In the Blood

by Nathan Hamm on 1/11/2006 · 35 comments

It seems to be growing increasingly common for commentators to opine that China is set to dominate Central Asia. I am skeptical of this for a handful of reasons. Central Asian governments have proven more than capable of forging profitable relationships with great powers while maintaining a fair degree of independence. Plus, the Chinese don’t seem to be too well loved by the average native of Central Asia.

That’s nothing new though, as this excerpt from the early 8th century Kül Tegin inscription shows.

The words of the Chinese people are sweet and the silk of the Chinese people is soft. They attract remote people, luring them with sweet words and soft silk. When the Chinese have settled remote peoples nearby, they devise schemes to create discontent there. Good wise men and good brave men are prevented from moving about freely. If a man turns against them, they show no mercy towards his family, his people nor even towards babies in the cradle. In this way, enticed by the sweet words and the soft silk of the Chinese, many of you Türk people have perished.

Because their nobles and common people were not at peace with one another; because the Chinese people were shrewd and deceitful; because, on account of their machinations, older and younger brothers came into conflict and the nobles and common people were set upon one another, the Türk people allowed the empire that they had created to disintegrate and the qagan whom they had revered to fall from power.

In part of the omitted portion, the composer of the text, Bilge Qagan, the last great ruler of the Kök Türk Empire, warns the Türks to keep their distance from the Chinese so as not to be destroyed by their deceit and machinations.

So, hey, resisting China is something of an old Turkic tradition.

The Kül Tegin inscription is one of a handful of funerary inscriptions erected in honor of Kök Türk rulers in the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia. This translation is by Kurtuluş Öztopçu and Sherry Smith-Williams in And Anthology of Turkish Literature edited by Kemal Silay.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Peter January 11, 2006 at 1:34 am

You’re wrong to assume widespread dislike for the Chinese across the Central Asian region. This belief is predicated on the fact that most of the countries in the area are uncomfortable with China’s supression of Muslim and Turkic minorities, and indeed this has previously done terrible damage to its standing in the region.
However, Kazakhstan provides interesting evidence that this unpopularity can be, and has been, reversed to a great extent. Territorial disputes and popular sympathies with Turkic minorities meant that the Chinese were viewed with contempt in Kazakhstan until a few years ago, but the visible financial investment that they ploughed into the Kazakh economy has contributed to a healthier view. I know that there are surveys available on this subject, and that they confirm this exact fact.
Other countries have less to dislike about China and every to reason to seek collaboration. China offers a market and financial collaboration without the moral and political pressure that the United States is obliged to apply. I think this state interest often feeds seamlessly into the popular imagination, which reflects the well-being that derives from direct Chinese investment.
This strategic, financial and possibly military association will only be compounded by the eventual completion of the China-Uzbekistan railway link. In the long term, popular opinions will adapt themeselves to economic and political realties, and in that respect the writing is on the wall. I would suggest that historical animosity towards the Chinese has been conditioned by fear, largely justified, and cultural dissonance and ignorance. As these aspects fall away, the result seems only inevitable.

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 2:01 am

I didn’t say they won’t work together or that they can’t get along. Quite the contrary is just as true now as it has been for just about as long as there have been Turks seeking Chinese goods.

I think any suggestion that state policy or direct investment feeds into any serious kind of shift in public attitudes is a bit hard to buy. There was an anti-Chinese streak to the anti-Akaev protests specifically because of the heavy Chinese involvement in the economy. And, as far as I’m aware, the most meaningful economic interaction most Central Asians have with China are through the import and resale of low-quality Chinese goods.

I also have a hard time accepting arguments about historical inevitabilities being on the horizon as a result of Chinese investment in Central Asia. Unless you’re also saying how China views and interacts with its neighbors is substantially different from its historical behavior. The fear, cultural dissonance, and ignorance come from both directions and have very deep cultural roots, and I find it ahistorical to claim that this latest round of economic engagement (because there have been numerous periods of it) will be the one that magically sweeps all this baggage away.

