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Bright Lights across the River: Competing Modernities at China’s Edge, Mar 21

The two cities of Heihe (China) and Blagoveshchensk (Russia) stand right opposite each other across the Amur River. But if they are comparable in footprint and population size, they look drastically different. Having evolved from a small settlement two decades ago, Heihe is a very modern city, structured on an urban model that is emerging throughout China. By contrast, Blagoveshchensk looks like a typical Eastern European town and has remained practically unchanged in the last twenty years. The contrast increases even further at night, when the whole of Heihe’s riverbank illuminates in very bright lights.

For the Russians in Blagoveshchensk, these lights are symbolically crucial. If they continue to see their town as an outpost of Russian cultural presence in the East, former assumptions of cultural superiority have been deeply undermined. Indeed, no longer viewed as a ‘backward’ developing country, China has now become a serious economic and geopolitical contender. This rise has been viewed by Blagoveshchensk residents with an ambivalent mixture of anxiety and fascination. For the younger generation, the lights increasingly signal the ushering in of a new kind of modernity, offered by an economically confident China where the future beckons and where everything seems possible.