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Vladivostok lures Chinese — many of whom think the city is theirs

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia >> Cui Rongwei, a businessman from northeastern China, could not afford a trip to Paris, so he settled for an exotic taste of Europe right on China’s doorstep. He liked Vladivostok so much that he has made three trips there to savor a city so strikingly different from his own hometown just a few score miles away.

Yet, like nearly all Chinese who visit a city whose Russian name means “master of the East,” Cui is absolutely certain about one thing: The place should really be called Haishenwai, the name it had back when China was master in these parts.

A native of the Chinese province of Jilin in Manchuria, Cui said it was a “historical fact” that the home of Russia’s Pacific Fleet and the showcase of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to project his country as an Asian power is in reality Chinese territory.

Or at least it was, until the Treaty of Beijing, signed in 1860 after China’s defeat by Britain in the Second Opium War, placed Vladivostok and other territory to the northeast of what is now North Korea firmly in Russian hands.

“This was our place, not Russia’s,” he said, standing on a wooden promontory above a majestic harbor studded with Russian warships. Eyeing a Russian cruiser moored nearby, he quickly added, “We are not in a hurry to get it back.”

For leaders in Beijing and, needless to say, Moscow, Vladivostok is indisputably part of Russia. A series of agreements since 1991 have demarcated their 2,615-mile-long border, clearly fixing what belongs to whom.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, declared in 2005 after the fate of a few contested islands was finally settled that “for the first time in our history, bilateral relations with China will not be marred by a border dispute.”

Nobody at an official level in Beijing is asking that the agreed border be changed, but having for decades stoked nationalist rage against so-called unequal treaties like the one imposed by Russia in 1860, China’s governing Communist Party has left ordinary people convinced that large parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East were unjustly seized.

This is despite the fact that the area was never really in the hands of Han Chinese but was controlled instead by non-Chinese peoples who lived in northeast Asia and who periodically swept down to declare themselves masters of China. Claims that Russia’s Far East should be Chinese date from the Jin dynasty, established in the 12th century by Jurchens, a non-Chinese people from Manchuria.

The Chinese Communist Party, which rejoiced at the recovery of Hong Kong and Macau at the end of the 1990s as a final victory over the British and the Portuguese, has tried since to narrow the country’s historical grievances to the South China Sea and Taiwan, vowing one day to recover the island — seized by Japan in 1895 and later by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government — and complete what Beijing calls the “wiping clean” of past humiliations.

Russia, an increasingly close diplomatic partner with China, is almost never ranked in official statements alongside Britain, Japan and other former imperial powers that seized territory by force.

Chinese social media, however, bubble with demands that territory ceded to the Russian Empire in the 19th century not be forgotten. A posting on a popular Chinese internet forum, for example, claimed that the Chinese people “are all in tears” when they see that the “table of unrecovered territory” includes Vladivostok and other lands now controlled by Russia.

Young Chinese, who, unlike older generations, rarely speak any Russian and have no rose-tinted memories of Sino-Soviet friendship in the 1950s, are particularly prone to nationalist fervor. “A new, English-speaking generation of young people with weak or distorted notions of Russian history, culture and politics is forming in China,” lamented a report on relations between the two countries by the Russian International Affairs Council.

Anti-Communist groups like the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned by Beijing as an “evil cult,” have also seized on the cause of “lost Chinese territory” in Russia to try, mostly in vain, to rally opposition to the governing party in Beijing.

Russia, like China, plays down such grievances, but having lit its own nationalist fires with the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Moscow knows how easily historical passions can shred the promises of diplomats.

Victor L. Larin, the director of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East in Vladivostok, said he met frequently with Chinese officials and scholars, and “they never raise the question” of Vladivostok’s ownership. But he added that many ordinary Chinese, who are taught at school about “unequal treaties” and foreign land grabs, believe the city and much of eastern Russia was and, one day, should again be Chinese.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, started by Mao Zedong in 1966, this belief led to brief but bloody clashes along the border north of Vladivostok and nearly pushed China and the Soviet Union into all-out war.

“History is always used for political speculation,” Larin said, adding that demanding Vladivostok back was as unrealistic as Russia’s asking the United States to give back Alaska.

The city, with a population of about 600,000, is now a popular destination for Chinese tourists and also traders, who have turned a once down-at-the-heels market on Sportivnaya Street into a vibrant commercial district.

Ding Shenhang, a cobbler from China at the market, said he has been coming to Vladivostok for five years to avoid the ferocious competition in his home region of Heilongjiang.

“All this was Chinese until the Qing dynasty was forced to give it to the Russians,” he said, gesturing at streets packed with Chinese traders and their Russian customers. But getting it back, he added, would be a “big bother,” namely war, and “nobody wants that.”

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