07/01/2020 No. 157
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Geo-Relation and Civilization: Establishing China's Common-Sense Understanding on Central Asia (III)
By Zan Tao Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
March 1, 2014

Editor’s Note: We thank Professor Zan Tao for giving us the permission to translate this article into English and to publish it on www.ChinaUSFriendship.com. The Chinese version was published by the Grand View Magazine, Vol. 5.


III. Russianization of Central Asia


Starting from the middle of the 18th century, Czarist Russia continued its expansion and occupation in Central Asia. Many tribes were "merged" into Russia; all three Khanates –Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand – were conquered. The vast areas to the east and the south of Lake Balkhash, which originally belonged to the jurisdiction of China and some parts of the Pamirs were also taken by Czarist Russia after the Qing government signed a series of unequal treaties with Czarist Russia. By the 1870s, Czarist Russia had already conquered the entire Central Asian region. In addition, using India as a base, the United Kingdom also got involved in the game of Central Asia.


Why did Czarist Russia annex Central Asia? Previous studies started from the perspectives of the expansion of the Czarist Empire and the geopolitical security to understand this issue, and even considered that Russia had to find a sea outlet south to the Indian Ocean. But the actual historical process reveals that Russia's interest in Central Asia was mainly economic.  Russia operated Central Asia as a colony. This operation not only brought in economic benefits, but also a wide range of colonization in political, demographic and cultural aspects.


Scholars recently have pointed out that the geographic characteristic of a single type of economic activity determined the manner of Russia's expansion. That is, the living areas of the ethnic Russians were not the same with the areas of their national revenue. If the early expansion of the Russians into Siberia was in search of fur, then, after entering into the modern industrial era, the Russian Empire’s expansion into Central Asia aimed mainly at meeting the needs for raw materials and commodity markets. In this respect, the Russian Empire’s colonization of Central Asia was similar to the overseas colonies of Western Europe.


The Fergana Valley in Central Asia was fertile land. In 1884, the U.S. cotton was transplanted there and had great success; cotton became the region's major production. It was used to meet the needs of the Russian and Polish textile industries for cheap cotton. In order to satisfy the Russian needs, the vigorous growth of the local cotton industry resulted in an abnormal development of agriculture. The growing cotton production meant a sharp drop in food production; food became increasingly dependent on products from Russia. The cotton goods industry promoted local economic development and laid the foundation for opening the door for commodities in Central Asia to Russia. Since Russian goods could not compete with the West, it kept the Central Asian region as a protected market by dumping grain, sugar, lumber, steel products and other manufactured goods into it. Central Asia became a dumping ground of Russian goods. Later, the Muslim nationalists in Central Asia made a request to stop growing U.S. cotton, which meant to get rid of Russian colonialism and to free Central Asia from the economic dependence on Russia.


Russia is a typical continental empire and its continuous expansion was carried out on land. All the land of its conquest was connected with the mother country. According to the explanations of scholars, the characteristics of this continental empire determined the depth of Russia's colonization of its conquered land (it "assimilated" as much as possible the people and each piece of the land seized after the expansion). In addition to economy, Russia's colonization of Central Asia was mainly expressed as a large influx of European immigrants, land seizure and land possession. The Central Asian region was sparsely populated, especially the Kazakh steppe, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan had much "surplus land." With the abolition of serfdom in Russia, a large number of landless peasants entered Central Asia; Russian immigration surged, while the locals were supplanted. Since then, Russia undertook an orderly colonization of Central Asia, and developed plans and decrees to deprive land from the local people. From a demographic point of view, Russia’s migration to Central Asia has changed the ethnic composition there. The population of European origin finally exceeded the number of any local ethnic group. The proportion of Europeans in the total population (1959 census) was 65% in Kazakhstan and about 25% (more than any other ethnic group) in Soviet Central Asia. 


