Chen Junhuang faces the same dilemma whenever he returns to the mainland from Kyrgyzstan, where he has run a Chinese goods trading company since 1997.
He treasures the opportunity to work in the capital Bishkek where he earns more than 300,000 yuan (HK$380,000) a year because of low operating costs, but the constant crime waves targeting Chinese people each year push him to consider whether the time has finally come to return to his hometown in Jiangsu province.
“Leaving Kyrgyzstan is difficult,” said Chen, who has returned to the mainland for the Lunar New Year holiday. “All of my business ties are there and it’s not practical to leave everything behind.”
With China establishing a stronger presence in Central Asia, Chinese businessmen have started tapping into the five nations of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The state-controlled newspaper the Global Times estimated there were about 80,000 Chinese people living in Kyrgyzstan.
Chinese investments ranging from trade and infrastructure to energy projects may have raised the geopolitical status of China, challenging the traditional dominance of Russia in the region, but many Chinese people see their safety at risk.
At least 20 Chinese citizens were robbed in Bishkek in November. Chen saw armed criminals that month when he went to help one Chinese businessman who was a victim.
“I was driving a car and my wife was with me. Then we noticed some criminals were waiting for us at the door of my friend’s home,” he said. “We just continued driving to a police station and the suspects were gone.”
Similar crime waves happen almost every year, Chen said, making Chinese businessmen nervous.
China’s ambition to get access to the region’s vast resources was underscored when President Xi Jinping completed a week-long tour of Central Asia in September. The Kyrgyz parliament ratified a deal in December for China National Petroleum Corporation to build a pipeline to distribute gas to the mainland.
But observers said Beijing’s strategy in Central Asia, which is mainly about pouring in aid and investment, needs rethinking, particularly because of wider concerns about security in the region as the United States withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. “We need to examine how to protect the cross-border pipeline after assessing the security risk in Xinjiang and Central Asia,” said Xing Guangcheng, a specialist on Central Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
These question marks over security are further complicated by resentment against Chinese in the region, analysts said.
Nationalist groups in Kyrgyzstan have complained that Chinese workers are taking their jobs. Other allegations are that Chinese companies only develop ties with top level power brokers and have few links with the rest of society.
Alexandros Petersen, author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and co-editor of Chinaincentralasia.com, said Chinese officials and businesses did not engage with local communities or take their social responsibilities in Central Asian countries seriously, further triggering resentment against China.
“Sometimes Chinese officials have missed this opportunity because they are too cautious,” he said. “They believe China should operate in the background.”
One example was the inaction of the China-led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) during ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, in which about 420 people died, Petersen said.
The SCO, founded in 1996 between China, Russia and Central Asian nations, called for a diplomatic approach to resolve the crisis rather than taking a stronger role and appearing as a force for good in the region, said Petersen.
“The SCO could develop more into a substantial actor when it comes to providing stability and security and also political integration,” he said.
Li Xing, a professor of Russian studies at Beijing Normal University, agreed that resentment against China could be improved by strengthening ties and engaging more with wider sections of society in the region.
As for Chen, the trader in Kyrgyzstan, he said the most important thing was for Chinese embassies and consulates to step-up protection for its citizens.
“The embassy is more concerned with big Chinese enterprises, and small ones are not taken care of sometimes,” he said.