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As China Invests, Many Kazakhs Say: Not Too Fast

A worker welds at the China-Kazakhstan pipeline junction in Xinjiang, China, in 2008. (Getty Images)

This month, NPR is examining the many ways China is expanding its reach in the world — through investments, infrastructure, military power and more.

As China grows in power and influence, few countries are feeling the effects more than neighboring Kazakhstan.

Having broken from its past as a Soviet republic, Kazakhstan now has an up-and-coming economy and a desire to be a player on the world stage. China seems to be offering just what Kazakhstan needs — billions of dollars in foreign investment and deeper political ties with real-world powers.

But many people in Kazakhstan have a plea: not too fast.

They fear China's ambitions and worry that Chinese influence could rob Kazakhstan of its identity — all but swallow up a country whose population is outnumbered by China's 80 to 1.

"China is going to help us little by little," says Saule Amirova, a 61-year-old woman who lives in Kazakhstan's eastern city of Almaty. "And then, they'll own our land."

The world is pondering whether to embrace China's economic power or fear it. And Kazakhstan offers a window into the potential benefits and costs of the decision.

Investments In Infrastructure And Energy

Many Americans may know Kazakhstan from the 2006 movie Borat. The film erroneously painted the country as a far-off land that produces foul-mouthed goofballs like the star of the movie.

In fact, this is a diverse country, full of pride after emerging from a difficult past. For centuries, it was a barren, nomadic place. During Soviet times, Kazakhstan's intelligentsia was hounded by Stalin's regime, and many Kazakhs died fighting in the Red Army. Yet, Kazakhstan's people have long felt a deep connection to Russia, in language, culture and lifestyle.

There is little emotional connection to China. Yet China has offered billions of dollars in loans to Kazakhstan. New money was announced earlier this year, when Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, went to China for three days and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

China has agreed to build a new railroad across the country. China is helping to build an oil pipeline, and partnering in Kazakhstan's energy sector like never before.

Tempers did flare early last year after Kazakhstan's president floated an idea to help the nation's economy: He suggested renting 2 1/2 million acres of farmland to China to grow food.

People demonstrated in the streets, yelling that this relationship with China was getting too close. What's next, speakers cried out — will China force Kazakh people to eat with chopsticks?

A Big Player In The Oil Industry

China's influence can certainly be felt in western Kazakhstan's Aktobe region, a place that looks and feels like Texas oil country. The flat brown and green landscape stretches for miles, with cattle grazing, trains occasionally passing and oil flowing.

Western countries, Russia and China have long had interest in the oil here. But especially through the recent economic downturn, Chinese investment has been welcomed, and China appears to be the big player now.

Through direct investments and tax dollars, China and its state-owned energy companies have invested $14 billion into the Aktobe region's economy. Chinese money now makes up somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of the entire regional budget.

"They are maintaining our roads and doing the repairs," says Marat Balmukhanov, the director for industry and entrepreneurship in Aktobe's regional government. "They built a nursing home for war veterans. They bought computers for our schools. Every year, they buy 10 or 20 ambulances."

It's hard to know any of this from walking around town. China's growing presence is all but hidden. The Chinese oil and gas companies employ mostly local citizens.

Nurlan Akhmetalin, a 38-year-old Kazakh, worked from 1996 to 2009 for the China National Petroleum Corp., the state-owned oil and gas company. He handled chemicals, drove a truck and for a while made good money.

Eventually, he says, the culture in the workplace got to him. There was little regard for safety, he says, and bosses brought in from China had a demanding, aggressive style that people in Kazakhstan were not accustomed to.

"We are losing our resources, and losing our independence," he says. "In the future, we'll have to rely on China. They'll give the orders here. Sure, they'll give us jobs and small salaries, maybe a bowl of rice. But we'll be working just like if we were in China."

Reinventing Chinese Foreign Policy

Scholars say China is desperate for energy — but, above all, influence.

Adil Kaukenov, a political scientist who founded the Center for Chinese Studies at the Institute of World Economics and Politics in Kazakhstan, says China has been jealous of Russia and the U.S. for having political leverage across Central Asia. China became especially worried in 2001, when then-President George W. Bush began getting close to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush even said he looked into Putin's eyes and got a sense of his soul.

"Bush looks in Vladimir Putin's eyes and sees something," Kaukenov recalls. Immediately, he says, China's alarm bells went off. China worried that the United States and Russia were becoming "very big friends" who were determined to beat terrorism in Central Asia.

