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Trade and Transgression -From Almaty to the Khorgos Free Trade Zone

By Stephen M. Bland

Beyond a low balustrade, the Hotel Turkistan looks out over the corrugated roofs of Almaty’s turquoise painted Zelyony Bazaar, almost pretty beneath serried, thistle-grey clouds. At a quarter to six in the morning, stallholders begin to arrive, pausing at a canteen for a quick breakfast of horsemeat sausage. Propelling himself upon sticks, an amputee beggar leaves a trail of polyurethane padding spilling from his polymer wrapped stumps. Settling on a position he hopes will prove advantageous, he places his tin mug upon the ground.

With its oblique pyramids of dried fruit and hall of butchers in blood-smeared aprons, Zelyony is fast becoming Almaty’s largest bazaar, in part because its chief rival, Barakholka keeps going up in flames. Hugely profitable and completely unregulated, at its peak 180,000 people worked in the Barakholka complex, but a power struggle in the grey area between the government and organised crime has seen traders fall on hard times.

With seven fires having struck in the space of fourteen months between 2013 – 2014, witnesses told STV’s Territory Accidents that when a blaze broke out in November 2013, security guards waited over an hour before calling the emergency services. Costing billions of tenge in damage, eight weeks earlier another incident caused pillars of smoke visible throughout the city, helicopters assisting 1,518 firefighters to extinguish the conflagration. Blamed on a range of causes from ‘incautious welding’ to an ‘unattended candle,’ the single episode officially adjudged the result of arson was ruled to have been an inside job. ‘During the fire outsiders [were] not there,’ according to the Tengri News network.

At Barakholka, beyond the rubble-strewn periphery, rows of blackened sheds and shipping containers lead to a warren of metal pitches. At the entrance to a building resembling an aircraft hangar, two competing DJ’s pumping out tunes sat with CD mixers balanced upon pairs of speakers. From pageant dresses and knitted woollen bobble slippers to gleaming meat cleavers and paintings of horses, if you want it, chances are it’s there.

Inside, a woman sat sandwiched between the display racks of her stall.

‘Nobody here,’ she grumbled, waving her hands whilst half-heartedly trying to sell me a pair of knock-off Chinese sunglasses. ‘Nobody knows Barakholka open. Everybody thinks we all burned.’

The government long having planned to demolish the bazaar and replace it with a gentrified mall with an appearance somewhere between a spaceport and a humongous white snail, those whose livelihoods depend upon Barakholka smell a conspiracy in the blazes. Vendors would be welcome to return once the new structure is completed, the authorities have assured them, but only at vastly inflated rents.

As Barakholka struggles for survival, meanwhile, in December 2011 a 5.3 square kilometre free trade zone officially opened in the barrens of Khorgos on the border with China. A bone-crunching five hours from Almaty – the nearest Kazakh city of note – it was designed as a visa and tax-free arena where citizens of the two countries could shop and enjoy a variety of entertainments. On the Chinese side, there are five malls where one can buy the latest tech and stay in a choice of upmarket hotels, though traders complain there are very few visitors.

With plans for a Disneyland-style theme park having stalled, on the Kazakh side a limited selection of candy and tinned goods are offered from a sprinkling of repurposed shipping containers. A line of barbed wire fences lay beneath a rubber seal ready to spring into action. Corruption hasn’t helped matters; the Kazakh Head of Customs at Khorgos was arrested in 2011 for his part in a massive smuggling ring. A few days later, the sacking of the country’s Customs Chief for his alleged complicity was announced via Twitter. Neither man has been heard from since.

By 2020, the Khorgos free trade zone is set to become the largest dry port on Earth, with facilities for up to four million tonnes of goods a year to be transferred between Chinese and Kazakh trains, which run on different gauges. Despite official enthusiasm for the project on the Chinese side, however, according to the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation trade organisation, the zone remains one of China’s slowest border crossings, meaning that many traders still prefer to use sea ports such as Tianjin, some 4,000 kilometres away.

