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Grand Visions Meet Grim Reality on Kazakh-Chinese Border

No visas are needed, but logistical and psychological issues are hampering development of a major trading zone.

9 January 2018

Khorgos, a free trade zone on Kazakhstan’s border with China, is meant to be a critical node in Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative. The “dry port” being developed there is meant to be the world’s largest by 2020, able to store 4 million tons of goods per year as they are transferred between Chinese and Kazakh trains on their way to world markets.


But all is not going to plan, as the Financial Times writes. Logistical issues and lack of investment on the Kazakh side are hampering development of the remote site, even as the neighboring Chinese city of Horgos has become a magnet for Kazakh shoppers.


Local traders and a regional trade organization say the cost and time required to bring goods across the border are too high, probably due to procedures on the Kazakh side, although Kazakhstani officials deny this, pointing to a huge rise in cross-border trade this decade.


The gateway to the Khorgos free trade zone. Photo: Khorgos International Center of Boundary Cooperation.


Analysts cited by the FT believe many Kazakhs harbor suspicions of the motives behind the Belt and Road project, despite Astana’s public enthusiasm. Part of that could be due to worry about the large ethnic Kazakh community in China’s Xinjiang province, which some Kazakhs say is prone to repressive tactics against Muslims on the part of Han Chinese newcomers in the far western region.

“Some of the emotionally charged stories of arbitrary behavior of Chinese authorities toward ethnic Kazakhs may be untrue. But increasing anti-Chinese sentiment among the domestic Kazakhstani population is hard to ignore,” Almaty-based journalist Farkhad Sharip writes in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.


Fears of Chinese and other foreign buyers forcing Kazakhs off their farms helped spark protests in 2016 against a government plan to open the agricultural land market to foreigners.


“The widespread suspicion and mistrust toward China is reinforced by cheap, low-quality Chinese goods flooding Kazakhstani markets as well as expanding activities of Chinese oil companies in West Kazakhstan, which are increasingly bringing in qualified workers from China but doing little to train local personnel or create jobs,” Sharip says.



  • Posters in Russian inform visitors to the Chinese side of the free trade zone that long beards and Islamic-themed jewelry are not welcome, The New York Times reports, although there is little visible police presence in the zone, which can be entered without a visa.


  • Kazakhs flock to shopping centers on the Chinese side for clothes, toys, and electronic goods, The Times says. Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym believes the experience of visiting the zone will counteract their fears of China and its people.


  • Kazakh development in Khorgos lags far behind that of China, with many projects failing to attract investors, the zone’s former press spokesman Ravil Budukov told the FT.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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