Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Chinatowns Emerging in Post-Soviet Central Asia But Not Near the Chinese Border

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 18 – As Beijing expands its economic and political ties in post-Soviet Central Asia, the number of Chinese living and working in the major cities and regions has increased, in some cases providing the kind of trained workers that these countries need given the departure of the ethnic Russian population.
But despite the Chinese government’s interest in promoting the appearance of such diaspora communities, according to David Babayan, a Yerevan-based scholar who has is the author of a monograph on “Chinese Geopolitics at the Contemporary Stage,” the Chinese authorities have worked hard to prevent these “Chinatowns” from creating tensions.
On the one hand, the Armenian researcher says, the Chinese authorities have sought to downplay this development, conscious that the appearance of too many ethnic Chinese in Central Asia can trigger problems, much as the roughly 90,000 Chinese now living in Kyrgyzstan have done (www.journal-neo.com/php/content.php?id=1073).
And on the other, Babayan continues, the Chinese authorities have worked hard to make sure that the Chinese diasporas in Central Asia are far from border areas lest the appearance of such groups in the still fragile states of the region prompt political leaders there to fear that China has territorial ambitions and as a result to decide to turn away from Beijing.
According to the Armenian expert, the clearest indication of Chinese intentions in this regard is to be found in Kazakhstan. The number of Chinese has been growing, although the exact figures are a matter of some dispute. But one thing is clear: most of the Chinatowns in that country are to be found far from the Chinese border and near the Russian one.
That is because ethnic Russians have been leaving that Central Asian country in large numbers, often leaving local industry without the skilled cadres that it needs to function. Consequently, the Kazakhstan authorities are more than prepared to welcome Chinese skilled workers, at least as long as they do not settle too near the Chinese border.
In his article, Babayan provides details both on the number of ethnic Chinese in Kazakhstan and the precise ways in which Chinatowns have formed in areas from which ethnic Russians have fled. And given that few ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan say they plan to remain, the number of ethnic Chinese in the northern part of Kazakhstan is likely to grow.
Indeed, Babayan suggests that is precisely Kazakhstan which is posed “to become one of the main directions of the establishment of Chinatowns in the region.” Indeed, Beijing, which seldom talks about this trend, has indicated that it is ready to send 50,000 oilfield workers to Kazakhstan in the near future, if Astana agrees.
But the Armenian researcher continues, “smaller or larger Chinatowns are going to appear not only in Kazakhstan” but also in the other countries of Central Asia, particularly in the larger cities. There are already Chinatowns in Tashkent, Bishkek, and Dushanbe. And some reports indicate that the numbers of people are growing rapidly.
Up to now, however, the rise of Chinatowns in Central Asia has attracted little attention not only because Beijing and the host governments have an interest in keeping quiet but also because the ethnic Chinese immigrants are not near the border where many analysts are inclined to look but rather as far removed from China’s border as the authorities in Beijing can arrange..

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