Mr Alexander Kozlov, Consul General of the Consulate General of the Russian Federation, Hong Kong SAR, of the PRC, feels that packing teas bags into his luggage and bringing them home as gifts for friends and colleagues, is the “most burdensome” task of his diplomacy in Hong Kong. “My acquaintances in Russia love Chinese tea, they always ask me to bring some tea back,” he said with a smile.

Consul General Alexander Kozlov likes the view of Victoria Harbour from his office, saying that Hong Kong is a charming city to live for Russians because the hilly city has a long summer and many hiking trails for outdoor activities. (Photo Sylvia Wong)

Few Chinese know that tea time is one of the most joyful moments for Russians.  Only learned historians know how much value was generated by trading tea between China and Moscow during the late imperial period of the two countries in 19th century. The trade route, known as the “Tea Road”, begins from the port city of Wuhan, in South China, and ends in Moscow, located in the far northwest to China. The trading volume via the “Tea Road” once represented 80% of the total imports for Russia in the early 19th century.

The border city Kyakhta thrived because of the tea trade with China in the 19th century. But unfortunately, its growth stopped as the tea trade suddenly ended up during the first World War. The city today still resembles its glorious past.

Words cannot overestimate the importance of the “Tea Road” during the 19th century for both Russia and China. This explains why Nicholas II of Russia (then Prince Nicholas) chose Wuhan, rather than Beijing, as the most important stop when he first came to China in 1891. The tea factories in Wuhan, jointed operated by both Chinese and Russians, contributed huge profits to the Russian government. They represented one-third of the total state revenue for that year.

An oil painting by Russian artist Pavel Tretyakov around 1850, and depicts Russians’ love for tea.

Since the “Tea Road” became a “revenue source,” the cultural communication between Chinese and Russians thrived for decades.  Leo Tolstoy described the prevalence of a “Culture of Tea” in his novel “War and Peace”. According to Tolstoy, “having a cup of tea” was a symbol of peace and stability that civilians, during this age of war, were desperate for.

Ironically, the revenue collected from the “Tea Road” was used to fund the wars in China during the early 20th century. So, “War and Peace” is not only the title of a novel but also the history of tea trading between China and Russia.

However, it is human nature to seek peace instead of waging war. Therefore, the memory of war faded quickly in the minds of Russians and Chinese, and the habit of “having a cup of tea” remains popular in Russia to this day. For Russians, especially the educated elites, holding a warm cup of tea in their hands creates a wonderful moment for sharing ideas.

However, sharing ideas over a cup of tea is not Kozlov’s style. “Tea helps reduce blood pressure, but my blood pressure is too low to have a cup of tea,” he shook his head.

Although tea is not for the Consul General, facilitating a “tea road” of the new version is taking shape between Hong Kong and Moscow; it is his major task in China. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), first proposed by Vladimir Putin in early 2011, has contributed greatly to the integration of the regional economy since its founding in 2015. Meanwhile, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), is designed to coordinate with the EAEU through intensive infrastructure construction in the region.

The basic facts about EAEU (upper) and the development strategy (bottom). (Source: Eurasian Economic Union: Fact and Resources)

In 2017, China has become the biggest partner of EAEU. (Source: Eurasian Economic Union: Fact and Resources)

China Railway Express serves as a prime example of results that can be achieved when the EAEU and BRI work together. The international and trans-continental railway network in Eurasia has witnessed a dramatic increase in the shipment of cargo and commodities during the previous five years. In 2011, it was only 17 trains of containers, but then the number increased dramatically to 2490 trains of containers in the first half of 2018. It is estimated that the number will exceed one million containers, annually, in 2025.

Meanwhile, e-commerce continues to expand rapidly, thanks to the economic integration of the region under the framework of the EAEU. It has been reported that in the first six months this year, the Russian Post handled 30 per cent more international packages and letters than last year, with the total number increased to over 191 million items. Russian Post reported that “84 per cent of the parcels originated from China”.

According to Russian media, the reason behind the increase is the increase in popularity of e-commerce platforms. Mail.Ru's Pandao service, which focuses on Chinese goods, and American eBay topped the ranks. They were followed by Alibaba Group Holding's AliExpress and Latvian Joom, both of which offer products that are mostly made in China.

Kozlov said that the e-commerce between China and Russia is thriving. “In Russia, a great number of household appliances, such as air conditioners and refrigerators, are Chinese brands.”

The recent joint venture between Alibaba and Mail.Ru will most likely boost the market share of e-commerce services by providing a user-friendly, online platform for local consumers in Russia. Kozlov commented that such cooperation is especially important for both countries because it benefits both countries. The miracle of the tea trade in the 19th century is being reborn in the form of railway transportation services and mouse clicks in the 21st century.

Earlier in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced in Beijing that “China has great confidence in its relations with Russia and their comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination is as unshakable as Mount Tai”, one of the most famous mountains in China. Wang’s words were not just the rhetoric of diplomacy, but rather a reflection of the status quo that is occurring between the two powers.


“There are no conflicts regarding the transfer of technology, even within the hi-tech spheres of the military, outer space exploration or AI industry,” said Kozlov. “Sino-Russian cooperation is all-inclusive, while the reporting continues to be lacking,” said the Consul General.
“While the world continues to engage in confrontation and competition, Russia and China have chosen to trust each other and fully cooperate with each other! This is the difference and we will make a difference,” Kozlov said with a smile.