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The great Chinese wave

Yaroslav Razumov

The Chinese issue is now experiencing its second appearance in Kazakhstan’s media. It was very topical for the first time during the mid 1990s, which is easily explained: then, just after the break-up of the USSR, at the initial stages of its independent existence, Kazakhstan had started to discover the neighbouring country, with all the “first meeting” biases and phobias being unavoidable. After that, the negative attitude towards the possible interactions with China has dissipated, and had even seemingly become a thing of the past. Indeed, how could such a high level of antipathy be sustained if the economic presence of China in Kazakhstan was obviously beneficial for the population of the republic? It was beneficial, at least if considered from the perspective of consumers, rather than workers within the industries that couldn’t compete with their Chinese colleagues.
However, during recent years, the ten year old apprehension has returned. Again, one may hear about the future domination of the neighbour in various spheres of our lives, about the inevitability of the absorption of Kazakhstan’s economy into the giant Chinese one. Scientists always play the role of arbiter in the reasoning of the general public and journalists in relation to serious issues. Today we present an interview on the “Chinese problem” with the most prominent expert on China, Konstantin Syroezhkin, a doctor of political science.
- When the Chinese topic arises, first of all immigration is usually discussed. They have been writing and talking about it for ten years, but this long discussion has not lead us to any definite prevalent opinion. What is your comment on this?
- There is an immigration problem; however, it exists not only, and not primarily, with respect to China. Labour migration is an inevitable process, whether we want it or not. In addition, Kazakhstan is the most favourable destination within Central Asia now. Here it is easier than anywhere to legalise and find a job…
With respect to Chinese immigration, there are many myths about it, myths and fears. The data detailing its actual volume, which we have, doesn’t support the notion of expansion in the way many of us mean it.
For example, five to seven years ago, the mass media wrote about 100,000 Chinese immigrants in Kazakhstan. I will not reject it, but I’d like to emphasise: it was possible before 1993, when there was no visa requirement to travel between China and Kazakhstan for the citizens of both countries. At that time, one could see a large number of Chinese tradesmen on the streets of Almaty. During that period, Chinese voices were not much rarer than Kazakh or Russian at the Zhibek Zholy avenue. However, there is an important thing that we should not forget; not all of the tradesmen from China were Chinese. Even though they spoke Chinese, the majority of them were Kazakhs and Uigurs. At that time, statistics were not maintained on entrance and exit (which was impossible under a regime without visas), and it is possible that a significant number of former Chinese citizens settled in Kazakhstan over that period, maybe as many as 100,000. However, it is important to note that the tendency no longer exists.
- Nevertheless, to develop our topic, with respect to the migration flows from China, however big they are, is it a spontaneous process induced by the overpopulation of the country or is it a part of governmental policy? In Kazakhstan there are some people who hold the latter opinion.
- The second version is officially rejected in every possible way. Moreover, the officials state that the government is ready to control external migration and make it completely legal. Anyway, I haven’t seen any documents openly encouraging the leaving of the country.
Of course, there exists the problem of China’s overpopulation, the result which is the flow of the Chinese population in all directions, and this tendency will remain for a long time. For example, compare the Far East of Russia with its population of 12 million and the neighbouring Chinese province Heilongjiang with its 120 million people, or Kazakhstan with a population of 15 million and Xinjiang with already 18 million people. Moreover, the Chinese “great development of the West” program is to be implemented in the future; it covers 19 North-Western regions of China, including those bordering Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia. The program includes plans for the settlement of ethnic Chinese people in these regions. The improvement of economic conditions in these underdeveloped regions presumes the presence of a significant amount of qualified personnel, which aren’t there now. Thus, there will be a need to bring them from the other regions of China. By how much this increase the population of the regions bordering Kazakhstan is difficult to predict now, but even if 5 million Chinese move to Xingjian, the ethnic situation in the region would change significantly.
Therefore, if we speak of the governmental policy of China with respect to external migration, probably the policy exists, because there is a need to deal with the excess labour supply in the country. According to some assessments, there are about 120 million farmers migrating to cities within the country, while members of the younger generation in the cities are also looking for jobs. One of the solutions to this problem is external migration, and the Chinese government cannot ignore the problem and its possible solutions.
- Besides state policy, what else influences this process in one way or another?
- The flow of Chinese immigrants into Kazakhstan will increase after the republic enters the WTO, and this is natural. Alongside this, there is natural process of repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs from China. The latest figures show that they predominate among the Chinese citizens legally settling in Kazakhstan. According to the statistics, there were 1 ethnic Chinese, 5 Uigurs, 3 Russians and 3907 ethnic Kazakhs among the people who received citizenship of Kazakhstan in 2005. In the same year, 1116 citizens of China moved to Kazakhstan for permanent residence, 1109 of which were ethnic Kazakhs.
But this situation is only temporary. The growth of migration from China into the neighbouring countries, especially those countries with low demographic potential, is inevitable. There is no question whether we want it or not, whether we would welcome it or try to slow down. The issue is that this process needs to be seriously controlled, and we have to prepare for it.
- Can this process be effectively controlled of the level of government policy?