Taking advantage of lucrative tax breaks, according to official figures, 2,411 companies were registered on the Chinese side of the zone in 2016, whilst celebrities flocked to set up production companies. With no obligation to conduct business from Khorgos, or even within Xinjiang, however, the zone operates as little more than a tax haven, offering little in the way of benefits to the region.

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The Miracles of the Ancient Tigers


By Pr. Saviour Ukobong

Having accepted an offer from Rev. David Parry to write this note for THA Thoughts, what intrigued me were the rich histories embedded in these themes.  All quite apart from the “miracles” of the ancient tigers and their corpses, which talk about the industrial revolution (possibly starting in Japan) and how it spread out to other Asian states – remains telling. How far did these advances stretch? Furthermore, in what ways did they move from a dependent to an independent economy in times long past and what does this show us about today?

To begin, let’s look at the geographical positioning of these great continents. The demarcation between Asia and Africa is the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea. The border with Europe starts along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean; even though Turkey in the Near East extends partly into the Aegean Islands and includes Istanbul on the European side of the Bosphorus. Moreover, the north marks a boundary between the continents of Asia and Europe – commonly regarded as running through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea, the Ural River (to its source), and along a border generally following the eastern side of the Ural Mountains to the Kara Sea, Russia. The Arctic Ocean is situated near the northern border. Also, the Bering Straits divide Asia from North America, while to the southeast of Asia the Malay Peninsula (the limit of mainland Asia) and Indonesia (“Isles of India”, the former East Indies), is still a vast nation among thousands of islands on the Sunda Shelf: large, as well as small, inhabited and uninhabited. Of course, Australia nearby is a different continent. The Pacific islands northeast of Australia – more or less remotely removed from Japan and Korea – are Oceania rather than Asia. From Indonesia the border runs along the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea: most of the islands in the Indian Ocean being “Asian.”

For decades, therefore, other major regional economies, notably Japan and India, have had strong and growing commercial (not to mention diplomatic) ties with African nations. In recent years, both have significantly ramped-up their respective engagement strategies. Specifically, China has undoubtedly dominated Africa’s relationship with Asia – for good or ill – although it is far from the only game in town.

Indeed, large-scale infrastructure and resource extraction projects have become synonymous with China’s presence on the continent; helping to fuel growth (boom?) across Africa in recent years. It is a relationship that is also evolving to encompass everything from entrepreneurship to development finance and aid. China has also just opened its first ever overseas military base on the continent (in Djibouti), and through its landmark “One Belt, One Road” initiative, looks set to reshape the global trading landscape.

In itself, this move reflects the strategic and ambitious nature of Asia’s approach to Africa, which arguably contrasts with a more “risk-conscious” perception by the West, which seems preoccupied with security concerns and controlling immigration due to failing economic reserves. So, any attempt to answer the question “Is India competing with China over Africa and will they, in turn, become investors attempting to outmanoeuvre the West?” in on everyone’ immediate horizon.  In which case, what they do in these regions and how indigenous peoples view them is revealed by a quote from Joseph Boyle when he uses Central Asia as a benchmark;

Central Asia is a small export market by Asian standards. Africa is more or less equally accessible to anywhere else by sea. Even if Africa is the poorest continent, coastal countries are in a position to make everyone else compete for Africa’s business. This is the opposite of Central Asia that is landlocked by conflict zones.

Thus, China’s economic engagements have greatly contributed to the favorable perceptions of Central Asia in these regions via channels such as trade, investment, and infrastructure-financing. However, Central Asia – even from the Chinses side, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, is (obviously) not the principle protagonist. Rather, China, in itself, dominates the scene. Hence, nowhere is public opinion more positive about China than in Africa. An unsurprising result, given that China’s engagement with Africa comes at a time when the continent is developing and pursuing its agenda for economic transformation – and is in need of strong economic partnership.

