The anti-Chinese sentiment has increased in Kyrgyzstan lately as three rallies protesting China’s policies were held in Bishkek from December 2018 to February 2019. The first one was held on December 20, 2018, near the Chinese Embassy. About 150 participants demanded to release ethnic Kyrgyz people from the so-called re-education camps in China, as well as to expel Chinese citizens illegally staying in the country within 30 days and create a commission to check the legality of obtaining Kyrgyz passports by foreign nationals. The second protest was held on January 7, 2019, in the central Ala-Too square of Bishkek. This rally was more popular as it gathered about 300 people, who had the same demands. The third rally was held on January 17, 2019, also on the Ala-Too square, and up to 250 people came out to this protest. Such an active manifestation of the anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan may affect relations between the two countries. Moreover, the protesters have support among some Kyrgyz parliamentarians. In this regard, it is necessary to analyze the current bilateral relationship in order to better understand possible consequences.
While there are protests in the country, Kyrgyz officials argue that Kyrgyzstan and China are now at the best stage of interaction in the entire history of their bilateral relations. Moreover, during a state visit of Sooronbay Jeenbekov to China in the summer of 2018 the parties signed the Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership [knews.kg, 2018]. This new level of relations between the two countries characterizes the role of Bishkek in the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia. If the territory of Kazakhstan is the gateway to Europe, then Kyrgyzstan is an opportunity to open other countries of the region, especially Uzbekistan, providing access to the region’s natural resources, as well as an opportunity for further development of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
Before the appearance of the BRI, Kyrgyzstan was an important player for re-exports of Chinese goods to the Central Asian countries, and re-export revenues accounted for a significant part of the country’s economy. This was possible because both China and Kyrgyzstan are WTO members and Bishkek had enjoyed customs preferences in trade with the Central Asian neighbors within the framework of various integration associations. But after joining the Eurasian Economic Union Kyrgyzstan has lost its favorable position. Nevertheless, Bishkek’s relationship with Beijing underwent positive changes in 2013, when Xi Jinping visited Kyrgyzstan. During that visit, the parties signed a number of important documents that define their relations today: the agreement on economic cooperation, the agreement on cooperation in the construction and operation of the Kyrgyzstan-China gas pipeline, the credit agreements on the modernization of the Bishkek thermal power plant and the construction of the North-South highway.
The construction of the North-South highway includes a number of smaller road construction projects: Osh-Batken-Isfana, Bishkek-Balykchy, Kazarman-Jalal-Abad, Balykchy-Aral, and Aral-Kazarman. In parallel, the Ring Road around the Issyk-Kul Lake is being built, along with the Suusamyr-Talas-Taraz and Jalal-Abad–Madaniyat roads. Besides, Beijing has actively invested in the construction of the Datka-Kemin power line [kabar.kg, 2016] and also financed a couple of hydropower projects. China hopes to get cheap energy from Kyrgyzstan, which is necessary for Xinjiang’s growing needs. At the same time, Chinese business is actively investing in the Kyrgyz gold mining industry. Today, 60% of the Taldy-Bulak deposit is owned by a Chinese company [VB.kg, 2017]. In 2018, the Kuru-Tegerek field was launched, which was also bought out by a Chinese gold mining company. At the same time, the leadership of the two countries have informal arrangements to transfer approximately 40 Chinese enterprises to the territory of Kyrgyzstan [CA-portal, 2016].
Despite all these developments, Beijing and Bishkek still could not agree on the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which is considered one of the key transport-transit projects in Central Asia. Both sides have their own interests in the creation of this railway, and for now they are not ready to reach a compromise. The Beijing project involves the construction of 268 km of railways, 95 bridges and 48 tunnels, far from populated areas, but near a number of key mineral deposits. In turn, the Bishkek project provides for 380 km, but the cost of the project is significantly lower than the Chinese one, due to a smaller number of bridges and tunnels. However, the Chinese side would still have to build additional railway branches to gain access to mineral deposits. In addition, the Kyrgyz side hopes to connect the country’s northern and southern railways. Another contradiction is related to the railway gauge. The PRC wants to use the 1435-mm gauge, while the Kyrgyz side prefers the 1520-mm standard which is applied in the country. Moreover, the choice of the gauge width has geopolitical roots. Moscow is closely monitoring the situation because the use of the 1520-mm standard means that Russia will keep an exclusive unhindered access to the region by rail, as well as a symbolic advantage over Beijing.
The BRI allowed China to significantly increase investment in the economy of Kyrgyzstan, thus making an important contribution to the country’s economic development. However, the sharp increase in Chinese loans, coupled with a significant trade deficit, substantially increased the national debt of Kyrgyzstan. Today, Bishkek’s debt to Beijing is approximately $1.7 billion, which represents 41.3% of the country’s total foreign debt [Jamestown, 2018]. Along with the growth of debt owed to the PRC, the perception of China and the Chinese among Kyrgyz citizens has begun to change for the worse. The society has gradually become susceptive to the fear that China would take Kyrgyz land or natural resources in exchange for its loans. These fears are actively exploited by a number of media which acquaint their readers with the examples of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. At the same time, the public concern is growing against a background of other controversial events.
In fact, the gradual deterioration of relations between the countries began in 2016 after a terrorist act committed against the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. Beijing introduced a number of new visa requirements and established quotas. The new regime has significantly complicated the possibility of obtaining visas by Kyrgyz tourists, businessmen and students. At the same time, Beijing is concerned about the actions of a number of organized groups that are attacking Chinese citizens in Kyrgyzstan. The group named Kyrk Choro organized attacks against the Chinese in several bars of Bishkek. It should be noted that this organization is behind the recent protests and is also suspected of organizing rallies against the construction of the Junda oil refinery in Kara-Balta in 2013 [Kloop, 2015]. The fact that the authorities cannot cope with this group raises reasonable suspicions in Beijing that the movement has political support in government circles.