- Why not? If effective measures against corruption are taken, then control is possible. For example, if we consider the process of obtaining Chinese visas, we can see that it is significantly concentrated in the hands of Chinese migrants or people connected with them. If I need to obtain a Chinese visa quickly, bypassing the Chinese embassy (which takes three months to consider the necessary documents), I only need to pay a travel agency, which is run by people connected with the aforementioned circle. The same situation exists in Almaty and Vladivostok… This is a problem common to the Chinese embassy, our governmental bodies and the travel agencies. In other words, it is a problem of inter- and intra-national (internal) corruption.
- Recently, one well-known expert discussed the awful situation of the personnel of the mining industry: some of our workers are getting too old, and others move to Russia, where they have higher incomes. The young generation doesn’t want to work in the mines. The expert forecasts that if the tendency persists, in several years we’ll have to bring in Chinese workers…
- The Chinese will not go to our mines for our salaries, so there is no need to worry about it. Reasonably qualified people come to our country through labour migration channels. There are several reasons for their arrival. The first reason is to earn initial capital for launching a business in China. It is easier and more profitable to run a business in China than here. The second reason is to move to Kazakhstan as to a transit country, and later move somewhere further. That’s why there are few mixed marriages registered in our country. Also, few people seek to obtain Kazakh citizenship. A large number of people are willing to obtain a commercial visa, which enables multiple entries to Kazakhstan. This proves that the republic is used as the starting point for both objectives mentioned above. Our labour deficit, especially in technical, physically hard specialisations, in the nearest future will be alleviated not by Chinese workers, but from other CIS countries.
- Then in which spheres of Kazakhstan’s economy will the large Chinese labour force be engaged?
- Mainly the trade industry, in many of its variations. At the moment, they are concentrated in this industry and this will not change in the near future. Besides that, they will probably work within the construction sector, not as low-qualified workers, but at the level of middle and senior management. This will further encourage the delivery and production of construction materials. And, of course, they have a wide-spread presence in the oil and gas industries.
These directions agree with the types of businesses that most Chinese firms engage in outside China. These firms are usually small- or medium-sized companies with a high degree of centralisation of management functions in the hands of the owners. They operate at low levels of profitability but compensate for this by high turnover, prefer to deal with other Chinese firms, and mainly rely on the trade industry, services and land and real estate operations. Obviously, such business structures don’t require a large and continuous influx of labour force from home country.
- One of the factors encouraging the presence of Chinese business in Kazakhstan is trade. We see a lot of Chinese goods now and obviously there will be more in the future. Can China become the leading trade partner of Kazakhstan?
- It is hardly worth talking about the ratio of official statistics of trade between the two countries and its real volumes – nobody would be able to assess it. For example, according to Chinese customs statistics, this trade is between $2 and $2,5 billion larger than the figure indicated by the customs statistics of Kazakhstan. A representative of the customs authority has tried to explain this discrepancy in terms of the difference in the customs accounting systems of two countries. Indeed, there is a problem due to the difference in the accounting systems.
However, China has never been a very big trade partner for Kazakhstan. Even if we judge by the Chinese customs statistics, China’s share in Kazakhstan’s trade is about 5 to 6%. Our main trade partners are not even Russia or the European Union, they are the Virgin Islands and other offshore territories, where our oil is bought…
- But the consumer goods on our markets are mostly Chinese…
- It is not completely true. If we compare the amount of consumer goods from Turkey, UAE and Iran with the amount of goods from China, they would be approximately the same. China is leading in some categories of goods: cars, furniture, some types of household appliances… The increase in trade volume is mainly due to the importing of expensive goods like cars.
- Summarising your answers, can we state that the China-phobia in our society, which is some kind of a tradition now, is largely far-fetched and doesn’t have a serious grounding?
- Not exactly. With respect to Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which have lengthy borders with China, the phenomenon of “Chinese expansion” is characterised not only by figures of immigration flow. Besides the purely demographic, there are economic, ethno-psychological and geopolitical dimensions.
Moreover, the close vicinity of China to these countries, multiplied by the complicated history of relations, causes a high degree of sensitivity, and sometimes even suspicion, of a significant proportion of these populations towards the dynamically growing neighbour, giving birth to the phobias. Note that the phobias are stronger in the regions bordering with China.
However, it is incorrect to speak of a “Chinese expansion” to Russia, Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. Strictly speaking, expansion is an active penetration into some sphere, which the Chinese immigrants don’t do. At the moment, the Chinese citizens in these countries are in the category between “trade minority” and “China-town”, while at the beginning of 1990s, when the assimilation within the post-Soviet territory had just begun, immigrants from China didn’t relate to any of the categories; now, there is a tendency of securing the former category and gradual change into the latter one. The tendency is especially vivid in regions bordering with China or most attractive to Chinese investments and business; it causes the spirit of alertness.
Although the Chinese immigration figures do not call for panic, the history and specifics of the business structure in some East-Asian countries, where the Chinese form a significant or predominant ethnic component of the population, give grounds for some anxiety.

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