Rise of Anti-China Public Sentiments in Central Asia

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, ICS

Protesters during anti-China demonstrtion in Almaty, Kazakhstan September 4, 2019 Source: Reuters

Anti-China public sentiments are on the rise not just in Central Asia but almost in majority of China’s neighbouring countries. Over the years, intermittent anti-China public protests have occurred in Central Asian region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. However, in last one and half year, the intensity of these protests has increased significantly. In September 2019, a series of anti-China public protests erupted across the various Kazakh cities. These protests were largely premised on grievances such as moving Chinese factory in Kazakhstan, presence of illegal Chinese immigrants, China’s policy of leasing land, and detention of Kazakhs in Xinjiang, etc. Similarly, in late December 2018 and January 2019, Kyrgyzstan also witnessed a round of anti-China public protests in its capital Bishkek. These protests were also premised on more or less the same issues on which Kazakhstan has witnessed the protests. That is, China’s presence in the region is seen with suspicions from the broader populace in Central Asia. Even the economic relations between these two regions has been seen from suspicions and in some cases, opposition and nationalist groups exploit these fears to halt further integration of the region with China.

On February 17, 2020, a fresh protest erupted in Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn region over the construction of joint venture logistics project supposed to be constructed by a local company with the partnership of a Chinese company. Amid the backdrop of protests, this project was cancelled. In the wake of growing anti-China public protests and simmering sentiments, this article seeks to highlight the root causes responsible for emergence of anti-China public sentiments in Central Asia. Further, it also tries to evaluate the role of China’s re-educational policies in Xinjiang in aggravating the anti-China public sentiments and how Central Asian governments are responding to this phenomenon.

The root causes responsible for emergence of anti-China sentiments

Despite being the biggest trading partner and having strong relations with the governments of Central Asian countries, China’s presence in the region has generally been viewed with suspicion by the broader populace. This deep rooted suspicion towards China had its historical underpinnings. Back in 19th century, a warlord, Yaqub Beg, from Kokand Khanate led an expedition to capture the present day approximate area of Xinjiang. He captured this area and his reign lasted for almost twenty years, when imperial China reconquered it in 1876. Along with this, October revolution in 1917 and subsequent communist Soviet Union’s formulation in Tsarist Russia prompted Soviet regime to place direct control over Central Asian region. In 1960s Sino-Soviet relations were destabilized owing to the differences in ideology. Since then, Soviet Union spread propaganda about China’s ulterior motive in Central Asian region and it also supported the Uyghur cause in Xinjiang. The historical confrontation between Sino-Turkish civilization over the present day territory of Xinjiang and Soviet propaganda back in 1960s, have created a deep suspicions among the majority of Central Asian people towards China.

Further, after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asian countries, along with their independent, also inherited the unresolved border disputes with China. Subsequently, the border resolutions between China and Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late l990s and early 2000s, where these states ceded territories to China, have profoundly impacted the consciousness of Central Asian populace. Moreover, Growing investments and economic integration of the region with China is sometimes seen through suspicion. For instance, proposals to rent land to China for agricultural uses have sparked protests in the past. Back in 2016, when the government of Kazakhstan proposed to rent land to China for agricultural activities, it drew public protests and later, this proposal was relinquished. Although, Chinese investments in Central Asia and growing trade between them have been beneficial for common people of the region, they still fear Chinese intention and suspect its presence in the region.

How re-educational centres in Xinjiang is aggravating anti-China sentiments

In a bid to eliminate extremist and separatist elements from its restive Xinjiang province, China opted for a harsh policy in the form of mass detention and re-educational centers, what it calls ‘Vocational Education and Training’ to de-radicalize its minority groups. In these so called vocational education and training centers, it has detained a large number of Uyghurs along with other ethnic minority groups such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz, etc. According to an estimate by United Nations Elimination of Racial Discrimination Committee, approximately a million people have been detained in these centres. These minority groups share close civilizational and cultural linkages with Central Asian people. Moreover, detained ethnic minorities such as Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajik even constitute majority nationality in the neighbouring Central Asian countries.