Stated so, after a long delay in the post-independence era, African countries were only able to restart growing their economies in the 1990s, albeit at a robust pace. Certainly, some African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Rwanda have even joined the club of “growth miracle”, countries that have experienced seven percent, or more, gross domestic product enlargement for twenty five years – or longer. But to reach Asian levels of income, African states need to transform their economies to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive growth. This agenda starts with addressing Africa’s large infrastructure gap.

Overall, this context for Africa’s growth is important for understanding why perceptions of Asia are so positive. Indeed, China’s economic engagement with the continent, through bilateral trade and foreign investment, has increased dramatically in recent years. Some countries like Angola (which exports half of its oil to China), relying heavily on its new economic partner for general trade. Equally, Chinese investments go to a relatively broad range of sectors (not just natural resources) and to a broad range of countries (from fragile to middle income countries). Thus, China is also a major financer of African infrastructure and (worryingly) the only player in some sectors such as railroads.

China’s rising economic engagement with Africa has, however, not been without criticisms. For instance, concerns about violations in labour rights, investments with relatively low local content, and insufficient transparency in loans to African countries (especially when they are in exchange for natural resources) have been relayed loudly by the Global Press.

Obviously, this said, these views on Chinese policy also reflect changes in perceptions of China in the Western mind. Fueling, some would say, crude stereotypes of a “Yellow Peril” aiming to dominate Western culture in the early 21th century. Each producing further fears – in Africa itself – that China will follow in the West’s imperialistic footsteps. In other words, the legacy of imperialism underpins today’s perceptions of China’s foreign policy as well as Chinese identity itself.

Therefore, Chinese engagements in Africa are sadly starting to look similar to our previous political experiences. All meaning, a revealing light has now been shed on the initial form of Chinese involvement in Africa – originating through ideological and military assistance to the various anti-colonial movements of the 1950s – in their struggles against the once dominant European empires that had themselves been ravaged by the Second World War. Yet, the ancient tigers are still at the back of everyone’s mind. Was there similar investment once before … even though thousands of years ago? Modern Beijing, for its part, has formed strong ties with a number of African nations reminiscent of its previous oppressors. In which case, only time will tell, while we must hope Asia will not repeat the mistakes of others when dealings with Africa.


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9th Eurasian Creative Guild meeting held in London

LONDON: An extremely cold and damp Kensington witnessed the 9th Eurasian Creative Guild(ECG) meeting at “Rossotrudnichestvo.”on Tuesday in London. Overall,the turnout was modest, even though those who attended remained aware that this unique concept – connecting creatives from across Central Asia and Europe – was growing from strength to strength.

Indeed, as a masterstroke originated by business entrepreneur Marat Ackmedjanov and initially chaired by the Rev. Dr. David Parry, the vision of E.C.G., members is as energised as always. Highly progressive discussions were held, along with plans to develop a film festival focussing on Eurasian productions with an appeal to Western audiences. All in all, watch this space for further developments.


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Senior Cleric Says Iran ‘Fully Determined’ To Boost Missile Power

Tehran interim Friday Prayer Leader Ayatolllah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami said the Islamic Republic of Iran is fully determined to upgrade its missile power aimed at “confronting whatever threat posed by Israel”, IRNA reports.

Addressing the worshipers at Tehran University, Ayatollah Khatami said “in a world where wolves rule and there is no logic in their behavior, the Islamic Republic should be armed and powerful”.

The senior cleric said Iran’s military missile might is one of the main components of the country’s policy of deterrence.

“We have missiles, we would continue building more missiles and increase their ranges”, he added.

The senior cleric further said that the most important principle of Iran’s military power is defense through deterrence.

Ayatollah Khatami said Iran would never make atomic bombs, adding that based on a Fatwa issued by Supreme Leader of Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Iran remains to believe that it should not develop and possess nuclear weapons.


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