I think the safe money is on China becoming important, but the Central Asian states guaranteeing that their access is balanced against the interests of others.

Elizabeth January 11, 2006 at 6:26 am

Do you think participation in the SCO will play into this? Who’s holding the power there?

Laurence January 11, 2006 at 7:36 am

Nathan, Thanks for the post. Along the same lines, here’s a link to a 360 degree panorama of the Great Wall of China, constructed to keep out Huns, Mongols, and Turks:

Peter January 11, 2006 at 8:18 am

To say that the most meaningful Chinese interaction in Central Asian economies is through the sale of cheap goods is a curious assertion, especially just as Kazakhstan is set to begin pumping what will be enormous quantities of oil to China. Central Asia is hardly exclusive in being overrun by low-cost Chinese goods, but that in itself doesn’t say anything about their relationship.
The crucial factor is the breadth of economic exchanges, and when you hear that, for instance Kazakhstan and China plan to increase trade by $4 billion this year, you realise that this isn’t just rhetoric.
As for public attitudes, I cannot speak with any great authority on this subject, but it is a fact that perceptions have gradually changed for the better over the past decade. It is true that relations and opinions have ebbed and flowed, but in an age of information technology attitudes are crucial to beneficial partnerships. As Chinese involvement begins to take new forms, the type of xenophobic posturing you mentioned in relation to Kyrgyzstan will become a thing of the past. Again, if you look at the construction boom in Astana, you will see that Chinese business has been the primary beneficiary, and this model is something that investors will be seeking to emulate in other countries and industry areas.
The less free states in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, will likely have their population’s general beliefs about China formed by government position, and that is the way it has been for time immemorial. China’s morally ambiguous status makes it an ideal foreign partner in this respect.
The argument isn’t just rhetorical, because underestimating Chinese potential is never a sensible thing to do. I don’t mean to suggest that Central Asia is completely powerless to define the future agenda, but it would be no more accurate to assume that Chinese presence in the region will have shallow roots simply because the Chinese have never been “too well loved by Central Asia’s average native.”

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 10:53 am

Peter, it’s rather hard to make a good response when it seems that you aren’t responding to exactly what I’m saying. I didn’t say that Chinese oil investment is meaningless. I did say that the ways that most Central Asians interact with China economically is not through China’s large scale investments.

I’m having a hard time taking seriously both the argument that foreign investment necessarily leads to improved attitudes (because it assumes people pay close attention and shape attitudes about other nations based on investment levels) and the one that attitudes will change because of government positions (mostly because it seems to assume that these governments are doing PR for China). On the surface, they seem sensible enough assertions, but they don’t seem so pat under scrutiny. The Kyrgyz attitudes, after all, seem to have been in part shaped by Chinese involvement in the economy in addition to the government bending in the face of Chinese demands.

Again, I’m not saying China won’t be an incredibly important player in the region or that it won’t have a lot of sway. What I am saying is that Central Asian states are often underestimated.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 11, 2006 at 11:41 am

Maybe things have changed since the summer of 2003 but the Kyrgyz I socialized with, in Bishkek particularly, liked Chinese money but not the Chinese businessmen that came with it. To wit, one guy even said to me, “why don’t you Americans invest more here, we like you. You cheat us less.” He was the manager of a Turkish-owned but Chinese frequented restaurant on the main drag in Bishkek.

Anecdotal to be sure, but telling nonetheless.

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 11:46 am

But it’s exactly what I’m talking about. The Chinese can invest all they want in the region and it will certainly be welcomed to an extent. But it does not follow that because one likes the investments, one likes the investor.

Djana January 11, 2006 at 1:58 pm

As the passage says, the Turks never liked Chinese. Chinese could have spread further West, but because of the Turks, they have not done so.
Economically, yes, China is welcome in those states, other aspects, no.

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 2:06 pm

I hesitate to make too many comparisons between historical and current circumstances, but there are a some interesting ones to be made (and it is partially why I posted this).

