By Casey Michel
For all of the discussion of China’s economic hegemony in Central Asia it remains nonetheless surprising that the visual evidence of China’s influence can appear so lacking in Kyrgyzstan. Traipsing through Bishkek, skirting through as many Turkish and German and Moldovan restaurants as your stomach will allow, you realize that Bishkek boasts a surprising international reach. In comparison, visual signs of Chinese presence is, on the whole, markedly lacking. Save for the rare Chinese restaurant, there are no Chinese cultural centers standing tall in downtown corners or much visible evidence of Chinese words on posters or shop fronts highlighting their presence.
In spite of Kyrgyzstan’s economic and geopolitical trajectory, if you were walking through Bishkek, Chinese influence would seem an afterthought. In comparison, Turkish flags can be seen flying outside the Hyatt and plastered around the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University. Advertisements for English lessons, taught by British and American nationals, are offered at nearly every major intersection. And the Soviet legacy lingers with each passing block, both in architecture and in every passing conversation. Russia remains dominant in the country. The Russian language in Bishkek, just as in neighbouring Kazakhstan, is still more widely spoke in the capital than the country’s eponymous language. Roubles remain the go-to currency advertised for conversion. Although the Slavic population has been steadily declining, Russian music, media, and script still run through the city, seemingly dictating its business, putatively dictating its direction.
This cultural and soft power hegemony emanates from the Russian embassy at the heart of the city. Located along Bishkek’s main artery, the embassy presents as striking a façade as you’ll hope to find. Wrought iron, polished Russian Federation crest, and cropped greens round the estate. A placard providing information on the recent Eurasian Union signing accents the exterior. The embassy symbolises a mixture of efficiency and power projection. The Russians, and their reach, remain prominent.
Still, there seems to be one particular area in which the Chinese presence has made itself largely visible. Large Chinese script can be seen on the sides of a handful of the city’s buses, coursing through the downtown grid. For those unable to discern the characters, a sign on the side denotes that the bus has been purchased and provided under the auspices of China Aid – and can be identified in Cyrillic as one of the 50 “Chinese-Kyrgyz Friendship Buses” Beijing provided in 2009.
But that’s it. Ambling through the city, that is the extent of the obvious Chinese presence in the city. And perhaps that’s for the best – or, at the least, that’s what fits within the Chinese paradigm of expansion in Central Asia: infrastructure, trade and development rather than wholesale visible cultural expansion. A concerted, pragmatic attempt at subtlety and proficiency, rather than the blatant, heavy-handed recruitment and ostentation of Russia’s presence. Sinophobia, after all, is still an issue in Kyrgyzstan – local comments about the illiteracy and lack of education among Chinese labourers in the country attests to as much. Roundabout forays into Kyrgyzstan remain China’s preferred modus operandi, and in the country as a whole. There’s not yet any indicator if this reality will shift anytime soon – especially if and when Kyrgyzstan finally joins the Moscow-led Eurasian Union. But the discrepancy between China and Russia’s economic trajectories and their respective on-the-ground visibility in Bishkek remains one of the largest divergences in the city. How much longer this will last remains a question worth watching.
Casey Michel is a Bishkek-based journalist and a graduate student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. He can be followed on Twitter at @cjcmichel.
All photos above are by Sue Anne Tay