Among its Central Asian neighbors, China these days is more often feared than loved. This attitude is perhaps most apparent in Kyrgyzstan, where despite an overwhelming dependence on Chinese imports, Chinese-owned malls and mining pits have been the subject of attacks in recent years; nationalist editorials in the local press play on fears of the Middle Kingdom. But all the negative press isn’t deterring Beijing’s efforts to win friends and promote Chinese culture in the region.
A cornerstone of China’s cultural diplomacy is Confucius Institutes at both Bishkek Humanities University and the Kyrgyz National University. Established in 2007 and 2008 respectively, the Beijing-funded institutes have infused their host universities with a Chinese flavor, paying for instructors and tailor-made course books that help some three thousand local students grapple with the tonal challenges of the Chinese language. Wang Zhe, director of the Confucius Institute at the National University, claims there are now 38 native Mandarin-speakers teaching in schools and universities across the country.
Increasingly, the students are looking to China when they graduate. Many don’t come back, says Vladimir Lu, Dean of the Kyrgyz-Chinese Faculty at Bishkek Humanities University, who estimates 100 of his graduates head to China every year, either to perfect their language skills or pursue graduate degrees. “They stay there, make contacts and find work for themselves in international firms. Some of them speak four languages, so they understand their market value. Working in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou they can earn 10 times as much as a dean does here,” said Lu, who is ethnically Korean-Chinese from eastern Russia.
According to Wang at the National University, the opportunities for his students are not limited to China. In an increasing number of cases, local students with a strong command of Mandarin find work in third countries. Wang cites Ilyas Sabirov, the faculty’s star graduate this year, who found work at a Kazakhstan-based steel firm trading between China and Russia.
“He knew over four thousand [Chinese] characters. Considering that I know only six thousand, that isn’t bad,” said Wang, who is from Urumchi in China’s western Xinjiang Province. With fluent Russian and Mandarin, Ilyas was able to command over $1,000 a month, more than five times the average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan. Last year, several gradates used their language skills to find jobs in the United Arab Emirates, where Chinese businesses are rapidly expanding.
While this is a trickle compared to the hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz nationals working in Russia, Lu says China is looking for quality, not quantity, providing spots for the smartest, as well as those who can pay their own way.
Beijing funds two travel programs – through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Kyrgyzstan’s president’s office – offering approximately 50 talented Mandarin-speaking Kyrgyz students a fully paid year abroad studying in China. To earn a place, students must score well on a Chinese proficiency test, as well as examinations in mathematics and other fields.
Other students with no knowledge of Mandarin, mainly children of wealthy Kyrgyz, can pay up to $9,000 for the same opportunity, says Lu. The two Confucius Institutes in Kyrgyzstan help arrange suitable placements.
For Mandarin speakers and Sinologists who do wish to return home, high-ranking government jobs await. Jyldyz Satieva, who graduated from the Bishkek Humanities University in 2006 and subsequently earned a masters degree from Jilin University in Changchun, in China’s northeast, now works as an international affairs consultant in the president’s office.
When Satieva first began her studies, Bishkek Humanities University was the only higher education institution in Kyrgyzstan where native speakers of Chinese taught classes. Now native speakers, funded by China, can be found teaching at smaller institutions in provincial towns such as Jalal-Abad and Karakol.
Kyrgyz society remains more inclined toward Russia, Satieva acknowledged. But she believes anti-Chinese sentiment in the Central Asian country is easing. “This [anti-Chinese feeling] will change with time as more people start learning Chinese, and information about Chinese culture becomes more widespread. Chinese firms are opening up here, and there are jobs for people who understand the country and speak the language,” she said.
Rafaello Pantucci, a China scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says China is in no hurry to leave its cultural and economic imprint on the region. Beijing is playing a “slow game” as it increases its appeal to Central Asians. While still a less-prestigious destination than Europe, North America, or even Russia for Kyrgyz elites to send their children, “China is increasingly attractive to locals,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
And while Sinophobia presents a potential hurdle in China’s attempt to make friends, over the longer term, Central Asian leaders will do better to squash the phenomenon than foster it, Pantucci contended. “The key point is that for these countries, China is their huge neighbor with lots of money and a keen interest in their good development, so they will have to, and want to, work with it,” Pantucci said.
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.