Archive for the ‘Interpreter’ Category

More on China in Central Asia, this time looking for the Lowy’s Interpreter, a site I have not contributed to for some time, looking at how the region is quite excited about trying to get the Belt and Road Initiative going once again to help save their economies. Been working on a few much bigger projects on the topic of China’s relations with Central Asia which will be landing over the next year or so, and need to revive the China in Central Asia site which has unfortunately been hijacked. If anybody knows how to help me get it back, please get in touch! Otherwise, will have to recreate it somewhere else.

This aside, been speaking to media about China, including to the National Public Radio and Nikkei Asian Review about the UK-China relationship, while excellent RSIS colleague James Dorsey was kind enough to mention my recent NBR paper in his regular column.

Central Asian nations want to kick-start the BRI ‚Äď and China is happy

Raffaello Pantucci

Covid-19 has spurred rumours and local tensions, but economic fortunes of the region are increasingly bound to Beijing.

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The fire service sprays disinfectant in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan last month during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

For China, the Covid-19 question is answered by more Belt and Road. As Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it at a press conference during the 13th National People’s Congress in Beijing last weekend:

The impact of Covid-19 on the Belt and Road cooperation is temporary and limited. The Covid-19 will only strengthen and re-energize Belt and Road cooperation and open up new possibilities.

Given the bad press China has been generating, it might be hard to see how Beijing can pull this off. But in places such as Central Asia, such promises resonate.

Central Asian countries have been¬†making all the right noises¬†about wanting to get Belt and Road Initiative‚Äďtype projects and ideas moving once again. In some ways, they are already proving to be one of the first stepping stones of the Health Silk Road ‚Äď the articulation of Covid-19 response under the BRI‚Äôs expansive umbrella. Having sent aid to China as the virus first emerged in Wuhan, the Central Asians are all now beneficiaries of Chinese aid,¬†which has come in the form of repeated shipments of PPE, doctors, video conferences, aid to military and more. Conveniently, the Health Silk Road was¬†first publicly mentioned¬†by Xi Jinping during a 2016 speech in Uzbekistan.

Of course, China is not universally popular. While medical diplomacy has dominated, there have been considerable tensions, too. Ethnically Chinese people have been harassed in markets in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, with a Kyrgyz MP making a call in parliament for their isolation and for them to wear masks in public. In mid-February, relations in Kyrgyzstan boiled over to the point that a planned $280 million Chinese-built logistics centre project had to be suspended. In Kazakhstan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hauled in the local ambassador after an article appeared in the Chinese media saying that Kazakhstan wanted to return to China.

And last month, Chinese MFA spokesman Hua Chunying piled into a Russian-initiated conspiracy theory about how American funded bio-labs built to help former Soviet states manage their dangerous weapons after the collapse of the USSR were in fact the potential source of Covid-19. Kazakhstan hosts a number that were specifically name-checked in both Moscow and Beijing. The net result was articles in the Kazakh press saying that as far they were concerned, both the US and China should leave their country. Independent polling appeared to support this.

An art installation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan during the Covid-19 lockdown (Turar Kazangapov/ Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

But what the Central Asians really want is for the Chinese economic monster to get moving once again. Wedged between China and Russia, the Central Asians have suffered the triple whack of a slump in commodities prices, a drop in remittances from migrant labourers usually in Russia (which is also suffering a major Covid-19 outbreak as well as slump in oil prices) and the economic slowdown in China. These are countries whose economic future is inevitably tied to China in some way. The tyranny of geography guarantees this no matter how hesitant they might sometimes feel.

The result has been a fertile terrain for seeking more BRI. At the front of the queue are the Kyrgyz whose leader President Jeenbekov has already reached out to Xi Jinping to seek to renegotiate their debt burden with China (amongst other international debtors) ‚Äď debts that have been accumulated under the rubric of the BRI. He also sought to reopen Kyrgyzstan‚Äôs land borders with China as soon as possible to get trade moving once again. Irkeshtam and Torugart were closed in late January, and it is not yet clear they have been reopened.

Uzbekistan has also been eager to make things happen. During a conference call meeting on 19 May that the Uzbeks convened with Kyrgyz and Chinese counterparts,¬†they sought to hurry¬†the construction of a rail link connecting them all. From the Uzbek perspective, while understandable restrictions were placed on road transport during the Covid-19 crisis, this¬†meant that¬†‚Äúrailway remains the safest and most reliable mode of transport.‚ÄĚ It was also¬†announced¬†in May that China Development Bank was approving a loan of $309 million to allow Uzbekistan Airlines to purchase three Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.

But the Central Asians are most keen on getting more income now. And while commodities prices may have slumped alongside demand, China has continued to increase its purchases of oil from Kazakhstan. Chinese purchasers also made a collective request to the Uzbek, Kazakh and Turkmen energy companies to collectively reduce their gas sales to China. While such a joint request is necessary to reflect the nature of regional infrastructure, it also highlighted how China’s infrastructure projects have bound the region together both in Beijing’s considerations and local economic fortunes.

This means more BRI is the answer to the downturn. An echo which resonates through the halls of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China‚Äôs ‚ÄėBelt and Road Initiative‚Äô the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative ‚Äď that of diversification. With China becoming the region‚Äôs most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‚Äėmulti-vector‚Äô diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‚Äėmulti-vector‚Äô approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder‚Äôs ‚ÄėWorld-Island‚Äô, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it‚Äôs not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping‚Äôs vaunted ‚ÄėBelt and Road Initiative‚Äô through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‚Äėconnectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan‚Äô and that the country ‚Äėwill look in any direction with no discrimination‚Äô. At the same time,¬†according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a¬†Dawn¬†editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‚Äėfor China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan‚Äô. Beijing‚Äôs answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden.¬†Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road,¬†such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor‚Äôs crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

This is a slightly longer freeflowing piece for an old site I used to contribute to fairly regularly called The Interpreter, the blog for a great Australian think tank called the Lowy Institute. Was based off some reflections from some recent travel I got to do to China, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I’ve been lucky with the piece getting some traction, including some nice tweets, Casey Michel quoting it in his piece about China’s energy relations with the region and the Australian Business Spectator magazine republishing it. Thanks Sam for publishing it, and goes without saying a lot more on this theme and style to come!

A new post for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, this time based on some conversations in Beijing about China’s role in Central Asia. As I have mentioned previously, there is going to be an increasing amount on this topic here in aid of a bigger project I am doing with Alexandros. We had also set up this parallel website specific for the project that I would encourage you to visit regularly: In the meantime, a few more posts along these lines in the next few days.

China hasn’t yet grown into its role

By Raffaello Pantucci & Alexandros Petersen –¬†7 November 2011 9:29AM

Raffaello Pantucci¬†is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.¬†Alexandros Petersen¬†was a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

It was a grim, grey Beijing morning as we fought with our taxi driver and traffic to make it to a meeting at one of China’s many official think tanks. We had set up¬†the meeting with the intention of¬†discussing Chinese foreign policy in her western periphery, Central Asia, but were instead asked to present on the pending Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Trying to shift things back in our direction, we offered a brief presentation on the view increasingly shared in Western capitals that regional powers and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the Chinese-instigated regional grouping encompassing nearby Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia) could take on a greater role in ensuring post-withdrawal Afghan stability.

In response, we were told that our perspective was exclusively Western; we needed to see things from an Asian point of view.

According to the analysts and diplomats at the table, China’s influence is based on cooperation, development and mutual interests. China’s ‘soft power’ (a term that is not popular in Beijing) is its ability to let countries develop at their own rate. When China looks to the region, it sees nations that are beset with problems, but ones that China cannot and should not address. Instead, Beijing has constructed the SCO.

The purpose of the SCO is not to supplant the EU, US or Russia, but rather to create a mechanism. We were told our tendency to view the SCO as a ‘NATO of the East’¬†‚ÄĒ a view we pointedly said we did not concur with¬†‚ÄĒ was merely a product of a Western bias built on the assumption that some sort of China threat lurks behind every corner. The SCO is young and regionally focused. Afghanistan, they reassured us, was something the SCO had always been concerned about and would address in the future.

So far, it has done very little. In fact, at the last summit the SCO member states were unable to agree on giving Afghanistan observer status. Instead the country continues to languish on the sidelines of an organisation nominally established with a view to stabilising a region that was menaced by trouble spilling over from Afghanistan.

This paradoxical approach seemed evident in other statements we heard about Chinese influence in Central Asia.

China is interested in countering the SCO’s stated ‘three evils’ of separatism, terrorism and extremism in Central Asia, yet it is not interested in interfering in anyone’s internal affairs. The SCO is not an economic organisation, and yet we were repeatedly told that it was focused on economics and development.

