Aisulu grimaces while talking about the gauntlet she has been thrown by foreign competitors. “The Chinese say, ‘You took away our market, we will find a way to bring it back. We will produce clothes that are even cheaper than yours.’ She owns a textile workshop in the outskirts of Bishkek. The sewing machines are made in China (“They cost much less than the Japanese ones,” she says) and a dozen young women are working away producing women’s padded coats, which are oversize for local consumption because Aisulu’s target customers are junoesque Russian buyers.
Difficult but necessary: this is the essence of the relationship between China and Kyrgyzstan, its gateway to Central Asia and the first step on its “new Silk Road”, launched by Xi Jingping with his grandiose One Belt One Road (Obor) project.
Meanwhile, Bakyt, Aisulu’s husband, talks politics. He likes the incumbent president, Almazbek Atambayev, 80%; the other 20% relates to Atambayev’s open door for Chinese capital. “We always run the risk of being colonized by the Chinese,” he says. His broad approval is thanks to the relative tranquility the country has experienced since the 2010 riots, when a coup in Bishkek and ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south of the country brought havoc.
“Of course, the Chinese are building roads here, but I’d much prefer it if they were built by the Germans or Russians.” Bakyt thinks every Kyrgyz President must find a balance between Moscow and Washington. “And now we have also the Chinese,” he laughs. The problem with the newcomers, he says, is that they bring no quality and few jobs. But yes, they build roads. “Anyway, I’d prefer the Germans.”
China’s Obor policy is mostly based on infrastructure: roads, bridges, tunnels, internet networks and so on. According to Beijing, this massive material and virtual network will enable a huge Eurasian free trade area, and of course – though the aim is not always stated – help China to export its own oversupply of steel, concrete, and manpower.
In Kyrgyzstan, one symbol of this policy is the new road being built between the two major cities, Bishkek and Osh, a north-south backbone that will bypass the old M41, “the Pamir highway.” China will provide half of the US$855 million initial investment, which will enter Kyrgyzstan through the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim); 30% of the workforce will be Chinese, 70% local.
The project, driven by the strength of China’s economies of scale, won against a German proposal to restructure the M41 and then guarantee its maintenance for 20 years. Critical voices, coming both from deep within Kyrgyz society and from some officials working for international institutions, claim that the true competitive strength of the “Chinese road” consists of putting more money in circulation, which is promptly intercepted by the local kleptocracy. “I don’t like the Chinese but we need them,” says Bakyt. A hushed, creeping Sinophobia is felt almost everywhere.
Emil Nasritdinov is a professor of anthropology at the American University of Bishkek. According to him, the Silk Road proclaimed and publicized by Beijing amounts so far to little more than exporting Chinese textiles on trucks, from Kashgar and Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang Province to the Kyrgyz markets of Dordoy and Madina.
To him, the clearest example of this trend is the road built by the Chinese between Kashgar and Osh. Besides the trucks coming from the east, there are also Kyrgyz trucks heading to China. “Occasionally,” says Nasritdinov, “local truckers protest because they claim the Chinese have a strong government protecting and subsidizing them, which makes the Kyrgyz lose competitiveness.”
According to research by Nasritdinov’s students, Sinophobia in Kyrgyzstan is most common among two groups: anti-Chinese nationalists, on ideological grounds; and the traders, who fear the competition from Chinese goods. Both complain that the Chinese government bribes local politicians, who pocket the money.
“Paradoxically,” says Nasritdinov, “there is a third category that, for different reasons, is critical: established Kyrgyzstan-based Chinese nationals. They argue that Kyrgyz officials ask them for bribes even though Beijing has already paid.”
Back to Aisulu’s business: her oversized parkas are also sold, in a stand run by her sister Nazgul, at the Dordoy market, the hub from which Kyrgyz and Chinese products spread to the countries of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan and then Russia, to the north-west; Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the south.
Dordoy is an evolving universe. “When, in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union happened, the population of the former empire was suddenly hungry for consumer goods, but had no money,” says Nasritdinov. “Where could you find all kinds of cheap goods, then?” Obviously, in China.
And it was the Kyrgyz people – but especially the Kyrgyz women – who rolled up their sleeves and started to carry bags stuffed with all kinds of goods from the newborn “world factory,” westwards. They were called “chelnok” or “shuttle traders.” They used to head to Urumqi and Kashgar, buy goods coming from southern China’s factories, then go back home laden with bags. And hence they started a cross-border trade that brought those goods up all the way to Moscow, through the markets of Eurasia. The Dordoy bazaar has been the hub of this flow, which is human first, and commercial second.
This was a Silk Road of the people – an impoverished multitude who drew resources from China to make a living. Many, in the former Soviet empire, came from respected backgrounds. There were doctors and engineers. “Our research found 37 different professions,” says Nasritdinov, “including an ethnography professor.” He insists in calling them “the heroes of Kyrgyzstan,” since they are the people who held the country together during difficult years.
Today, the bazaar is a continuous row of containers stacked one above the other, two by two. Downstairs, the stands; above, the warehouse. The chelnok who succeeded in getting wealthy began to buy these structures in the late 1990s in order to rent them to others. If you want a prime location in the center of the market, you will pay as much as the equivalent of US$1,000 per month. If the periphery is good enough for you, only 150 bucks are needed.
Part of Dordoy is called Zhong Hai, the “middle sea” in Chinese. It’s ethnic Han merchant territory. “I don’t know why it’s called that,” says one, a young man from the manufacturing city of Yiwu, in southern China, who is flogging shiny frames, Eiffel tower-shaped ornaments and other junk associated with Made in China. “I don’t really like it here,” he says, “but starting a business in Kyrgyzstan is cheaper than doing it back home.”
Suspicious Kyrgyz and melancholic Chinese. There is a human Silk Road that has always been here, before the big numbers and the political marketing of One Belt One Road.
In late August last year, a terrorist attack was carried out against the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. A man broke thorough the gate with his car and blew himself up inside the courtyard. He was the only victim. The official version pointed the finger at a separatist Uyghur from Xinjiang, but for many this was not the full story.
In Kyrgyzstan, Muslims are under the spotlight due to a creeping conflict with Beijing, and find themselves monitored by at least three secret services: the local ones, the Chinese and the Russian FSB, who treat this as their back yard.
A lone wolf attack is just one of the many possible explanations. What seems clear is that the One Belt One Road – which seeks to showcase China’s new ambitions on the world stage and boost its economy – will have to deal with the Central Asian complexity right on its the doorstep. This will be the case country by country, community by community, along the entire Eurasian crossroad that will be affected. Flexible governance is needed, perhaps a global welfare approach on the Silk Road. Bags of money from above will not necessary meet the expectations of women and men who stake their own lives along the route.