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Why some Kazakhs are skeptical of China’s growing influence



This essay is part of “On the New Silk Road in China,“a Global Reporting Center podcast that traces China’s global ambitions. Over nine episodes, Mary Kay Magistad, former China correspondent for The World, partners with local journalists on five continents to uncover the effects of the greater history global infrastructure initiative.

Chinese President Xi Jinpings’ visit to Almaty, the Kazakh capital, in 2013 seemed like another boring meeting to skip, according to Dulat Yesnazar, then an international relations student. Xi had come to announce the launch of one of the most radical global infrastructure initiatives in history.

I thought it was just another one of those programs where you talk a lot and do nothing or do little, Yesnazar said.

Now, as a journalist, Dulat sees China’s New Silk Road, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative, as an effort to expand its reach and power.

It’s just part of Chinese ambitions, big ambitions, to be hegemonic, he says.

The Belt and Road Initiative, launched by the Chinese government in 2013, aims to build a belt of land and sea routes that stretch from East Asia to Europe, covering some 70 countries Kazakhstan has been called a loop in this belt, echoing the centuries on the ancient Silk Road when Kazakhstan was at the crossroads of caravans of traders from China, India, Persia, Turkey and elsewhere. But many Kazakhs are skeptical of China’s intentions and promises to make the new Silk Road a win-win for both countries.

In recent years, protests erupted in Kazakhstan against Chinese workers taking jobs the Kazakhs can do, or on what some see as growing political influence from China in Kazakhstan.

Related: The “ Chinese dream ”: the new Chinese Silk Road begins at home

Protesters pressured the Kazakh government to be more transparent about the nature of Chinese investments. Finally, in 2019, the government published data showing that 55 Kazakh projects receive new Chinese investments and loans on the Silk Road totaling $ 27.6 billion, of which about half goes to oil and gas projects. Some protesters have called for some of these projects to be abandoned.

But other Kazakhs see the Belt and Road Initiative as an opportunity to help the Kazakh economy and secure investments that were not so easy for Kazakhs to land elsewhere.

Almas Chukin, an entrepreneur in Almaty, says he landed a Chinese investment for a wind power project in Kazakhstan that he had been trying to do for a decade.

We have been to the United States a few times, but when the first question was: Where is Kazakhstan? you understand that they will not give you money.

Almas Chukin, entrepreneur, Almaty, Kazakhstan

We have been to the United States a few times, but when the first question was: Where is Kazakhstan? you understand they are not going to give you money, he said with a chuckle.

He ticks his next stops: London? Nope. Paris? Not interested. Turkey? More words than deeds, he said.

And with China, we finally got the project, he says.

The result, he says, will be the Kazakhs’ first major wind power project at a time when the Kazakh government is committed to using more renewable energy.

Chinese investments are also helping to transform the border between the Kazakhs and China. On the Kazakh side, there is now a new dry port where companies load containers onto trains, with plans for much more. And in a new free trade area on both sides of the border, a chinese new town arose in Khorgos, where a dusty trading town once stood. Kazakh buyers come by bus to get good deals and sell them for a profit at home.

Business is doing well and improving, says Li Xin, a Chinese store owner in Khorgos that sells handbags and other women’s accessories, from northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. I didn’t know much about this place or the belt and the road until I came here. But I’m glad I did.

Li says she thinks she is here to stay, and she hopes the Belt and Road will strengthen relations between the Kazakhs and the Chinese. She says she hopes both parties can learn to communicate better. Unintentionally illustrating the challenge, she calls out the Kazakhs mao zi,the Pinyin spelling of a somewhat derogatory term in Chinese for Russian.

When it comes to cultural understanding across the border, perhaps the easiest cultural understanding is between the Kazakhs, most of whom are Muslims, and the Uyghurs, the Turkish Muslim population who, until recently, was majority in Xinjiang, the region of China which borders Kazakhstan. . When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, it encouraged the Han Chinese, the ethnic majority in China, to move to Xinjiang and tame the wild west of China. Uyghurs are now a minority in Xinjiang.

And over the past three years, Chinese authorities have forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims into so-called “re-education camps” and other forms of detention. Chinese officials insist these measures are necessary to prevent extremism, terrorism and separatism.

Related: China’s Uyghur Sterilization Abuse Meets International Legal Criteria for Genocide, Experts Say

The inmates who were released say they were beaten, forced to eat pork against usual Islamic practices and recited propaganda.

Every day we spend 45 minutes learning Chinese and glorifying the Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, explains Gulzira Auelkhan, detained for 15 months. Of Kazakh descent, she was born in Xinjiang as a Chinese citizen, married a Kazakh man, and moved to Kazakhstan. She was detained at the Kazakhstan-China border as she returned home to Xinjiang to visit her ailing father.

Auelkhan’s husband was finally able to take her home to Kazakhstan, but not before the shed completed a period of forced labor, making gloves for export to Germany and the United States. Her experience did nothing to convince her of China’s win-win promises regarding the new Silk Road.

I don’t believe Kazakhstan and China are friends. … I think this project is part of China’s expansion. I think they are trying to conquer other countries.

Gulzira Auelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh

I don’t believe Kazakhstan and China are friends, she said. I think this project is part of China’s expansion. I think they are trying to conquer other countries.

And, she said, it looks like they want to wipe out Islam within China’s borders.

Kazakhstan’s leaders must balance the potential economic windfall of strengthening economic ties with China under the New Silk Road, and many Kazakhs wish to protect their sovereignty, culture and religious preferences, as they watch with concern how the Chinese authorities treat Muslims. right across the border.

It’s extremely destructive, as they create this horrible knot for decades to come, says Gene Bunin, an Almaty-based Uyghur language specialist who has created an online database of inmates. You’re just going to have a lot of broken people who don’t know what to do with their frustrations.

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