As Djana mentions, the Turks (and other nomadic peoples) historically have not liked China. It’s probably more accurate to say that they have not trusted China. They certainly recognized that because it was richer and produced wealth and goods they couldn’t that China was worth having as a neighbor. And there were even times when some rulers served China. But then, as now, these alliances only lasted as long as they were perceived to be useful to the Turkic rulers.

Ben January 11, 2006 at 2:35 pm

It is difficult to believe that the average Kazakh citizen is unaffected by Chinese multi-billion dollar investment, however long-term the trickling-down takes.

Go visit Beijing Normal University and be amazed by the number of Central Asian students whose trips are being funded by their own governments and/or the Chinese side. As I heard from my friends, these young Uzbeks and Kazakhs don’t even speak English, but Chinese.

Also, see what the Chinese could be effecting long-term by the modernisation (well, it’s rather building from scratch) of the Osh-Kashgar Highway. People in the Kyrgyz South will be lifted out of their geographical isolation quite considerably.

But, you’re right in asking whether any of these things (which I am sure there are many other examples of) will affect the Central Asian people’s perception of the Chinese. I heard different opinions on that near Sary-Tash (which is mid-way between Osh and Kashgar).

Some people say that the Chinese only do these things in order to exploit the Kyrgyz. Others, however, were glad to have one in their family to benefit from increased cross-border trade.

You can say again that economic gains do not translate directly into increased affection (see Sean-Paul’s comment), but this assertion is a little bit too nitpicky I believe. I think that the fear of being exploited is a very typical post-Soviet feeling in this region – however, it is also a feeling that might ebb in the longer term. As the quote and the long history of animosity between the two regions implies, it is only sensible to think in the long term here.

Also, on a more generalising note, people in Eastern China deem the Han that have settled in Xinjiang quite rude themselves. But, these settlers are those with whom the Central Asians engaging in business with.

A lot of the prejudice against the Chinese also stems from the fact that there is never really been a lot of discussion about Chinese culture in Central Asia.

What appears to be rude in a Bishkek restaurant is only normal in a Beijing eatery. With increasing interaction between Kazakhs (Uzbeks, …) and Chinese, both sides will tend to understand each other’s cultural sensitivities.

Or, at least, Kazakhs will learn that it should not be considered rude if a Chinese businessman spits and sniffs over his business-lunch.

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 3:08 pm

Another reason I have a hard time believing increased contacts will make the heart grow fonder is that Central Asian nationalities have plenty of interaction with each other and do not seem to have exactly learned to love one another. They coexist, but it’s not a kumbaya drum circle.

Perhaps I’m not making myself clear on the investment point. Chinese investment certainly does have an effect on liveThe UK s of average Central Asians. What I question is whether or not they in the first instance perceive the effect of China and in the second, appreciate China for that investment. I hypothesize that it is far more likely that any positive feelings resulting from Chinese investment are far more likely to be directed at national governments rather than China.

To illustrate a bit more… The US is (one of? couldn’t find most recent numbers) the largest recipient(s) of FDI. Almost all of it comes from developed economies. China massively finances US debt. Both of these facts have enormous impacts on the lives of Americans, yet were someone to tell me this drives American attitudes about the investors, I’d scoff. For example, there aren’t too many warm fuzzies being sent to France in recognition of the 500,000 jobs its investments create. About the only strong connection I can think of between economics and perceptions of foreign nations I can think of is the wave of blue collar anti-Japanese sentiments in the early 90s.

I also don’t think the fear of exploitation is exclusively post-Soviet. I think that most societies are wary of too much investment and foreign ownership from a single country. And it looks to be the policy of at least Kazakhstan to avoid letting any one country become the runaway dominant investor.

And really, that’s what I’m getting at. I do not doubt that China will be massively important and hold much sway in Central Asia in the future. What I question is the assumption that they are on track to becoming the region’s hegemon. Aside from history and culture (which was brought up somewhat tongue-in-cheek), there are plenty of political realities that give reason to doubt this assumption.

