D1 "Development potentials and risks of transformed exchange processes in the border area of Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Xinjiang"

Henryk Alff
Matthias Schmidt

Keywords: Central Asia, Xinjiang, Development, Resources, Exchange Relations, Property Rights, Border Studies, Geography

For centuries the contemporary borderlands of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang have been considered a ‘zone of contact’ for flows of goods, people, ideas and values. However, these processes of exchange along the Silk Road(s) were frequently interrupted due to conflicts and emerging borders. In the more recent past, the deterioration of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China led to the complete closure of the border between both states. A new era came about with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, substantial socio-economic changes in the People’s Republic of China and the reopening of the border between the two for trade. The independence of the former Soviet Republics also resulted in the appearance of new borders: Until 1991, the border was a mere administrative line between Kazakh and Kyrgyz SSR, after which it became an increasingly controlled state border, disrupting existing interactions. Cross-border relations and networks are flexible, however, and changing power constellations at various scales contribute to the contestation and renegotiation of borders. 

These processes in the borderlands of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, among others, relate to two interdependent dimensions of mobility, which are the focus of our research. First, the concept of ‘modernisation’ is the important cross-cutting, though differently perceived dimension of ‘development’ was subject to mobility within the region for many decades. While Marxist-Leninist ‘modernisation’ dominated socio-economic development in Soviet Central Asia for about 70 years, it was adapted by Maoist political-economic thought in China in a period of enhanced Soviet influence from the 1940s to 1958. In 30 years of Deng Xiaoping’s long-term reform program the ‘modernisation’ paradigm in the People’s Republic of China was transformed. Exemplified by the ‘Open Up the West’ campaign in the past 10-15 years ‘modernisation’ shifted to the borderlands of Post-Soviet Central Asia. There, in the states Of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, new state-led ‘modernisation’ also took the lead in debates of ‘development’. Second, within the borderland communities, particularly in urban centres such as Almaty and Bishkek, shuttle trade became an important economic activity, which fosters the mobility of hundreds of thousands of people. Small-scale entrepreneurs developed their businesses by individually purchasing a range of consumer goods of all kind in China and other foreign countries in order to resell them back home. These commercial activities are still mostly informal, as most of the shuttle traders have no proper registration with the state authorities. However, shuttle trade is bounded by complex and elaborate commercial networks across the borders in question. 

Our research project predominantly deals with the interrelation of these different dimensions of mobility. It looks at, how the shift of ‘modernisation’ paradigms and modernising actions of state authorities on different scales shape individual networks and the mobility of shuttle traders and related actors. The second field of inquiry is, how network-based shuttle trade adapts to and challenges or even transforms (the outcome of) ‘modernisation’ efforts. The role of borders as institutions bounding social action, but also as contested by both ‘modernisation’ practice as well as cross-border trade strategies, will be central to the analysis. Therefore, a theoretical framework including qualitative network analysis and border research will be applied for contextual analysis of interdynamics of ‘modernisation’, shuttle trade and borders. 

To meet the research objectives, it is necessary to identify the characteristics and scope of the ’modernisation’ paradigms in the region on a theoretical basis and to assess the political, economic and legal transformations in the borderlands. During the fieldwork periods we will use a research design closely related to ‘multi-sited ethnography’, which is particularly useful in connecting the lifeworlds of people with global concepts. By focusing on observation and semi-structured interviews among shuttle traders and related actors at the retail and wholesale hub bazaars Barakholka in Almaty and Dordoi in Bishkek, we will scrutinise the interrelation of ‘modernisation’ efforts and cross-border shuttle trade in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang empirically. We will then expand our research focus by following the reach of commercial networks across the borders and beyond Xinjiang, to speak with business partners and look at the production facilities in East Coast China. By following the horizontal (and vertical) range of these networks, we can better conceive the constant negotiation of borders on one hand, and the interrelations of shuttle trade strategies with ‘modernisation’ efforts of the states involved, on the other.