How Not to Correct a Narrative

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by Joshua Foust on 10/17/2011 · 2 comments

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — Two Beijing scholars wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that Russia is concerned with China’s expansive economic activity in Central Asia. In describing a “series of high-level deals” between Chinese and Russian state-owned corporations, they argue:

While cordial, an unspoken undertone to the meetings was Russian concern about growing Chinese influence in the former Soviet Union and particularly Central Asia.

Unfortunately, Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen don’t actually present any data, anecdotes, documents, or even quotes from Russia to support their assertion. Instead, they note:

  • The EU is wrong to worry about the “Eurasia Union” as a counterbalance to western Institutions;
  • Russia is concerned about China’s expansion in influence and power;
  • Russia’s concern is focused primarily on the SCO;
  • China has invested heavily in Eurasian infrastructure projects;
  • China has created “cultural institutions” to promote “Chinese soft power;
  • A few Central Asia kids at a few Chinese universities means China is successful in its cultural outreach.

I’m sure I left out some nuance, but that’s the gist of their argument. And it’s half right, half wrong. Their attempt to deflate the western concern that everything Russia does is meant to counterbalance NATO or something is absolutely spot-on. And they are correct in noting that China has spent a lot of money in Central Asia.

Where they’re wrong, however, is in calling the SCO a cultural success, even a fledgling or early success story. Here in Kyrgyzstan, no one really cares about China apart from the money they may or may not spend. In Bishkek, the Chinese businesses there import Chinese people to work at them; the economic effects from said “investment” help the property owners and the bureaucrats they inevitably pay off to operate, but not any significant number of Kyrgyz people.

The university argument is especially insipid: as a poor country, Kyrgyz students are eager to go almost anywhere abroad to study; studying in China, especially if it is fully funded by a Chinese outreach program, is a great deal for them. However, far greater numbers still study Russian. In fact, just last week I had a conversation with a teacher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek who was worried that Kyrgyz students are focusing too much on learning English, and not enough on Russian (which, as a lingua franca for the region and the international community operating in the region, is far more important to learn for Kyrgyz students than either Chinese or English).

Even here in Osh, which is in a majority Uzbek area, the primary language between groups is Russian, even if not everyone can speak it very well. No one here speaks or cares about China, like at all.

The first private university in Kyrgyzstan, International Atatürk-Alatoo University, was founded in 1996 by Turkey. The OSCE Academy, founded in 2002, is considered elite and students from the entire region lust for acceptance there. The other major schools—International University of Kyrgyzstan and the American University of Central Asia—are funded by the government of Kyrgyzstan and the United States, respectively. Half the reason Kyrgyz students even go to school in China is because China has no higher education institutions here.

Meanwhile, when you look at the cars people drive, the things they buy in the stores, the banks they want to use, or the clothes they wear, you see logos for companies from Europe, Japan, the United States, Turkey (lots of things from Turkey, from appliances to furniture), even Uzbekistan in the form of the little UzDaewoo cars built at a plant owned by GM. You don’t see much from China.

So, while we can all be grateful that someone finally made the case that Russia doesn’t spend its days crouching in the dark, plotting how to outdo NATO and get its little dog, too, the way Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen tried to do it rested not on facts, observation, anecdote, or even, you know, anything they gleaned from Russia or from Central Asia. They constructed their entire argument from a very optimistic reading of China’s economic and cultural activities in this region, and from that imputed what Russian designs for the region must therefore be. It doesn’t make a jot of sense.

Pic: Looking up to Suleiman Hill from central Osh, taken today.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Jim October 19, 2011 at 10:21 pm

As a point of clarification, Alex’s background is Russia/Caucasus/Central Asia.

As October 25, 2011 at 5:46 am

This is absurd. Your evidence that Chinese influence is exaggerated is because Kyrgyz are wearing Armani pants (which aren’t exactly Armani) and go to European funded unis? This sounds exactly like the anecdotal Friedman/kaplanesque drivel you pounce at the opportunity to dissect it seems weekly now on this blog. You are sorely mistaken if you think Turkish construction firms and furniture makers are exerting more influence in kg than the worlds second biggest economy that oh happens to be right next door and controls one of your most critical border crossings.

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