Crossroads Asia

China-Kazakhstan Copper Mine Brawl: Food for Thought?

Authorities stress that the fight was just a fight, not a pending geopolitical flash point.

China-Kazakhstan Copper Mine Brawl: Food for Thought?
Credit: via Shutterstock

Last week, a lunchtime brawl broke out in the cafeteria at Kazakhstan’s Aktogay copper mine between Kazakh and Chinese workers. Tengrinews reports that the fight started when a Chinese worker complained about the quality of the food and small portion size.

Then, according to the police, Chinese workers began loudly expressing their dissatisfaction ignoring the efforts of their supervisor – also a Chinese – to calm them down. Security staff that was in the canteen tried to resolve the incident and walked the complaining workers out of the canteen. However, the Chinese workers used force against the security personnel and targeted the canteen’s cook. A large fight involving over one hundred men erupted.

The Aktogay mine is an open-pit copper mine located in eastern Kazakhstan, about 250 kilometers from the Chinese border. In addition to the open-pit mine, plans include construction of an on-site concentrator to produce copper cathode from oxide ore–a refined, pure form of copper often used in electrical wiring–and copper concentrate from sulphide ore. Construction began in 2013 and production of copper cathode is scheduled to begin by the end of 2015. In 2014, Non Ferrous China (NFC) was awarded a contract for the construction of the sulphide concentrator.

The capital costs for the project are expected to reach $2.3 billion, according to KAZ Minerals, the company developing the mine. The project is financed, in part, by a $1.5 billion loan facility from the China Development Bank.

Kazakh authorities have been careful to stress that the fight was just a fight–not a political or ethnic issue. Tengrinews reports that Kazakhstan held an emergency meeting on July 9, a day after the fight at the mine and initiated an investigation. On July 10, vice -prime minister Berdibek Saparbayev provided an update, saying that “145 people participated in the fight two days ago, 65 of them were brought to the hospital after the fight. 31 men are still at hospitals in Ayagoz town and Ust-Kamenogorsk city. Their condition is moderate, none of them sustained grave injuries.”

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China’s interests and investments in Central Asia are widely discussed–and generally follow the trend of Beijing’s investments elsewhere in the world: infrastructure and financing without Washington’s political strings. Chinese investment also helps balance Russia’s influence–which is deeper historically and culturally.

While Central Asian governments welcome the Chinese economically with open arms, domestic audiences are more suspicious of the region’s eastern neighbor. Chinese companies usually come with Chinese workers. In Kyrgyzstan, at several mining sites under development by or with Chinese investments and firms, local workers have complained of being paid less than their Chinese counterparts or losing jobs to the Chinese entirely. This isn’t to say that all Central Asians are wary of the Chinese, regional governments certainly appreciate the financing, but there does exist a worry that China is a bully.

Galym Bokash of RFE/RL‘s Kazakh Service commented in early June that domestically there are mixed feelings with regard to China: “fascination and fear.”