Merchants, Markets, and the State

Informality, Transnationality, and Spatial Imaginaries in the Revival of Central Eurasian Trade

Author: Hasan H. Karrar


The end of the cold war witnessed the emergence of a commercial web sprawling from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China and extending into Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), Pakistan, and Russia. Running parallel to the state-managed exchange in hydrocarbons, raw materials, technology, and infrastructure, this new Eurasian trade had an informal component as everyday consumer items manufactured in China were imported into neighboring countries, bypassing formal regulatory mechanisms. This inter-Asian trade began as shuttle trading by itinerant merchants for local markets; by the mid 1990s, shuttle trading was overshadowed by large-scale export for national markets in neighboring countries without losing its informal character. This informality extending across national boundaries defined the post–cold war commerce in innermost Asia; at the same time, it also signaled a return to pre-cold war trading structures. Moving away from the "retreat of the state" thesis that found traction following the cold war, the author attributes informality in this inter-Asian trade to three factors: (1) a restructuring of state power where informal trade was a new comparative advantage sought in an evolving geopolitical climate; (2) the actors in this inter-Asian trade – party and regional officials in China, along with traders and intermediaries – who found and exercised agency through this exchange; and (3) a chain of inter-locking, commercial macro-regions, which are economically sustainable and which transcended international boundaries. Working in conjunction, these factors constitute a dynamic inter-Asian trade and challenge static state imaginaries of a "New Silk Road" or "Eurasian Continental Bridge."

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September 2013