Anti-China protests have become commonplace in Central Asia. In the past two years alone, the region has seen more than forty demonstrations against what protesters see as Chinese expansion. Their grievances are disparate, ranging from the long-term leasing of land to the persecution of Muslims in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. But they are united in their opposition to not only China but also local elites, whom they accuse of having sold out to Beijing.

Fueling these suspicions, Central Asian authorities rarely have a bad word to say about their Chinese counterparts. They tend to ignore anti-China protests until they come to be seen as a threat to regime stability, and at times they even stand up for China, telling their compatriots that they “should be grateful” to Beijing for extending them a helping hand at a difficult time.

Central Asian leaders feel that any public criticism of Beijing risks making matters worse, especially in light of China’s economic might, the growing willingness of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to use that might to punish obstinate partners, and the region’s economic dependence on China.

However, there is more to the reluctance of Central Asian elites to enter into conflict with Beijing. Ties with China are becoming an increasingly important means of self-enrichment for many of the region’s ruling families and groups, and Beijing has fostered this reliance on China to bolster its regional influence.

As China’s presence in Central Asia has grown, ordinary people’s attitudes toward it have worsened. The rise of nationalism may partly explain that, but, tellingly, Central Asians’ xenophobia has been directed at the Chinese in particular: not at Russians or Americans, whose activities in the region have yet to induce people to take to the streets.

Polling by the Central Asia Barometer makes clear the extent of Central Asians’ dislike for China, with 35 percent of respondents in Kyrgyzstan and 30 percent of respondents in Kazakhstan indicating they view China unfavorably. In Uzbekistan, more and more respondents say they are worried about their country’s growing debt to China and the long-term leasing of land to the Chinese.

In turn, China worries about its reputation in the region and has not hesitated to invest resources in its improvement. Yet Beijing’s PR efforts are regularly set back by corruption scandals surrounding projects involving Chinese companies. 

The resulting outrage concerns not only China’s expansion, but also the corruption of local elites, whose use of their countries’ ties with China to enrich themselves at ordinary people’s expense has unsurprisingly been seized on by opposition figures. 

It’s no news, of course, that Central Asia’s narrow circle of elites is exploiting the region’s resources for its own benefit. What is interesting is China’s gradual emergence as the regional elites’ main source of illicit financial flows.

China’s support for its neighbors’ elites is not hard to understand. As in many other developing markets, the enrichment of local bosses and their relatives in Central Asia gives Chinese business a competitive advantage and access to resources.

Beijing’s ambitions, however, may not be limited to working with the region’s incumbents to set up shadow schemes. In October 2020, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov was ousted and replaced by Sadyr Japarov, whose bid for power was backed by numerous China-linked business figures.

Japarov himself has long had ties to China. His father was born, raised, and educated in China to parents who had fled there from the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They returned to Soviet Kyrgyzstan in 1962, where Japarov was born six years later. Japarov has worked with Chinese nationals in his business and political life, and it seems likely that at least some of the 47.4 million Kyrgyzstani som that his presidential campaign raised—$560,000, more than all the funds raised by the seventeen other candidates in the race put together—came from China. One million som are known to have been donated by a company whose director is a Chinese national.

If these events are not purely coincidental and China did assist Japarov in taking power, it means China’s strategy vis-à-vis Central Asia’s elites has qualitatively changed. Beijing is gradually shifting from working exclusively with the region’s incumbent leaders to supporting pro-China politicians, and potentially making efforts to bring them to power. 

It is no surprise that the most evidence to support this theory can be found in Kyrgyzstan, the region’s least stable, poorest, and most China-dependent country. Beijing’s influence on Central Asian elites is directly proportional to the extent to which a country’s trade policy is oriented toward China, and inversely proportional to the size of its economy and the stability of its political regime. As such, China can be expected to expand its presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan faster than in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Central Asia’s economies and elites are set to grow closer still to China’s. Natural resources are cheap right now, and the EU and Russia’s economic recoveries have been weak. Meanwhile, China’s GDP is projected to grow by about 8 percent in 2021. Distressed by the appearance of growing internal instability, Central Asian officials and courtiers may rush to sell off to China whatever they can to line their pockets while they still can. 

Central Asia’s growing dependence on China will further limit its room for maneuver in its relations with Beijing, which will increasingly seek not only access to natural resource deposits and favorable trade terms, but also a military presence in the region, influence over politics there, and a say in who Central Asia’s leaders are. 

This new dynamic calls into question the basis of Russia’s cooperation with China in Central Asia. Russia has already resigned itself to the fact that China is becoming the region’s top trading partner, investor, and creditor. All that leaves Russia with is its special role in regional security, the region’s integration with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, and Moscow’s powerful instruments of influence over each Central Asian republic’s domestic politics.

For a long time, that balance suited Beijing, but China’s recent actions in the region—especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—have clearly disturbed this arrangement, forcing Moscow to decide how to react to these developments.

To be sure, China is driven not by an anti-Russia agenda, but by a desire to advance its interests, albeit without regard for those of its strategic partner. Russia’s first option, then, is to resign itself to this too, in the understanding that Beijing will not show restraint while it is on the rise. 

Otherwise, Moscow will have to change its regional strategy, partnering with China on issues where interests overlap while thinking about how to offset its political influence. Doing so would require Moscow to set a goal of strengthening the sovereignty of Central Asia’s republics in the face of an increasingly powerful and confident China.

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

  • Temur Umarov