Due to the close proximity and cultural linkages between the Central Asian people and minority groups in Xinjiang, Central Asia gets firsthand information of what happens in Xinjiang. Further, many of China’s ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz, who were previously detained in the re-educational centres, have escaped to neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. They shared their stories with local media and civil societies. Such was the case of Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese citizen of Kazakh origin who escaped to Kazakhstan in April 2018. Her illegal border crossing into Kazakhstan led to her arrest few months later and it was followed by a prolonged public trial. During her public trial, she claimed that she was forced to work in one of the re-educational centres as an instructor and told about the functions of these centres. However, her confession was dismissed by the Chinese authorities. Eventually, amid the growing public support, Kazakh court opted for mild sentence instead of deporting her to China.

In support of people like Sayragul Sauytbay and many others, who have escaped re-educational centres in Xinjiang, civil societies like Atajurt Eriktileri have also emerged. Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh human rights group primarily concerned with the re-educational centres, has been working on to help people fleeing Xinjiang and highlighting harsh treatment meted out by Chinese authorities on its minority groups in Xinjiang. However it has been constrained by Kazakh authorities since early 2019, when its vocal leader, Serikzhan Bilash, was arrested in March 2019 and later that year, he was  released on condition to not to participate in any activities regarding Xinjiang issue for seven years.

Public testimony of Sayragul Sayutbay and many others have provided a rare insight of the functioning of re-educaional centres in Xinjiang. It has, certainly, aggravated the already prevailed anti-China public sentiments in Central Asia. It appears China’s attempt to stabilize its restive Xinjiang province through formulation of re-educational centres have irked the Central Asian people. The recent anti-China protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan show the growing discontent among the majority of Central Asian people.

Central Asian governments’ response to the emergence of anti-China sentiments

Recent public protests and simmering anti-China sentiments have been largely ignored and in some cases, suppressed by the authority due to the fact that Inter-governmental relations and bilateral trade between China and Central Asian countries are quite strong. As Alisher Ilkhamove-program manager in Open Society Eurasia Program-claimed, ‘China’s considerable investments and trade ties have chained the Central Asian states to Beijing’. At present, China holds a significant economic influence over almost all five Central Asian countries. China-Central Asia trade almost doubled to around US $ 40 billion between 2007 and 2018 and China has eclipsed EU as the largest trading partner of Central Asia. In addition to this, as of 2018, China has also provided US $ 14.7 billion in form of foreign direct investments and undocumented unconditional loans to the underdeveloped Central Asian countries. Since China does not provide official data of its international lending, it is difficult to find exact amount of loans provided by China to central Asian countries. However, Sebastian Horn and his colleagues conducted a study to find out China’s overseas lending. This study was issued by the Kiel Working Paper No. 2132 titled as ‘China’s Overseas Lending’ in June 2019. In their findings, they estimated Kyrgyzstan owed around 30 percent of its GDP while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan both owed around 15 percent of their GDP to China as of 2017. Such is the economic dependence of the region with China that the governments of Central Asian countries generally ignore these protests and related issues.

While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are heavily indebted to China and Turkmenistan almost dependent on China for its export revenue, countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are well off compare to these states. However, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) – land based infrastructure projects of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China with Africa, Europe and West Asia passing through Central Asia – has presented an opportunity for underdeveloped Central Asian countries to get much needed investments. In addition, given the military and economic might of China, Central Asian countries generally avoid to antagonise Beijing and primarily rely on back channels of diplomacy rather than making public comments to convey their concerns to China on its re-educational policy in Xinjiang.

China’s reliance on building strong relationships with the governments of Central Asian countries and emphasizing on mutual economic interactions with the region are not sufficient to mitigate the belligerent public sentiments. In order to improve its image among Central Asian populace, China has to consider other factors as well. Given the strong civilizational and cultural linkages between Central Asian people and China’s minority groups in Xinjiang, it will be naïve to overlook this bond between the people of these two regions. Building trust among the Central Asian populace will enhance China’s influence and secure its interests in the region. This way, China could cement its long-term partnerships with the region and ward off any possible emergence of anti-China forces in Central Asia. Amid its emergence at the global stage and the simmering Sino-US rivalry, it is imperative for China to secure its interests in neighbouring countries including Central Asia.