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Comptes rendus
Période soviétique et postsoviétique

Franck BILLÉ, Caroline HUMPHREY, On the Edge. Life along the Russia-China Border

Jie Zhao
p. 717-720
Référence(s) :

Franck BILLÉ, Caroline HUMPHREY, On the Edge. Life along the Russia-China Border, Cambridge, MA – London : Harvard University Press, 2021, 400 p.

Texte intégral

1With the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Russia has suffered increasing economic sanctions and international isolation from the West, which has undoubtedly pushed Russia-China relations towards more intimacy. As stated in this book, Russia and China embrace the vision of a multipolar world free of American meddling. This strategic partnership must also be seen in a global context of increasing friction with the West. “In many ways it is the very tension with the United States and the European Union that brings the two countries together” (p. 8).

2Two great neighboring powers, Russia and China share a 2,600-mile-long border and have experienced a long history of bilateral relationships. Yet surprisingly, despite the strategic significance of this state of things, related academic research is rather scarce. More specifically, systematic studies on how the lived experiences of the inhabitants of peripheries intersect with the grand national and geopolitical visions emanating from the political centers of Moscow and Beijing are particularly lacking. Franck Billé and Caroline Humphrey’s On the Edge: Life along the Russia-China Border draws on pioneering fieldwork, sheds new light on the topic by delving into the history, the lifeways, the political and economic interactions of the Russian and Chinese borderlands, and tries to penetrate obscured media information, revealing a scene of intimate partnership, unique contrasts, frequent tension, as well as emerging trends that top-down approaches have missed entirely. This is an insightful and thought-provoking work that examines the complex dynamics of life on the frontier between China and Russia. In terms of academic research, it offers compelling case studies in historical memory, imagined communities, and imperial international relations. The book has been shortlisted for the 2022 Pushkin House Book Prize.

3Its two authors have a long-standing interest in the study of East Asian frontier issues. Franck Billé is program director at the Tang Center for Silk Road Studies, University of California, Berkeley; his main publication is Sinophobia: Anxiety, Violence, and the Making of Mongolian Identity. Caroline Humphrey is a fellow of King’s College, University of Cambridge, and the founder of the university’s Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit. She recently edited and contributed to Trust and Mistrust in the Economies of the China-Russia Borderlands.

4Billé and Humphrey’s fascinating book is divided into seven thematic chapters, plus an introduction. Each chapter focuses on one specific aspect of the interface between the two countries, incorporating personal stories of both Russian and Chinese borderland dwellers. The book is less concerned about the policies and “turns” announced by the capitals than about what happens on the ground and the variegated complexities of borderland people. Although the authors are anthropologists, they do not propose or defend an anthropological theory or a single-encompassing idea, but rather a straightforward description based on field research. This approach brings a human dimension to the analysis of a poorly known region and reveals the complexity of local experiences and how people imagine a future for themselves. In addition to this, Billé and Humphrey’s account draws on numerous recent studies of China’s contemporary borderlands such as travel accounts, local and state-level media reports, monographs, historical archives, and edited collections dealing with particular themes.

5The book’s approach is comparative in nature. Billé and Humphrey combine diachronic and synchronic comparisons of the edge of Russia and China in economic, ecological, and urban developments. The authors first explore the disparate spatial arrangements of the Russian-Chinese border and explain briefly how they came to be, setting the scene for the themes explored in the rest of the book, which deal with how life is lived on both sides of the border. The authors point out that utterly incongruent administrative and infrastructural systems at the edge of the two states represent increasingly dissimilar and differently weighted patterns (chapter 1).

6The next two chapters detail the interaction of the local population in the borderlands in terms of politics, economics, and livelihoods. Through the case study of the curious fate of Bolshoi Ussuriiskii/Heixiazi Island in the Amur River, which was divided between Russia and China in 2008, the authors attend to the complex matter of how the Russian and Chinese dominating political cultures intersect at the border with ongoing local processes involving security, economic development, and ecological protection, and show how these multiple countervailing pressures have come to be crystallized in particularly concentrated and symbolic forms in one locale (chapter 2). In their discussion on the cross-border economy, the authors mainly focus on informal dealings as ways of making a living such as farming, sea fishing and jade trade, explore how Russian and Chinese types of economy extend across the border and analyze the nature and scale of interactions. In this part, the authors not only discuss the contrast between Chinese and Russian ways of doing business but also focus on their inevitable entanglement with processes that lie beyond a narrow understanding of capitalism (chapter 3).

