Although I’m supposed to be focused on Central Asia these days, China just won’t leave me alone. A while back I was in contact with friends who work as producers for the US public radio show This American Life; they asked for leads on interesting Americans living in China. While they didn’t end up using material from any of the folks to whom I introduced them, they did produce a really good hour of reporting about the expatriate experience in China. Everyone should be able to stream the show here. I also get thanked at the end, which is exciting and, let’s face it, the real reason I’m posting about this. That’s a joke.

The one thing I will add in order to bring this post back around to my experiences in Kazakhstan is that, like Michael Meyer, I am asked numerous times a day several of a list of questions, usually in this order:
1. Where are you from?
2. Do you like Kazakhstan? (Which is an unfair question, coming from a Kazakh.)
3. Where did you learn Russian? (Usually preamble to: And why don’t you speak Kazakh? Answer: I can’t reproduce either the vowel sounds or some of the hard consonants.)
4. Are you married? (Headache-avoiding answer: Yes.) Where’s your wife? (New York.)
5. Do you like [our] Kazakh women? Why don’t you have a Kazakh wife / girlfriend / service-provider? (Headache catches up to me: I can’t afford two wives, let alone a wife and a girlfriend.)

Almaty being a blessedly and forgivingly small city, this is about as far as the conversation usually gets before I pay and go about my business. In longer taxi-rides, I’ve ended up talking about circumcision, my salary, and (of course) my thoughts about Obama and Putin. One female friend of mine was told by a taxi driver: “If I weren’t already married, I would kidnap you.” We decided this was meant as a complement.


Photo of a young Mugat man taken by Sema Balaman. For more of her work and those of her collaborators, I've provided a link below.

In the American imagination, China is often considered linked to, but separate from, Eurasia. Hence the title of one relatively well-known academic international relations journal: The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly. That “and” joins two discrete entities.  By tradition, Eurasia includes Central Asia, Mongolia and Russia (what Russian’s consider Eurasia – essentially the boundaries of the Soviet Union), while others might also include the Persian world (Iran and Afghanistan. British adventurers and novelists of the 19th century primarily meant Afghanistan when they spoke about Central Asia). The ambiguity reflects the fact that “Eurasia” – as a place, as a political possibility and as an idea – remains poorly defined and understood.

But geographically, at least, China is part of the Europe-Asia landmass, and with time, it is expanding its interests and activities into the more definitively Eurasian countries. It isn’t hard to find mention of China’s pipelines, roads and railways linking it to both Mongolia, Asiatic Russia (Eastern Siberia) and Central Asia. China may even be stealthily funding a pipeline connecting itself to Iran via Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But what is more striking to me is that China is also more or less literally expanding into Central Asia by both obtaining land-use rights and the outright acquisition of more territory through concessions.

In the last year, China has twice gained land from neighboring – and very poor – Tajikistan. In the first instance, China and Tajikistan finally resolved a long-standing land dispute such that the smaller country conceded 1,000 sq km of mostly unexplored and potentially mineral-rich land to the larger; then, just a few days ago, Tajikistan’s parliament leased a further 20 sq km to Chinese farmers. Although initially  only Tajiks were to be permitted to work the Chinese-leased land, the government in Dushanbe subsequently reversed that decision and will allow Chinese to farm directly.

The Chinese proposed a similar arrangement in Kazakhstan several years ago: Beijing wanted to lease 10,000 sq km from Astana for 99 years. Uncharacteristically, Kazakhs took to the streets in response, and the government backed away from the deal. Therefore, China is quite concretely, if slowly, becoming a Eurasian country.

In other ways as well, China’s presence is increasingly felt throughout Eurasia. The bazaars of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are flooded with cheap Chinese-made goods, and Chinese laborers build and rebuild roads, pipelines and other infrastructural projects throughout the region. Moreover, now that Kazakhstan and Russia are joined in a tariff-free Customs Union and Russia has joined the WTO (similarly, WTO-member Kyrgyzstan may soon join the Customs Union), it seems the Chinese goods may soon gain easy entry into Kazakhstan – and capitals as distant as Kiev and Minsk. Therefore, China is also expanding economically – and notionally – across the corpus of traditional Eurasia.