Ben January 11, 2006 at 3:32 pm

I guess you’re right on the last point re hegemony – although I wouldn’t want to compare FDI between developed economies with some of the stuff China is doing in Central Asia (e.g. the highway I mentioned).

The financing of the US trade deficit with Chinese currency reserves is hardly having an impact on the ground as it is merely happening in virtual realms in a sense. Also, I think Tennessee, where Nissan is investing, is hardly comparable to Sary-Tash. But then again, this might be a little nitpicky from my side.

As for the fear of exploitation, I didn’t express that all-to-well probably. I meant that in poor communities such as the Kyrgyz South, there is an especially high degree of nostalgia for communism and wide scepticism towards capitalism.

Another anecdote from the Sary-Tash example (a little unrelated): When I was walking around near Sary-Chelek afoot the Pik Lenin (some 50 kilometers away from the highway under construction); a blue jeep came speeding towards us, skidding to a halt right next to our host family’s yurt.

Four Chinese businessmen stepped out of the massive car, took a look around, and greeted us with a few broken English words. Then they already wanted to take a photo; and we obeyed, positioning ourselves in the midst of our hosts, in front of the yurt.

However, the Chinese did not like that for their photo: They shooed away all Kyrgyz people (especially and put us in front of their car. Then they got back into it and drove away at the same speed with which they arrived. Cultural sensitivity is not a specifically Chinese trait if you ask me.

If Beijing allows more of these people across their border with Central Asia, Chinese-Turkic harmony is still centuries away.

Ben January 11, 2006 at 3:34 pm

that “(especially” shall read “(especially all kids that were the subject of most of our photos)”

Peter January 11, 2006 at 4:02 pm

I don’t want get boring about this, but my point was quite simple and is empircally provable. Opinion polls, which I sadly cannot locate, conducted among Kazakhs on their attitudes towards the Chinese over the last ten years have shown great, if not exponential, improvements in attitudes. Admittedly, the reputation of the Chinese was pretty low throughout the nineties, so there wasn’t really anywhere else for it go. This change in popular attitudes can directly be attributed to Chinese interaction in the Kazakh economy. It therefore follows that as this pattern continues, the status of the Chinese will persist in benefitting. Incidentally, the Kazakhs are no more ignorant of the Chinese role in their economy than they are of the Turk’s and the Russian’s role. It isn’t so trivial a question as associating the Chinese with improved individual wellbeing, as much as a growing recognition that the image of China has to be revised in light of contemporary realities.
Anyhow, this is a model that I see occurring in the rest of the region, some of which has the additional motivation of cosying up to a geopolitically ambivalent partner. I don’t believe China has any aspirations to be a hegemon in the standard understanding of the word, but it does have every reason to establish itself as a main partner to its energy resource rich neighbours. And there is absolutely no reason to believe it will not succeed in this endeavour.

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 4:25 pm

While I don’t think it does necessarily follow that an increase in positive attitudes over the past 15 years implies that increased investment will always continue to increase warm feelings, I guess we can let that alone.

…establish itself as a main partner…

I don’t dispute that. I dispute that it will be the main partner–an assertion that has been popping up more and more as the SCO becomes a credible organization.

KZBlog January 11, 2006 at 6:24 pm

Another couple of pieces of anecdotal evidence. We have an officemate who studied in China, and when we found out someone (Kazakh) asked her, “What was China like? Dirty?”
“Horribly dirty,” she answered. And that was the end of the conversation.

Also Nomads, the big blockbuster film, meant in part to promote nationalism and boost Kazakh pride, takes as its story defeating the Dhjungar invasion. Who are of course not Chinese, but to me are linked in the average Kazakh mind with the East and China. The last scene shows a Kazakh coming to the Dzhungar khan and showing a globe, saying “This is the land of the Kazakhs.”

