LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
We continue our series on China this morning with a look at its neighbor, Kazakhstan. Few countries are feeling China's growing power and influence more than the former Soviet Republic. It is the world's ninth-largest country in land mass, and it has extraordinary supplies of oil and natural gas. For China, this means energy to power Chinese cities.
But despite the economy benefits of the relationship, many people in Kazakhstan are nervous about China's embrace.
NPR's David Greene reports.
DAVID GREENE: 2006 was a bad year for Kazakhstan. The movie "Borat" came out.
(Soundbite of movie, "Borat")
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor, Comedian): (as Borat) Although Kazakhstan is a glorious country, it has a problem, too.
GREENE: The film made Kazakhstan seemed like a far-off place that produced foul-mouthed goofballs like the star of the movie. If you want to hear from a true icon of this country, it's worth listening to the sweet voice of Roza Rymbaeva. She's singing here in Russian about moi dom, my home.
(Soundbite of song, "Moi Dom")
Ms. ROZA RYMBAEVA (Singer): (Singing in Russian)
GREENE: People in Kazakhstan have been listening to Rymbaeva a lot this year, as they celebrate 20 years of independence. This is a proud country with a difficult past. For centuries, it was a barren, nomadic place. During Soviet times, Kazakhstan's intelligentsia was hounded by Stalin's regime, and many Kazakhs died fighting in the Red Army.
Still, people in Kazakhstan have long felt this deep connection to Russia, not just in music, but in language, culture and lifestyle. Right now, they're worried their other neighbor is gaining too much influence.
(Soundbite of newscast)
Unidentified Man: We begin in Beijing, where Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has arrived to kick off a three-day visit to China at the invitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
GREENE: Kazakhstan and China are deepening economic and political ties more every day. And on its face, this makes sense. Kazakhstan wants to develop its economy and needs outside investment. China, meanwhile, needs energy for its huge population, and Kazakhstan has untapped oil and natural gas.
(Soundbite of machinery)
GREENE: Much of the oil and gas is in Kazakhstan's west, which looks a lot like Texas ranch country. The landscape is green and brown and empty, stretching miles to the horizon.
This railroad is carrying oil that was brought from the ground by the China National Petroleum Corporation.
(Soundbite of train engine)
GREENE: These railroad sounds are music to the ears of government officials like Marat Balmukhanov. He's the director for industry and entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan's oil-rich Aktobe region. Chinese state-owned oil and gas firms have invested $14 billion into this region's economy. Chinese money now makes up somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the entire local budget.
Mr. MARAT BALMUKHANOV (Director for Industry and Entrepreneurship, Aktobe): (Through translator) They are maintaining our roads and doing the repairs. They built a nursing home for war veterans. They bought computers for our schools. Every year, they buy 10 or 20 ambulances.
GREENE: It's hard to know any of this from walking around town. China's growing presence is all but hidden. The Chinese oil and gas companies employ mostly Kazakhstan citizens.
Low profile or not, though, many people in Kazakhstan say they fear China's taking over their country.
Mr. NURLAN AKHMETALIN: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: Nurlan Akhmetalin, who's 38, worked for 12 years for the China National Petroleum Corporation before leaving in 2009. He handled chemicals. He drove a truck, and for a while, he made good money. But eventually, he says, the culture in the workplace got to him. There was little regard for safety, he says, and bosses brought in from China had a demanding, aggressive style that people in Kazakhstan were not accustomed to.
Akhmetalin says he fears China's goal is to make Kazakhstan economically dependent.
Mr. AKHMETALIN: (Through translator) We are losing our resources and losing our independence. In the future, we'll have to rely on China. They'll give the orders here. Sure, they'll give us jobs and small salaries, maybe a bowl of rice. But we'll be working just like if we were in China.
GREENE: Scholars say China's desperate for energy, but also influence.
Adil Kaukenov, who founded the Center for Chinese Studies at the Institute for World Economics and Politics in Kazakhstan, says China's been jealous of Russia and the U.S. for having political leverage across Central Asia. China became especially worried in 2001, when former President George W. Bush began getting close to former Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bush even said he looked into Putin's eyes and got a sense of his soul.
Mr. ADIL KAUKENOV (Founder, Center for Chinese Studies, Institute for World Economics and Politics): At this time, Bush was look in Vladimir Putin eyes and see something. And they be this time very big friends and together beat terrorism, fighting this terrorism. And this time, China feeling Russia betrayed Chinese interests in Central Asia.
GREENE: When Central Asian countries face unrest, like Kyrgyzstan did last year, they turned to Russia for help, not China. To try and become a player, China in 2001 helped establish something called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China, Russia and countries of Central Asia are members and are supposed to cooperate on security. But Kaukenov says China's real strategy for gaining leverage with its neighbors, like Kazakhstan, begins with showing them the money.
Mr. KAUKENOV: It's the first target, security. Economic, it's an instrument to do security. China's experts say for we to politic, we use our economic. It's working here. It's very working here.
Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: This is the other side of Kazakhstan, the east, and the bustling city of Almaty, right near China's border. And here at the Green Bazaar - that's the main marketplace - there are aisles just overflowing with Chinese goods: clothing and toys and shoes, fruits and vegetables. And you really do get a sense here for the choice that Kazakhstan is facing. People here fear China. They can't resist what China is selling.
Mr. TANIRBERGEN BERDONGAROV (Parliament, Kazakhstan): We have such a big, industrial neighbor like China.
GREENE: I toured the market with Tanirbergen Berdongarov, a 35-year-old member of Kazakhstan's Parliament. We walked past people who were happily buying up Chinese products.
Mr. BERDONGAROV: China, they're a very big machine. And for them to produce a such kind of shoes or T-shirts, like, it's very cheap and very easy.
GREENE: And all part of China's plan, he says. The more people in Kazakhstan rely on Chinese goods to live, the more pressure Kazakhstan's leaders are under to maintain close ties with their neighbor. Berdongarov says China's really reinvented foreign policy.
Mr. BERDONGAROV: It's not like with the guns. It's like with the shoes.
GREENE: Tempers flared last year after Kazakhstan's president floated an idea to help the nation's economy: He suggested renting two-and-a-half million acres of farmland to China to grow food.
Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)
GREENE: People demonstrated out in the streets, yelling that this relationship with China was getting too close. What's next, speakers cried out. Will China force people in Kazakhstan to eat with chopsticks?
Ms. SAULE AMIROVA: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: On my recent visit to Kazakhstan, I heard worries like this every day. They were summed up by a 61-year-old woman named Saule Amirova.
Ms. AMIROVA: (Foreign language spoken)
GREENE: China's going to help us little by little, she says, and then they'll own our land.
As people in Kazakhstan think about their neighbor to the east, there's surely some paranoia and some stereotypes. There's also no doubt that China has cast its sights on Central Asia, and in Kazakhstan, the Chinese have already arrived.
The Chinese have also arrived with all of their financial clout in Europe, and you'll hear more about that as our series continues tomorrow morning.
David Greene, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.