This fall will be remembered in Kazakhstan for a wave of anti-China protests there. Kazakhstan’s increasing debt to China, the growing presence of Chinese enterprises and goods, the inevitable scheme of trading oil for technology, and the persecution of Muslim Uighurs in neighboring Xinjiang are serving to strengthen Kazakh society’s fear of Chinese expansion. 

Unhappiness with the country’s increasing dependence on Beijing has been mounting in Kazakhstan for some time now, not least because the Kazakh authorities (like others in the region) don’t know how to talk to people about the balance between problems and opportunities created by relations with China. Officially, the country’s leadership refuses to acknowledge the risks, preferring instead to strengthen control over the internet and look for troublemakers both inside and outside of the country. 

Protests broke out in the oil-producing city of Zhanaozen in southwest Kazakhstan in early September over purported plans to move 55 factories from China to Kazakhstan. The mayor’s office denied that there were any such plans, but the protests only grew. Protesters came out in solidarity in half a dozen other cities, including the capital Nursultan (formerly known as Astana) and second city Almaty. More grievances were gradually added to the list: protesters complained that Chinese immigrants were taking all the jobs, that Chinese enterprises were polluting the environment and buying up land, that the Chinese authorities were persecuting Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and that the Kazakh authorities were turning a blind eye to all of this in exchange for investment and bribes.

At first, while the protests were not political, the Kazakh authorities dealt with them calmly, and representatives of the mayor’s office in each city entered into a dialogue with protesters. No arrests were made. But a rally on September 21 organized by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party—which is banned as an extremist group there and whose leader, Mukhtar Ablyazov, lives in France—was broken up by police, with 100 people arrested across eight cities. 

The authorities tried to deflate the uproar by blaming everything on false information and “certain forces.” It’s true that the protests were sparked by a message circulating on WhatsApp that was based on information from five years ago: a framework agreement on 55 joint projects was signed by Kazakhstan and China back in 2015. 

Zhanaozen, where the information first spread, is plagued by unemployment, and the potential for protest there was already tragically clear: it was there that striking oil workers were shot dead in 2011. Theories circulated as to who might have initiated the spreading of the false information, but what really matters is why it led to such serious consequences. The answer is that there are major fears in Kazakh society of China’s growing influence there. The rallies simply showed that anti-Chinese sentiment can be used by different forces for their own political purposes. 

Plans to move 55 factories (the number has changed several times) began back in 2014, but the plans later turned into a “plan for industrial development” between the two countries, and nothing had been said of them for several years before the protests. When the protests broke out, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said that the Chinese side was only supplying new technology and investment, and that the projects would create 20,000 new jobs for Kazakh people. 

It’s hard to verify that claim, as only fifteen of the 55 projects, worth $4 billion, have so far been realized, while eleven are in progress and about half have not even been started. Those that have been realized include projects in which the Chinese simply bought a stake in Kazakh companies, which certainly would not necessarily create new jobs.

Another source of concern in Kazakh society is trade with China: specifically, the high level of corruption involved and machinations over documents at the border. In 2017, imports from China to Kazakhstan were valued at $11.56 billion by China and at $4.69 billion by Kazakhstan: i.e., Kazakhstan put the figure at less than half of China’s assessment.

Of this difference, about $1 billion is accounted for by the Khorgos cross-border special economic zone, which sees regular court cases over contraband, abuse of power, and corruption, sometimes including high-ranking officials.

Some of the fears are groundless, such as over Kazakhstan’s growing debt to China: $11 billion as of April 2019. This is the highest in the region in absolute terms, but as a proportion of GDP it is nearly 10 percent lower than any other country in Central Asia, at just 6.5 percent. In addition, Kazakhstan’s debt to China has not grown since 2013: on the contrary, it is decreasing by an average of 7 percent a year.

Other worries concern labor migrants, though official statistics show there is no real threat. In 2017, 43 percent of all foreign workers in Kazakhstan came from China, but that was just 12,000 people: just over half of the quota for Chinese workers, which is set at 23,000. 

The issue of giving land to the Chinese for temporary or permanent use elicits strong feelings in Kazakh society, and was the cause of large protests in 2016, when the government had planned to change the law to simplify the process for foreigners to rent land. The protests forced then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev to put a moratorium on changing the land laws until 2021. His successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has not yet said whether he will extend the moratorium, but he has promised on more than one occasion that he will not give Kazakh land away to foreigners.

The single biggest factor affecting perceptions of modern China in Kazakhstan is Beijing’s policy in China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, where Muslim Uighurs are being sent en masse to indoctrination camps. Many Kazakhs have come to the conclusion that the Chinese see all Muslims and Turkic people as nothing more than a source of terrorism and extremism. 

These fears have been exacerbated by frequent revelations in the media that people in Xinjiang are having their biometric data collected without their consent, are banned from talking to foreigners and traveling abroad, that police presence and checkpoints are multiplying, mosques are being destroyed and prayers banned, and that people there are forced to give their children Chinese names. 

About 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, and among those rounded up and sent to the Chinese camps are nationals of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, whose relatives regularly picket the Chinese embassy.

The treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang puts the authorities of Central Asian countries in an awkward situation. They likely share the outrage of their citizens over the treatment, but criticizing the domestic policies of their powerful neighbor could create problems.

China has always been considered a convenient partner for Central Asian countries, because it asked for virtually nothing in exchange for investment, only allegiance in the fight against what China calls “the three forces of evil”: terrorism, extremism, and separatism. But unlike with Western countries, which state the terms of cooperation in advance, with China there are unspoken rules, including a taboo on acknowledging any problems in the relationship. Consequently, fear of ruining their relationship with China results in the Kazakh authorities engaging in self-censorship.

Previously, the Kazakh leadership could easily rebuff all public fears with one iron-clad argument: the Chinese are big investors. But investment is no longer what it used to be. In 2015–2018, direct Chinese investment in Kazakhstan comprised $4 billion: half of what it was in 2011–2014 ($8.1 billion). One of the main reasons for this slump is the fall in oil prices. According to various estimates, China has invested a total of $33–43 billion in Kazakhstan, and it seems that everything it could invest in the country, it already has.

Now Beijing will expect a payoff from its investments, and will play for time in order to further strengthen its position in talks with Kazakhstan. During a recent visit by Tokayev to China, no investment agreements were signed.

Kazakhstan’s economic growth depends on its relationship with China, so the country’s local elites are perfectly aware of the need to cooperate with China. But at the same time, they fear their growing dependency. In these conditions, the Kazakh authorities (and those of other Central Asian countries) will find it harder to quash anti-Chinese sentiment in the country, and until they recognize the reasons for such sentiment, the problems will only grow bigger. Meanwhile, these fears will increasingly be used in the battle for influence, both by the opposition and by various political factions within the ruling elite.

This publication is part of the Sino-Russian Entente project carried out with the support of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

  • Temur Umarov