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

  • Caroline Humphrey
Thursday 18 February 2016
Pieterskerkhof 6
2311 SR Leiden


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: China - Russia relations on their Northeastern Border: the case of real estate 

Although Russia and China have recently become closer diplomatically, relations on the ground remain problematic in many ways.  The lecture will outline some of these difficulties, in trade, visa/work regimes, communications and gender relations.  It will then analyse one particular arena - real estate speculation - which is socially and politically important in both countries but faces different predicaments in each.
The lecture will then explore the fate of one Chinese-financed housing developer in Russia's Far East, and will conclude with some observations about what these examples can tell us about likely trajectories of Chinese involvement in eastern Russia.

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, independent scholar (based in Stockholm)
  • 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.

Programme with abstracts

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