The role of China in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan in particular, is the topic of much debate these days. By “these days,” of course, I really mean “the last several years” but this blog has been trying to follow the topic for the last several months (see here).
Typically, the line goes, is a variation of “China is spending a lot of money so therefore it is getting more influence and outmaneuvering the US/Russia/etc.” To put it gently, I find such claims difficult to support, principally because there just aren’t much data to suggest that China building businesses staffed mostly by Chinese workers actually gets China much political or economic influence. In fact, in some very high profile cases, Chinese investments (say, in mining) create outrage and even spark violent backlash.
So it was with great interest that I read this piece over at Jamestown:
Rhetoric aside, in reality, there are no serious systemic anti-Chinese and anti-Western sentiments among the Kyrgyz population, but nationalist parties actively use slogans calling for an end to the foreign “occupation” of the country to stir up their electorates. On October 3, Kyrgyzstan’s opposition tried to capture the parliament building, where the office of the president and his administration are also located. The gathering was organized by leaders of the opposition party Ata Zhurt and parliament members Sadir Zhaparov and Kamchibek Tashiyev. About 500 demonstrators demanded the immediate nationalization of the Kumtor gold mine, which is owned by the Canadian mining company Centerra Gold, but were soon dispersed (see EDM, October 5).
In noting events such as the October 3 rally in Bishkek, it is important to understand that Kyrgyz demonstrators who protest against foreign companies often do not really care about the level of foreign presence in their republic. After the first “Tulip” revolution in 2005, political protests in the Kyrgyzstan were allegedly connected with organized crime networks jockeying for power. And attacks against foreign as well as local companies have often been organized by local criminal leaders vying for control over these businesses or looking to extort money for “protecting” these companies (Kyrgyzstan newspaper “De facto,” August 30, 2011). Most participants in these rallies are unemployed people who are reportedly paid by its organizers. According to Bishkek-based human rights expert Toktaim Umatalieva, a participant of a rally “earns” $10–15 (Deutsche Welle, February 17, 2011).
See more on the October 3 rally here. This is a smart take on the role of China in Kyrgyz politics. While there is no doubt that China has invested deeply in Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyzstan’s economy is certainly dependent on cheap Chinese imports, it is a huge stretch to say China exerts any real influence or pull (or push) on Kyrgyzstan itself.
So while China’s investment strategy is interesting, it is not very noteworthy. At least at the strategic level. Keep that in mind next time someone trots out the tired old “China is taking over Central Asia” line.
Bonus: This BBC slide show of Chinese businesses in Central Asia (though mostly Tajikistan).