How Does China Study Central Asia?

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How Does China Study Central Asia?

A conversation with Frank Maracchione on Central Asia studies in China.

How Does China Study Central Asia?
Credit: Facebook / Emomali Rahmon

When it comes to Central Asia, one of the hottest topics among Western policymakers and scholars alike is China’s engagement in the region, especially since the 2013 launch of the Belt and Road Initiative. In a recent quantitative analysis of Chinese scholarship on Central Asia, Frank Maracchione and Bradley Jardine tackled some prominent assumptions in Western literature regarding Chinese understanding of Central Asia, namely that China’s research institutes are preoccupied with economics and that, broadly speaking, Chinese thinking on Central Asia lacks local context. The data, sourced from more than 10,000 publications, tells a more nuanced story about Central Asia studies in China.

Maracchione, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield and a non-resident fellow at Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, spoke to The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz about these prevailing Western assumptions about how China views and studies Central Asia, what the vast body of scholarship reveals, and much more.

What are some of the prevailing assumptions, particularly in the West, about China’s engagement in Central Asia?

The rise of China is often portrayed in the West as an economic process that has political consequences. The assumption is that China’s political and security ideologies, as well as cultural or ideational power, are secondary variables in the process that is leading the People’s Republic of China towards global prominence. This perspective trickles down to analyses of China’s role in Central Asia. Central political developments such as the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), together with its Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS), are mostly discussed as uninfluential diplomatic symbolism. At the same time, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and related investment has been thoroughly analyzed by Central Asia experts in the West and often discussed as the single most relevant development in China-Central Asia relations. Although the common binomial of China’s role as an economic provider in Central Asia matched with Russia’s role as a security provider was widely debunked in academic and policy literature, this is often described as a recent evolution away from Russia’s traditional security prominence in the region. 

A second and related conception is that of China being a more foreign actor in Central Asia, particularly as opposed to the Russian Federation. Russian colonial and Soviet ties with Central Asia, and related linguistic and cultural influences, would make it a more local foreign power. At the same time, other countries with either religious or cultural ties with Central Asia (Turkey, Iran, India, and other Muslim-majority countries) are constructed into more legitimate partners in the region. This conception of China’s otherness finds resonance – or potentially even origin – in local Sinophobic narratives. From the otherization of China comes the idea of Chinese actors, both political and economic, being thoroughly ignorant about the region’s history, languages, political situation, and societal processes and somehow more self-interested than other foreign partners.  

Do those assumptions match what you found in your research of Chinese scholarship on Central Asia?

As proved by their persistence in political analyses of China’s relations with the region, many of these assumptions have some connections with reality. It is true that the economic literature is overall a very relevant part of Chinese language literature on Central Asia. My quantitative analysis of thematic prevalence in Chinese scholarship, published with Bradley Jardine in Central Asian Survey, shows that thematic clusters on macroeconomy, finance and investment, and on trade and transports contain some of the most prevalent topics in our corpus.

It is also true that the most common topics of enquiry in Chinese language academic and policy-related research are Sinocentric and self-interested. Our thematic cluster that contains common narratives in Chinese governmental political discourse and foreign policy concepts contains two of the most relevant topics in our corpus (on BRI and SCO). Furthermore, the most relevant themes in our clusters on linguistic and cultural studies are Chinese language teaching for Central Asians as well as historical research on the Great Silk Road, relations between imperial China and Central Asia, the Mongol empires in Central Asia, and cultural exchanges between Chinese and Central Asian peoples. 

However, if we move beyond the surface, Chinese scholarship on the subject is much more varied than commonly assumed. Machine learning through a Structural Topic Model (STM) helped us partially remove our bias in exploring a very large corpus of publications (10,563). Our STM helped us explore alternative aspects of Chinese-language literature on Central Asia. For example, half of the top 15 topics in terms of prevalence are security-related and four are centered on Central Asian internal politics and potential threats to stability. While it is true that the renaissance of Central Asia studies research around the time when BRI was announced is economic-focused, security studies have been the core of scholarship in the 2000s and partially in the 1990s.

Furthermore, Chinese researchers have dedicated a lot of attention to Central Asian internal issues, suggesting the potential for a nuanced understanding of regional dynamics. An important topic extracted by our STM is related to Central Asian political institutions. It is the ninth most prevalent topic in our corpus, and it contains research focusing on regional elites, political parties, democratic institutions, security apparatus, and forms of government.

However, our quantitative analysis cannot explore the quality of the Chinese-language literature. Yet, what we underline is that there is more to explore about China’s knowledge production on Central Asia and the database that we offer can be an important tool for further qualitative research.

How has China’s thinking on Central Asia in particular among the community of regional experts evolved in the last decade or so? If there has been a change, what are the drivers of that evolution?

The corpus of Chinese-language research that we analyzed in our research spans the entire timeline of post-independence Central Asia. While the 1990s and the 2000s saw more politics and security focused publications, in the 2010s there was an important shift in thematic prevalence toward economic focused research. The surge of Chinese investment coming from the BRI has been a central aspect of this redirection of research interests. Research on the BRI itself is the fifth most relevant topic in the corpus overall, and renminbi internationalization in the context of Central Asia is an even more pivotal discussion (third most prevalent).

At the same time however, the initial shortcomings from BRI projects could also be catalysts of more research on local characteristics of Central Asian economies. Thematic prevalence of research on investment and commercial standards in Central Asia and risk analyses for Chinese investors grew importantly toward the end of the 2010s. This trend confirms the narrative that sees Chinese companies in Central Asia localizing their activities through engagement with local actors in the second phase of the BRI. 