Like Russia and the U.S., China is deeply concerned about terrorism and instability in Central Asia. But when China looks into the region today, it sees the U.S. leading a war in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it sees countries that turn to Russia — not China — for help when they face unrest. Kyrgyzstan was the perfect example last year, reaching out to Moscow in the midst of political unrest and ethnic violence.

To gain leverage in Central Asia, China has tried to work through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was established in 2001. China, Russia and countries in Central Asia are members and are supposed to cooperate on security. But Kaukenov says China's real strategy for gaining leverage with its neighbors, like Kazakhstan, begins with showing them the money.

"It's the first target — security," he says. "Economics is [the] instrument to do security."

Kazakhstan's political leaders talk about China with some trepidation, but with a sense that the economic benefits of a relationship outweigh any fears.

Tanirbergen Berdongarov, a 35-year-old member of Parliament, supports his president's policies toward China. "The main goal in our economic policy is to have stability and good relations with the neighbors," he says.

The U.S., Russia and China all want to partner with Kazakhstan economically, Berdongarov says, and all want Kazakhstan to be an "island of stability" in the region. It would be difficult, he says, for his country to close the door to any of those world powers.

At the same time, Berdongarov has grown worried as he has watched Chinese goods flow across the border, even as Kazakhstan's own manufacturers have shut down. "[China is] a very big machine. For them to produce such a kind of shoes, T-shirts — it's very cheap and easy," he says.

And that's all part of China's plan, he says. The more Kazakhstan's people rely on Chinese goods to live, the more pressure Kazakhstan's political leaders are under to maintain close ties with their neighbor. Berdongarov says China has reinvented foreign policy.

"[It's] not like with the guns," he says. "It's with the shoes."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We continue our series on China this morning with a look at its neighbor, Kazakhstan. Few countries are feeling China's growing power and influence more than the former Soviet Republic. It is the world's ninth-largest country in land mass, and it has extraordinary supplies of oil and natural gas. For China, this means energy to power Chinese cities.

But despite the economy benefits of the relationship, many people in Kazakhstan are nervous about China's embrace.

NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: 2006 was a bad year for Kazakhstan. The movie "Borat" came out.

(Soundbite of movie, "Borat")

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor, Comedian): (as Borat) Although Kazakhstan is a glorious country, it has a problem, too.

GREENE: The film made Kazakhstan seemed like a far-off place that produced foul-mouthed goofballs like the star of the movie. If you want to hear from a true icon of this country, it's worth listening to the sweet voice of Roza Rymbaeva. She's singing here in Russian about moi dom, my home.

(Soundbite of song, "Moi Dom")

Ms. ROZA RYMBAEVA (Singer): (Singing in Russian)

GREENE: People in Kazakhstan have been listening to Rymbaeva a lot this year, as they celebrate 20 years of independence. This is a proud country with a difficult past. For centuries, it was a barren, nomadic place. During Soviet times, Kazakhstan's intelligentsia was hounded by Stalin's regime, and many Kazakhs died fighting in the Red Army.

Still, people in Kazakhstan have long felt this deep connection to Russia, not just in music, but in language, culture and lifestyle. Right now, they're worried their other neighbor is gaining too much influence.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: We begin in Beijing, where Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has arrived to kick off a three-day visit to China at the invitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

GREENE: Kazakhstan and China are deepening economic and political ties more every day. And on its face, this makes sense. Kazakhstan wants to develop its economy and needs outside investment. China, meanwhile, needs energy for its huge population, and Kazakhstan has untapped oil and natural gas.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GREENE: Much of the oil and gas is in Kazakhstan's west, which looks a lot like Texas ranch country. The landscape is green and brown and empty, stretching miles to the horizon.

This railroad is carrying oil that was brought from the ground by the China National Petroleum Corporation.

(Soundbite of train engine)

GREENE: These railroad sounds are music to the ears of government officials like Marat Balmukhanov. He's the director for industry and entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan's oil-rich Aktobe region. Chinese state-owned oil and gas firms have invested $14 billion into this region's economy. Chinese money now makes up somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the entire local budget.

Mr. MARAT BALMUKHANOV (Director for Industry and Entrepreneurship, Aktobe): (Through translator) They are maintaining our roads and doing the repairs. They built a nursing home for war veterans. They bought computers for our schools. Every year, they buy 10 or 20 ambulances.

