern Siberia to Datsin in China and to pump 20 million tonnes of oil along it per year.  The project had been under discussion since the early 90s and was very actively promoted by the then owner of Yukos Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in prison. This time the main driving force behind the deal was the powerful Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin, one of the architects of the Yukos affair and head of the board of directors of Rosneft, who acquired the main shares in the vanquished company at a knock down price.

Moscow and Beijing had revisited the project proposals several times under Vladimir Putin, but the deal-breaker was always the price. Until the world crisis, that is, when Rosneft and the state-controlled company Transneft, the monopoly manager of the oil pipeline system, needed funds to refinance their loans. This helped them towards agreeing a price, and also brought them a loan from Chinese banks for an unprecedented USD 25 billion. 

A lack of expert advice caused major disagreements following the construction of the oil pipeline between Russia and China. Photo: (cc) Wikipedia/Presidential Press and Information Office.

The pipeline came on stream in 2010; in 2011 China demanded a reduction of USD 10 to the price per barrel. Moscow’s outrage and amazement knew no bounds.  Sechin threatened CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) that he would take the matter to the Supreme Court in London, but Moscow soon realized that there would be little point in doing this, because the USD 25 billion would have to be returned, with additional penalties for pre-term repayment of the loan, and Russia would be left with an empty pipeline on its hands. Fortunately for Sechin, the beginning of the Arab Spring meant that the Chinese took the pragmatic decision not to jeopardise their oil supplies.  They agreed to a reduction of only USD 1.5 per barrel, but this still means that over the contract period Rosneft will lose profits of USD 3 billion.

There are fewer China experts in Russia every year, and the qualifications of those remaining are less and less impressive.

Those who know how the negotiations went all told me the same thing: Sechin didn’t want to consult any independent experts because, he said, he has a very good understanding of how China works. But when Beijing started changing the terms, our mighty Deputy Prime Minister had no explanation for their perfidy. Had the Kremlin thought to ask one of those independent experts, the advice would probably have been not to build a pipeline on credit for the sole use of one client, which would probably have been the recommendation of other, non-China, experts too. But even if it had occurred to Sechin, he would have had difficulty finding the requisite specialists, because there are fewer China experts every year, and the qualifications of those remaining are less and less impressive.

China-watching in Russia

Russia’s need to study China dates from as far back as the 17th century, when the two empires first shared a border in the Far East. At the end of the 19th century Russia had one of the best schools for the study of the Heavenly Kingdom.  Suffice it to say that one of the world’s leading Chinese language specialists, Bernhard Karlgren (1889-1978), learnt Mandarin in St Petersburg at one of the best schools of that time.

The Soviet rulers initially declared war on their intellectuals, but in the 1930s they recognized the importance of China and began once more to develop the study of the country and its languages. In 1949 the Communists came to power in China and the USSR became the main source of expertise for Peking’s young government. In the 1960s relations deteriorated and were effectively frozen, though Moscow continued its study of China, this time as a potential enemy. Huge resources were invested in sinology, with hundreds of academics studying contemporary China and Chinese civilization, not to mention the specialists in the closed centres of the KGB.

In the 20 years since the collapse of the USSR, China has become increasingly important for Moscow. In 2009, at the time of the crisis, the PRC became Russia’s leading trade partner, a position it retains to this day. Any hopes of development for the backward Far Eastern region are linked to Chinese investments; at the same time, the colossal demographic imbalance in the region (on the Russian side of the border there are 6.5 million people, on the Chinese side 110 million) should by rights compel Moscow to double its investment in China studies. Paradoxically, however, the community of sinologists sinks deeper into crisis with every passing year.


