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Why are there anti-China protests in Central Asia?

The region is important to Beijing’s security strategy

- October 16, 2019

In Kazakhstan, the construction of Chinese factories has prompted a string of anti-China protests, part of a growing global backlash against China’s investments. Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan are on the frontier of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — the rebranded “One Belt One Road” infrastructure and development plan Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in the Kazakhstan capital in 2013.

Kazakh officials often call their country the “buckle” in that Chinese “belt” — a reference to the BRI’s overland infrastructure projects linking Europe and Asia. The belt and its equivalent “road” — new maritime routes — form the basic design of BRI.

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Central Asia is also a crucial juncture in China’s national security strategy. Prominent scholars like Wang Jisi at Peking University argue that China must “march west” and pay attention to this region to maintain stability in its restive frontier regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Collectively, Kazakhstan and neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan share a 2,050-mile border with Xinjiang.

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But are Beijing’s actions alienating these vital security partners? Analysts note an uptick in anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia after Xi called for a “great wall of iron” in 2017 to protect against unrest in Xinjiang — a key gateway to BRI projects. Beijing’s clampdown has spiraled into religious repression and internment camps detaining up to 2 million Muslims in Xinjiang, including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

Anti-Chinese sentiments are on the rise in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Kazakh government has sought to stifle news of the camps from spreading by arresting prominent activists and “anti-China protesters.”

There’s been similar activism in Kyrgyzstan, where social media accounts link opposition to Chinese development projects in the country with concerns about the abuse of China’s Muslim population. The Kyrgyz government has fined some of these activists, and publicly denied any human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Kazakh students in Beijing, however, have described a climate of fear following the arrests of Kazakh citizens in Xinjiang. Several students told me that they deliberately avoid layovers in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, out of fear of Chinese detention.

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Border tensions may flare anew

As China grows more powerful, some analysts are concerned that Beijing will revisit unpopular border agreements with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Regional Development, in 2014, 32 Chinese citizens rented some 4,750 hectares — just 0.0002 percent of the national acreage. But local concerns over land rights flared in 2016 when the government proposed amendments to the land law to allow foreigners to rent agricultural plots for up to 25 years. Following protests, the Kazakh government shelved the amendment.

The memory of territorial concessions is a painful one for these nations. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics inherited unresolved border disputes with China over more than 900,000 square kilometers. During the 1990s, Kazakhstan and China reached agreements over 2,420 square kilometers. Although the Kazakh government claimed it “did not gain or lose anything,” critics of the Kazakh government countered that the deal gave away territory that had been Kazakhstan’s land in the first place.

In 2011, Tajikistan ratified a 1999 deal to cede 1,122 square kilometers in the Pamir Mountains to China, ending a 130-year dispute. Days later, the government of Tajikistan announced plans to bring in 1,500 Chinese farmers to cultivate rice on 2,000 hectares — significant acreage in a country where only 6 percent of the land is arable. The government negotiated behind closed doors to avoid the experience of Kyrgyzstan, which saw parliamentary opposition and a spate of protests after the 1999 agreement with China.

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In Kyrgyzstan, conflict between Kyrgyz and Chinese workers is commonplace. In August, 500 Kyrgyz villagers entered the site of a mine operated by a Chinese company and fought with its Han workers — hospitalizing 20 of them. Chinese companies are now working to counter negative perceptions.

Other sources of conflict are frequent claims that Chinese workers are marrying Kyrgyz women in large numbers, even though only 60 such marriages were recorded from 2010 to 2018.

Many critics of China in the region also fear an influx of Chinese immigrants, although the actual numbers seem low. From 1995 to 2014, around 93,000 people emigrated from China as part of an official Kazakhstan repatriation program. Only 80 of them were Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group, representing 92 percent of the overall population in China.

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Of the 68 countries involved in the BRI, 23 have a high-risk debt ratio, including Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Beijing accounts for around half of Kyrgyzstan’s $4 billion in foreign debt — a heavy load given that country’s annual GDP of $7 billion. Unlike Kazakhstan, which can sustain its high debts with revenue generated from its energy sector, resource-poor Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan appear at greater risk of default.

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How Central Asia spends this money also comes under scrutiny. In Tajikistan, much of the money borrowed from China has gone toward building basic infrastructure such as roads and tunnels — but a new, $230 million parliament building appears simply to benefit local elites. To pay off $300 million in debt, Tajikistan has already given China ownership over a lucrative gold mine. Almost half of Tajikistan’s $2.9 billion external debt — around $1.38 billion — is owed to China.

Kyrgyzstan’s leaders awarded a $386 million contract to a Chinese company in 2013, prompting a corruption scandal that led to the arrest of two former prime ministers. Protesters in Kyrgyzstan have demanded more scrutiny over Chinese-funded enterprises and the appropriateness of loans. However, it remains to be seen whether local authorities will suppress these protests, or seek new ways to reduce the dependence on China.

For now, Central Asian governments seem to be keeping local anti-China sentiments in check. But local pushback may well remain a threat to China’s economic agenda and in the long run, and could undermine Beijing’s security interests.

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Bradley Jardine is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the U.S.