Czarist Russia created a unified economy in Central Asia and made it dependent on the home country. Although the Soviet government criticized the economic colonial policy of the Czar’s government, its policies implemented in Central Asia were the same. This was determined by the aforementioned "geographical characteristics of a single economic activity" of the Russians. Although Russia had abandoned the policy of exploiting its dependent countries, as Dirk Aliyev said in 1922: "... It would not work, if we do not have Azerbaijan's oil or Turkestan’s cotton; we are not exploiters of the past but the big brother who holds the torch of civilization to get these essential products. "


The policy that the Soviet Union implemented in Central Asia was to strengthen the areas’ specialization. It combined the Russian Federation's economic uniformity with other Union member’s economic uniformity into a self-consistent economy in order to overcome the traditional shortcomigs of the Czarist Empire. In fact, this economic alliance later developed into the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), which was a simulation for the future ultimate communist economy of the society. The Soviet Union designated the four Republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as an economic zone, called the Central Asian economic zone, and designated the Republic of Kazakhstan as another economic zone, called the Kazakhstan economic zone. According to the Soviet Union model of specialization, Central Asia chiefly produced primary products including mineral fuels, cereals, cotton, wool and meat. These products were shipped mainly to the Soviet Union in Europe. Therefore, economic exchanges among the Central Asian republics were not close, but their exchanges of goods with the Russian Federation were very close.


The domestic policy of Czarist Russia in Central Asia was to maintain peace and order in the region and gain maximum economic benefits while interfering as little as possible in the local customs and way of life. Later, in the Soviet Russian era, a new form of politics was introduced in Central Asia. After the victory of Bolsheviks, Central Asia became a part of the layout of the future Socialist Union. The "Soviet Union" envisaged by Lenin was based on a "national cause" that was completely different from any country and any empire. Namely, it was based on the common interests of the proletariat and the worldwide realization of these common interests through the realization of the republic of the world proletariat, in which equality of the Union members was to be achieved. Lenin was optimistic about his design ideal. And when it came to Stalin, he used the "new generation communists: the Bolshie" as the soul of the Soviet Union.


Soviet Russia first divided the Central Asian ethnic groups and governed Central Asia in the form of a republic. The essence was to use (a socialist version of) "modern civilization" to cover and re-integrate Central Asia. First, for the Bolsheviks at that time, the “creation” of the five Central Asian countries was a transitional phase toward the "Soviet Union" ideal. In this framework, the Central Asian countries, initially and theoretically, changed from backward tribes/tribal times into a capitalist stage (according to Stalin's nationalist outlook, ethnic groups were products of capitalism in its upswing stage). This was a program to first enter into "modernity" and then achieve socialism. Secondly, ethnic group division was also an important strategic consideration to fight against pan-Turkism. The establishment of the republic system defeated the political aspirations of pan-Turkism in Central Asia. The creation of new nation-states in Central Asia cultivated a number of new elites of nationalism and they became the people with newly vested interests. By declaring allegiance to the communist Soviet Union, they immediately had a nation-state, even though it had form rather than content.


After Russia annexed Central Asia, Central Asia went through a certain degree of Russianization mainly in two areas: immigration and promoting Russian language. The Soviet Union inherited the Russianization policy of the Czarist Russia with the implementation of the principle of divide and conquer: divide the ethnic groups, then apply Russianization. They used the "Bolshie," namely people who were loyal to Moscow and Russian-speaking to replace many of the ethnic groups, and eventually introduced structural changes to societies in Central Asia. Before the Soviet Union, there were three languages in Central Asia: Persian, Arabic and Turkic. The Soviet Union changed the language structures of Central Asia through a variety of measures; one of the most important measures was to impose the Cyrillic alphabet on the Central Asian people. This approach not only dampened the local languages of Central Asia, ensured the ruling position of Russian as a "super national" language, made Russian the communication tool for the citizens of the Soviet Union, but also cut off the history of the Central Asian people, cut off their contacts with the Persian- and Turkic-speaking people elsewhere. During the Soviet era, Russians, Ukrainians and Germans from the Volga region were sent to settle down in Central Asia; the Russians were arranged by the government to take leadership positions so that they could train young people in Central Asia to cultivate a large number of Russianized local elite. Russianization was successful. Its impact was not only the reflection of a large presence of Russian population in Central Asia and Russia’s non-interference in Central Asian affairs by protecting the interests of ethnic Russians in Central Asia, but more importantly, was its creation of a group of contemporary pro-Russian elite who determined the current relationship between Central Asia and Moscow.


