In response to ongoing protests, a Chinese investment project in Kyrgyzstan has been scuttled.
The head of Kyrgyzstan’s Naryn Free Economic Zone, Artur Baiterekov, told RFE/RL that a deal with China to build a $275 million logistics center has been cancelled.
According to Reuters and RFE/RL, a statement from the Kyrgyz-Chinese Ata-Bashi Free Economic Zone Joint Venture, set up by China’s One Lead One (HK) Trading Limited and a Kyrgyz partner, noted that the contract has been annulled because “it is not possible to work on a long-term large project in the circumstances.”
“The circumstances” in this case referred to sustained local protests against the project.
The arrangement, settled last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Bishkek for the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, entailed the leasing of 200 hectares of land in At-Bashi district by the Naryn Free Economic Zone for 49 years to a joint Kyrgyz-Chinese venture, which planned to build a logistics center on the site.
But when construction began in December, locals protested. On February 17, the day the project was cancelled, several hundred locals rallied against the project. Organizers claim that 2,000 showed up; Kyrgyz government officials peg the number at 700-800.
The protestors were unambiguous about their opposition, holding banners with slogans like “We Are Against the Logistics Center,” and “No Kyrgyz Land To China!”
Naryn has been the site of previous anti-Chinese protests. In August 2019, there were clashes between Kyrgyz and Chinese at a Chinese-owned gold mine in the region, which landed at least 20 in the hospital. As I noted in an article at the time, the mine — Solton-Sary — was not a new flashpoint:
[The August fights] are not the first incidents at Solton-Sary, either. In 2011, a crowd of 300 gathered outside the mining company’s headquarters and in the ensuing fight three policemen and three Chinese miners were beaten. The complaints then were that the company was ignoring environmental standards and treated Kyrgyz workers poorly.
The early end of the At-Bashi project once again puts regional anti-Chinese sentiment in the spotlight. But what that spotlight reveals depends on your vantage point.
At At-Bashi, as with Solton-Sary and other similar incidents, the immediate causes are hyper-local and tingled with nationalism.
Emilbek Alymkulov, the governor of the Naryn region, told Kyrgyz media outlet 24.kg after the February 17 protest dispersed, “We heard the demand of the protesters. Perhaps, a commission will be formed on this issue… The protesters oppose allocation of land to the Chinese investor for 49 years. Residents of the district fear that they will lose their land.”
China’s reputation for seizing land has deep roots in Central Asia. Beijing had long-running border disputes with the Soviet Union in the area and those carried over into the region’s independent period after 1991, with the independent states of the region negotiating from an arguably diminished position.
Rumors about possible Chinese land-grabs sparked larger protests in neighboring Kazakhstan in 2016.
International observers may read more into the geopolitics of the situation, seeing this as part of overarching pushback against China’s Belt and Road Initiative or linking the protests to broader anger at China with regard to the “re-education” camps in Xinjiang in which Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslims have been interned.
While the BRI has run into some trouble in various parts of Asia, it remains popular with regional governments desperate for infrastructure funding. Central Asia is no different. Indeed, BRI “setbacks” — such as in Malaysia — have turned out to be readjustments rather than outright refusal of the initiative. That could be what’s ultimately in the cards for Central Asia, too.