I am unaware if modern China has ever thought of itself as a Eurasian empire or whether there is a Eurasian school in China as there has been in Russia. Russian Eurasianism, for all its Russian exceptionalism, was and is rooted in a Euro-centric mode of thinking. Its aim, as I understand it, was to alter Russians’ perceptions of themselves as European by reorienting their sense of place vis-a-vis neighboring countries and cultures. By contrast, a Chinese Eurasianism would naturally be anchored in the East and urging the Chinese to shift their identity towards the West. The important question is: if so, is Chinese expansion into Eurasia imagined as conquest or collaboration?

On the one hand, although Genghis Khan’s Mongol conquests were undoubtedly brutal, they created a massive Eurasian empire that stimulated trade and movement across great distances and many cultures; certainly the influences of the Central Asian and Persian worlds were felt in Eastern China. One material example is the import of lapis lazuli, with which Ming dynasty ceramicists were able to achieve the stunning hues of blue-and-white pottery. One imagines that this fundamentally transformed East Asians’ sense of their placement on the globe and tied them much more to the cultures to their west. Much later, in the 1920s, Chinese reformist thinking also looked very much to recreating China in the image of the Euro-American West.

However, I feel it is perhaps too optimistic to imagine that a Chinese Eurasianism advocates a syncretic harmonizing of different cultures, of East and West, that one finds in the mystic (if patronizing) elements of Russian Eurasianism. The logic of “the Middle Kingdom,” China’s control of McKinder’s geopolitical “pivot” (Central Asia and Tibet) and contemporary nationalism each in their own way suggest the expansion of China’s political and cultural influence is likely to be conquest.

Which is why many Central Asians (although far from all) are afraid of China’s growth. Not everyone here is convinced they have a place in China’s potential Eurasia.

And finally, here is a link to more of Sema Balaman’s work on the Mugat people of Central and South Asia.

"Soviet Shovel," Giorgii Triyakin-Bukharov, 2011

To those of you who know me, it probably comes as no surprise that I am interested in Communism. This doesn’t mean I’m a pinko sympathizer or another Alger Hiss (whose grandnephew, if I’m not mistaken, is an occasional reader of this blog). Rather, Communism (as it was realized in the Soviet Union, China, Yugoslavia and elsewhere in the 20th century) intrigues me as a political, economic and aesthetic project. It was, as the scholar James C. Scott has written about it, a test of high-modernist faith in the perfectibility of governance and social relations.

When seen in this light, it is perhaps less surprising that one of the central topics of post-Soviet history, at least outside of the former Soviet space, is whether Communism as it was (the Gulag system, the Cultural Revolution, the Yugoslav Department of State Security) is the same things as Communism as it might have been. Or, to employ the political science argot I hold so dear, were the horrors of 20th century Communism problems of structure or agency?

First, as Robert Service points out in his book Comrades, “Communism” as we knew it was not the only possible incarnation of “communism.” Communist (lowercase “c”) and socialist manifestos had been floating around Europe at least as early as the 1700s, but our understanding of Communism in the 20th century is dominated by variations on Marxist-Leninism (or Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism). In fact, the cardinal sin first of Tito, then of Khrushchev and finally of Gorbachëv was to imagine, and to differing degrees realize, heterodox varieties of communism. Had Communism been differently formulated, could it have worked?

But this question is not so interesting to me as the second, which takes Communism as it was at face value and asks again, what would it have taken for it to survive? (Not, I should stress, that I want it to have lasted longer.)

"Worker and Kolkhoz Woman," Vera Mukhina, 1937

Too many authors to mention have analyzed why the Soviet project failed, and the convincing arguments are those that find inherent economic structural problems that rendered the Soviet state unsustainable (no credit to poor Reagan!). Poor incentives and an inability to accurately manage supply and demand left shortage, which engendered dissatisfaction. As Service writes, “The conclusion is inescapable that the failure of communist countries to satisfy the material wants of their citizens was a derivative of their Soviet-style order,” and, in short, this is what brought down the house of cards (363).

But the problem of having supply meet demand in a command economy is not entirely political. It is also technological, and what if the Soviets had enjoyed advanced computing? The Internet resolves many (but, I concede, not all) of the economic management problems the Control Economy faced. If (and this is a big IF) individual managers could be trusted to input data accurately, the major coordinating problem of Soviet economics could be solved. No longer would Red Accountants had to tabulate and calculate and communicate supply and demand figures by hand and by post, which was not only slow, but prone to errors and difficult to correct.