Nick January 11, 2006 at 7:44 pm

I remember seeing the documentary “Waiting for Uyghurstan” whilst in Bloomington last summer. It was essentially about Uyghur traders-in-exile in Kazakhstan taking advantage of the Post-Soviet devlopment of free-trade between between Kazakhstan and China. Of course, there was plenty of discussion about Xinjiang and Uyghur claims for an independent nation-state. The traders in question seemed to be leading quite a perilous existence; it would be interesting to see how their situation has developed since then.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 11, 2006 at 9:07 pm

Osh-Kashgar highway?

Was that the dusty dirt road that goes up to and through the Torugart Pass which starts in Osh? While it is one of the most stunning and scenic of drives I’ve ever taken I traveled the whole route in ’03 and while it was not nearly as dangerous as the Lhasa-Kathmandu ‘Friendship Highway’ it was still far from easy and quite empty of traffic too.

To Djana: actually, it was the Arabs at the Battle of Talas who prevented the settled the Chinese question in Central Asia in the 8th century, if memory serves me correctly, when Chinese expansionism in Central Asia was stopped.

One reason, IMHO, the Kazakhs are making nice-nice with the Chinese is that it suites their interests to do so at the present time. Just like it suits the Uzbeks to get closer to Russia and kick the US out. The geo-politics of Central Asia are very fluid and will continue to be for a while. Little is set in stone as of yet.

Nathan January 11, 2006 at 9:28 pm

But Sean-Paul, Turks are the ones who really won the Battle of Talas 😉

Matt W January 11, 2006 at 9:46 pm

Nathan– The blue-collar backlash against the Japanese you mentioned I think is quite relevant for the discussion, because where investment meets popular perceptions is in job-creation.

Ben brought up Southern Kyrgyzstan and, indeed, there is quite a bit of Chinese investment going on in factories that create large numbers of jobs– a new cement factory planned near the Osh/Batken border, a large agricultural processing plant in Jalalabat and many, many other enterprises create a lot of jobs for Southern Kyrgyz.

For me, the things that characterize people’s attitudes towards China in CA (though I cannot speak to Kazakhstan):
1) they admire the Chinese economy, though are intimdated by its massive scale and sometimes resent its cheap goods for flooding markets
2) where Chinese investment creates jobs, they recognize the Chinese contribution (this is significant, but localized to places where China has a factory)
3) they don’t like Chinese traders/businessmen (as SPK pointed out), and generalize this dislike to the Chinese people

Interestingly, many remittances come back from CA teachers of English working in China. Maybe nothing compared to laborers in Kazakhstan and Russia, but significant for a surprisingly large number of families with educated children.

Ben January 12, 2006 at 3:21 am

@ SPK: The Osh-Kashgar Highway goes from Osh via Sary-Tash and Erkestam to Kashgar. The Torugart Pass is on the Bishkek – Naryn – Kashgar route. Not sure whether the Chinese creating a fuzz there as well.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 12, 2006 at 9:02 am

Oh, so they are building a highway that just bypasses Bishkek and the Torugart? I didn’t know that. I had heard plans and rumors from travelers in Bishkek and also Kashgar while I was there, but they were only rumors. And if you’ve ever been in Kashgar or Osh you know the only real good fun you ca have is rumors! LOL.

Nathan: you’re getting technical. The Arabs lead the fight. The Turks betrayed the Tang and threw the battle to the Arabs.

We’re both right–is that a fair compromise?

Sean-Paul Kelley January 12, 2006 at 9:05 am

Oy! I take that back. I just went through my travel notes and I have the rumor down as “Tom from Springfield MA says they are going to open a shorter route through Irkettam (sic) straight through to Osh. Where are the damn buraecrats (sic) when I needed them most, my butt still hurts.”

I guess I should read my travel notes more often.

Nathan January 12, 2006 at 12:14 pm

You know I just have to carry water for the Turks, Sean-Paul.

