The Chinese presence is disruptive. Han traders from the coast have connections to manufacturers (often family members) essential for ensuring the best price margins, while the Hui (Chinese Muslims) control much of the truck transport network overland from western China into Kyrgyzstan. The latter arrangement has caused tension with local Kyrgyz, resulting in violent clashes at the Kyrgyzstan-China border. Han businessmen, meanwhile, who often speak little Kyrgyz or Russian and stick to themselves, experience muggings, extortion and sometimes targeted killings.
But despite these problems, Kyrgyzstan, a WTO member, remains the main entry point for Chinese goods, and over the past decade and a half Chinese businessmen have penetrated into almost every sector of Kyrgyzstan’s economy. They are generally not worried about Russia’s plans to develop a protectionist customs union for the region, one including Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and aimed mainly at hiking up tariffs on Chinese goods, because in practice, Russia’s economy presents no competition.
It is these activities—multifarious, undirected, and individual—that have brought Central Asia into China’s economic orbit. Consider the Han cook whose dumplings, sold from a makeshift cart in the Dordoi bazaar, I recently had for lunch. As I ate, he decanted noodle soup into the bowls of Chinese vendors while simultaneously taking orders on the phone from customers across the bazaar. Had the man come here as a trader and then realized that the food business was more lucrative? No, he and his wife were cooks in Nanjing and relocated here to make more money. After all, the thousands of Chinese traders here have to eat—and they prefer food from home.
Similar stories abound throughout Central Asia’s great marketplaces. At the Barakolka bazaar outside of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, a hyperactive stall owner from Xi’an played one of the Silk Road’s oldest roles: carpet seller. But his wares were synthetic, mass-produced versions of traditional Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Turkmen patterns, which have quickly displaced the intricate, hand-made wool and silk versions that once dominated. At the smaller, “Shanghai” bazaar in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, a purveyor of Chinese furniture complained that his business was less lucrative than that of his countrymen operating in Kyrgyzstan. He hoped that investment from China’s energy giant China National Petroleum Corpoation (CNPC) in Tajikistan’s oil and gas fields would eventually trickle down to his customers.
Back in Bishkek, in a more “high-end” Chinese department store, another furniture salesmen spoke about when, in the 1990s, local thugs stole over a hundred thousand dollars from him. He nonetheless stayed in country, and in fluent Kyrgyz, he conducts business with associates over the phone. After having—according to him—gained and lost several fortunes, he viewed his current enterprise as a quiet retirement gig. Central Asia was indeed a land of opportunity and, despite the risks, he said, it was more comfortable and safe than Chinese cities.