Russia’s influence in Central Asia was actually Russianization and Sovietization (namely the socialist modernization). Russianization was eventually a service to Sovietization and the final vision of Sovietization was to establish an inviolable community based on the new communists being in the pivotal position. For Central Asia, in fact this was a sacred religion that used sacred aspiration of a new kind of universalism (socialism) to "suppress" specific nationalistic doctrines and traditional universalism. Overall, Russianization was a great success, but Sovietization in fact was only partially successful. It remained at the initial stage of socialization, namely, the ethnic distinction and construction phase. In the post-Soviet Union era, building the nation-state in Central Asia actually started from this initial stage. It was also the source of instability in the region, because Russianization and the unsuccessful Sovietization had already directly impacted and shaken Central Asia’s pivotal position in history.


IV. Conclusion


The “historical Central Asia” was a civilization gradually settled in the North-South direction and a territory gradually shrank in the East-West direction. The Western Regions form what can be called the "Great Central Asia," while the five Central Asia countries form the "Small Central Asia." To understand China's northwest and present Central Asia, it is necessary to have a "Great Central Asia" concept. Here "great" refers not only to the large geographical expanse, but also to the long historical time period. To understand contemporary Central Asia, it is necessary to view it several times both as a single unit and as constituent parts: the Western Regions combine the different areas, but nation-states split the Western Regions and impose artificial boundaries between them; Central Asia is the result of removing these borders again and viewing the nation-states as a single entity. Viewing them together corresponds to their common history and depth of civilization; viewing them as split apart is more realistic but also more superficial. These two points of view are equally valid. This is like peeling an onion, layer by layer, deeper and deeper. The civilization of Central Asia has its core, and Central Asia is also the geo-strategic core and pivot.


1. The Issue of Central Asia’s Subjective Self-Consciousness


Exactly what is Central Asia? This is only a question we customarily ask. Before truly understanding Central Asia, we cannot even determine whether this is a valid question. Here we boldly assert that Central Asia is an existence with unsure subjective self-consciousness and strong external dependency. Self-consciousness is the self-identity, the passion beyond rationality, the impulse that seizes tightly the soul in the depth of history; it is the source of self-confidence and the engine of creativity. These traits are precisely what Central Asia has lost in its history.


Unsure self-consciousness and strong dependency reinforce each other. The historical fate of Central Asia in terms of civilization and political power was controlled, commanded and guided by large forces. External forces shaped Central Asia many times. From the viewpoint of civilization, the contemporary Central Asian culture is deeply influenced by the three external impacts of Turkistanization, Islamization and Russianization. Historically, the Central Asian region was a fighting ground for powerful political rulers from the surrounding regions; it was ruled by Greek, Persian, Chinese, Arabic, Turkic and Mongolian dynasties or Khanate rulers; in the Western Han Dynasty, King Loulan expressed the dilemma of being caught between the Han and the Huns by saying: "A small country between two great powers cannot have security, if it does not serve both of them." These refined words from the ancient king pointed out the historical fates of small states in the entire Western Regions.


Contemporary Central Asia continues its special historical destiny with internal instability and externally there are attempts to influence and control the region by a number of foreign countries. In modern times, Russia has controlled the fate of Central Asia for more than one hundred years. The Big Game launched one hundred years ago by Czarist Russia and the United Kingdom in competing to conquer Central Asia now has a new actor: the United States replaces the United Kingdom; while China is considered a potential third "player."


