Kazakh anti-China protests continue, China’s “One Belt, One Road” future uncertain

Kazakhstan is a key country for China to promote its diplomacy in Central Asia. China even specifically chose Kazakhstan as the first location for its Belt and Road Initiative a few years ago. But Kazakhstan has also become one of the most anti-china countries in Central Asia. Anti-China protests have been ongoing.

Protests against China’s expansion, criticizing officials for bribery and corruption

New anti-China protests broke out in Kazakhstan last Saturday (March 27). In the square in front of the Kazakh National Academy of Sciences in Almaty, the former capital and first city, about two to three hundred people held a rally to protest against Chinese expansion and Chinese immigration.

Other demands of the protest included protests against Chinese threats and calls on the authorities to ban the sale and lease of all types of land, including agricultural arable land, to China. The authorities were called upon to ban the relocation of more than 50 factories from China to Kazakhstan and to stop borrowing from China, among other things. The subject of Xinjiang was also raised.

China had agreed with Kazakhstan years ago to invest and build more than 50 factories in Kazakhstan in joint ventures. This issue has been on the radar of Kazakh society in recent years. Local critics accuse China of intentionally transferring environmentally polluting production companies to Kazakhstan. In addition, people have criticized the lack of transparency of related transactions, alleged corruption of Kazakh officials, etc.

Although Saturday’s rally was approved by the authorities, the organizer of the rally, well-known Kazakh journalist Mamay, still criticized the authorities for deliberately making it difficult and obstructing the rally, and many of the participants were arrested. Internet signals were cut off in and around the rally.

The rally was organized by two Kazakh opposition forces. One is the “Kazakh Democratic Party”, which was formed by journalist Mamai last year, and the other is the “Kazakh Democratic Alternative”. “The Kazakh Democratic Alternative is currently banned by the authorities, and its leader and founder Ablyazov is now in exile in France. Ablyazov, currently a blogger, was a Kazakh plutocrat before he went into exile and held senior government positions, including that of a minister. Ablyazov and his supporters have been fierce critics of the current Kazakh regime and the Chinese threat, often organizing various protests in Kazakhstan, including against China.

Anti-China protests have continued for years

Saturday’s protest rally was only the latest in a long line of anti-China protests that have continued in recent years in Kazakhstan. The largest and most influential anti-China protest took place in 2016. That protest swept through many parts of Kazakhstan at the time, with protesters unhappy with the law that leases agricultural land to foreigners, including Chinese, for long periods of time. Authorities were forced to call off and freeze the law under pressure from the protests.

Anti-China protests also erupted in many cities across the country, including the capital and Almaty, on the eve of Kazakh President Mikhail Tokaev’s visit to China in the fall of 2019. Demonstrators called on Tokaev not to go to China, not to get loans from China and that Kazakhstan should attract Western investment instead of Chinese investment.

Some Kazakh media reporters say that anti-China protests have not only been a regular occurrence in recent years, but almost every year, and that anti-China slogans and slogans can be seen and heard even during some other non-China related protests.

Sensitive issues in Xinjiang are of greater concern to the local community

Many more anti-China protests have focused on Xinjiang issues, some near the Chinese Embassy and Consulate in Kazakhstan. Protesters have demanded the release of their relatives in Xinjiang and have sometimes clashed with Kazakh police outside the Chinese embassy and consulate. Kazakhstan has a large Uighur population in Central Asia. Some ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang have also returned to settle in Kazakhstan in recent years.

Kazakh society’s interest in the issue of Xinjiang and some of the related protests were most prominent in 2017-2018. The issue of Xinjiang is also very sensitive in Kazakh-Chinese relations. Although Kazakh officials have generally kept a low profile or even remained silent on the issue, some ethnic Kazakhs who have settled in Kazakhstan from Xinjiang continue to give frequent interviews to some media and human rights advocates about their persecution in Xinjiang, where they are referred to in the local media as refugees from Xinjiang.

A Kazakh court ruled in January that six ethnic Kazakhs who had illegally crossed the border from Xinjiang into Kazakhstan should be denied repatriation to China. Kazakh authorities last year granted a year-long refugee status to four Kazakhs from Xinjiang who claimed persecution. Local human rights activists believe this move by the authorities sends a particularly concerning signal because it amounts to an acknowledgement of what happened to some Kazakhs in Xinjiang.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Kari Bai said in March that his country was negotiating with China over the issue of Kazakh refugees in Xinjiang. But he admitted that the negotiations were very difficult and that it was the most difficult topic in the relationship.

Key Central Asian country China cannot do without Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a key stop in China’s push for Central Asian diplomacy, and was specifically chosen as the place where China first proposed the Belt and Road Initiative during Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. Russian scholar of Central Asia Grozin says that China cannot do without Kazakhstan in any case, especially in the Belt and Road project.

Grozin: “Kazakhstan is in a unique geographical position, both from a geopolitical and geo-economic point of view. Whether China promotes diplomacy in Central Asia or China wants to implement the Belt and Road project, it is impossible for China to bypass Kazakhstan. Because China has no other choice but Kazakhstan.”

In Central Asia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which is culturally very close to Kazakhstan, are considered the two countries with the strongest anti-China sentiment.

Anti-China sentiment is deep-rooted and Beijing’s public relations are ineffective

A report published last year by a Russian think tank said that anti-China sentiment is deeply rooted in Kazakh society. The reasons for this are partly related to the massive anti-China propaganda of the Soviet era. On the other hand, it goes back even before the October Revolution to a long-standing fear of China in Kazakh society, as well as to the fear of the Chinese threat.

According to the report, anti-Chinese sentiment is lower in the Kazakh border areas with China than in the western regions, far from the border, because of the influence of trade between the two countries. Especially in the western region, where there are some Chinese investments in oil and gas development, there is a great deal of discontent in the local community against China.

Over the past years, China has invested heavily in Kazakhstan, but mainly in the oil and gas sector. Local media say that a quarter of Kazakh oil is extracted by Chinese companies. In addition, China has been actively promoting soft power diplomacy in the region, including a large number of Confucius Institutes. China has also become the most popular country for Kazakh students to study after Russia. But despite this, China’s efforts to improve its image do not seem to have paid off yet.