Another interesting trend is related to cultural, historical, and archaeological research. Overall, Sinocentrism in cultural studies grew in parallel with the political and economic prominence of the People’s Republic of China in Central Asia. Again, the BRI comes to the fore here, as the most relevant research topic in the humanities is the Great Silk Road, which might have to do with supporting governmental narratives about peaceful Sino-Central Asian cooperation along the ancient silk roads. The topic has a peak in the early 2010s and remains prevalent now.

Archaeological research is another crucial thematic aspect in our corpus that grew importantly in recent years. After 2017-18 we noticed a surge in this type of research, which maps well with the attention dedicated in Chinese media to Chinese global archaeological cooperation in Africa, South Asia, and Central Asia. The Mingtepa archaeological mission in Uzbekistan is an example of such cooperation projects that explore the sites of ancient Central Asian cities cited in Chinese ancient sources. 

To what extent is Central Asia lumped in with Russia when it comes to scholarship and policymaking?

In terms of the centrality of Russia in the institutional organization of research on Central Asia, the People’s Republic of China follows similar patterns as the West. Central Asia studies are often placed in Russia and Eurasian studies departments, research centers, and journals. For example, amongst the most prominent journals where research on Central Asia is published is Russia, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies (俄罗斯东欧中亚研究), based at the homonymous institute.

However, the location of several traditional Central Asia studies institutions and publications in Xinjiang makes it so that there are spaces where Central Asia is placed at the center of enquiry. An example is the magazine Central Asia Info (中亚信息), a publication run by the Science and Technology Department of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Through engagement with China-based scholars, I learned that researchers are often trained in Russia-focused Eurasian studies and tend to engage with Central Asia through the Russian language. An interesting aspect is that they sometimes do not speak or read English and tend to read only literature in Mandarin or Russian.

Going back to our thematic analysis, the unsupervised nature of our research has made it so that we decided not to include a discussion on Russia in our analysis, as Russia-related topics were not particularly relevant in our corpus. Only one topic out of 60 was directly Russia-focused, while two others indirectly discussed Russia as part of research on the disintegration of the Soviet Union and on the Commonwealth of Independent States. Furthermore, Russia is often discussed in research framed on historical or contemporary concepts of the “Great Game,” which tends to focus on geographical connotations of power differentials.

What is interesting here is that the relevance of Russia in Chinese-language research on Central Asia has been inversely proportional to China’s prominence in the region and has therefore declined over time. This might imply some sort of emancipatory trend in Chinese thinking about its role in Central Asia. 

How resonant are state narratives like the BRI  among the priorities of Chinese research communities?

The relevance of BRI research topics in China’s knowledge production on Central Asia cannot be overstated. We tried to explain this prominence by zooming in on governmental funding for research in support of the BRI. In 2013, five new think tanks were created in Xinjiang: The Central Asian Research Center, the Central Asian Center for Agriculture, the Central Asian Biological Center, the Central Asian Industrial Incubator Center, and the Central Asian Information Technology Center. In 2014, another three centers were created in other regions: The Central Asia Institute, the Institute for the Study of the Silk Road at Northwestern University, and the Central Asia Institute at Xi’an University of Foreign Languages. Research from these centers has surely skewed the thematic relevance of the topic. 

Yet, the BRI is not the most prevalent government narrative overall. A central state-inspired ideational discussion in Chinese-language research on Central Asia is related to the concept of “good-neighborliness,” which has been used by Chinese state actors to discuss China’s relations with the neighboring region for decades. The concept is prevalent overall in our corpus. Underlining the relevance of state narratives in Central Asia studies in China helps us stress the relevance of state funding in shaping area studies research in the country.

Another two themes are related to priorities connected to specific political and economic developments such as the so-called “color revolutions” or the development of the Xinjiang region as connected to promoting linkages to Central Asia. Finally, research on the SCO, the first regional multilateral institution to include China, is relevant throughout. As in the case of the BRI, the establishment and development of the SCO promoted the creation of specific research institutions to support its aims. A recent example is the establishment China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation in Shanghai.

When it comes to commentary and analysis of China’s engagements in Central Asia, is there anything that you think gets missed or misunderstood by the policymaking community in the West?

I believe there is a tendency in the West to try to theorize about China’s economic role in Central Asia in a way that builds a coherent political direction or aim of Chinese projects in the region. The characteristics of these imagined aims vary between domestic-focused or global political projects, but they all assume some coherence in action of Chinese state actors such as government, financial institutions, and state owned enterprises (SOEs). Yet, research on Chinese state-driven foreign aid and investment helps us put this coherence in discussion. The results of most empirical studies and data-driven analyses lead to the conclusion that there is not a single main objective of Chinese aid and investment. If aid in terms of ODA-like financial instruments tend to be driven by foreign policy, other investments are linked to commercial/economic issues, even if most endeavors have more than one purpose. 

Economic analyses get even more complicated as soon as we move our gaze to the Chinese private sector. Scholars have discussed and doubted whether a Chinese company can even be fully private. However, empirical research seems to suggest, as above, that this changes case by case. State-owned enterprises have more obvious mechanisms for governmental scrutiny through the role of organizations related to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). My Chinese contacts in Central Asia have confirmed that this happens also for branches in the region, also through personal adherence to the CCP and participation of managers and employees to regular party trainings. Yet, while similar organizations are often established in private companies, recent research did not find conclusive findings on whether these efforts are meaningful in directing their actions towards party priorities.

I believe that essentializing Chinese economic actors as pawns of a party-state-led game is harmful for the quality of research on Chinese involvement in Central Asian economies. Hence, I advocate for an approach that investigates Chinese economic actors through their actions and reactions to local narratives and priorities in receiving societies.