Sergey Alexeyevich Lebedev

I don’t usually wallow in counter-factual history, but what makes this a fun case is that history reveals that Soviet computing (a fascinating subject unto itself) might have at least matched, if not surpassed, American computer were it not for the interference of literally a handful of ideological dunderheads in the Soviet scientific bureaucracy. In a paper by Slava Gerovitch, the leading historian of the subject, he suggests how close Sergei Lebedev (1902-1974), the father of Soviet computing, and his laboratories came to rivaling America’s dominance of cybernetics and computational machines. In 1954, one Nikolai Matiukhin even argued publicly that computers should be employed by the economic planners: “In a socialist society… the mechanization of planning with the assistance of computers can and should be pursued to the largest extent possible” (272). But Matiukhin was gainsaid by the generals.

For my money, though, the most interesting reflection on this subject is in fact Francis Spufford’s highly readable and very thoroughly researched novel, Red Plenty. The book is historical fiction but does not engage in re-writing history. Rather, he brings to life the people and ideas that fueled Soviet optimism in the 1950s: the post-war system was going to optimize, to provide.

This isn’t all daydreaming and academic contemplation, though. Although the Chinese are hardly “communist” anymore in any real sense, the state still controls large sections of the economy, and a major accomplishment of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has been to leverage technology to overcome some of the structural (economic and political) shortcomings of the Soviet Union. This raises serious questions not about whether China will continue to liberalize its economy, but about whether or not it has to.

An electric bus in downtown Almaty

The Almaty subway system (for now, just one line) has opened! It actually opened sometime in December, but that was after I first wrote about it and I haven’t found a chance to return to the subject until now. Interestingly, despite what is being reported in the Western Imperialist Media (thank you Brandon), I am sad to say that the stations are no more “glorious” than those in Beijing, people are complaining about the wait for the trains; and there is hardly a “carnival-like” atmosphere in the system. In fact, the general consensus is that while it is good for Almaty’s image that it now has a subway system, it will not become useful until more lines are constructed and it reaches further.

Part of the reason people aren’t riding the subway is that the aboveground transportation options are quite sufficient for travel within the city center. The preferred form is the “black taxi,” i.e. anyone’s car. It is common practice in Almaty to stand at the side of the road and stick out one’s hand in order to flag down a car; before long a car – sometimes nice, sometimes not – will pull up and roll down the passenger-side window. One states one’s destination and a price. The driver, always male, either grunts in agreement or grunts a rejection.

My biggest problem with riding in “taxis” is that since I am self-evidently not from round these parts, the driver almost always begins to grill me: where are you from? How long have you been here? What do you do? How much do you earn? Are you married? No matter what I answer to this last question, the next question is: Why don’t you have a Kazakh girlfriend? And before long, I’m also asked why I only speak Russian and not Kazakh. The whole thing is repetitive, exhausting and not worth it.

Interior of a typical Almaty tram

Especially since Almaty’s public transportation infrastructure, besides the subway, is impressive. There are three “levels,” if you will: diesel buses, electric buses and trams. The first are the most popular because they run the most useful routes, but they are the least comfortable. As far as I can tell, the buses are run by private businesses. Each bus is manned by two “staff,” the driver and a cash-collector, and they appear to have complete control over what route they drive, how long they stay at each station, and how many passengers they pack in. Since they only accept cash and don’t give receipts, they have incentive to take as many people as possible; being relatively unregulated, they also seem to have the autonomy to decide when they don’t care to drive or when they decide to knock off work. The bus schedule is therefore highly erratic and, on bad whether days, unreliable.

More reliable are the electric buses and trams. These rely on overhead wires and, in the case of the latter, embedded tracks, both of which are municipal infrastructural. Correspondingly, these are more “official:” there are ticket machines that give receipts, and the drivers wear uniforms. That such a developed municipal transport system exists is undoubtedly a hold-over from Almaty’s time as the capital of a Soviet Socialist Republic. This was one area in which the Soviet state invested.

"Halt!" reads the sign in this Almaty tram

My favorite are the trams, for two reasons. First, I think the trams are seen as an “uncool” and backwards form of transport because the only people who ever seem to ride them (except during inclement weather) are children and pensioners. There are always free seats. Second, the old trams are the single biggest clue about the Soviet origins of the transport system: they are rickety and old. In one I saw the date “1970” in faded, formerly-sparkly numbers – as if from New Year’s Eve – stuck firm to the roof. Furthermore, many of the trams are clearly recycled trains from East Germany. Much of the signage on the trains is in German. This reveals something about how the Soviet system of inter-republican trade and reallocation worked: Kazakhstan sent grain and coal to Berlin, and East Germany returned tramcars to Almaty. Consider this. Only recently did manufacturing and production become as delocalized and “globalized” in the West as it was in the post-War USSR. It’s hardly a wonder that Soviet central planning couldn’t keep up.