Post-independent Central Asia stressed to rebuild its pivotal position in history. Because of its unique historical destiny, the reconstruction work painted a strong color of sadness. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan gained independence. Independence was given a new meaning by the tragic emotion of nationalism. On August 29, 1992, Kyrgyz people from the whole world held a congress in the capital Bishkek. President Askar Akayev said in a speech: "As the victims of many unfortunate events in history, the Kyrgyz people are less and less numerous, and finally became a small ethnic population settling in the center of Asia. But our biggest regret is that one thousand years after the great Khanate of the Kyrgyz disappeared from the stage of history, we failed to re-establish an independent state ... “ It can be said that Central Asia has a long and lingering history, but the Central Asian countries are too young (Kyrgyzstan became independent on 31 August 1991 as the Republic of Kyrgyzstan).


If the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian countries were the results from modern-day competitions between the United States and Russia, then, in such a big game, the Central Asian countries that became independent after 1990 have just started their steps. In terms of industrialization, during the Soviet era, these countries one-sidedly implemented a regional division of labor. As a result, until today, they have not been able to establish a system of light industry to meet their own needs. Therefore, they are very dependent on China’s electronic products, accessories and textiles. The independent Central Asian countries are trying to rebuild their pivotal positions, in the weak sense of international law, as nation-states. The complexity lies in the main contradiction between the long-term lack of subjective self-consciousness and the reconstruction of it: Pan-Turkism was destroyed by the nation-state system established by the Soviet Union, and was made a politically "outdated" model.  But the historical heritages of the Central Asian countries are relatively weak; they have lived through the Soviet Union era for half a century, thereby missing out the stages of nation-state building. These countries are faced with the complicated conflicts of cross-border nations and ethnic groups, and the issue of localism. The universalism of Islamic identity has long been suppressed by atheism and secularization during the Soviet Union era. Now its revival is powerful. Central Asia is trying to use a kind of confrontational attitude and international extremism, separatism and terrorism to establish its self-consciousness. It has become a serious threat that undermines the security of Central Asia and the surrounding areas. In fact, Central Asia has turned into “anti-politics” in this nation-state era. De-Russianization was carried out with the passionate impulse of nationalism. Realistically, it was impossible to do so. The modernity of liberal democracy represented by the United States has turned the region into a hotbed of color revolution. Before all these aspects were handled properly, competitive electoral democracy was introduced into Central Asia. It was built on a foundation of tribalism and regionalism, rather than on a more levelheaded foundation of civil society. This is where the identity crisis lies in Central Asia, as well as the source of political crisis in contemporary Central Asia.


Under the above-mentioned circumstances, in order for China to make a difference in Central Asia, the desirable main condition there should be the formation of a stable order under the equilibrium of the big power game in order to achieve the normalization of the Central Asian nation-states. Order is the protection of stability; normalization of the country can make every one in the game have a legitimate party for negotiations.


2. China Faces the Challenges of Central Asia


Zbigniew K. Brzezinski predicted the possible models for developing relations between China and Central Asia: At present, China's role is somewhat limited, and its goal is not so clear; there is reason to think that China hopes more to face a group of relatively independent countries in its west rather than a Russian Empire. But even if this has become a reality, for China, the fundamental political issues of Central Asia seem to remain “impenetrable.”


Today, the Chinese issue of South-North confrontation has changed from the past confrontation between the farming and the nomadic empires to a side-by-side coexistence of China and Russia. For China, though there are still shadows remaining over the South-North and East-West orders, their meanings have been very different. New factors have also been added, and they are the United States and India from the south and the west, and the Turks and Islam (Turkey and Iran) from the west and the southwest. Here, the Turks and Islam have great flexibilities and soft power because they are closely related with the historical pivotal position of Central Asia; Russia in the north has a unique advantage owing to its management experiences in Central Asia inherited from the continental empires of the Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union; the United States has both hard and soft power with its strong global military layout, capitalist imperialism and liberal democratic ideology; and it is whipping various staggering "color revolutions.” Even the Japanese are formulating the idea of the so-called "democratic encirclement” around China by starting from Japan and going through the Pacific and Indian Oceans to reach Central Asia.


