As China’s Communist Party celebrates turning 100 next week, it is facing unprecedented challenges, largely of its own making. It is also facing tremendous international scrutiny and backlash on a wide array of fronts, from forced internment of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities in China’s northwest Xinjiang region, to aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, and to the origins and spread of the novel coronavirus that has sickened and killed so many around the world.
One would think, though, that at 100, the CCP would at least know how to maintain good relations with its neighbors, especially when it wants so much from them.
Sadly, that has not been the case in Central Asia.
As reported in The Diplomat, last year Pew Research issued a report entitled “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries.” The report detailed Pew’s empirical research indicating that the public perception of China in 14 largely Western and advanced economy nations has declined dramatically. Given the growing realization that China intends to maintain its lack of transparency over both the genesis as well as the international spread of COVID-19, it’s hardly surprising that perceptions of China within already-disillusioned countries have plummeted.
What is more surprising is the public perception ground that China has lost, or perhaps never gained in the first place, among the populations of many of its neighbors, and in particular, among the five Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are linchpins for the expansion and reach of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature geopolitical gambit to invest in the world and tie it all back to China.
As a report prepared by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (Foundation) baldly stated, “Beijing’s government-to-government relations in Central Asia are warm, but public perception of China is broadly negative.” Indeed, the report noted, “Sinophobia, or what Beijing dismisses as the ‘China threat theory’, is rampant in Central Asia, and represents a major stumbling block to its ambitions.”
A 2020 report by the Caspian Policy Center agreed with that narrative. The public in Caspian nations “tends to view things through the prism of long-standing skepticism” of China, the report found.
“First, there is a wide-spread prejudice against the Chinese per se, mostly rooted in the history of enmity ingrained in folklore narratives and reinforced by the lingering memory of Soviet-era propaganda,” the Caspian Policy Center report said.
Historical confrontation between China and the nomadic peoples of Central Asia underpins opinions that the Chinese presence is a “well-thought out move of an old predatory neighbor looking to subjugate and exploit the region to its benefit,” the Bertelsmann report suggested.
The most notable aspect of the relationship between China and its western neighbors is the number and ferocity of citizen protests against China’s presence in their countries. Such protests have become increasingly regular occurrences.
The Oxus Society for Central Asia issued a report in September 2020 detailing and mapping “patterns of dissent” and protest in Central Asia.
From January 1, 2018 to August 31, 2020, the Central Asia Protest Tracker (CAPT) created by Oxus reported 981 protests in the five nations of Central Asia. Of those, 10 percent (or 98 protests in a 31-month period) were protests against the Chinese presence. All but one of the protests took place in either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
Kazakhstan experienced 57 protests against Chinese investment projects during this period. As the Oxus Society report detailed, “On September 3, 2019, about a hundred protesters gathered in Zhanaozen demanding an end to Chinese projects in Kazakhstan. On the same day, a series of rallies ‘We are against Chinese expansion’ took place in Nur-Sultan, Aktobe, and Shymkent.”
Clearly, Kazakh leaders and citizens alike understand their country’s strategic importance to China. The Oxus Society pointed out that “Kazakh officials often refer to their country as the ‘buckle’ in the Chinese ‘belt’ – a reference to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’s overland infrastructure projects linking Europe and Asia.”
Kyrgyzstan saw 40 protests against Chinese activity within its borders over the same period.
According to Oxus, protests have targeted the mining sector, failures in power generation at Bishkek’s main power plant following a Chinese company’s upgrade of its system, calls to send the 12,000 Chinese workers in the country home, and protection of Kyrgyzstan’s land from seizure by China.
In addition, Oxus reported that violence broke out between “hundreds” of Kyrgyz locals and Chinese mining workers in August 2019 over accusations that the Chinese company was poisoning the local water supply. Plans to build a $280 million Chinese-funded logistics center were abandoned, it says.
The analysts agree that Central Asian governments find themselves caught between assuaging local discontent and even outrage over what protesters see as exploitation of their country through suspect deals with Beijing, while at the same time, having taken China’s money in infrastructure loans, finding ways to keep it cooperative and content.
China’s failure to deliver its soft power in ways that achieve positive outcomes for both sides is an ongoing source of frustration for the Chinese Communist Party. As an organization, the CCP is riddled with its own rigidity and self-absorption, denying it the ability to assess the needs of others and respond to them meaningfully. The CCP has not shown much inclination to hear and respond to its own people’s demands for change within the party; it has even more difficulty absorbing criticisms from overseas publics about CCP methods and goals.
Clearly, building up a positive image amongst its nearest neighbors is a project that will have to wait for the CCP’s next century of existence.