A Chinese corporation has moved into Georgia, planting a sprawling butterfly of concrete and plaster on the Caucasian steppes. Is this the future of Georgia? Sure, why not?
Read it in Archive of Transition
Genadi is not impressed. “Look, it’s made for Chinese people,” our driver says, standing in the door frame of one of the apartment blocks with his hand making a mohican on his head to demonstrate how small the door is. “This is the front door!” Next he walks around the outside walls, where he pauses to reach out an irritable finger nail and pick a flake of plaster from a corner. “This is a new building?” he wonders out loud, before barking a hollow laugh.
From a distance though, the buildings in this vast, brand new housing estate look quite nice. At least they do compared to the unforgiving grubbiness of the Soviet housing blocks that make up the nearby Tbilisi suburb. To me, lacking the eye of an expert builder, the outline of these bright red roofs rising from the windy Caucasian steppe in a pleasingly regular pattern look kind of handsome and Parisian. That’s not the only incongruity here: in the distance, beyond a spanking new four-lane superhighway that currently marks the edge of this hyper-modern development, you can make out boy-shepherds riding bareback as they coral a small herd of sheep and cows across the bare hills.
This is Hualing Tbilisi Sea New City (or at least the first part of it), a vast construction site on the shore of the Tbilisi Sea, a poorly-named lake just beyond the crest of the hills on the outskirts of Georgia’s capital.
In fact, the Hualing Group is only just getting started. The three-billion dollar corporation from Urumqi, northwestern China has colossal ambitions for this apron of unused land. A video on Youtube paints a CGI picture of what’s in store for the shepherd cowboys’ pasture land – a 420-hectare butterfly spreading its wings across the steppes. In seven years’ time, the area will have become a spectacular suburb, as leafy and prosperous as something imagined by Steven Spielberg: the video shows computer-generated children (safely helmeted) roller-blading around a fountain featuring a ring of leaping stone horses, while people mill around, shopping in the sunshine. The sales brochure offers an urban array as complete as a Playmobil set: there will be a school, a kindergarten, a hospital, a police station, a fire brigade unit. The people living in the butterfly will also be divided by class – someone should tell Genadi that the high-rises he picked at represent just the cheaper part of the district (thought they start at $635 per square metres, in a country where the average monthly salary is $360) but one day there will be smaller multi-flat houses and even, so the video says, villas surrounded by dense thickets of trees.
But who is going to live here, this place that locals have suspiciously begun to call “Chinatown”? That nickname stuck because of a rumour started by Jondi Bagaturia, leader of a leftist nationalist party called the Georgian Troupe, who claimed that in 2012 the government signed a secret deal allowing the Hualing Group to fly in thousands of Chinese people to live in the new settlement. It was a highly effective rumour, which fed off and nourished the usual fears – but it was made up.
“There was even a number – 126,000 Chinese,” remembers Tinatin Shishinashvili, whose main job, as Hualing’s public relations spokeswoman, is to assuage the nationalist fears. “But then everybody has confirmed that we haven’t such plans, that the project is quite open. It’s a commercial development, and anybody who is interested and who wants to buy can buy these flats.”
Shishinashvili, a stylish, slim woman who has mastered languages in three different alphabets, is sitting on an olive green plastic armchair in the foyer of the Hotel Preference (the centrepiece and currently the only humming place in the Sea New City butterfly). She simultaneously embodies and stands out from her surroundings. There’s a massive painting of a Chinese flower behind the reception desk, and businessmen from a trade fair promoting “Partnerships for Competitiveness, Innovation, and Cybersecurity” are hovering around us, greeting each other loudly in their suits. Beside us, an intimidating sign at the entrance to the hotel restaurant orders us to “Be Chic”. Shishinashvili doesn’t need to worry.
So if it’s not 126,000 Chinese people, who exactly is going to move here? “You mean because Georgia does not have a strong internal market or consumption?” asks Shishinashvili.