We could probably get into a slightly ridiculou, but endlessly fascinating (to me) discussion of what Tang control in Central Asia actually meant. Technically, the Tarim and other Central Asian territories were protectorates of the Tang Dynasty. Turks had periodically aligned and broken alignments with the Chinese for a long time, allowing in Chinese administration and then chasing them out when they were no longer convenient. I have to wonder if it is entirely accurate to say that Talas is the all-important event that has kept China out of the region ever since. It did mark the beginning of a weakening of the Chinese government which only kept going and going and going as Turks and Mongols invaded in subsequent centuries.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 12, 2006 at 2:58 pm

It would be an endlessly fascinating discussion to me too. Love the region and the history of it. Speaking of history of the region, have you read Grousset’s Empire of the Steppes And Hildinger’s Warriors Of THe Steppe? Both are superb. I’ll have you back on the radio in the near future and we will fascinate each other but bore the listeners to tears!

Nathan January 12, 2006 at 3:07 pm

Toward the end of this term (mid-March) would be the best time to talk to me about this stuff. I’m taking a seminar on the Mongols and a class on Islam and native religions in Central Asian nomadic cultures, so my reading is heavily focused on Turco-Mongol nomadic culture and history. I think I might try to combine my term papers for the classes by writing on religious policies of the Chinghissids.

I haven’t gotten a chance to read Grousset or Hildinger yet. I have the former’s book sitting on my shelf though. I’m reading a book on the first third of the Mamluk-Ilkhanid conflict right now and will soon move on to the Secret History of the Mongols, Ibn Battuta’s travel account, a book on Islamization in the Golden Horde, and one on Mongol religion. In there is also a handful of shorter articles and the Kyrgyz epics Manas and Khojojash.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 13, 2006 at 9:29 am

Damn, that’s some fine reading. What’s the title of the Mamluk/Ilkhanid book? That would be a good one. Also, do you have any suggestions as to where I could find a reasonably priced unabridged copy of the Shahnameh by Firdausi?

Nathan January 13, 2006 at 10:12 am

The book is Mongols and Mamluks : The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281

As for the Shahnameh, there’s an edition by Dick Davis coming out in March that’s listed at $45. Amazon’s selling it for about $30. As it’s 928 pages, I’d assume its unabridged.

Sean-Paul Kelley January 13, 2006 at 4:43 pm

Thanks. I’m going to buy both. Sweet.

davesgonechina January 16, 2006 at 10:59 am

Last summer I was at a seminar on History and Nationalism in Central Asia at Central European University. There was this one Kazakh woman, a professor, who was extremely concerned about Han Chinese migration. There was an Uzbek doctoral student with the same fear. Both mentioned the influx of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, saying “once Xinjiang fills up, they’ll move on the Central Asia”. She put this in a personal context; her husband is Kazakh, but only speaks Russian. Fears of cultural dilution from the Soviet period were carrying over to the relationship with the Chinese. I’d point out these were academics, people who are more likely to get scared about losing culture, or at least to be more exacting about it.

Meanwhile, trade between Xinjiang province and Kazakhstan hit 5 billion this year. Calla Wiemer’s paper in Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland point out that in 2000, Kazakhstan counted for 2/3 of imports to the province and 1/3 of exports (energy trade not included, since that goes directly to Beijing). In Xinjiang I knew alot of people learning Russian, or more likely learning English to talk to Central Asians, and there were plenty of Central Asian kids there to study Chinese. But like Nathan says, this doesn’t mean they like each other.

As for the Battle of Talas, from the Xinjiang perspective the thing that really killed Tang ambitions in Central Asia was the An Lushan rebellion.

davesgonechina January 16, 2006 at 11:50 am

By the way, I just remembered one professor at CEU used the same inscription in his lectures. Knew I’d read that before.

Nathan January 16, 2006 at 12:00 pm

A guy in the class we read it for said that it seems he has to read it every single term but always for a different reason. There’s really not much written about the Eurasian nomads by the nomads.

Previous post:

Next post: