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Chinese “soft power”: diplomacy through cheap goods and scholarships

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched the titanic New Silk Roads project, officially called the Belt and Road Initiative. Ten years later, The duty visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two countries at the heart of these new trade routes. Third in a series of eight travel journals.

On the streets of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, located just 300 km from the Chinese border, there are no Chinatown. Young people listen to K-Pop from South Korea, a style of music which even gave birth to its Kazakh derivative, Q-Pop (in reference to the word Qazaqstan, which is written with a Q in Kazakh). And Russian or Kazakh broadcasts follow one another on TV and radio waves.

Chinese culture has clearly not yet made a breakthrough in Kazakhstan. But China’s influence is nevertheless increasingly palpable: Chinese language schools are gaining popularity, a growing number of students are going to study in China thanks to scholarships, and markets are pouring Chinese products into low prices are constantly expanding and tourist visas between the two countries have been abolished.

Gradually, the soft power Chinese thus begins to extend to its Kazakh neighbor, after decades of what is called the “Sino-Soviet rupture”, a fracture that occurred from the 1950s under the regimes of Khrushchev and Mao, which had annihilated any relationship between Kazakhstan, which was at the time part of the USSR, and China, two countries which nevertheless share a border of more than 1500 km.

Today, although a sense of Sinophobia is still perceptible within Kazakh society, the fallout from the acceleration of trade flows between the two countries and the establishment of the Belt and Road Initiative — which includes a component on increasing exchanges between peoples to stimulate mutual understanding — are being felt.

“A magnificent language”

In the premises of the Sinology Kazakhstan language school, located in the center of Almaty, Oksana Adilova teaches young people to speak and write Chinese, alongside their school career. “Most students say that grammar is easy, but pronunciation is much more difficult,” she points out, referring to the four tones of the language which each give a different meaning to words.

Dasha, 19, has already learned 200 characters through lessons she takes three times a week. “Many students learn Chinese to improve their job prospects, but for me, it’s purely out of personal interest,” says this marketing student who has taken a liking to Mandarin. It’s a magnificent language. »

In the classroom, where Mandarin books are scattered under an interactive whiteboard, there is also Arslan, 8 years old, who has been taking classes for two months, Madina, 13 years old, who is fascinated by the story that unfolds. hidden behind each of the Chinese characters, and Artur, 19 years old, who dreams of becoming a diplomat or translator. “I want to work in a field related to languages,” he says. Our president (Tokayev) speaks Chinese fluently, he is developing economic ties with China. I believe this is why our nation is more interested in China. »

An enthusiasm which is also reflected in the registrations at Sinology Kazakhstan. “The demand for learning Chinese is increasing,” says Mei Yifan, one of the school’s founders, referring to the approximately 7,000 students who take classes, online or in person, in one or other of the institution’s 12 schools. At the same time, the Chinese government has also opened Confucius Institutes in several Kazakh cities in recent years, where Mandarin is taught.

Mutual knowledge

But in 2007, when the first Sinology Kazakhstan schools opened, the atmosphere was completely different. “Chinese was not very popular at the time and Sinophobia was very strong in Kazakhstan,” recalls Baitemirov Nurzhan, also founder of the school. Chinese teachers who taught in the south of the country were beaten and premises were burned. But the political scientist, who had studied in China, continued to believe in the merits of a rapprochement of Kazakh society with the Chinese dragon which was then growing in power. “Rather than being in confrontation, we must learn from our neighbors,” he emphasizes. An ideal that he has since pushed even further.

Today, the East West Education Group, which oversees the language school, sends some 3,000 students annually to Chinese universities, largely thanks to scholarships, notably offered by the Chinese government. Nationwide, more than 13,000 Kazakh students were studying in China before the pandemic restrictions, said Nurzhan, who is also president of the Association of Universities and Consulting Firms of the Countries. of the Silk Road.

These students subsequently return to the country with a better knowledge of Chinese language and culture. An undeniable added value, according to Adil Kaukenov, sinologist and director of the Center for Chinese Studies in Almaty. “If neighboring countries don’t talk to each other, don’t know each other, they can only feel suspicious of each other,” he says. And China’s granting of numerous scholarships does not only allow China to expand its soft power, he argues. “Kazakh students also spread knowledge about Kazakhstan in China. »

A rapprochement which will certainly grow thanks to an agreement concluded last summer between China and Kazakhstan in the field of tourism, which abolishes visas between the two countries for trips of less than 30 days.

Everything for cheap

Strolling through the stalls of the Yalyan market, on the outskirts of Almaty, we understand that China’s ability to seduce also certainly depends on the attractiveness of its cheap goods. For miles, a dizzying mix of electronic devices, tools, stationery, jewelry and many other products are offered to customers eager to pay as little as possible for as many items as possible. In the row of rooms, boxes are stacked up to the ceiling. “Everything, everything, everything comes from China,” says Emmy, who sells umbrellas and wallets.

In front of her business, a lady buys around ten lipsticks to distribute to her friends. “These products are sold with the names of major brands, but one or two letters are changed (Christian Dior thus becomes Christian D’or). And it works, people buy them,” explains Moldir, a saleswoman without flinching, who says she gets good business thanks to these counterfeit products.

Outside the market, empty cardboard boxes pile up as the day progresses and sales increase. At nightfall, customers leave with filled plastic bags, others push their recent finds onto trolleys. Outside, men are busy filling car trunks or hanging boxes directly on the roofs of vehicles. We then leave the place with the only certainty that this waltz of frantic consumption, fueled by the low prices of Chinese goods, will start again as soon as the doors open the next morning.

With Naubet Bisenov

Read tomorrow: The rush for natural resources

This reporting was financed thanks to the support of the Transat-International Journalism FundThe duty.

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