Almaty, situated in southern Kazakhstan, is close to the Chinese border. One of the most interesting places in the outskirts of the city is Barakholka, a large out-of-town bazar that lies to the north-west of Almaty, reputedly stretching for nearly five kilometers. Nestled in the foothills of the Tien Shan, it is a noisy, congested and chaotic maze of zigzagging aisles where thousands shop every day. The market, which stretches along-side a road leading out of town, is organised into sections, each named differently—“Europe,” “Evrazia” and so on. Barakholka is a rabbit warren of stalls (actually comprising several different bazars, each offering specific merchandise). Most of the bazar is outside, and trying to find a particular section is nearly impossible. One can spend hours turning corners and walking through long barn like buildings weaving through the crowds. The bazar sells literally everything that one would want to buy from clothes to food and toys, hardware to handicrafts. It is also a market where Uzbeks, Uighurs, and Dungans converge to sell products of Chinese make. Inside the labyrinths of shops and tents there are restaurants that reflect the ethnic diversity of the market. There are also always hawkers who walk through the narrow aisles selling tea, fruit and somsa, yelling alternately in Kazakh and Russian.
[Tea and somsa in Barakholka (photograph by author)]
Barakholka is a typical example of what is referred to as Kitaiskii bazar (Khitoy bazar in the local language) in Central Asia. From the early 1990s Barakholka has been a place for the resale of Chinese goods transported from Xinjiang. It was quickly taken over by Dungan and Uighur traders since it was located near a former kolkhoz, Zaria Vostoka which had a Dungan majority at the time of its foundation in the 1930s but then came to be numerically dominated by the Uighurs arriving from China in the 1960s. The Uighurs who had close links with relatives in Xinjiang set up cross border trade by investing in Barakholka, or by developing related businesses such as restaurants, the hiring out of warehouses or the supply of lodging for travelling traders. Smaller markets selling Chinese goods were also set up on both sides of the border in Zharkent and Yining, allowing traders to commute without having to cross the entire Ili valley from Almaty to Urumchi. This cross- border shuttle service came into competition with the new Almaty-Urumchi railroad which enabled trade to take place across greater distances. As a result trade practices became more diversified. The Central Asian Uighurs started to spend less time in Xinjiang where they went only to purchase goods while the Chinese Uighurs who went to Central Asia stayed longer to establish their own stands at Barakholka or at one of the other bazars of the region.
This pattern has been repeated at hundreds of markets, making Chinese goods ubiquitous across Central Asia. Initially, the traders at these bazars were locals bringing scarce goods from just across the border to sell. But, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up permanent shops and have become a fixture of Central Asian urban life. Like Barakholka and Ya Lian bazars in Almaty, the Dordoi and Karasuu in Bishkek shows the enormous economic outreach of Chinese products in Central Asia. The story is similar in Bishkek’s Osh Bazar. Kyrgyzstan in particular is benefiting from the re-export of cheap Chinese goods to other Central Asian states and even Russia. The Chinese traders in Kyrgyzstan can be divided into two broad categories—the small operators and the wealthier Chinese businessmen who are referred to as loben or bashlik. The small operators often make trips between China and Kyrgyzstan themselves and do not seek to obtain long-stay entry permits. They rent containers in which they stock and resell their goods and employ local workers, Dungans or Kyrgyz. The bashlik employ large numbers of locals for reselling and performing transactions. In addition to their sites in the market some Chinese entrepreneurs have opened factories principally in the Chui Valley.