The paradox was made most clearly when someone announced to us something along the lines that ‘in the past the SCO has done nothing and in the future it will do nothing as well’.

But the reality of China’s sheer size means¬†this approach is unsustainable. China is the world’s foremost rising power and her influence will be felt wherever she pops up. As we sat down to a sumptuous meal around a large garlanded table after our discussion, our new Chinese friends gave us no sense of having really thought through the implications of what their newfound accidental influence means.

The impression was rather that China is stumbling onto power it does not want, and with which it doesn’t know what to do.

Photo by Flickr user QUOI Media.

A new post for the Lowy’s Interpreter blog, this time a set of pictures and text from Kyrgyzstan’s election campaign that we got to see during our recent trip to the region and in particular during a stop-over in Osh. A lot more on the topic of China in the region forthcoming (the principle purpose of the trip), in the meantime, enjoy. Thanks to the lovely Sue Anne Tay for pictures, and to Alexandros for helping with the text.

A Rally in Kyrgyzstan

By Raffaello Pantucci –¬†26 October 2011 2:14PM

Text by Raffaello Pantucci, a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, whose work appears on Shanghai Street Stories.

Kyrgyzstan is in the midst of what appears to be a lively democratic election campaign. Rushing to meetings around Bishkek and then driving to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, big political posters adorned bridges, tollbooths and places in between. So it was with little surprise that we came across a large-scale rally at the stadium adjacent to our hotel in Osh.

A somewhat lackluster affair on a cold damp afternoon, the rally was in support of Bakir Uulu, a candidate we later discovered was something of a soft-Islamist (something that should have been obvious from the crescent that adorned his campaign logo), eager for the US to move its military presence out of Kyrgyzstan. Azerbaijani dancers pranced around as an apparently famous Kyrgyz MC crooned nationalist songs from behind his shiny suit. Eventually, some of the many policemen standing around chomping on sunflower seeds got interested in our presence and our already tepid interest in the event receded.

But as we were leaving, we walked right into the candidate who was walking from his nearby office (below) to the rally to give the keynote speech. Ever the politician, he pressed the flesh and stood around for some pictures before telling us that we must come back and listen. He pointed to one of his young acolytes to ensure we got good seats.

Unfortunately, this young staffer did not feel it was his role to also translate, so as we sat in the cold listening to the candidate talk we were obliged to simply pick out the odd word that was apparently universal (America, Afghanistan, Europe, Taliban, Hizb ut Tahrir, Uzbek, China etc). The one line our guide did choose to translate was that the candidate thought ‘they had learned a lot from America and Europe.’ Far more active was an excitable drunk sitting behind us who seemed determined to record the entire event on his Motorola phone and get our phone numbers.

Kyrgyzstan is a young country and this was reflected in the crowd, though a number of older Kyrgyz were among those sitting interested and engaged in what the candidate was saying. One group was drafted into participating in a parade that marched around the stadium waving blue flags as part of a cortège that included a unit on horses and three white trucks with campaign posters taped to their sides. At the back of the stadium, a rather hapless group of men alternated between trying to put up large banners of the candidate and smoking cigarettes. They finished their task as the candidate ended his speech.

We made our way back to our hotel with a better understanding of Kyrgyzstan’s dysfunctional politics than anything gleaned from academic analysis.

A new post for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog – a good foreign policy blog that does not originate in the US. About a trip I recently made to Seoul, during which I had to make a pilgrimage to the border with the North. Interesting experience and one day I guess I would like to try to do it going the other way. One detail I realise I did not mention, I actually was visiting a Korean friend in Seoul, but he was not allowed to come on the same trip as the other foreigners. I did not quite catch if they are ever allowed to go and would welcome anyone who can tell me this. Thanks as ever to darling¬†Sue Anne for her great photos.

A trip to the Cold War’s last border

By Raffaello Pantucci –¬†29 April 2011 3:26PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Stepping into North Korean territory was not quite as dramatic as I thought it would be. The small huts straddling the demarcation line between North and South Korea in the Joint Security Area are small plots of land that are each half owned by each side.

Essentially neutral zones in which the two sides have official discussions when required, but that in true capitalist style, have been turned into part of a tourism trip by the enterprising South.

The trip to the DMZ from the South is one that starts in a hotel in Seoul where you take an hour and a half bus ride to the border.

