By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 3:11 AM
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN - In a spasm of violence this spring, an angry mob toppled the Kyrgyzstan president, torched his office and ransacked other buildings associated with his hated authoritarian regime. The crowd then turned on a less obvious target: a popular Chinese-owned shopping mall stuffed with cheap clothes and electronics from China.
Armed with iron bars and clubs, the mob stormed into the Guoying center in the middle of the night, looting, smashing and then burning the best-known emblem of China's economic presence here in the capital of this volatile Central Asian nation.
"There was nothing we could do to stop them,'' recalled He Chengyu, the center's owner. He cowered in the dark during the attack, ordering security guards not to resist and staying out of view for fear that he, too, might become a target.
As China pushes beyond its borders in search of markets, jobs and a bigger voice in world affairs, a nation that once boasted of "having friends everywhere" increasingly confronts a problem long faced by the United States: Its wealth and clout might inspire awe and wary respect, but they also generate envy and, at times, violent hostility.
Since the attack on the Guoying center in April, dozens of Chinese nationals in Bishkek have been assaulted or robbed. In August, thieves broke into Tataan, another big and mostly Chinese shopping center in the capital, prying open the safes of a dozen or more Chinese traders. A Chinese diplomat who rushed to the scene said that as much as $500,000 was stolen. Angry Chinese merchants gathered outside the mall the morning after the heist and listed a catalogue of recent beatings, knife attacks and other assaults.
Xie Yincheng, who trades in wooden doors and paneling imported from China, lost more than $10,000 in the mall robbery. "It is getting very difficult to be Chinese here," said Xie, who heads an association of Chinese traders.
In Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, ethnic Chinese businessmen have long been viewed with suspicion and are often targeted in times of turmoil. But the travails of their counterparts here in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere represent a new phenomenon: They did not arrive generations ago when China was on its knees but came in the past decade as China boomed.
China's interests in Central Asia revolve around economics - the region offers a cornucopia of natural resources - and security. Kyrgyzstan has a 536-mile border with China's restive westernmost region, Xinjiang, whose periodically rebellious Muslim Uighur population has close links to brethren across the frontier.
Although mountainous, poor and tiny - it has only 5.3 million people - Kyrgyzstan has become China's main re-export platform for the region. Two-way trade, nearly all of it in Chinese exports, surged to more than $9.3 billion in 2008, according to Chinese customs figures. That was nearly double the value of Kyrgyzstan's entire gross domestic product. Trade decreased last year but is now rising again.
Some welcome China's surging presence as a counterbalance to the region's traditional and often overbearing overlord, Russia, which grabbed control in the 19h century and ruled Kyrgyzstan as a Soviet republic until the collapse of communism in 1991.
Edil Baisalov, a human rights activist who served as chief of staff to Kyrgyzstan's new president, Roza Otunbayeva, recalled with glee how, at a meeting with both the Russian and Chinese ambassadors, he shocked the Russian by greeting Beijing's envoy in Chinese. "You should have seen the Russian's face," said Baisalov, who is learning Chinese. "It was my way of telling him this is the future."
The past, however, still looms large. Baisalov, like most educated Kyrgyz, converses mainly in Russian. His English is far better than his Chinese. Russia's state-controlled energy giant, Gazprom, dominates the local fuel business. China has at times stumbled badly: Its first major project in Kyrgyzstan, a paper factory financed with soft loans, took eight years to get off the ground. Three years after it opened in 2002, the factory went bankrupt amid allegations of graft and illegal Chinese workers.
China has also had limited success with its main diplomatic initiative for the region, a group of states known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Launched with great fanfare in 2001 as an organization that would combat "extremism" and be a counterweight to American influence, it generated "lots of hype but in reality has done nothing," said Alexander Cooley, a Columbia University scholar who has studied the body. Russia, a member of the Shanghai grouping, initially backed it with gusto but has since cooled on what it considers a vehicle for Chinese ambitions.
China's economic presence, meanwhile, has stirred bitter resentment among many Kyrgyz, from jobless youths to local traders and manufacturers who cannot compete with Chinese goods. A report last year by IFRI, a French think tank, noted that China - while an important source of funding for roads, schools and other projects - has "endangered" local industries and created few jobs because "Chinese companies bring labor with them."
Populist politicians in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in the region play on fears of a Chinese "invasion." In January, protesters in Almaty, the capital of neighboring Kazakhstan, rallied to denounce a plan to lease a vast tract of Kazakh land to China to grow food. The Kazakh government dropped the proposal.
China has cultivated close relations with the region's mostly autocratic leaders, but that has sometimes backfired. In Kyrgyzstan, public anger at a 1999 border deal with China that nationalists condemned as a sellout helped fuel a protest movement that eventually led to the overthrow of the president who signed the deal. An outspoken critic of the border deal, Azimbek Beknazarov, is now a leading member of the new Kyrgyz government and a robust champion of Kyrgyz nationalism.
Amid rising nationalist sentiment, China has become an easy target for populist potshots, despite the fact that Russia remains the dominant power and, along with the United States, has a military base in Kyrgyzstan. China has not helped its case by sometimes making clumsy moves, such as a request to the United Nations that it list a Kyrgyz poem - the Epic of Manas - as a Chinese contribution to world cultural heritage. (China's Xinjiang region has a small population of ethnic Kyrgyz.) China's claim on the poem stirred outraged accusations of cultural theft.
Such tensions will increase sharply if China goes ahead with a far-reaching plan under discussion to build a new railway line from Xinjiang to Kyrgyzstan and then on to Uzbekistan. Most of the work on what would be one of the world's most ambitious infrastructure projects probably would be done by Chinese laborers.
He, the owner of the shopping mall gutted by fire, has just finished rebuilding his property and plans to reopen in September. He has put metal bars on the windows in the hope that they might deter any looters. His mall has been torched twice in five years, and he worries that the next time could be worse. "We don't know what to do. China is big and getting stronger, but here we are still outsiders."