The number of Chinese migrants traveling to Kyrgyzstan, mainly to Bishkek, the capital city, has been increasing over the past decade. China is one of the major exporters of goods to Kyrgyzstan, ranging from mass consumer products and home electronics to luxury commodities. In recent years China also turned into a major exporter of labor migrants to Kyrgyzstan.
The exact number of Chinese migrants working in Kyrgyzstan is unknown, but experts estimate that over 10,000 workers may reside in Bishkek and southern parts of the country. Some experts even insist that the number of Chinese citizens living in Kyrgyzstan, mainly ethnic Uighurs from western China, exceeds the number of Kyrgyz citizens living in China.
Generally speaking, the Kyrgyz public does not welcome Chinese migrants in Kyrgyzstan. There have been numerous instances of brutal, even fatal attacks against Chinese migrants by locals. In one recent case two Chinese citizens working in Bishkek were severely beaten by a 27-year old male (Akipress.kg, February 26). The frequent cases of Kyrgyz labor migrants being attacked in Russian cities by skinheads (see EDM, February 21) has led many Kyrgyz to blame Chinese migrants for taking jobs in Kyrgyzstan and squeezing out the local population.
In June 2002, a Chinese diplomat and his driver, also a Chinese citizen, were killed in Kyrgyzstan. The murders occurred just a few months after then Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev ceded 87,000 hectares of Kyrgyzstan’s southern territories to China to resolve a border dispute. The killings were allegedly motivated by nationalist hatred. Akayev had tried to secretly cede territories to China, but when discovered his plan triggered popular protests in southern Kyrgyzstan, resulting in death of six protestors on March 17, 2002. Today, Kyrgyzstan has completed border delimitation with only one of its neighbors – China.
The most xenophobic Bishkek residents fear China’s uncontrolled expansion into Kyrgyzstan. As one Kyrgyz businessmen told Jamestown, “The Chinese government is encouraging outward migration of its citizens, and soon we will have to speak Chinese here in Kyrgyzstan.” Although such opinions are rather rare, they may gather pace in the future.
Chinese merchants and labor migrants live in secluded areas in Bishkek, rarely mixing with local residents. The largest Chinese market on the outskirts of Bishkek, is known to be a “city within a city” with its own residential facilities, food industry, hospital, and mosque (most of the inhabitants are Muslim).
Besides the Bishkek markets, Chinese merchants comprise up to one-fourth of all merchants in the Karasuu market in on the border with Uzbekistan. This market is one of the biggest in Central Asia, serving millions of customers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. In January 2007 over 300 Kyrgyz merchants from the Karasuu market protested in front of the local government office, demanding a reduced quota for foreign merchants. Three months later the Kyrgyz government officially banned foreigners from working at local markets. However, this sanction has been poorly enforced.
According to Slovo Kyrgyzstana newspaper, the Kyrgyz authorities are mimicking the Russian government’s discriminatory policies toward foreign labor migrants. The newspaper argues that the interests of a narrow group of merchants might affect thousands of local residents who enjoy the lower prices for goods imported by Chinese migrants (August 23, 2007).
Some Chinese migrants seek to stay in Kyrgyzstan illegally by forging marriage documents to acquire Kyrgyz citizenship. But Chinese citizens are not the only foreigners interested in acquiring Kyrgyz citizenship. There are similar cases of migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries. Individuals holding Kyrgyz citizenship do not have to have visas to enter Turkey, Russia, and members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which may facilitate illegal cross-border activities (Delo nomer, July 17, 2004). Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies occasionally monitor these migration trends for signs of organized crime, such as trafficking in women and human organs and looting of natural resources.
Along with negative attitudes toward Chinese migrants, most experts see China as a potential source for Kyrgyzstan’s economic growth. Numerous businesses are connected to China and local entrepreneurs see Western China as an enormous potential market for locally produced goods. One of the most successful cases of expanding Kyrgyz industry is the national beverage Shoro, which has been exported to China.
China’s market potential gives Beijing enormous leverage over Kyrgyzstan’s economy. In the future, should the Kyrgyz government try to prevent migration from China, official Beijing will be able to impose counter measures through bilateral trade agreements.
Importantly, Beijing also expects the Kyrgyz government to cooperate over preventing the spread of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism as declared by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Kyrgyzstan is a member. This organization’s charter, in particular, points at Kyrgyzstan’s obligation to cooperate with China in keeping a close watch on the activities of Chinese Muslims.
In the coming years, the increasing Chinese presence in Kyrgyzstan is likely to fuel violent expressions of nationalism in Kyrgyz cities. The Kyrgyz government will need to walk a fine line to calm local moods and continue cooperation with its much larger neighbor.