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Muratbek Imanaliev: China Is a University That Is Impossible To Graduate From

«The presence of sinological centers in Central Asia is an urgent need. This is a requirement of not only the present, but also of the past and mainly of the future. In order to cooperate with China, we need to know what it is», – states Muratbek Imanaliev – sinologist, Kyrgyz diplomat, former SCO Secretary General, in the interview for CABAR.asia

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 CABAR.asia: Do we have a school of sinology in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia at the moment? Is there a specific pool of experts who specialize in China?

Muratbek Imanaliev. Photo: sputnik.kg
First of all, it must be mentioned that the presence of sinology was determined by the scientific-expert policy that existed in the USSR. In the Soviet Union there were more than 20-25 sinological centers in total, including the military ones. They were mainly concentrated in Moscow, in Leningrad and in Vladivostok. But in Central Asia there were no schools and institutions that would deal with China, except for the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Tashkent, where was a specialized department on China. 

The paradox of the existence of the current Central Asian states is that China is our closest neighbor. This neighbor is developing very rapidly. Today, China is not just the “workshop of the world”, as it was called before. China is the largest investment financial center in the world. This is a country that is ready to finance and finances many countries in the framework of “Belt and Road initiative” with a great pleasure. China is the largest scientific and technological center now. This country is moving to a new economic paradigm associated with innovations. We are talking about robotics, artificial intelligence and digitalization. These are not just stories on a paper, but this is a serious step forward. This is what scares the West in many ways today, which is trying in some way, good or bad, but to compete with China.

The presence of sinological centers in Central Asia is an urgent need. This is a requirement of not only the present, but also of the past and mainly of the future.
In order to cooperate with China, we need to know what it is. What is modern China, what is Chinese history, what is Chinese literature? Therefore, I believe that such sinological center should exist in Kyrgyzstan. But I cannot say that there is no sinology in Kyrgyzstan, because there is an educational sinology. Chinese language, literature and history are being studied in seven universities. The sinology exists, but not at a very high level. There are Confucius Institutes that help; there are four of them in Kyrgyzstan.

Unfortunately, there is no scientific expert school, i.e., an institute or some institution, a laboratory that studies China in Kyrgyzstan. Laboratory researches on China are carried out now in Kazakhstan. The Center of China was recently established under the Library of Nazarbayev’s University. There are private sinology centers, but this is the beginning. Such a step was made in Uzbekistan. The Institute of Strategic Studies has a specialized department that deals with China. The National Institute of Strategic Studies of the Kyrgyz Republic does not have a specialized department that deals with China.

What about Kyrgyz MFA?

No, the MFA is a completely different structure. MFA is an institution related to the government system. Of course, there are people in MFA who deal with China. But MFA is an operational work. This is neither expert nor scientific work. The MFA is solving everyday tasks, looking for solutions to problems related to investments and other issues, etc. Therefore, it is a completely different situation in MFA.

As for the scientific expert base, unfortunately, there is none on China, and now it needs to be created. I proposed several times, even in Soviet times I proposed to create the Institute of Asia within the Academy of Sciences, which would deal with the problems of modern Asia. Modern Asia for Kyrgyzstan is just a few countries – China, Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan and some Islamic countries. The second department was supposed to deal with the restoration of the history of Kyrgyzstan according to oriental manuscripts, first of all on Chinese, because there are huge deposits of historical literature in China. For example the Qin Dynasty, which existed 287 years, from 1644 to 1911. Only the draft history of the dynasty contains one hundred and ten thousand volumes. I don’t say that there is a mention of Kyrgyz people in every volume, but in many volumes there is a mention of “Buruts”, as Kyrgyz were called in China according to Mongolian ethnonymy.

In a later period there were also proposals for the creation of such a sinological center, unfortunately, no movement is observed yet. We have talented people who are capable dealing with scientific and expert sinology. Unfortunately, there is no place to apply these forces. Attempts to create private institutions fail, because of the following reasons; first, there is a very big problem with the organization of this affair, second, there is a very big problem with financing. Therefore, such a problem of course exists.

How can you evaluate the performance of Confucius institutions at Kyrgyz universities? What are the advantages and disadvantages of these institutions? You have already said that they deal with culture and learning the language. Who do they train specialists for?

First, it must be kept in mind that Confucius institutions were created similar to German institutions of Goethe, Spanish institutions of Cervantes, and American institutions that are tied to the dissemination and popularization of English language.

The main task of Confucius institutions is not the dissemination of knowledge about Chinese literature and history. This institution, first of all, disseminates and popularizes Chinese language.
But we must bear in mind that Chinese language itself is very difficult, especially writing. Therefore, there are certain problems, obstacles that must be overcome. But I must say that Confucius Institutes, as well as sinology faculties are very popular in Kyrgyzstan.

Confucius Class at the International University of Kyrgyzstan, which was opened with the support of the Confucius Institute. Photo: mukr.iuk.kg
I am pleased with the fact that many representatives of our Kyrgyz youth are seriously trying to explore the China, learn Chinese language, and study Chinese literature and history. It is not only because of being interesting from a scientific point of view, but also because of the opportunity to do more serious business with China. We have more than a thousand kilometers of border and two entry checkpoints with China, we have many ways to communicate with the People’s Republic of China. As you know, our business is mainly related to China, there is nothing to do about it, and it is an objective process. The Confucius Institute plays a rather significant role in this sense.

