18 February 2016: Encounters after the Soviet collapse: Chinese presence in the former Soviet Union border zone

Workshop organized by Irna Hofman, PhD candidate Leiden Institute for Area Studies. The event is made possible with the support of the Leiden Initiative on Central Asia, Asian Modernities and Traditions (AMT), International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University Fund (LUF) and the Eurasian Agrofood and Land Initiative (EURAL).

9.00-17.00 hrs

Room 011
Pieterskerkhof 6
2311 SR  Leiden 

Programme with abstracts

The workshop is free of charge but seats are limited. If you would like to attend please register with Irna Hofman at: i.hofman@hum.leidenuniv.nl


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of the former Soviet Union’s borders, cross border interactions between the former Soviet Union states and China have augmented, and cross border encounters increased rapidly in particularly the last decade. The diversity in Chinese involvement (the Chinese state, quasi-state actors, private and individual Chinese) and Chinese capital in neighbouring states’ economies, and the impetus given by the Chinese authorities to the ‘One road, one belt’ initiative, highlights the gained importance of the border zone. In addition, the recent reorientation of the Russian state towards its eastern regions shows that the border region stretching from the Russian Far East in the north to Central Asia and Afghanistan in the south is becoming a chessboard where various hegemonies strive for influence, with diverse implications for host states and local societies.

China’s ‘going global’ has received increasingly scholarly attention in the past few years. Especially the growing Chinese presence on the African continent is accurately being scrutinized, with scholars coalescing in fora and panels to team up and partner in research, either to arrive at better cross-country insights, or to arrive at more detailed, local insights. Particular dialogues have also proven to be helpful to unpack and challenge the frequently observed monolithic approach towards “China”. In fact there are diverse Chinese actors, companies, and capital concealed under this “China” umbrella, with sometimes ambiguous goals and interests.

In contrast to many other regions (Africa, Southeast Asia), hitherto there is only infrequent comparative analyses or joint research on Chinese presence in the states along China’s western border. Yet, the characteristics and implications of China’s ‘going global’, cannot be fathomed without a more comprehensive understanding of the way in which Chinese going out takes form in China’s direct vicinity. Against this background, the objective of this workshop is to create a platform by bringing together a group of researchers from various disciplines (political science, international relations, political economy, anthropology, sociology) to look at and discuss contemporary developments related to Chinese engagement in its western former Soviet neighbourhood. Addressing similarities and differences in the way in which a) Chinese actors engage in cultural and economic affairs in the border region and b) the various ways in which the Chinese presence is perceived by host populations in the respective states, will help to generate more profound insights into developments in the former Soviet Union/Chinese border zone. Shared experience moreover can benefit individual scholars’ achievements and may generate more solid collaborative research efforts.

Keynote: Professor Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge University

Keynote: To smile or not to smile: intersections of state, gender and market at the China-Russia border

All three of the categories 'state', 'gender' and 'market' exist as imaginaries for the populations of the northeast China-Russia border. These can be seen as mythic clusters of ideas, if 'myth' is taken in the sense used by Roland Barthes, and elements in such clusters, such as 'the motherland', the 'real muzhik', the 'rapacious Chinese trader' or 'civilisation' (wenming) play an important role in how people perceive cross-border encounters.

Mythic elements can have performative force and can also appear as agentive physical embodiments. One of these is the smile, which is given different meanings and partakes in different ideational clusters in the Chinese and Russian cases. It will be argued that smiles, absence of smiles, and interpretations of these gestures serve to link what are usually seen as separate levels of analysis: large scale categories (state, gender, market) on the one hand and micro-actions on the ground on the other hand.

Caroline Humphrey, FBA, is an anthropologist who has worked in Russia, Mongolia, China (Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang), India, Nepal and Ukraine. She has researched a wide range of themes including Soviet and post-Soviet provincial economy and society; Buryat and Daur shamanism; Jain religion and ritual; trade and barter in Nepal; environment and the pastoral economy in Mongolia; and the history and contemporary situation of Buddhism, especially in Inner Mongolia. She has written on inequality and exclusion; the politics of memory; naming practices; ethics and conceptions of freedom. Recent research has concerned urban transformations in post-Socialist cities (Buryatia; Uzbekistan, Ukraine). Currently she is developing a research project on socio-political interactions on the Russian–Mongolian–Chinese border.

Caroline Humphrey's PhD (1973) from the University of Cambridge was on 'Magical Drawings in the Religions of the Buryats', supervised by Edmund Leach. Since 1978 she has held appointments in the Department of Social Anthropology(Cambridge). Together with Urgunge Onon she founded the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) in 1986. She retired from her post as Sigrid Rausing Professor of Collaborative Anthropology, University of Cambridge in October 2010 and became Director of MIASU.

Caroline Humphrey was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to scholarship in the 2010 New Year Honours list.

Confirmed speakers

Prof. Nataliya Ryzhova, Director/professor at the Center for Asian-Pacific Studies of the Far Eastern Federal University, Russia

Dr. Martin Saxer, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, China-Tajikistan

Dr. Henryk Alff, Center for Development Studies (ZELF), Berlin

Jiayi Zhou, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

Prof. Amanda Wooden, University of Bucknell

Prof. Sebastien Peyrouse, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

Dr. Fabienne Bossuyt, University of Gent

Assel Bitabarova, University of Hokkaido

Merim Baitimbetova, Regent’s University London

Irna Hofman, China-Tajikistan

Dr. Nadine Godehardt, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Dr. Oane Visser, ISS The Hague (EURAL European Research Council grant 313871)
Solange Chatelard, Centre d'études et de recherches internationales (CERI) Sciences Po, Institut d'Etudes Politques, Paris
Porf. Pal Nyri, Professor of Global History from an Anthropological Perspective, VU Amsterdam
Dr. Artemy Kalinovsky, University of Amsterdam

Qader Shafiq, writer and director of “Bureau Wijland”, will provide two short monologues in which he reflects on his very recent travel through Central Asia.

Last Modified: 15-02-2016