April in Central Asia: the reemergence of anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan3 min read
Last month human rights activist Maks Bokayev promised that there would be weekly protests after his release from prison. Despite not fully living up to this promise, dozens have already been arrested at the several demonstrations that were held across the country, including at anti-China protests held last weekend.
Protests were held in several cities and drew in several hundred people. This bout was especially pertinent as its participants were rallying against growing Chinese influence over the Kazakh economy, which Bokayev had been calling for when he was detained in 2016. This time protestors also rallied against the mass incarceration of Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
Anti-China protests have become a regular occurrence in Kazakhstan in the last decade. In 2019, several hundred people took to the streets in Almaty and Nur-Sultan to denounce the detention of Kazakhs in China as well. These protests were organized by the same political party, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, which organized the protest held last weekend. Dozens were arrested. Another infamous demonstration was held in 2011 in Zhanaozen where several strikers were shot while protesting the relocation of Chinese factories to Kazakhstan. Despite the unrest, both former president Nazarbayev and current president Tokayev reiterated their intention to remain neutral in order to maintain a strong relationship with China.
These larger-scale protests are held rather sporadically, however, there are smaller protests that have been held almost daily in front of China’s embassy and consulate. The majority of those protesting are ethnic Kazakhs, who fled Xinjiang when the arrests started. Many stand with pictures of loved ones that are still being held in Chinese detention centers. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry has stated that it intends to hold talks with Chinese authorities regarding the detention of ethnic Kazakhs. However, considering previous actions by the government it seems unlikely that there will be much follow-through on these promises. The recent violent attacks against two women from the Xinjiang region and the arrests of many others from the region has cast more doubt about further action from the government.
There are motivations behind the Kazakh government’s decision to remain mostly neutral on the current situation in Xinjiang, most of them economic. China is currently one of Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in Nur-Sultan, the rollout of the Belt and Road Initiative, the largest infrastructure project in modern history. This project led to the investment of billions of dollars in Kazakhstan by the Chinese government. Part of these funds went to the construction of a dry port in Khorgos, where freight traffic has doubled in the last year. Due to the scale of these investments, Kazakh authorities have prioritized their ties with China, especially as several dozen projects are still underway.
Given the current economic relationship between China and Kazakhstan, and the development of more infrastructure projects, China’s influence over the country will continue to expand. Despite the pushback from citizens, it does not appear that the government views this as ample motivation to draw away from the country. This will inevitably lead to more protests in the coming months as arrests do not seem to be deterring the growing number of demonstrations. The promise from the Foreign Ministry and the recent decision to ban foreign ownership of farmland does provide the slightest hope that the government might give in to some demands, but it will likely require a lot more pushback from citizens.