Why does Sinophobia remain strong in Kazakhstan?

Anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan. Photo by Daniyar Mussirov. Used with permission.

This article was written by Beiimbet Moldagali for Vlast.kz. An edited version is published on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement. 

Sinophobia in Kazakhstan remains strong and constant. Its causes are much broader than just prejudices against China. One of them is ineffective information provided to the public by government agencies. This is indicated by the results of a study on the perception of Chinese presence in Kazakhstan, conducted by the Paperlab research center in 2022 and presented in July 2023.

Kazakhstan remains prone to Sinophobia, according to Ruslan Izimov, a reviewer of the study. Izimov is a China expert at the Center for the Study of China and Central Asia “Synopsis” in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Seventy percent of Kazakhstanis surveyed do not believe that Chinese investment is creating jobs in the country, according to the Central Asia Barometer survey from 2021. This is striking given that China is Kazakhstan’s second largest trade partner and a major investor into the Kazakh economy. In neighboring Uzbekistan, for example, around 70 percent “place their hopes” in Chinese investment.

Roots of the anti-Chinese sentiments

Sinophobia in Kazakhstan has several peculiarities, according to Izimov. Despite close economic and trade ties, relations with China carry explicit and implicit risks that form the basis of Sinophobia in society. For Izimov, China’s image is influenced by a “historical image” that is partly due to Soviet propaganda in the 1960s and 1970s and the deterioration of relations between the countries during that period.

The border with China remained one of the most protected even after Kazakhstan gained independence in 1991. This situation changed after the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, to which Kazakhstan has been a member since its inception.

According to Izimov, protests against China in Kazakhstan have emerged because of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang and repression of the local Muslim population as a whole, demographic issues, and the rapid increase of China’s share in Kazakhstan’s raw materials sector. Also, there is a growing concern that Kazakhstan would become a raw material appendage of China.

Protests at the Chinese consulate in Almaty. Photo by Almas Kaisar. Used with permission.

Izimov also highlighted long-term systematic threats that reinforce Sinophobia in Kazakhstan, such as the increased use of water from transboundary rivers by the Chinese side, which could potentially endanger the environment in Kazakhstan’s central and eastern regions.

Expectations of help and poor communication

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched by Xi Jinping 10 years ago has intensified Sinophobia associated with the activities of Chinese companies. Paperlab’s research focused on three BRI projects: The Taiynsha-may oil refinery in the village of Ilyichevka in the North Kazakhstan Region, the mining and processing plant for the processing and enrichment of Boguty tungsten ores “Zhetisu tungsten” in the village of Nura in the Almaty Region, and the Zhanatas wind farm in the town of Zhanatas, in the Zhambyl Region. The latter two regions are located in the southeast.

Researcher Victoria Nem underscored the importance of understanding the social and economic context in the regions where companies are present in order to grasp the key problems of local communities and their demands.

In the three settlements, residents raised the issue of reducing land available for pasture through an unfair and corrupt distribution of land by local officials, as well as the activities of foreign enterprises that are occupying more and more land. Also, survey participants often mentioned the issue of public services, namely irrigation and drinking water, heating, light, deplorable roads, transport, and electricity. According to Nem, there is a lack of consumer and healthcare infrastructure in rural areas, such as hospitals and pharmacies.

Residents attributed these issues to the unsatisfactory performance of local executive bodies, ineffective distribution of budget funds, the inability of rural governors (“akims”) to make decisions without coordination with district and regional akims, as well as corruption.

Against this backdrop, residents see a foreign investor as a way to solve pressing problems, even if this does not fall within the scope of social corporate responsibility. This creates the belief that investors are obliged to solve social needs. Investors are quite open to local residents and are ready to engage in dialogue and help with the social improvement of the regions. However, the process of interaction between local residents and the investor is mediated by the local government.

Nem says local residents are often unaware of the assistance companies provide. For example, in the village of Ilyichevka, the company Taiynsha-may provided houses for migrants from the south and Qandas (ethnic Kazakhs who migrated to Kazakhstan from elsewhere) who worked at the plant, made repairs to the school, provided transportation for school children in the winter, built a well to provide the village with water, and sent a fire truck, now the only one in the village.

“Local residents were unaware of most of the company's social activities. The company relies exclusively on the local government in this matter,” Nem said.

Researcher Anastassiya Reshetnyak claims that the local government is usually not interested in PR for a foreign investor and is “glad once the issue is somehow resolved.” Companies sometimes fail to properly inform the public, despite carrying out consequential projects. Reshetnyak said the Zhanatas project is the most efficient wind farm in the country, but residents do not believe that “Chinese wind turbines” can be “green.”

Local residents often link environmental problems to the work of Chinese enterprises, researcher Aliya Tlegenova said. She adds that Chinese projects are surrounded by myths, and Sinophobia often manifests itself due to precipitous and limited information about the projects among residents.

The lack of trust in government agencies is a significant factor at play. Researchers link this to limited resident engagement, which is further hindered by the challenge of acquiring information from these agencies, despite the rights enshrined in Kazakhstan’s Environmental Code and the Aarhus Convention.

In addition to the right to information, citizens can participate in public hearings, where they can vote for or against a project, but they are often unaware of the hearings or find out late. Sometimes government agencies allow an extremely limited circle of people to attend hearings and this shifts the focus from environmental problems to an issue of social justice. Tlegenova said:

Local residents are confident that the main role of government agencies is to hide information about the harmful environmental impact of Chinese companies. While it is difficult to put pressure on local and central authorities for tighter control over enterprises, the main antagonists in the eyes of local residents become Chinese companies, which by default “have ulterior motives and vested interests.”

Reshetnyak is sure that the problem is managerial. A number of government agencies are involved in dozens of ongoing Chinese investment projects — the national company KazakhInvest, the Investment Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other ministries and local governments. Yet, the akims of rural districts often lack leverage over the companies.

She argues that the narrative by which “authorities are Sinophiles and citizens are Sinophobes” only serves as an excuse for not disclosing information and resolving any issue behind closed doors, despite the growing demand for information from residents.

Researchers believe that Sinophobia in society can be overcome. By ensuring transparency and accountability the government could negotiate decisions regarding assistance and investment with the local community.

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