A visit to a Bishkek bazaar, overflowing with products stamped with elaborate Chinese characters, offers a stark illustration of China's growing economic clout in Kyrgyzstan. But the Kyrgyz capital is not only proving a magnet for Chinese goods, it is drawing an increasing number of Han Chinese students of Russian.
The young, foreign scholars are not always welcome. Many Kyrgyz are concerned about their giant neighbor's intentions, joking nervously about how their nation's whole population could fit into a few Beijing hotels. Local rumors likewise swirl around Bishkek that the Chinese are intent on gaining influence in the country via immigration.
Despite these fears, neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which issues visas to foreigners, nor the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which registers foreigners' passports on arrival, nor the State Statistics Committee can say how many Chinese citizens are currently in Kyrgyzstan.
Thanks to the proximity of the large Russian and Kazakhstani economies, Russian is a popular language among merchants and entrepreneurs in western China's Xinjiang Province. Most Chinese students in Bishkek come from Xinjiang, as the western Chinese hub of Urumqi is less than two hours' flying time away. Instruction in Bishkek costs approximately the same as in Urumqi, students say, but is better.
"Kyrgyzstan is often showed on television in Xinjiang. Here in Kyrgyzstan, the quality of education is high," said Urumqi-native Su Deen, a student at the Kyrgyz National University's Center of Languages. "After I graduate I would like to work as a translator of Russian in China," he added. Like most students, Su Deen, 25, has taken a local Russified name: Sergei.
"I've been here for five years," said Gu Teng Yao, 19, or Oleg. "Now I am a fourth year student in the International Relations Department. I was so bored for the first two years. I didn't know the language and local life well and I didn't have many friends. Now, I go to the movies a lot. I have lots of local friends," he said.
"The number of people studying here is not a lot for China, but it is many for Kyrgyzstan," he added.
Privately, the Chinese students grumble about racial profiling and police harassment. One said he was asked for a bribe merely for having a faded photograph on his student identification card.
A Russian-language teacher who has worked with Chinese students for 10 years said his students were often targeted for harassment. "My students call me and tell me the police don't believe [the authenticity of their] documents and want 200 som [about $5]. Many students are afraid to go out," the teacher said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some Chinese students are also denied visa renewals without explanation, and forced to leave the country in the middle of their studies, the teacher added.
Though most students pay their own way, a Chinese government program also sponsors some nationals to teach Chinese in local schools.
Former Russian-language student Ju Yan Hua, or Liza, 53, has spent six years in Kyrgyzstan. She is now a teacher of Chinese at the Center of Languages. Because "the salary of the university is very low, I decided to become a volunteer there and get paid [instead] by the Chinese government. This program works within the framework of the SCO [the Shanghai Cooperation Organization]. China is helping SCO member countries to raise the level of spoken Chinese," she told EurasiaNet.
An Urumqi native, Liza also brought her son to Bishkek. He has since completed his masters in journalism at a local university.
Liza sees a bright future in Kyrgyz-Chinese cooperation, which, she believes, will raise the demand for Chinese language fluency in Kyrgyzstan. "Many local students study Chinese to attain a better life here so they can work in big companies later," she said, explaining that many of her Kyrgyz students leave to work in China, where "there are better employment opportunities and better money."
Several Kyrgyz universities have opened new Chinese Departments in recent years, highlighting the demand for Chinese language instruction.
"I study Chinese because it will guarantee employment in China or Kyrgyzstan. I think it is the language of the future. Chinese will always be in demand [here], since Kyrgyzstan is a gateway between China and Europe," said Victoria Petrova, 19, a third year international relations student, at the Kyrgyz-Slavic University in Bishkek.
Yet even Petrova fears Chinese expansion. "Our trade is absolutely under Chinese influence because they produce everything. Our markets are full of Chinese products and their cheap prices leave no opportunity for local producers to develop," she said.
"Kyrgyzstan should keep its identity, its distinctiveness. It shouldn't fully integrate [its economy] or we'll become another region of China," she added, echoing a commonly voiced local concern.
The Russian-language teacher agrees that the Chinese influence on the Kyrgyz economy is impossible to ignore. "The number of Chinese students grows yearly. Our university even founded a Confucius Institute. We have flights to Urumqi every day. We have Chinese restaurants on every street and the number of Chinese medical centers is huge. Of course, this process is notable, but it raises many questions," the teacher said. "More students keep coming, but it's good for me. This is my chance to work."
Alina Dalbaeva is a Bishkek-based reporter.