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Protests Against Chinese Traders

Competition from over the border riles small-time traders as well as bigger businessmen.
By Alla Piatibratova

When grievances about the presence of Chinese market traders spilled over into protests in southern Kyrgyzstan at the end of last month, first reports suggested that local sellers were angry about increasingly keen competition. But IWPR has been told that the demonstrations were orchestrated by market owners anxious to preserve their monopoly.

In four days of protests starting on March 31, about 300 people blocked a road in the centre of Kara-Suu, 20 kilometres from the Osh, the main city of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Protest organisers said more demonstrations would follow after local authorities failed to respond to their demands by the beginning of this week.

The protestors accused traders from China – most of them ethnic Uighurs – of taking over the Turutali market in Kara-Suu, the largest in the south of the country.

They asked the authorities to “expel all Chinese citizens from the market”, using “physical force” if necessary.

Most of the foreign traders kept well away from the protests, but witnesses said they saw several Chinese Uighurs being roughed up.

The market has thousands of traders, and the numbers are constantly rising. Any new arrivals, particularly from China, are not welcomed by those who already have one of the 1,500 containers that are used both as trading stalls and for storage.

A local police official told IWPR that there are only 358 Chinese citizens working at the Kara-Suu market. But because they can afford to charge less than the locals for their goods they are blamed for increasing competition. It is generally cheaper for the Chinese to buy goods at home and bring them over than it is for traders from Kyrgyzstan to come to China, purchase similar items, and take them back.

Some say the Chinese nationals are also unpopular because they pay all their taxes, setting an unfortunate precedent for the locals.

Zamira, a young woman who works at Turutali, explained that she took part in the demonstration because, “the number of the Chinese at our market is growing all the time. It’s because of them that the rental price of containers is now 300 [US] dollars a month, when until recently it was 100 dollars.”

She said the Chinese were happy to pay any rent charged by the owners of the Kara-Suu market, yet they could still undercut the prices of local traders’ goods.

“Only two years ago one could buy a container for a thousand dollars,” said another trader. “But now it costs up to 12,000 dollars.” She too blames the Chinese.

In addition to renting or paying for a stall, traders have to buy a license costing 35 dollars a month, and pay other official taxes as well as protection money for the right to work at Turutali.

But the real roots of the protests may lie elsewhere. Some observers believe that powerful businessmen who control the marketplace exploited the traders’ dissatisfaction for their own ends, to block a further expansion of Chinese traders.

“The protest was organised by the market owners,” a local analyst who wished to remain anonymous told IWPR. “Several thousand people work at the market, but only 300 of them protested – they were relatives or friends of the owners, and the rest simply got paid for taking part in the demonstration.”

An anonymous source with links to the government confirmed to IWPR that the owners of the market were behind the disturbances, while a police official said some of the protestors had admitted that being persuaded to participate in the demonstration.

Events preceding the protests suggest that they were orchestrated, with a leafleting campaign conducted in the market beforehand and some traders reporting that when they tried to lay out their goods during the protests, “strangers” prevented them from doing so.

Some of the people IWPR spoke to suggested that the protests were timed to preempt the opening of a new market in the neighbouring Jalalabad region. The new market – designed specifically for traders from China – is likely to divert some trade from the Turutali since the Chinese charge lower prices. Customers from Uzbekistan are also likely to prefer Jalalabad because it is nearer for them.

The bazaar was scheduled to open on April 11, but this was postponed. Local government officials denied that the recent protests had anything to do with the decision.

Karamat Abdullaeva, director of the Osh Centre for Legal Information, noted that this was not the first time that Chinese traders had been targeted. After similar protests at the Dordoi market in Bishkek following an explosion that killed nine people two years ago, the Kyrgyz government ruled that Chinese nationals would be allowed to continue trading in the country.

In the wake of the Kara-Suu protests, interior ministry official Bektur Adanov insisted that, “We will do everything possible to ensure that rights of the Chinese traders who work here are protected.”

The situation at the Turatali market is now calm, with Uighurs from China trading side by side with local Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.

But local traders complain that business is bad, and they don’t know how they will manage to pay their rent and taxes.

“I’ll see how it goes for a few months,” said trader Sadirbek. “But if trading here continues to be so unprofitable, I’ll have to look for another place.”

Alla Piatibratova is an independent reporter in Osh.

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