GREENE: It's hard to know any of this from walking around town. China's growing presence is all but hidden. The Chinese oil and gas companies employ mostly Kazakhstan citizens.

Low profile or not, though, many people in Kazakhstan say they fear China's taking over their country.

Mr. NURLAN AKHMETALIN: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Nurlan Akhmetalin, who's 38, worked for 12 years for the China National Petroleum Corporation before leaving in 2009. He handled chemicals. He drove a truck, and for a while, he made good money. But eventually, he says, the culture in the workplace got to him. There was little regard for safety, he says, and bosses brought in from China had a demanding, aggressive style that people in Kazakhstan were not accustomed to.

Akhmetalin says he fears China's goal is to make Kazakhstan economically dependent.

Mr. AKHMETALIN: (Through translator) We are losing our resources and losing our independence. In the future, we'll have to rely on China. They'll give the orders here. Sure, they'll give us jobs and small salaries, maybe a bowl of rice. But we'll be working just like if we were in China.

GREENE: Scholars say China's desperate for energy, but also influence.

Adil Kaukenov, who founded the Center for Chinese Studies at the Institute for World Economics and Politics in Kazakhstan, says China's been jealous of Russia and the U.S. for having political leverage across Central Asia. China became especially worried in 2001, when former President George W. Bush began getting close to former Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush even said he looked into Putin's eyes and got a sense of his soul.

Mr. ADIL KAUKENOV (Founder, Center for Chinese Studies, Institute for World Economics and Politics): At this time, Bush was look in Vladimir Putin eyes and see something. And they be this time very big friends and together beat terrorism, fighting this terrorism. And this time, China feeling Russia betrayed Chinese interests in Central Asia.

GREENE: When Central Asian countries face unrest, like Kyrgyzstan did last year, they turned to Russia for help, not China. To try and become a player, China in 2001 helped establish something called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China, Russia and countries of Central Asia are members and are supposed to cooperate on security. But Kaukenov says China's real strategy for gaining leverage with its neighbors, like Kazakhstan, begins with showing them the money.

Mr. KAUKENOV: It's the first target, security. Economic, it's an instrument to do security. China's experts say for we to politic, we use our economic. It's working here. It's very working here.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: This is the other side of Kazakhstan, the east, and the bustling city of Almaty, right near China's border. And here at the Green Bazaar - that's the main marketplace - there are aisles just overflowing with Chinese goods: clothing and toys and shoes, fruits and vegetables. And you really do get a sense here for the choice that Kazakhstan is facing. People here fear China. They can't resist what China is selling.

Mr. TANIRBERGEN BERDONGAROV (Parliament, Kazakhstan): We have such a big, industrial neighbor like China.

GREENE: I toured the market with Tanirbergen Berdongarov, a 35-year-old member of Kazakhstan's Parliament. We walked past people who were happily buying up Chinese products.

Mr. BERDONGAROV: China, they're a very big machine. And for them to produce a such kind of shoes or T-shirts, like, it's very cheap and very easy.

GREENE: And all part of China's plan, he says. The more people in Kazakhstan rely on Chinese goods to live, the more pressure Kazakhstan's leaders are under to maintain close ties with their neighbor. Berdongarov says China's really reinvented foreign policy.

Mr. BERDONGAROV: It's not like with the guns. It's like with the shoes.

GREENE: Tempers flared last year after Kazakhstan's president floated an idea to help the nation's economy: He suggested renting two-and-a-half million acres of farmland to China to grow food.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

GREENE: People demonstrated out in the streets, yelling that this relationship with China was getting too close. What's next, speakers cried out. Will China force people in Kazakhstan to eat with chopsticks?

Ms. SAULE AMIROVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: On my recent visit to Kazakhstan, I heard worries like this every day. They were summed up by a 61-year-old woman named Saule Amirova.

Ms. AMIROVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: China's going to help us little by little, she says, and then they'll own our land.

As people in Kazakhstan think about their neighbor to the east, there's surely some paranoia and some stereotypes. There's also no doubt that China has cast its sights on Central Asia, and in Kazakhstan, the Chinese have already arrived.

The Chinese have also arrived with all of their financial clout in Europe, and you'll hear more about that as our series continues tomorrow morning.

David Greene, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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