A rather tall and camp Korean chap who referred to himself as the ‘Handsome Mr. Kim’ was our guide and spent the time regaling us with stories of North Korean activities¬†.

Massive speaker systems that blasted propaganda to either side. Competitions between the two sides to build ever bigger buildings and flags. And stories of North Korean workers in the Kaeson industrial complex who would only get paid $5 of the $65 the companies were paying for them and would sneak out choco pie snacks that they would be given as an afternoon snack to sell on the black market.

He also warned of things we could not do: take pictures unless explicitly told to, attempt any communication with soldiers in the North or point across to the other side.

Failure to heed these warnings and we could be shot.

An older European woman who was on our trip looked horrified, wondering what on earth her gleeful looking husband had dragged her along to.

Once at Camp Boniface our passports were checked and they verified that no one had cameras of too high a resolution. Amusingly enough, the only chap whose camera was of too high a resolution was a Chinese tourist who had joined our group ‚ÄĒ¬†them’s the rules the guides told us, but I have a feeling he felt singled out.

Then once at the border we were told in quite strict terms that no pictures could be taken of anything on the South Korean side ‚ÄĒ¬†one American in the group transgressed and was forced to delete his pictures while a sunglassed Korean soldier loomed over him.

On the Northern side, only one soldier came out to stare at us as we watched the Hermit Kingdom from the comfort of the South.

Scanning us using binoculars, he unfortunately did not encourage his friends to come out and perform for us.

Inside the hut where I crossed the border, we were shown flags on the South side that had been placed behind glass since North Korean soldiers had come into the hut while former President Bush was in Seoul and blown their noses and shone their shoes with the US and South Korean flags that used to be there on little stands.

Having had our moment in the North, we were taken around the rather desolate area that makes up the official DMZ by bus, with a pass by the infamous spot where a tree being cut down almost led to war and to the Taesong (freedom) village that sits inside the DMZ, with a giant flagpole and cathedral and where people are encouraged to stay and be farmers with large subsidies and a tax free lifestyle.

The equivalent village in the North we were reliably told, was a Potemkin village with no one living in it, but with a giant 600kg DPRK flag flying high above it.

The final stop was the souvenir shop where we could buy seemingly unlimited supplies of mint North Korean currency and bottles of blueberry wine or an alarmingly bright green pear brandy.

I was of course tempted, though I did wonder where on earth they got this seemingly unlimited supply from and hoped that my money was not ending up in the North.

On the journey back, our guide complained about how bitter he and his countrymen were at all ‘their money’ that the previous government had been dishing our to his ‘greedy brother’ Kim Jong Il. I can only hope that my money did not also end there.

Back in Seoul we went past a square where preparations were underway for an anniversary event to commemorate the first anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan.

While Mr. Kim told us how lots of young Korean men had streamed to join the marines after that event, a number of the other Europeans on the bus had absolutely no idea what had taken place.

Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

Another post in my latest series for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, notes from my trip to China’s west. Looking at these pictures again remind me what a specular trip it was. Maybe a couple more pieces along these lines on the way.

Notes on the Silk Road: Tashkorgan

By Raffaello Pantucci –¬†4 November 2010 9:03AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Hiring a taxi in Kashgar, we kept going first to the spectacular Karakul Lake and then on to Tashkorgan, the last city before the Pakistani border. On the Karakoram Highway, we passed through Kyrgyz villages and drove adjacent to the Tajikistan border. Tashkorgan itself is a majority Tajik city (according to 1995 figures, the latest I could find, the population is less that 30,000; 84% are Tajik) which is a very strange experience for a European in China, as the population look more Eastern European than anything else.

The city itself is little more than a town square with a few roads running off it. At the northeast corner is something called the ‘Stone Fort’, which is exactly what it sounds like (since returning, I have read that Tashkorgan is a rough approximation of the Uighur word for ‘stone fort’). The fort is mostly rubble these days, but from the ramparts you can see clearly in both directions down the pass and it is easy to appreciate how rulers of old would have appreciated its strategic value.

At the gate, a group of four Tajik girls entertained visitors and were far more interested in practicing their Mandarin with a group of Han Chinese tourists than any Westerners.

Beyond the fort, there is not much to do in the city, and it is used simply as a staging point before the taking on the final part of the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway to the Kunjerab Pass, where the line of demarcation between China and Pakistan lies. With a spectacular view in either direction, the border is at around 4700m elevation.

