Radio Free Europe
The parties aligned in Georgia’s National Front staged a small protest on February 24 against a planned free-economic zone in Tbilisi that will be owned by China’s Hualing Industry and Trade Group.
More than 50 protesters demanded that the agreement signed last summer between Hualing and the previous Georgian government be made public and that the new government impose restrictions on the number of Chinese entering Georgia to work there.
The Xinjiang-based Hualing Group is privately owned and has been active in Georgia since 2006. It is engaged in lumbering and the quarrying of marble in western Georgia.
It opened a free-industrial zone in 2009 in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, and last year it acquired the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s 90 percent stake in Georgia’s BasisBank for approximately $100 million.
Its planned free-economic zone in Tbilisi will reportedly comprise a hotel, commercial premises, rental housing for Chinese workers, storage facilities, a recreation area, and a customs post.
The Hualing Group is only one of several major Chinese investors in Georgia. The first, according to Liu Bo, an official at the Chinese Embassy in Tbilisi, was the Sichuan Electric Power Corporation, a 100 percent subsidiary of the State Grid Corporation of China, which invested some $34 million into the construction of a major hydroelectric power station in eastern Georgia.
In 2011, the Chong Qing Wan Li Lian Xing Group, an auto-parts manufacturer, acquired a license to mine for copper and gold, while in 2010, a Georgian-Chinese consortium won the tender for the construction of a Tbilisi railway bypass.
One of the objections the Tbilisi protesters raised was that a further influx of Chinese labor would compound unemployment among Georgians. The official unemployment rate is 16 percent, although the true figure is believed by many to be at least twice that.
Nonetheless, according to Liu Bo, a year ago just 2,000 Chinese were employed in Georgia prior to the signing of the Tbilisi economic-zone agreement; that project, he added, would create jobs for some 1,500 more.
For the past several years, however, Georgian media and individual politicians have expressed concern that Chinese immigrants are flooding into Georgia.
For example, a senior staffer at the Institute of Sociology and Demography estimated the number of Chinese in Georgia at between 50,000 and 60,000, the Caucasus Press reported on July 7, 2007.
The same news agency on August 4, 2007, quoted former President Eduard Shevardnadze as telling the weekly "Mteli kvira" that there were 40,000 Chinese in Tbilisi alone.
Those estimates, if accurate, would suggest a huge number of illegal immigrants in addition to those employed within the framework of the major investment projects.
That number may have since peaked, however. In 2009, senior Georgian Foreign Ministry official Paata Papuashvili said the number of Chinese entering Georgia had fallen. He said there were just 300 Chinese in Georgia, on one-year visas, most of them employed in stores or restaurants.