It goes without saying that Central Asia is crucial to China's geo-strategy, energy security, transportation, trades in the western areas, land rights, strategic depth and other important aspects. However, as a big country, China should not become only a "trading state," that is, it should not easily believe that as long as there is a strong economy, the country can enjoy the corresponding international status (this was the dream of Japan after World War II). In the new order, the thinking of having only one economy-resource is not sufficient. In particular, Russia, after the transformation, can test its leadership relative to the United States in Central Asia with the soft power of Russianizing Central Asia and its present form of institutional and geographic advantages. The 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan is case in point. These are the fundamental issues we need to think further.


As a newcomer of the Central Asian game, China's advantage is confined to secular success, namely, economy. How to avoid political factors that inhibit progress brought by technological advances has been the biggest lesson in the two thousand year history of transport and trade in Central Asia. Today, there are the factor of big countries in the game and the destructive factor coming from the supra-national "three forces." There are also the turbulence factor within the Central Asian countries due to their unstable subjective self-consciousness and restructuring of the political system. For China, the big political issue is whether there will be further disturbing ethnic and religious problems, in particular, the issue of national cohesion that is beyond the economic interests. Central Asia is not only the soft underbelly of the former Soviet Union and the present Russia, but also the soft underbelly of China. The issue of separatism in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a challenge that the western part of China has to face for the long term. This will be a weakness that is easily exploited in the game of big nations. Under the premise of recognizing the good prospects for regional cooperation and huge economic interests, it is necessary to put on the agenda the issue of how to establish a regional political process that can internally overcome the separatist tendency of the region" (words of Yu Xiangdong, 於向東).


The factor of civilization should not be ignored either. The universality of Confucian civilization disappeared due to its special characteristic of dependence on the Central Plains geography. In the age of classical empires, the issue of Western Regions might be accommodated, but with the development of a global perspective, using Confucian civilization to integrate the understanding of Western Regions is inadequate. Moreover, under the ongoing influence of revolutions in the 20th century, China today has become completely secularized; not just the ordinary people, even the virtuous intellectual elite also fall into a fundamental spiritual crisis. The often mentioned "core values" is a true portrayal reminding us of this crisis. Basically, this is the inevitable result met by a traditional secular civilization that has special doctrines, when it encounters a modernized sacred civilization with universalism. To be aware of and understand Central Asia, we need a more sober reflection.


History is not just something that happened in the past, but a continued accumulation and habit forming. It exists in the moment, and is an integral part of the moment. History exists in geography and culture; geography is the surface of the natural environment and culture is the tradition of civilization. On the map, the Northwest is the frontier of the Central Plains and Central Asia is the edge of China. But they are also the core of the Inner-Asian Continent and the geo-hub meant by Halford J. Mackinder. It is not sufficient to try to understand Central Asia from the standpoint of the Central Plains. We also need the perspectives of geo-relations and civilization, while the latter may be even more important. Reading the history of the Western Regions again has given me a series of thoughts as mentioned above. China will not be able to easily catch up only because of her long historical influence in Central Asia, nor can she face history by claiming what the Western powers have played is just what the Chinese people had "left over” in the past. Today, we need to start over again just like Zhang Qian did two thousand years ago.

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Zan Tao is a History Lecturer at Peking University (Beijing University). He finished his undergraduate studies in History and postdoctoral work in World Modern History at the Department of History of Peking University. In 2008, he completed in Brazil the Advanced Seminar of International Perspectives on Nations and Races, which was initiated and funded by the Ford Foundation, the South-South Exchange Program for Research on the History of Development (SEPHIS) by the Netherlands and others. His academic expertise and teaching experience are Modern and Contemporary World History, Modern and Contemporary Ottoman-Turkey History, Middle East-Islamic Studies, and International Relations of Central Asia. He was in 2008 a visiting fellow in the Department of History of the Bosphorus University in Turkey and in 2005-2006 a visiting scholar in the Center for Black Sea and Central Asia (KORA) of the Middle East Technical University in Turkey. In 2008, he started to teach courses in the Department of History of Peking University, including Islam and Modern Politics, Islam and the Modern World, and Introduction to Turkish History, Language and Culture. His websites are http://zantao.blshe.com/ and http://www.chinavalue.net/
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