China’s trade with the Central Asian states has traditionally been dominated by barter trade. Over the last few years various diversified trading channels have expanded the bilateral trade. Border trade, local trade, border residents markets and tourist purchases now flourish in towns like Yilin and Urumchi. In addition special economic zones have been opened along the borders. For instance, the opening of a special economic zone in Yili, in north-western Xinjiang near the border with Kazakhstan, has the potential to transform the nearby border port at Khorgas into a centre of trade with Kazakhstan, including container transportation, processing facilities and the promotion of tourism in both Kazakhstan and Xinjiang. This is supported by the fact that the area is China’s only Kazakh autonomous prefecture populated mainly by ethnic Kazakhs. In the course of the last decade, economic and technical cooperation has increased significantly between China and Central Asia. A number of joint ventures are now in operation, and Chinese entrepreneurs have signed agreements, contracts and letters of intent with their counterparts in Central Asia. The most important factor in the development of bilateral trade is that both Central Asia and China’s North West are located in Inner Asia and are completely landlocked. The operation of rail and road linkages like the second Euro-Asian continental bridge will therefore be crucial for the operation of trade. The opening of the Khorog-Kashgar road link between China and Tajikistan is also significant in this context. The road route is expected to promote a significant expansion in trade between Tajikistan and China over the medium to long term and boost the share of Chinese goods in the Central Asian market.
Attitude towards Chinese goods, however, is often ambivalent. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the flood of Chinese imports into the country since 1991 has been a blessing. Affordable imports have been a cushion against persistent inflation. At the same time, an open trade policy has created an avenue for Kyrgyz entrepreneurs to gain profits by re-exporting Chinese goods to larger, better protected markets in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and even Russia. On the other hand, the rise of China’s economic influence has fostered sovereignty concerns, with many Kyrgyz complaining that their country has become the dumping ground for Chinese products. There is also a latent fear, particularly in the states bordering China, that Beijing is hungry for land. And if that is the case, even a small immigration of Chinese to the region would swamp the local population. Though Kyrgyzstani consumers choose China on a daily basis, the local media plays on fears of Chinese in migration. Research by the Central Asia Free Market Institute (CAFMI) confirms that China has a hammerlock on Kyrgyzstan’s informal economy. Over 75% of the goods at Dordoi and 85% of goods at Kara Suu—the country’s two largest bazars— come from China. Since much of the trade is informal, numbers about the volume of trade varies widely. Kyrgyzstan’s heavy reliance on Beijing, however, increases the Kyrgyz economy’s vulnerability to swings. Activity at the Karasuu bazar experienced a negative trend after Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan sealed their respective borders after the events in Osh in 2010. Also, quality control is a major issue.
There is apprehension that the influx of goods and possibly migrants will lead to “social problems.” On the Central Asian side, there has also been some unease about a possible Chinese influx that could result from large scale Chinese economic penetration into the region. Chinese bilateral agreements on joint ventures with all the states have led to largescale resettling of Chinese in the Central Asian states. Many Chinese who came to give economic assistance then stayed on after the expiry of their visas. Some married local women and acquired property. Central Asian authorities have not moved to expel the illegal settlers for fear of antagonising the Chinese government but a degree of concern is evident from a reading of local newspapers. Similarly, there is concern about the movements of locals from rural settlements to urban markets created by the massive influx of Chinese goods. These concerns have been reflected in the social media. An interesting example of this reflection is the documentary, The Other Silk Road (a film by NCCR North-South and PANOS South Asia) which traces one such migrant movement from Ylaitalaa, a rural settlement in the southern Osh province of Kyrgyzstan to the markets of Bishkek and Almaty and then on to Moscow. The narrative is of the people involved in this movement and of the effect of this movement on their lives and the lives of those left behind. The context of this migration is defined within the general problems of the post- Soviet space that was suddenly placed within a “globalised” world where the collapse of a socialist state and collective farming transformed individuals into entrepreneurs. This, in combination with the fact that southern and western Kyrgyzstan shares a long border with China, meant that trading in manufactured goods brought from across porous borders became a lucrative possibility. This resulted in the migration of younger people from the heavily populated and resource poor southern Kyrgyz regions to the north and the capital Bishkek. The Osh and Dordoi markets in Bishkek therefore became host to a large number of migrant traders from the southern regions who live in the outskirts of Bishkek and trade in a wide range of mass consumer products, home electronics and luxury commodities. The movement did not stop here. A significant number of them also moved further north to Almaty and even Moscow.