But besides the trundling Soviet trams, the transportation system also reflects the changing times. Although some of the electric buses are old Soviet models, I increasingly see Yutong brand buses. Yutong (宇通), a Chinese manufacturer, provides most of the municipal buses in Beijing, and now they are selling to the Almaty government. It’s hard for me to say to what extent this really reflects the shift in trade towards China and away from the former Soviet bloc countries, but it is certainly suggestive of this much-discussed change. Who knew I could learn so much from riding the buses here?

First of all, I want to apologize for posting two posts on December 11 – as if to make up for lost time! I did not mean to and had intended to space out their publication. Anyway, if you have not read these yet, please scroll down or click here and here.

Second of all, this post will be much less thoughtful and much more puerile than either of those. Mea culpa, obviously, since I’m the author. This post is my version of the all-but-obligatory post in expat blogs about the use of English in foreign countries and why, oh why, do so few people think or consider it valuable to hire a native English speaker before titling things or making signs.

Most everyone is, by now, familiar with Chingrish (a.k.a. Engrish), a contraction of “Chinese” and “English” referring specifically to the hilarious malapropisms and unintended innuendoes created by direct or improper translation from the former to the latter. Growing up in Hong Kong and then living in Beijing, I was of course surrounded by examples, and these were a common and consistent source of pleasure. A favorites that stands out in my memory is the Lee Kee Boot and Shoe Company, but there is at least one whole tumblr-style site dedicated to Chingrish.

Why Chingrish remains so prevalent throughout China and even Hong Kong (despite 100 years of British colonial rule) became more apparent to me prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which I covered as a blogger for Yale. In the lead-up to the event, touted as “Beijing’s Coming Out Party” or deb ball, the government wanted to burnish Beijing’s international image and therefore hired, according to news reports, no fewer than 10,000 locals to clean up the city’s Chingrish. However, they supposedly did not hire a single non-Chinese person (despite the many Americans living in Beijing itching for an extra dollar), and while some of those hired may have been native or near-native English speakers, not all of them were, and it showed. There was still plenty of hilarious Chingrish for Olympic spectators to enjoy while they waited in line for events.

But bad English, it turns out, is hardly the purview solely of the Chinese. Take, for instance, SCAT Air Company based in Shymkent, southern Kazakhstan. My theory is that these types of mistakes happen because of a certain arrogance on the part of (at least) Chinese and Kazakhs about their English-language abilities. I’ve noticed a certain trend to over-confidence and over-estimation. This is hardly to say that my Russian is any good or that my Kazakh exists at all – but I would not dream of naming a company without checking with a native speaker first, and therein lies the difference.

EUNIC bookmark

The EUNIC bookmark

Despite all of the above, however, I’m willing to forgive the Chinese and the Kazakhs because 1, it may be harder than I imagine to find a competent English speaker, and I’m sure that even in situations where companies desire to check, many translators or “consultants” misrepresent their knowledge and abilities to their clients; and 2, it is amusing to me. I’m less willing, though, to forgive the Europeans. Europe, after all, include at least two native English-speaking countries and several countries, like Denmark, in which citizens speak better English than I do. How, then, did they end up naming an organization EUNIC – the European Union National Institutes for Culture? I realize this is not actually how one spells “eunuch,” but the homonym is unmissable even when one only sees the word in print. The organization’s full name, when written out, does not even flow well, suggesting they reordered words in order to make a handy acronym, and yet they still came up with EUNIC.

I discovered EUNIC while working in the Kasteev State Museum of the Arts here in Almaty because one of my co-workers there had a bookmark from there in which EUNIC was printed over and over. I was, needless to say, curious.

The Golden Arches - you don't see these in Almaty

It slipped my notice until an Austrian friend of mine pointed it out to me: there are no McDonald’s franchises in Almaty. Of course, now that I know this, the lack of Golden Arches is a conspicuous void in the urban cityscape. After all, I grew up in Hong Kong, the city with the largest number of McDonald’s stores per capita (or per square kilometer, I can’t remember) of any city in the world. Heightening my new sense that something is missing, there is a KFC in the center of town. This means that, unlike elsewhere in the region, McDonald’s absence is not the result of state policies unfriendly to foreign corporations or fast food. So why can I not get a Big Mac?

