Anti-China Protests Held in Several Kazakhstani Cities
On March 27, hundreds of protesters gathered in cities across Kazakhstan to rally against Chinese economic presence in the Central Asian country. Twenty-two people were arrested. The protests were organized by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan (DPK), which are banned and unregistered respectively. Several protesters also called for Beijing to acknowledge reported human rights violations against Turkic minorities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. While protests in Kazakhstan against China have occurred fairly frequently, the latest come amidst growing international pressure against Beijing for its Xinjiang policy.
The number of Central Asians expressing concern about China’s economic influence has increased over the past year. In February 2020, hundreds of Kyrgyz called for a Chinese company to withdraw from the country after signing a $280 million logistics center deal. In addition, clashes between workers and villagers at a Chinese-owned gold mine in Kyrgyzstan halted operations. Other protests in Kazakhstan have revolved around proposed legislation in 2016 that would permit foreigners to rent agricultural land. Protesters argued that it would leave Kazakhstan vulnerable to China’s ambitions. The law passed in November 2015 and came into effect the following July. Growing Chinese presence in Kazakhstan also inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment across the region, forcing Central Asian governments to clamp down more harshly on dissidents to avoid upsetting Beijing.
Similar protests have been observed in the region due to Beijing’s policy of ethnic minorities in its western Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Dozens of Kazakhstanis have been staging protests since early February outside of the Chinese Consulate in Almaty to demand that Nur-Sultan and Beijing facilitate the reunification of families who have been separated by China’s internment policy in Xinjiang. They are also calling on Beijing to close its detention centers in the region. Earlier, the issue’s profile in Kazakhstan had increased in August 2018, when ethnic Kazakh Chinese national Sayragul Sauytbay appealed to Kazakhstan to annul her deportation orders after she illegally crossed the border into Kazakhstan. Her case was the first to highlight the issue and bring it into the public sphere.
The treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang has garnered the attention of the international community elsewhere, further emboldening activists to speak out against their mistreatment. Due to Xinjiang’s role as an important cotton supplier, several well-known clothing brands based in Western countries have been under growing pressure from investors and the public to publicize information on their supply chains. As a result, H&M, Burberry, Nike, and Adidas, among others, have expressed concern that forced laborin Xinjiang might be used in raw, intermediate, or finished materials. However, these actions prompted Beijing to retaliate with sanctions and calls for boycotts on certain companies. Nevertheless, the growing international concern over suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang has energized the push for family reunification in Kazakhstan.
Concern surrounding the treatment of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region has been gaining prominence elsewhere in Central Asia as well. In 2018, about 150 Kyrgyz citizens convened in Bishkek to protest the detention of ethnic Kyrgyz in Xinjiang internment camps. Kyrgyz protesters also called for Bishkek to expel illegal foreigners in the country in retaliation. About 32,215 Chinese citizens entered Kyrgyzstan that year, primarily to provide support to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.
Mounting tension has led China to permit more than 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and leave the country in January 2019 as a show of good faith. Kazakhstani students enrolled in Chinese universities have reported feeling unsafe and fearful of possible arrest when transiting in the Urumqi airport in Xinjiang. At the same time, economic links between Kazakhstan and China serve as a deterrent to the government when it comes to acting on the demands of Kazakhstani protesters. In 2013, after all, it was at Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan that Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive undertaking designed to revive ancient Silk Road through a series of infrastructure projects spanning from Europe to East Asia. Kazakhstan serves as the linchpin for the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and is a recipient of significant Chinese funds. Kazakhstan is unlikely to condemn China openly for mistreatment of ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang to avoid upsetting Beijing.
Kazakhstan’s government has found itself trying to manage growing anti-China sentiment while cooperating with Beijing and avoiding upsetting its economic partner. While the government is eager to tap into China’s financial and other resources to realize domestic projects, it is wary of becoming too dependent on Beijing for financial assistance. The revival of protests across Kazakhstan is not a good sign for relations with China. As public opposition to China grows in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries, the region’s governments will need to consider the costs of doing business with China while maintaining their delicate balancing acts.