Before you enter the Tashkorgan nature reserve which takes you out there, you have to report to a PLA base in Tashkorgan where you hand over travel documents and a small fee. From there it is an almost two-hour car ride across a desolate moonscape environment dotted with small communities, to the border itself.

Guarding the border was an 18-year old soldier from inner China who was desperately trying to keep the Chinese tourists from wandering too far into Pakistan. They asked to take pictures with him, reassuring him it was fine as ‘no-one was looking’. On the Pakistani side, some buildings in the distance appeared to offer signs of life, but no soldiers came out to greet or scare people away.

Aside from the spectacular views, the roads are the most interesting thing. The road across the border stops rather abruptly when it gets to the actual line of demarcation, transforming from a well-tarmaced Chinese highway into a rather grueling Pakistani version. A Pakistani businessman we met in Kashgar complained to us about the state of the roads in his home country, pointing out that recent floods had completely cut off many of the roads and one was now obliged to make part of the journey by boat. On the Chinese side, the roads are clean and new; occasional wandering herds of cattle, sheep or camels and tired truckers are the main threat.


Notes on the Silk Road: Kashgar

Posted: November 1, 2010 in Interpreter
Tags: ,

A new post over at the Lowy’s Interpreter, tracking my trip to China’s west. I’d highly recommend anyone go to these places if you get a chance. Fascinating and spectacular.

Notes on the Silk Road: Kashgar

By Raffaello Pantucci –¬†1 November 2010 10:22AM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

In contrast to Urumqi, Kashgar is a distinctly non-Han Chinese city. While Chinese is still clearly present, it is not clear that Mandarin is the main spoken language. Kashgar is primarily a Uighur city, though there is also the fascinating mix of Mongol, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Han locals making the city a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities.

A vast array of other foreigners are also present, from the surprisingly high number of foreign tourists to Pakistani or Middle Eastern traders passing through on their way along the new Silk Road. One afternoon we met a local Pakistani importer-exporter who was stuck in the city with a group of brothers and cousins while they waited out the Chinese holiday which had closed the borders and left them with truck-loads of fruit stuck rotting on the wrong side.

The city itself is quite a dusty place, with donkey and carts as ubiquitous as cheap taxis. We stayed in the former Russian consulate that has now been turned into a charming, grubby, kitschy hotel ‚Äď its British counterpart has instead been transformed into what looks like a communist dormitory. The latest twist in the great game.

One of the most famous sites is the Old City, which was used a few years ago in the film The Kite Runner as a double for Kabul. The entire region in fact could double for a war-stricken Central Asian state. Aside from the old cities and villages made of brick, mud and straw, the countryside is dotted with abandoned buildings which could have been bombed out and left to nature. Towering over the entire region are the Pamir mountains.

More recently, the Old City has become famous as one of the symbols of Han Chinese attempts to assert some control over the Uighur minority. The current plan is to turn it into a holiday resort city and it has been designated¬†a ‘special economic zone’ in the hope it will attract tourists from across Central and South Asia. From the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city we managed to get a pretty good view of the whole city, and you can see the slow encroachment of modernity.

There are also distinctly Chinese additions to the city. Dominating the People’s Square is one of the largest statues of Mao in the country (some say there is a bigger one in Tianjin), and adjacent to one of the parts of the Old City is a giant Ferris wheel which turns lights up like Disneyland at night. But the majority of the city is Uighur and Muslim: women in hijabs are the most common sight, and some fully veiled women can be found. Mosques are very common and around the Old City small mosques echo at prayer time with the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

The separation between Han and Uighur seen in Urumqi is not as visible here, in part because the Han population is so clearly the minority and there is the addition of so many other minorities. The dominant Uighurs clearly do not appreciate the Han influence, but one local Han man who had been born in the province complained that he too was suffering from the influx of people from outside.


The first in a new series for the Lowy’s Interpreter, drawing on my recent trip out West. Look forward to hearing feedback on these, and please be sure to check out my wonderful photographer’s site while you are at it.

Notes on the Silk Road: Urumqi

By Guest Blogger –¬†28 October 2010 2:56PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Photos by Sue Anne Tay, a freelance photographer in Shanghai; see more of her work at Shanghai Street Stories.