The 18th party congress in Beijing attracted surprisingly little attention from the Russia media — much less than for political events in Western countries. Photo: (cc) Flickr/Remko Tanis

The problems start with gathering information.  The Beijing bureaus of news agencies ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti have no more than 3 or 4 people in them; only newspapers that had their own correspondents in China during Soviet times still have them there.  Leading newsprint publications such as Kommersant and Vedomosti have no one in Beijing, while Western media have 15-20 people in their bureaus there, and many have stringers in provincial centres too. McKinsey research has demonstrated that much less is written about China in Russian media outlets than about European countries like Spain. Even the 18th party congress in Beijing merited less comment in Russia than the parliamentary election in Ukraine, or the presidential in France, to say nothing of the Obama/Romney election in the US. Only 3 Moscow journalists attended the party congress in Beijing, though that too is progress because at the last congress (2007) I was the only one.

No young researchers

The problem of analyzing data from China is even greater.  Fewer than 200 China specialists are on the payrolls of Russia’s institutes of higher education and academic research centres.  If one counts only the authors that are regularly published, then it goes down to about 50 for the whole country.  Even fewer people are studying contemporary China and the average age of the researchers goes up every year. There’s no succession in the profession: the director of the main Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of the Far East is 78-year old Mikhail Titarenko, who’s been in post for 27 years.

But, as in other academic fields, there’s a serious gap between the generations. This sorry situation dates from the events of the 90s, when the monthly salary of a professor at Moscow State University was USD 100.  Young people with a knowledge of Chinese went straight into trade and the middle-aged also tried to find themselves a niche in business or changed their profession, so the only people remaining were the elderly whose age made a change of profession impossible.

Paradoxically, the situation didn’t change when Putin arrived on the scene, although there was much more money in Russia. The salary of a professor of Chinese Studies in Moscow State University, which is now very rich, is about USD 1,500, but for a lecturer at the beginning of his career it’s only USD 200. This means that young members of staff have to work in 3 or 4 higher education institutes at the same time and have no time for research. In some of the Moscow institutes Chinese is taught by recent graduates who have so far not managed to find a job.  Russian universities can’t boast a single lecturer on China’s economy, law, army or power industry… the list is endless.

The whole field of academic study produces a few dozen learned articles and up to 10 monographs on China each year, but the level of these papers doesn’t even come close to that of the hundreds of Chinese research papers, which are published in English.  The work of Russian academics is not to be found in the leading academic journals of the world, the citation index is almost zero (with the exception of works dealing with Russo-Chinese relations). There’s no state support for books on China, so many of them are published with Chinese sponsorship. This partly explains the starry-eyed comments from many Russian China specialists about the cloudless prospects for the relationship with our great Eastern neighbour: some academics simply fear the loss of their Chinese sponsorship.

No job prospects

In the public sector Chinese studies fare marginally better. Foreign Ministry specialist salaries are close to university levels and the analytical departments in the army and the special services rarely suffer cuts.  For instance, in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff there is one specialist on the Chinese air forces. During the Russo-Chinese training exercises ‘Maritime Cooperation 2012’, interpretation was provided by dozens of young Russian-speaking Chinese officers. The Russian side sent 3 interpreters.

Business is in no more of a hurry to invest in the understanding of a country which will become the biggest market for Russian products. This is mainly explained by the fact that almost 90% of Russia’s exports to China are raw materials and agreements about supplies and delivery are made at a political level. This means that the big companies retain small China-specialist teams of their own and don’t invest in think tanks to back up their own independent research. Many young Russian graduates who have studied Chinese have almost no hope of finding work, although the number of people studying it is growing: they don’t want to work for peanuts in the public sector, can’t get into the state-controlled companies where a relation or personal contacts are needed to win an appointment. The alternative is to work in small-scale trade, to change your profession, or leave Russia. And China offers young Russians much better opportunities than their own country does.

This vicious circle has been in existence for some time now: Chinese specialists complain of no money, and the clients (i.e. the state and business) complain that there aren’t enough specialists.  This can be put down to the staggeringly myopic approach of the Russian authorities who talk about the strategic partnership with China but have no desire to learn about it, the legacy of the 90s, and Russian corruption. The study of China and the Chinese is moving inexorably towards complete collapse, as is the system of decision-making – one has only to remember Igor Sechin.

China, on the other hand, is energetically developing Russian studies, as could be seen from the lieutenants who for some unknown reason spoke beautiful Russian.


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