The ongoing Manas air base controversy has highlighted questions surrounding the US and Russian roles in Kyrgyzstan. But for many Kyrgyz, China is the outside power that wields the most influence in the Central Asian nation. It is reaching a point where Chinese immigration into Kyrgyzstan is emerging as a politically sensitive topic.
A Kyrgyz MP parliamentarian recently uttered sentiments that many citizens have been feeling, but had been keeping to themselves: "The migrant flow from China should be reduced," said Beishenbek Abdyrasakov, an MP affiliated with the governing Ak-Zhol Party. "There is a threat that in 15 years, the country will overflow with Chinese."
In these tough economic times, Chinese traders and laborers -- estimated to number between 10,000 and 100,000 -- are unwanted in Kyrgyzstan. Complaints have been increasing about Chinese "creeping migration," as many Kyrgyz themselves are forced to head to Russia in search of work. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And with the rising public discontent, officials, such as Abdyrasakov, are taking note.
There are no exact government statistics for how many Chinese citizens are in Kyrgyzstan, says opposition parliamentarian Bakyt Beshimov. "Official structures assert that a small number of Chinese live and work in Kyrgyzstan," Beshimov said. "The real situation is different because of corruption and low professionalism in state organizations."
A new report by the French Institute of International Relations (known by its French acronym IFRI) says the volume of bilateral Chinese-Kyrgyz trade almost tripled between 2004 and 2006, from $602 million to $1.64 billion. In 2006, Chinese exports made up 94 percent of cross border commerce.
"The effect on the Kyrgyz economy of this massive trade is both positive and negative. It creates jobs and people have access to cheap, good quality projects. However, the local production finds itself unable to compete," the report said.
The Chinese economic surge into Kyrgyzstan began in earnest after Bishkek's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1998. Soon after, Chinese-made goods began flooding into the Central Asian nation, and from there a fair share made their way to neighboring countries. Tens of thousands of Chinese traders also arrived in Kyrgyzstan in order to open and maintain new commercial connections.
Today, Chinese merchants feature prominently at most bazaars throughout the country, especially at the vast Karasuu Bazaar, situated 18 kilometers outside of Osh and only 275 kilometers from the Chinese border at the Irkeshtam Pass. China is funding numerous infrastructure projects in Kyrgyzstan that are designed to facilitate trade, including a road connecting the Irkeshtam Pass and the Karasuu Bazaar.
Beshimov says that Kyrgyz leaders did not understand what they were getting into back when the country gained WTO membership in 1998. "Ten years in the WTO has shown that Kyrgyzstan joined the organization poorly prepared and, consequently, today cannot use advantages of membership in this organization in the best possible way," he said.
In the southern city of Osh, signs bearing Chinese characters are common. Patrons of the new Beijing Hotel can choose from several local Chinese restaurants with Chinese cooks and Chinese menus. But officials at the Osh passport department, which registers foreign citizens, find it difficult to say how many Chinese citizens live and work in the province.
"Our data about the number of Chinese citizens living in our province do not correspond to the real number," an official told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "For instance, we do not know how many Chinese citizens have expired visas, but have not yet left Kyrgyzstan; or how many have returned back to China."
The IFRI report says Chinese goods are crippling local industries. To compound the problem in the construction sector, for example, "Chinese companies bring labor with them, therefore few jobs are created and no technology transfers take place," the report said.
Many Kyrgyz merchants now are furious that they are being undersold in their own bazaars. "I had a good business before they [Chinese] came to Karasuu. They can afford to sell their goods at cheaper prices, so we are forced to decrease our prices to compete with them, which makes survival more difficult," said Azam Kurbanov, an electronics trader based in Osh.
Nevertheless, some consumers praise the arrival of cheaper Chinese goods. Gulchekhra Ikramova, a shopper in Osh, likes the way Chinese traders have brought down prices. "I don't care from whom I buy," she said.
A xenophobic mood seems to be growing among those who have lost ground to Chinese traders. "First they started sending their goods, then they started moving in, and finally they marry our local women," said Kurbanov, the Osh-based trader. "Their children are not going to be Kyrgyz, they are going to be Chinese since their fathers have come from China."
Though China's investment may come with no evident strings attached, Kyrgyzstan's growing dependence on its massive neighbor may be giving Beijing leverage over the Kyrgyz political system, says the IFRI report. At times, China seems to be "playing the role of a patron for Kyrgyz politicians," the report suggests. It adds that such dependency "is not in the interest of Central Asian countries for they will be detached from sources of political modernization."
Umid Erkinov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.