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“China is the key for your future,” reads a notice pinned to the wall, jostling for attention alongside a toy panda, Chinese wall hangings, and plastic bamboo.
On a Tuesday evening at this Almaty language school several small groups are engaged in learning Chinese.
Viktoriya Nazarchuk, a 33-year-old painter, says she became interested in the language through an enthusiasm for Chinese calligraphy. Like most students of Chinese in Kazakhstan, however, she also has an eye on Beijing’s growing economic clout.
“We need to get acquainted with their culture, history and language,” she says. “When my level is high enough I plan to teach my little son Chinese, too. He will need it in his future life.”
As China’s economic power in the region grows, Ms Nazarchuk is one of a growing number of central Asians looking to learn Chinese. Nurzhan Baitemirov, founder of East-West Education Group, which owns the language school where Ms Nazarchuk is studying, says his focus is shifting. The company once specialised in teaching English to Kazakhs, but it is now increasingly educating them in Chinese.
“West Kazakhstan [the country’s main oil-producing region] used to be Canadian companies, but they have shifted and it is now majority Chinese companies. It’s better if you speak Chinese if you want to get a position,” says Mr Baitemirov, who has a masters degree from Wuhan. The number of students learning Chinese is increasing by 5 per cent a month, he estimates. “Parents do understand that if their child has a good education in Chinese they have good job prospects,” he says. “They’re seeing there are a lot of Chinese investments here.”
The number of Kazakh citizens studying in China has risen more than fivefold in the past decade to 12,000, according to the China Scholarship Council, a government body that helps overseas students study in China. Beijing, meanwhile, has set up 11 Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture in the five Central Asian “stans”.
Even Kazakhstan’s first family has endorsed learning Chinese: Dariga Nazarbayeva, deputy prime minister and daughter of the country’s president, in February said that Kazakh children should learn Chinese in addition to Kazakh, Russian and English. “China is our friend, our trading partner and the biggest investor in the economy of our country,” she said. “In the near future, we all need to know Chinese.”
Not everyone is convinced. According to public opinion surveys funded by the Eurasian Development Bank, only one in six Kazakhs see China as a “friendly country”, compared to 84 per cent for Russia and 48 per cent for Belarus. On the other hand, China was among the top three nations most likely to be named as an “unfriendly country”.
“Statistically China is a very important trade partner of Kazakhstan. But a lot of people in Kazakhstan don’t think of China as a big investor. They think of China as a big problem — people here believe China tries to increase its economic influence without any benefit to our countries,” says Dosym Satpayev, a Kazakh political scientist who heads the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group.
Part of the reason is historical: when their countries were part of the Soviet Union, Central Asians looked to Moscow for work, education and culture. Those ties have persisted after independence — as have Soviet-era clichés that paint China as a threat. Indeed, Sinophobia could be one of the greatest challenges for Beijing’s Silk Road project.
A proposal for China to lease a large area of land for agriculture triggered public protests in Kazakhstan in 2010. This year there was uproar in the north-western city of Aktobe after it was reported that the local affiliate of China National Petroleum Corporation was requiring workers to take Chinese language tests.
The “people-to-people bond” is officially one of China’s five goals in the region. But analysts say efforts to expand soft power have fallen short. “I do not think China has done enough. They have work to do to create a favourable image,” says Zhao Huasheng, director of the Centre for Russia and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University.
At the language school in Almaty, though, Beijing has no image problem. “Chinese people are simple, open and friendly,” says Yulia Abritsova, a 36-year-old interpreter who visited China for the first time last summer and plans to return for a degree. “It’s a bit like the Soviet Union.”