“That’s a good question.” Firstly, she explains, the mortgages are going at zero percent, if you make a 25 percent down payment. “The sales are going well, many flat have already been sold,” she says.
Yeah, but even so – Georgia has 12 or 13 percent unemployment. Considering that the population of the whole country is only 4.5 million, and you want 30,000 people to move here, there’s still a lot of buyers to find.
At this point, Shishinashvili admits that the Hualing Group has already sold eight high-rise blocks “for a non-commercial price” to the government to house refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The internally displaced persons are the result of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, a shift in the international balance that gave many western investors the willies about the Caucasus region, and so opened the door for the Hualing butterfly. Exploiting the West’s Putin paranoia, China became Georgia’s biggest single investor, at $149 million, with Chinese investors most interested in the Georgian construction industry and agricultural sector.
Not only that, according to official data from Geostat, the Hualing Group was the biggest investor of the first nine months of 2014, and the Tbilisi Sea New City represents just the largest of its five major projects. Looking at the other four, it’s pretty obvious that housing is not its main concern – in the city of Kutaisi to the west, for example there is now a Hualing Free Industrial Zone, a 36-hectare industrial and logistics hub where companies are already processing wood, stone and metal and manufacturing furniture and mattresses. Meanwhile, Hualing has acquired 20-year licenses to harvest timber and stone from around the country.
To grease the finances of all these deals, not to mention the mortgages for the new homes, Hualing has also bought 90 percent of the Georgian Basisbank. But even those facts does not explain the reach of Hualing’s ambitions. “Hualing Group was aiming not just at Georgia itself, but to have Georgia as the main platform in the region,” says Shishinashvili. “Many investors are interested in Georgia’s free trade agreements with different countries, like CIS countries, Turkey, European Union countries, who will give them the opportunity to export their goods as made in Georgia.”
But not only that, this all makes historical sense. Both Urumqi and Tbilisi used to be on the Silk Road, a point that keeps getting mentioned in the promotional materials. It also appeals to Vato Tsereteli’s sense of history. Vato is an artist and a lecturer and the founder of the Centre of Contemporary Art in Tbilisi, where he sits now, with a warehouse full of young artists around him. His bald head, his robe-like duffel coat, and his insistence on drawing a broad cultural picture out of every question, combine to make his earnestness even more monkish. “It’s good, I think it’s good that the Chinese are building that up there – of course, why not?” he says. “We have never had a bourgeoisie, it just never happened here. And Georgia is not a European country, it doesn’t have a European language – it has its own small language.”
For Vato, Chinese economic expansion into Georgia is no bad thing – it certainly has nothing to do with the cultural globalisation that the West is forcing on his country. “We’re like a gate between civilisations – the West, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Asia – Tbilisi was a very important point in the Silk Road, not just because people stopped here, but because many products were exchanged here and distributed. What always fed us was everything – East, West, North, South – everything. But at the moment we only look to Europe. It’s not healthy.”
Genadi, his fingers still in the cracks, probably wouldn’t call the Butterfly healthy either though. By this time, he has found flaws in the commercial area further up the imaginary insect’s body. Apart from the hotel, the gym, and 20 or so blocks of flats, the only part of the Butterfly currently functioning is the huge retail park, which will one day be centred around an impossibly immense 110,000-square-metre shopping mall (now a building site that take minutes to drive past).
At the moment this retail park is collected in a complex of barracks, spread across the dusty steppe in a grid of neat rectangles. These low, hastily constructed buildings form a drive-through wholesalers’ mall where cheap products are arranged by item, making it convenient for traders to come along in trucks and load up a hundred motorbikes, or a thousand plastic Spidermen, or ten million cheap cigarettes (all made in China, naturally). Then they drive on to Istanbul or Tehran or Volgograd, depending on which pass you take out of Georgia’s mountains. As you walk around this head-spinning mass of cheap trash, being silently followed by a group Chinese shopkeepers, you realize this is what Georgia’s future economy will be based on. The quality might be low, but as Stalin, Georgia’s most infamous child, once said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”