It is obvious that China did not manage to create a good image of itself in Kyrgyzstan, as well as elsewhere in Central Asia. Moreover, the already negative background has further deteriorated after numerous reports about the Chinese “re-education camps” and jailed ethnic Kyrgyz living in the territory of Xinjiang [24.kg, 2018]. This information has become an argument in favor of the anti-Chinese rhetoric in Kyrgyzstan.
In 2018, an accident occurred at the Bishkek thermal power plant which had been modernized by a Chinese company. This caused the Kyrgyz public to remember that Beijing had not only allocated a loan for modernization, but had also imposed its contract. In addition, in 2018, people in Kyrgyzstan widely discussed the overstated cost of the North-South highway construction and accused Chinese contractors of this. Moreover, Chinese companies are also accused of not employing local residents, but bringing their own workers. All this significantly increases the degree of anti-Chinese attitudes in the Kyrgyz society.
Perhaps, one of the most eloquent consequences of the deteriorating relationship is the drop in Chinese investment. This is despite the fact that the China is constantly increasing spending within the BRI. If investments reached almost $300 million in 2017, then in 2018 they just slightly exceeded $100 million [Azattyk, 2019]. The Kyrgyz authorities are apparently afraid of concluding agreements with China, fearing a further growth of the anti-Chinese sentiment in the country. Kyrgyzstan and China have already covered the areas of cooperation in which it was easy to establish economic interaction. For continued development of their relations, both sides have to work hard together but, apparently, at present, the Kyrgyz bureaucracy cannot offer anything substantial to Beijing. At the same time, the PRC is not ready to make significant efforts in working with Kyrgyzstan, expecting an initiative from Bishkek itself, especially when the Kyrgyz authorities cannot ensure the safety of Chinese investments. For instance, in the spring of 2018, local residents in the Jalal-Abad region broke into the territory of the gold mining plant and burned it.
In conclusion, there could be different interpretations of the anti-Chinese rallies in Bishkek. They could be attributed to external forces, the growth of nationalism or the inefficiency of the state itself. However, the main thing here is that Kyrgyzstan needs Chinese investments, therefore, the reaction of the authorities both to China’s policy in Xinjiang and the domestic protests is very restrained, even despite the statements of some parliamentarians. Economic growth is vital for Kyrgyzstan, and its infrastructure needs modernization, all of which requires cooperation with China. In turn, the PRC must realize that the BRI needs positive examples, hence Beijing cannot afford losing Kyrgyzstan. But it should deal very carefully with this country as people here are capable of changing the government if they are highly dissatisfied. Consequently, Beijing needs to evaluate all the risks and find constructive mechanisms to improve its position in Kyrgyzstan. The problem for China is that image improvement efforts are required not only in Kyrgyzstan. But, apparently, Beijing does not believe that the actions of Kyrgyz citizens are independent and expects that Bishkek will fix everything itself. In the meantime, the PRC motivates the Kyrgyz side to take measures by drastically reducing its investments.
Azattyk (2019). What explains the decline in investment from China to Kyrgyzstan? Retrieved from https://rus.azattyk.org/a/kyrgyzstan_china_reduction_investments/29730553.html. Accessed on 12.02.2019.
CA-portal (2016). The decision to transfer a number of Chinese enterprises in the Kyrgyz Republic is premature. Retrieved from http://www.ca-portal.ru/article:27548. Accessed on 16.02.2019.
Jamestown (2018). Risky Business: A Case Study of PRC Investment in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Retrieved from https://jamestown.org/program/risky-business-a-case-study-of-prc-investment-in-tajikistan-and-kyrgyzstan/. Accessed on 12.02.2019.
Kabar.kg (2016). President Atambaev: “Agreements reached in Beijing between Kyrgyzstan and China will bring our country to energy independence”. Retrieved from http://old.kabar.kg/eng/economics/full/4434. Accessed on 17.02.2019.
Kloop (2015). MIA: The leader of Kyrk Choro accusation of arbitrariness. Retrieved from https://kloop.kg/blog/2015/03/11/mvd-lider-kyrk-choro-obvinen-v-samoupravstve. Accessed on 15.02.2019.
Knews.kg (2018). Results of Sooronbay Jeenbekov‘s visit to Beijing. Retrieved from https://knews.kg/2018/06/09/itogi-vizita-sooronbaya-zheenbekova-v-pekin-fotoreportazh/. Accessed on 14.02.2019.
VB.kg (2017). “Altynken” company appointed new CEO. Retrieved from https://www.vb.kg/doc/363579_v_kompanii_altynken_naznachili_novogo_generalnogo_direktora.html. Accessed on 14.02.2019.
24.kg (2018). Kyrgyz in China’s re-education camps. Their number reaches 50 thousand. Retrieved from https://24.kg/obschestvo/102959_kyirgyizyi_vlageryah_perevospitaniya_kitaya_ihchislo_dostigaet_50tyisyach. Accessed on 17.02.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Asset Ordabayev is a junior research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in International Relations from the KarSU (Karahanda) from 2012. In 2014, he earned his Masters degree in International Relations the Kazak National University (Almaty). From 2014 to 2017 he worked at the Institute of World Economy and Politics as a foreign policy expert. The main research interests are the geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent within the framework of the development of transport infrastructure, as well as the ongoing proces