The popular explanation for this is that McDonald’s buys beef from regional beef producers and the quality of beef is so poor that even McD’s will not deign to serve it to their customers. However, this does not make a great deal of sense for at least two reasons: 1, there are McDonald’s franchises all over China, and I’d be hard pressed to believe that Kazakh beef, which has to meet halal requirements, is of lower quality than Chinese beef; and 2, people, including me, frequently eat meat-filled samsa (самса) from street vendors making very small marginal profit on each unit sold, and therefore unlikely to be demanding anything more than the lowest quality safe beef. If people eat that, there is no reason for McD’s to withhold their delicious products.

My Austrian friend, a logistics student, had a better explanation: McDonald’s stores import ingredients daily, and Kazakhstan’s logistics infrastructure is unable to reliably supply daily shipments of perishables in the necessary quantities to make a franchise profitable.

That Kazakhstan’s logistics infrastructure lags behind the level of its general development was confirmed for me by a professor of logistics at Kazakh National University. According to this older, kindly gentleman, there are only two major logistics hubs in Kazakhstan, one near Almaty in the southwest and one close to Astana in the center-north. These two hubs sit at the intersections of some of the major trans-national roads and railways that connect Kazakhstan to China, Russia and Uzbekistan, but these are (according to what I learned) insufficiently large and technically advanced to accommodate both the volume appropriate to the major economy to which Kazakhstan aspires and to cover the huge expanse of Kazakhstan’s territory: it is five times larger than France.

A shot of the Kazakh steppe not far from Almaty

The other challenges to efficient logistics infrastructure are the deterioration of road and rail-links and the orientation of the major transportation routes. The first relates to Kazakhstan’s demographic geography. As the attached map illustrates, the major population centers form a ring along Kazakhstan’s borders and Caspian coast and the center is relatively unpopulated. Indeed, the middle of Kazakhstan is a vast expanse of desert and semi-desert, brutally hot in the summer, freezing in the winter and assailed each winter by Siberian and Mongolian winds. The ground, having once been a seabed when the Caspian and Aral seas were much larger than they are today, is also unsuited to road construction. Transportation infrastructure must traverse this inhospitable expanse because the size of the country precludes going around it. Therefore, the few major roads and railways that connect south to north are expensive to maintain.

But it is very interesting to note that the Soviets did build and maintain good infrastructure in this region. In fact, it was said that Kazakhstan had the best roads in the USSR (outside of Moscow and Petersburg, one assumes). This was because the Soviets need to transport a lot of goods (wheat, oil, cotton) out and people through the region: first during WWII, when many people were exiled or internally displaced to Kazakhstan from the European border, then during the 1960s conflicts with China and finally to fuel the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Moscow moved tanks and troops across Kazakhstan, which requires very robust infrastructure.

However, these roads and railways have by now deteriorated somewhat and, moreover, they were overwhelming oriented north-south. Russian conquest and engagement in Central Asia has always been oriented “vertically,” not least because this is how the Russians conquered and spread through the region. Historically, however, movement across the Kazakh steppe has been overwhelmingly east-west or “horizontal,” Genghis Khan and the Silk Road being the two major examples. But Genghis Khan did not leave roads, and so it was left to the Russians to introduce modern infrastructure insofar as they did – especially in the form of oil-pipelines. Therefore, if one conceives of Kazakhstan’s roads, railways and pipelines as the threads of a carpet, the country had only warp threads and horizontal movement across the country was difficult. This continues to hamper the country.

Interestingly, China’s engagement in Kazakhstan is providing the necessary weft. The Chinese have built oil and gas pipelines across (east-west) the country and are discussing major new road and rail links to connect Beijing to Moscow and Europe beyond. This is the infrastructure that is natural to the landscape and analogous to most historical migration in Central Asia, but has yet to be fully realized. This is a much less-studied aspect of China’s role in Kazakhstan, but it is obviously of major importance not only to Kazakhs but also, potentially, to foreign businesses wanting to access the Central Asian market of 60 million people, but requiring the necessary infrastructure. Maybe soon I’ll be able to order super-sized fries Almaty.