With bright blue eyes, fair skin and bushy brown hair, Peter Petrov doesn’t look like a typical Chinese man.
That’s because Petrov, whose legal name is Dong Desheng, lives in his birthplace of Heilongjiang province and is an ethnic Russian, one of China’s 55 officially recognized minority groups.
In a country where the predominant ethnic group, Han Chinese, accounts for 92% of the population – or 1.2 billion people – Petrov, 44, says his appearance and heritage makes him stand out. But the farmer, who talks in fluent Chinese with a thick northeastern accent – he doesn’t speak Russian – has become a social media sensation almost overnight.
In late 2017, Petrov started posting videos of his life on one of China’s most popular streaming apps, Kuaishou. The clips saw him playing with his dog, Little White; eating dumplings with his family; tending to his corn and soybean crops.
Within a year, he had gone viral.
Some viewers were confused by his appearance: One Kuaishou user asked where Petrov had bought his “colored contact lenses,” unable to believe his bright blue eyes were real. But more were drawn to his infectious enthusiasm and boyish charm.
Today, Petrov has nearly 1.5 million followers.
Some fans have even traveled from China’s southern-most provinces to his small village, near the Chinese-Russian border, to meet “Uncle Peter,” bringing a range of gifts – including so much alcohol Petrov said he still hasn’t finished it all.
“At first, I really didn’t like using social media,” said Petrov. “But in the end, it was great.”
But more than creating a social media star, Petrov’s videos have stirred debate online about what it means to be “Chinese” in a society where ethnic homogeneity and social conformity are the norm.
Russians flee to China
The October Revolution of 1917 led to the collapse of Imperial Russia. Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin rose to prominence during the revolution, and eventually seized power of Russia and formed the Soviet Union – the world’s first communist state.
From 1917 to 1922, a brutal civil war broke out between the Red Army and anti-communist forces as they fought to determine Russia’s political and economic destiny. During the conflict and post-war upheaval, thousands of Russians – including Petrov’s ancestors who lived in Poyarkovo, a small rural village near the Russian-Chinese border – fled to China.
During this time, China was split into competing military cliques and was only nominally unified in 1928 by the Chinese Nationalist Party, after more than a decade of political maneuvering and warfare.
In 1926, Petrov’s great grandparents took their two sons across the frozen Amur River into China by horse sled and resettled in Xunke County, in Heilongjiang. After a few years, Peter’s great grandparents divorced and his great-grandmother married a Han Chinese man and adopted his surname, Dong.
The family has remained in the region for almost a century.
They were among thousands of ethnic Russians who fled the motherland for safety in China. Li Guofu’s great grandmother was a Russian aristocrat who married a Han Chinese man who worked in her village. After decades of turmoil, the couple fled Russia across the border to Xunke County in 1931. “Every Paska Festival (Easter), she would look across the Amur river (to Russia) and weep,” said Li, 47, of his grandmother.
Many Russians were engineers and merchants who settled in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang. Russian builders had already moved to help construct the Chinese Eastern Railway, which connected Russia to its eastern regions. Over time, Harbin’s urban landscape became dotted by notes of Russian culture as Russian stores and cathedrals popped up, many of which still exist today.
But for the ethnic Russians in China, life wasn’t always peaceful.
In the 1960s and 70s, Sino-Soviet relations were at a boiling point as the two communist powers jostled for ideological supremacy and fought a series of border clashes. Ethnic Russians were suspected of having dual loyalties and some in Li’s family were accused of being “Soviet spies.”
Li recalls that his grandmother was afraid of speaking Russian during that period for fear of persecution, which had a lasting impact. “When it was safe to speak Russian, my grandmother had already passed away,” said Li. “After that, there was no one to teach (us Russian).”
In a 2013 documentary by an independent Chinese production studio, titled “Peter Petrov’s Spring Festival,” Petrov recalled that his grandfather was falsely accused of being a “Soviet spy” and, as a result, stripped of his post as a captain of a cargo vessel.
In that film, Petrov talked about the necessity to gradually make his bloodline more Han Chinese through marriage, alluding to the fact that his descendants would be spared of future potential discrimination. Petrov and his Han Chinese wife have a 10-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son, who is attending college in another province.
Yet Petrov doesn’t see himself as Russian – he said in the film, he feels entirely Chinese.
’A radical change’
Despite there being approximately 15,000 ethnic Russians in China, in the comments on one of Petrov’s videos, one user was stunned that a person from this group could speak China’s northeastern dialect. In response, several other users reminded the original poster that Petrov was in fact, a Chinese citizen.
James Leibold, an associate professor at La Trobe University in Australia, who specializes in China’s ethnic policies, said that there is an impression it is “impossible for a Chinese citizen to be completely accepted as an authentic Chinese person” if they don’t possess the typical Han Chinese physical characteristics.
“In terms of official policies, there are no barriers,” said Leibold. “But in terms of lived reality, there are still very serious barriers.”
Using stereotypical Han Chinese racial features as a marker of Chinese identity is not uncommon. In 2015, at a ceremony held in San Francisco for American families that had adopted Chinese babies, the Chinese consul general, Luo Linquan, told the adopted children that their “black eyes, black hair and dark skin” were a reminder of their Chinese heritage, according to China Daily, a state-run news publication.
Leibold said that China’s ethnic policies have shifted between pledges to protect minorities’ distinct identities and assimilating their unique cultures into the Han mainstream. But since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013, he said there has been a shift towards a “far more assimilative approach.”
This is most apparent in Xinjiang, where the US government has accused Beijing of arbitrarily detaining up to two million Muslim residents in “re-education camps.”
But the harsh tactics seen in Xinjiang haven’t been deployed against all minorities, Leibold added, explaining that other groups, such as ethnic Russians or the Dai people who live in China’s southwest, are viewed by the government as politically docile – and therefore viewed as a useful counter-narrative.
Petrov’s perceived “foreignness” explains part of his appeal, said Leibold. “There’s an element of exoticism – he is a Mandarin Chinese speaker, yet looks like a foreigner,” said Leibold.
The irony, of course, is that Petrov is not a foreigner: he is a fourth-generation Chinese citizen.
Something even some of his fans are still grappling to accept.