[Screen grab from the film, The Other Silk Road]
The film evokes the metaphor of the Silk Road to define this contemporary movement and the trade that is so intrinsic to the definition of the route. Ylaitalaa becomes the point of reference from where this movement begins and where, it is hoped, it will end one day as the migrants return. The narrative is of the period in- between. It is a narrative of individuals and families who find new “homes” in distant places and then grapple with the problems that this new beginning poses. But it is also a narrative of the older and the younger population who shares the benefits of this movement in terms of remittances but also lives in the hope that traditional and familial ties will ensure the return of the migrant population. Here, there is portrayal of the social consequences of migration, including changes in life styles that living in an urban settlement entails, and what this would imply in terms of consideration of a return back home.
Set in the background of the pristine natural beauty of Ylaitalaa and the busy markets of Bishkek, the film records the transformation of the region in terms of people displaced by economic constraints. As a micro study it is based on the experiences of a family who exemplify the situation but it also addresses the larger questions that migration poses. This is particularly significant in the Kyrgyz context since the migratory groups within the state are not restricted to the Kyrgyz. As a state sharing a long border with China it involves the question of a very large number of Chinese migrant workers and traders mainly Uighurs from western China, who are often the cause of xenophobic reactions from the local population. It can only be assumed that the problems encountered by the Kyrgyz migrants in Moscow are similar to the ones that the Chinese encounter in the Karasuu market on the Kyrgyz border with Uzbekistan.
In fact internal conflicts within the bazars have occasionally threatened local stability. Particularly since the Tulip Revolution fires have struck the Uighur and Chinese sections of the Dordoi, Madina and Karasuu bazars a number of times, most recently during the Osh riots in 2010. While the cause of the fires has been difficult to ascertain, the authorities have been sensitive to demands by small groups of sellers. In early 2007 the Kyrgyz government announced that it would introduce a bill to restrict foreign citizens working in wholesale and retail to 4,500. It was explained that the bill did not target either investors or company heads but those who undertook individual entrepreneurship. It was aimed at reducing competition from Chinese traders and therefore decreasing possibilities of conflict in the bazars. It was also meant to facilitate the return of Kyrgyz workers who had migrated to Russia. However, implementation has been delayed out of concern that the decision would impact on the state’s relations with Beijing. Also, the decision did not receive unanimous support from Kyrgyz economic and political circles. It has been argued that the Chinese traders bring money to Kyrgyzstan by paying for licenses for their shops and rents for apartments. In any case there is no guarantee that the Kyrgyz migrants settled in Russia and Kazakhstan would return. In fact, with competition between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan growing over the transit of Chinese products, Almaty would acquire the Chinese wholesale bazars that would be obliged to leave Kyrgyzstan. New conflictual issues have emerged with Kyrgyzstan experiencing the protest of truck drivers who are not allowed to enter Chinese territory in contrast to Chinese drivers who have access to all Kyrgyz roads.
It is undeniable that the local social fabric is being significantly modified by the economic opportunities that are now being made available by Beijing. Varied groups are now involved in playing the role of economic mediators, and minorities are rediscovering their role as shuttle traders. The Uighurs, who were the first to take on the role were later joined by the Dungans and China’s Kazakhs. Other small interconnected networks have also started to appear. A whole range of new professionals are being created all linked to the service economy: transportation, freight, logistics, translation, legal and commercial services etc. Yet, much of the bazar related activities continue to be informal and carried out principally by marginal groups on both sides of the border. This is emblematic of a lack of coordination that has resulted from conflicting strategies and contradictory commitments. A coherent strategy would need to balance local concerns, demographic stakes and domestic compulsions in the course of a more viable economic engagement.
[Dr. Sengupta is Senior Researcher at Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]