Made infamous by riots in July 2009, when Han Chinese and Uighur mobs started fighting and killing each other in the streets, Urumqi is in fact hard to distinguish from many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities, and is mostly a massive urban concrete sprawl. The only things that really highlight that you are somewhere different is the Uighur areas of the city, which are teeming with non-Han people and Arab-inspired architecture. Also, most signs are in Mandarin and Uighur (which is an Arabic-looking script), with the occasional Russian and almost no English.

During our trip west to explore China’s fabled Xinjiang (‘New Frontier’) province, we¬†visited the city twice, with the first stop coinciding with National Day festivities. There was a noticeable police presence, with heavily armed young officers marching around sites (though not all policemen seemed this menacing; there were an equal number who seemed like locals in ill-fitting uniforms). Most buildings open to the public had a guard at the door checking bags.

On our second visit we went through the bazaar while a group of young men in military uniform with batons and shields marched through, setting themselves up in small formations among the mass of people buying and selling stuff while megaphones scream at the crowd in Uighur with offers on shoes or crockery.

The city seems to have cut itself in half. The Uighur and other minorities stick to their areas, while the Han live in parts which are not unlike many other Chinese cities. The Han Chinese we spoke to said they mostly avoided Uighur areas after the riots, and spoke with a sort of casual racism ingrained through years of misunderstanding (we did not get an opportunity to talk to many Uighurs in the city).

But it was also intriguing to see a degree of integration. At the night market, while eating plates heaped with grilled meats and fish, we watched as a group of early/mid 20s Han and Uighur laughed and chatted much as any other group would. On National Day itself, we went to the Hongshan Park in the middle of the city, which was teeming with families of all ethnicities enjoying the fairground rides, cotton candy and more grilled meat.

A new contribution for the Interpreter blog, this time not looking at the Expo, but instead at terrorism in China in its various forms. A fascinating topic I hope to cover more over time.

China’s domestic terrorism problem

by Raffaello Pantucci – 6 September 2010 12:25PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, where he is working on an EU-funded project on EU-China relations.

Recently there was a bombing in Aksu, a predominantly Uighur city in China’s Xinjiang province. The world’s media leapt on the story, eager to learn more about a set of issues which the Chinese are notoriously coy about.

Very little actual information emerged, except for brief updates from Xinhua and other official outlets. They suggest that a total of six people were involved in the attack, using an electric tricycle to lob bombs around a crossroads in Aksu, targeting a group of local security forces. Crucially, the stories refused to say that it was terrorism linked to the East Turkestan Islamist Movement (ETIM), the¬†Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), or other Uighur extremists, and instead hinted that it was most likely a business dispute. One official described it as ‘a violent criminal case’.

The cynic will look at this and assume that something else is afoot. Previously, TIP claimed in a video to have carried out a series of bombings in Shanghai, Wenzhou, Guangzhou and Kunming ‚Äď but in all four cases, local officials denied they were terrorist acts. Who is telling the truth is almost impossible to know, though it is curious that Chinese officials are so eager to downplay any effective attacks by such groups.

But let’s assume it is as described. It is still disturbing that so many people in China are willing to resort to such violent methods to resolve personal disputes. According to local reports, in Wenzhou, the bombing was related to a gambling dispute; in Shanghai a man named Wang claimed he did it to get ‘more, stronger attention and worship from netizens’.

When one couples this with the spate of knife attacks on schoolchildren earlier in the year, which were perpetrated by men angry at the world, it seems as though the main terrorist threat in China is not in fact groups like ETIM or TIP, but rather angry locals who strike out randomly at fellow citizens.

In fact, when we compare this to the effectiveness of Uighur radical groups, it seems as though these sorts of random attacks are in fact worryingly regular and much more effective (though admittedly, coverage of what occurs in Xinjiang is erratic ‚Äď one report by RFA suggested small-scale attacks in the province are regular; certainly, group-arrests are). The ‘lone wolf’ seems a much more dangerous predator in China than the organised ethno-Islamist or separatist group.

This also might help explain why there is a great trepidation in describing these attacks as terrorism. If all such acts were categorised as terrorist in nature, then a whole set of domestic problems might be grouped together and would have to be addressed through the lens of terrorism. Given the power of anonymous group-think powered by the internet in China, there is every possibility that the characters who perpetrate these acts achieve some sort of online celebrity which might further complicate the official response.

Photo (of Chinese security forces in Urumqi during the Uighur unrest of 2009) by Flickr user Remko Tanis, used under a Creative Commons license.