The Dandong Chess Board: Trade, Anti-Corruption, and Russian Visitors

By | May 26, 2024 | No Comments

As the world digests the deeper meanings of Xi Jinping’s fond farewell to Vladimir Putin in Harbin, it pays to turn to northeast China’s economic ties with its neighbor states. There is a fixation on military supply chains with their application to the war in Ukraine, but it also bears asking: Do summits like those between Xi and Putin really lead to breakthroughs and accelerations at the local level?

As analysts such as myself are occasionally asked by journalists to comment on the ostensibly deepening ties between, and coordination among, North Korea, China and Russia, it can pay dividends to have a look at recent developments a border city like Dandong, China’s most important trade hub with North Korea.

Foreign Affairs at the Local Level

When reading high-level bilateral meetings, we need to distinguish between preparation for broadening ties with North Korea and the implementation of steps that would indicate such a broadening is occurring. Sino-NK last covered this topic in January, focusing on the enhanced role of the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang in facilitating bilateral flows through Dandong.

Small indicators exist that North Korea is opening up further and faster to China.

How do we understand how the Dandong cadre is meant to frame its ties with North Korea? One way of doing so is to assess a readout of a meeting of the Dandong City Party Committee on April 17, a gathering that focused on Xi Jinping’s direction on foreign affairs for the coming period. After nodding to “Belt and Road” rhetoric and promising to “implement the Party Central Committee’s decisions and arrangements on foreign affairs to the letter,” the Dandong city leadership pivots to the DPRK.

Here, the committee takes on its task to “Earnestly organize and carry out activities related to the China-North Korea Friendship Year, and make positive contributions to Dandong in order to safeguard, consolidate and develop the traditional friendship between China and North Korea.” Whilst doing this, Dandong leaders are also mindful of dangers attendant to even borders shared by ostensibly friendly (yet unnamed) neighbor states: “We must make every effort to safeguard the overall situation of foreign-related security and stability, and resolutely safeguard national political security and regime security. and ideological security, continue to strengthen [coordination among] military, police, and civilians, and effectively maintain security and stability in border areas” (护边境地区安全稳定).

Plenty of small-scale data indicates that Dandong is trying to reach out to North Korea for more trade. On 22 April, a meeting led by Dandong city mayor Hao Jianjun (郝建军) reviewed the results of a comprehensive “half-year check” on local county governments. The report stated that cadre “must make every effort to stabilize foreign trade and enhance border trade in support of the city’s import/export trade (要全力稳住对外贸易,提升边贸对全市进出口贸易的支撑力).”

Notably, this phrase is not derived from other central government verbiage or directives. However, the basic impetus does cohere with general guidance on borderland economics, as summarized in a recent open-access journal article from scholars at Guangxi University, which surveys economic development in border counties nationally.

The Guangxi scholars give northeast China high marks for developing border regions, but it is very clear that local enterprises and economies in the counties around Dandong need more business. A bit further northeast from Dandong in the more rural (and occasionally Manchu) border county in Kuandian, this week local officials noted a need to “battle for an economic turnaround (经济翻身仗).”

More often than not, Xi Jinping’s vocabulary comes into play. In Dandong, mayor Hao Jianjun identified a need not simply for harbor dredging and the basic work of making Dandong more of a thriving port city but to “firmly establish ‘single chess game’ thinking everywhere in the city” (牢固树立全市“一盘棋”思想).

As explained by Yuan Shaoguang (袁绍光) in the key theory journal Qiushi (求是), this is a phrase loaded with Xi Jinping significance, another means of emphasizing the leader’s fixation with “coordinated development and organic integration to form an overall synergy.” In line with the Dandong party committee’s quest to find seamless cooperation between civilians and the military or police, the “single chess piece” phrase we learn from Qiushi is also used by Xi to connote civil-military fusion.

Wang Dawei, former deputy governor of Liaoning and former head of the province’s public security department. Image from China Daily, via China Central Television, January 2024.


The enemies of coordination are those within the Party operating irregularly, taking advantage of loopholes or unsupervised practices to benefit themselves. Liaoning’s particular malfeasance in this area has been highlighted early in 2024 via a television program of interviews with former high officials in the economic apparatus confessing publicly to their crimes.

In a May 13 meeting in the port of Donggang, local vice-secretaries are encouraged to hunt down officials engaged in “illegal accumulation of funds” (非法集资). One phrase about catching literally every potential violation early, and the need for constant urgency, seemed to sum it up aptly: “Achieve early detection, early warning, early reporting, early attack [of violations] and early disposal [of cases].” True leadership, it asserts, consists not simply of punishment and accountability, but in “enhancing the sense of crisis” about corruption within the party.

Provincial cadre descended on the Liaoning capital city of Shenyang this past week to get a topping-up of their levels of zeal for anti-corruption. Here, a large meeting of cadre were upbraided with heavy quantities of moralizing discourse, reminded of the importance of a clean ideological environment, and (perhaps) inspired by paeans to the strict wisdom of Xi Jinping.

Back in Dandong’s port city of Donggang, concerns are perhaps less lofty. The city has had a persistent problem with alcohol use by Party officials, known as a species of “tongue tip corruption (舌尖上的腐败).” The inspection commission in Donggang recently assessed the past five years of efforts to curtail “drinking at work” as well as “wine drinking, which violated rules, and drunk driving” (违规饮酒、酒驾醉驾) among local officials.

If Chinese local cadre and customs officials end up with a wider array of cross-border business ties, how do those activities interact with the anti-corruption campaign? As Dandong expands business ties with North Korea as well as Russia, that question bears keeping in mind.

Mikhail Yurkin via RIA Birobidzhan Regional Portal

Russians in Dandong

While North Korea is just across the river, of late there have been indications that Dandong is angling for more commercial intercourse with Russia as well. Dandong city leadership recently laid out how they conceive of their role in enhancing Sino-Russian relations:

“The Dandong Municipal Party Committee and Municipal Government will firmly implement the important consensus reached by the two heads of state and further deepen [进一步深化] friendly exchanges with Russian local states and cities. We hope that the two sides will take this exchange visit as an opportunity further to leverage the resource advantages of the two places, deepen cooperation between the two sides, and transform the “vision” in their hearts into the “reality” of development [将心中“愿景”转化为发展“实景”], and contribute more to the development of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination in the new era.”

As evidence of such, we note a Russian business delegation was in Dandong in mid-April, led by Mikhail Olegevich Yurkin (Михаил Олегевич Юркин), who is the head of the Investment Bureau of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast.

Dandong Mayor Hao Hanjun with Mikhail Olegevich Yurkin and business delegation, April 2024.

The oblast is lightly populated, with little non-timber industry or manufacturing capacity. Birobidzhan, its capital, is small, with around 75,000 inhabitants — hardly a peer with Dandong’s population of over 900,000. Is the Dandong CCP leadership really in need of more Russian honey? And how would logistics work between the two areas so far removed from one another? The readout of the meeting gives the impression of a meeting full of vague generalities, with Dandong officials giving a boilerplate presentation and Yurkin being encouraged “to walk around a lot and see a lot [多走多看]” in the city. Nevertheless, the official readout provides encouragement for more “steps forward in leveraging resource advantages in both localities [进一步发挥两地资源优势]” to strengthen mutual ties.

As China continues to work for the “chess board” in Dandong, it is worth tracing how local imperatives align with geopolitics, the ongoing churn of the anti-corruption campaign, and the Russian angle.

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