On the other hand, insufficient funding of Confucius Institutions does not allow employees to expand their activities and pay more attention to learning Chinese in the regions. But there is a branch of Confucius Institute in Cholpon-Ata at school named after Abdurazakov, where Chinese teachers teach Chinese. Such branches exist in many regions of the country. It is very interesting. The spread of Chinese language is a new thing both for China and Kyrgyzstan. Chinese and Kyrgyz sides are trying to act more prudently in this sense lest not to destroy what is starting to develop. This is relevant to all institutions that spread foreign languages ​​in Kyrgyzstan.

Where do students who study at Confucius Institutes or studied in China work? Do they work in Chinese companies in Kyrgyzstan or do they work in China?

I can say that about more than three thousands of our Kyrgyz students are currently studying in China. Unfortunately, I have to admit that many of them are trying to stay in China. This is completely justified and very objective, because there is work in China. Yes, it is difficult there because of competition with local people, sometimes it is not in favor of our students. However, many young people do their best, stay and work there. For example, there are guys who stay and do business for Kyrgyzstan as mediators, translators, managers and etc.

About 3,000 students from Kyrgyzstan study in China. Photo: azzatyk.kg
The situation with work itself is rather difficult in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, I must say that a huge number of people from 18 to 45 years old remain unemployed and have to leave for Russia and other countries. This is a big help for Kyrgyzstan, but it indirectly beats the situation in Kyrgyzstan, which is not very good. Many Kyrgyz students, who study Chinese, after completing their studies, do not work in Chinese direction, they deal with completely different things, or they try to go to Russia, Kazakhstan. Others try to stay in China. 

Do current experts help to promote the national interests of Kyrgyzstan? Do they participate in the development of strategies and new approaches? For example, assistance in negotiations or some consultations. Is this probably the work of MFA?

No, I cannot say that this is a purely MFA’s work. The MFA is doing its work in line with the competence that is fixed in the work regulations of this ministry. As for private experts related to China, frankly saying, I do not know any of such in Kyrgyzstan who can speak Chinese and work at the same time within a scientific expertise. As for me, I have repeatedly helped presidents of Kyrgyzstan as part of their visits to Beijing, as part of the visits of Chinese public officials to our country. Four years ago I wrote a huge paper, about 50 pages for the leadership of our country. I can’t say for sure whether this paper came in handy because I don’t know what they did to this paper, if they use it at all. But this is none of my business. I still try to help our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and many other institutions in the context of China.

Is there any specific approach to the negotiations with China, let’s say Chinese style of negotiations? Is it different from the West? If yes, in what way?

Of course, they are different; totally different ways of negotiating. Negotiations with the Europeans or with the Americans are very specific, i.e. they proceed to discuss specific issues of cooperation without any kind of ceremonies. I honestly don’t know whether Kyrgyzstan has any issues that are discussed with the Americans or Europeans on such matters. It’s a little different with the Chinese, because the ceremonial element is very important. First, we should talk about some very important issues of cooperation with the defense of certain positions for China and Kyrgyzstan, and then proceed to some specific issues. As a matter of fact, many specific issues in negotiations with the Chinese are solved at an unofficial negotiating, for example, at lunch or dinner.

I must say that the Chinese side, taking to consideration its history, culture, size, philosophical approach of the Chinese, never allows itself to somehow destroy what exists today. For example, there are problems that exist with Central Asian countries. I have rarely seen cases when high-ranking Chinese officials have mentioned this or made some reproaches. On the contrary, they are trying to mitigate or to put the issue in such a way that the good side of the problem is more understandable to the interlocutor. Yes, it does exist, and the Chinese are different in this sense.

What is sinology for you?

– This is the science that explores China. US President Nixon once said that China is a university that is impossible to graduate from. He meant that the history of China, its dimensions, philosophies are so extensive that one person’s life is not enough to cover it. For example, if I talk about the restoration of Kyrgyz history from Chinese sources, I mean that this is not the work of one person. You need a whole institute to do this, it will deal with this matter at the level of laboratory research, repeated research, translations, and the search for new Chinese chronicles that would decipher the Kyrgyz history.

Have the Kyrgyz authorities tried to train their specialists by sending them to study in China?

They send them within the framework of the Kyrgyz-Chinese agreement.

Is there any benefit from them?                                                      

I have seen few people who work in state institutions after completing their studies in China.

Does it mean that there is no good result from this?

I have not seen this. There are guys in MFA, but a meet them extremely rarely. I cannot say that there are many of them, but there are some who graduated in China. Basically, people who work there have graduated from the university here in Kyrgyzstan or somewhere else. It is difficult with this case.

What recommendations could you give to the Kyrgyz authorities – what should be done to improve the situation with specialists, with work on China?

Read more: When Will Tajikistan Start to Explore China?
I can say that it is very important for the authorities to create an institution that is associated with the Kyrgyz foreign policy. For example, this can be created within the framework of the Diplomatic Academy of the Kyrgyz Republic, in another department, or there should be an independent institution that will deal with it. The most important thing is that institution should have a department of China, which will specifically deal with Chinese problems and give recommendations to the government what to do with China. The main problem that Kyrgyzstan faces is financing. It is difficult to keep people for such a salary that Kyrgyz authorities pay to researchers now. People do not intend to work for such a salary. The only thing I can recommend is to create such an institution that would deal with foreign policy issues.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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