7Furthermore, Humphrey discusses the dislocation of the indigenous peoples of the borderlands, mainly focusing on their engagement in what the anthropologist Madeline Reeves calls “border work” — that is, how they maintain the border as a line of separation or, on the contrary, make strenuous efforts to bypass or overcome it (p. 133). Through a case study of the Nanai and Hezhe, Buryat and Barga Mongols, Humphrey shows the different ways in which indigenous peoples position themselves vis-à-vis the wider world, thus revealing the values and structures of the Russian and Chinese modes of government and a rethinking of identities and the potential for an overall shift in the interethnic patterns established during the twentieth century (chapter 4).

8In chapter 5, “Friends, Foes, and Kin Across the Border,” Billé notes that ubiquitous political narratives of eternal friendship or heartwarming stories about transnational friendship obscure the complex ethnic entanglements that are inherent to the region. He claims that the intense flurry of commercial collaboration and inter-racial marriages is a defining factor of the dynamic development of the borderlands. However, the real facts of the hybridity and messiness that exist there, the loss of family members, or the alienation experienced by borderlands on both sides ultimately index a sense of unbridgeable rupture. Equally important are resources and the environment at the border: the pristine forests of northeast Asia have long been a crucial source of raw materials for both China and Russia and have been at the core of empire-making for both countries. During fieldwork, the author discovers that the official Russian media criticism of Chinese smugglers stealing valuable resources conceals the complex entanglement of legality, informal state practices, individual enrichment, corruption, and personal networks that define the Russian-Chinese border. The author further states that environmental concerns extend well beyond cultural attitudes to “nature” and “development,” and are indeed metaphors for how the two sides see and imagine each other, and for the dynamics of their relationship overall (chapter 6).

9The author tracks the geopolitical orientations and cultural benchmarks of the two states through analysis of city-building traditions. He points out that urbanization is not merely an index of economic development, it also tells us a lot about the way Russians and Chinese see themselves and how they seek to portray themselves to their neighbors (p. 229). Chinese border towns are described as tending to be compact, vertical, and luminous, while their Russian counterparts often have a horizontal layout, a more dispersed footprint, and use lighting more sparingly – they are products of distinct cultural values and contrasting imaginations of urban modernity. Yet, this chapter also suggests that the very proximity of Chinese and Russian border towns inevitably leads to processes of cultural enmeshment, borrowing, and mimesis. Through contrasting the building of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe, the author shows that though economically codependent and culturally enmeshed, the twin cities are nonetheless very different kinds of siblings. Blagoveshchensk appears inward-looking, almost turned in on itself, while Heihe entirely appears to be facing Russia, with taller and more modern buildings. More than simply denoting a lack of interest in its neighbor, the prevalent mood in Blagoveshchensk is one of protection and securitization. The author also mentions that Russia’s wariness of Chinese intentions is perceptible in the lack of a bridge directly linking the two cities. Yet, in June 2022, the road bridge across the Amur (Heilong Jiang) River went into operation, which is the result of the current dramatic changes in the world’s political landscape.

10In general, this is a well-researched text, grounded in pioneering fieldwork, beautifully written and illuminated, which supplements and challenges international relations studies that have traditionally privileged top-down centrist views. This book tries to probe the significant differences between China and Russia and the problem of sharing res publica between two sovereign states by examining actual practices. The authors state that one key difference lies in the Chinese propensity for real (albeit authoritarian) participatory assimilation, in contrast to the Russian predisposition for top-down bureaucratic control and misleading claims (p. 271). This is illustrated in the way each country deals with local volunteering in emergencies such as wildfires, earthquakes, and floods.

11This book provides an essential guide for students, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. It delivers insightful and thought-provoking reading for anyone concerned with the Russian-Chinese border and relationship.

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Jie Zhao, « Franck BILLÉ, Caroline HUMPHREY, On the Edge. Life along the Russia-China Border »Cahiers du monde russe, 64/3-4 | 2023, 717-720.

Référence électronique

Jie Zhao, « Franck BILLÉ, Caroline HUMPHREY, On the Edge. Life along the Russia-China Border »Cahiers du monde russe [En ligne], 64/3-4 | 2023, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2023, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jie Zhao

College of Marxism, Lanzhou University of Technology, Gansu Province, China

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