Democratic countries throughout the world are concerned with the rise of China and Beijing’s alleged efforts to export authoritarian values that suppress free speech and criticism of human rights abuses. Kyrgyzstan, formerly often referred to as an “island of democracy” in the region situated between China and Russia, has now found itself sinking in indicators of democracy and freedom of speech.
A Bishkek court’s approval to close down the activities of RFE/RL, viewed by the public as one of the most reliable and trustworthy news sources, followed by an active and ongoing initiative to introduce a Russian-style foreign agents law to tighten control over any media and civil society, raised even more concerns that Kyrgyzstan may be moving toward authoritarianism. The initiators of the foreign agents law claim it is meant to prevent NGOs from receiving funds from abroad to destabilize the political situation in the country.
Amid growing concern about China exporting its authoritarian governance model, Kyrgyz graduates from Chinese universities have a unique perspective on the value of Kyrgyzstan’s vibrant civil society versus the government-led civic engagement they witnessed in China.
Learning About Civic Activism at Home While in China
Kyrgyzstan’s cooperation with China has become increasingly institutionalized in the education sector, with four Confucius Institutes, hubs for Chinese culture and language, operating in the country. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states’ Technology Transfer Center signed an MoU with the Kyrgyz National University ahead of the China-Central Asia summit, indicating growing engagement in education.
China was the first foreign country of residence for all of the 14 respondents we interviewed in person and via phone. They were initially perplexed by local society in China, as they never saw criticism of the government in the open, which is a regular practice back home in daily interactions. This observation was prevalent among 80 percent of respondents, who had little knowledge of China before beginning their studies in the country.
For some, this initial confusion later developed into an admiration for China as they were exposed to impressive narratives about China’s history and the pros of its totalitarian form of governance in contrast to democracy. As one respondent said:
The local society in China was very different when sharing their opinion on the government, with no criticism at all. First, it is surprising and inspiring to live in a country anyone can hardly say anything bad about. Due to existing control and discipline, China has become a global economic power. Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese are not forced to undergo mass labor migration to support and feed their families.
But as the Kyrgyz students interacted with taxi drivers and residents of provincial peripheries in China, who communicated more openly mentioning corruption in the Chinese government, they got a different view. These interactions challenged official narratives of flawless governance in China.
Respondents shared how their own understanding of unrest has come to change. Their initial perception of revolutions and protests, both in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere, were first derived largely from domestic TV at home, which framed such events as a negative phenomenon. Their views, however, gradually shifted as they started engaging with other sources of information that were uncensored and non state-sponsored, especially on the internet. The respondents voiced their support for Kyrgyzstani activists who spark discussion over various issues in the form of mass demonstrations and online campaigns. The experiences of activists and petitions circulating in the media taught the respondents that in cases of state inaction and a lack of reliable state media coverage, justice can be sought by turning to courts or appealing to non-governmental legal organizations.
One of the respondents shared that during the armed conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September 2022, she assembled a team of interpreters to translate information into the Chinese language. She then shared it on social media to inform the Chinese audience about the actions of Tajikistan’s armed forces against Kyrgyz civilians. She hoped that the Chinese government would condemn what she viewed as Tajikistan’s acts of aggression. China did not do so.
Social media accounts of Kyrgyz-Chinese language departments at Bishkek-based public universities often make posts praising Xi Jinping and Chinese governance, promoting the idea of an accomplished Chinese government with little credit to any civil society movement for their contributions in raising issues or prompting government action.
Despite the fact that public protests occur quite often in China, foreigners and locals remain mostly unaware of them. In China, our respondents developed the perception that political affairs do not concern ordinary people, and that this is something instilled in Chinese citizens from early childhood. There were cases when it was difficult for some respondents to conduct surveys and interviews for their studies, since locals often refused to comment on socio-political topics and warned foreign students to be careful of asking such questions.
Against this background, the respondents built a collective perception that one phrased like this: “Despite China doing better economically, we feel sorry for its citizens who are at risk of arrest for criticizing the government.”
Adjusting to the New Political Environment
Returning home and reflecting on their experiences in China, the respondents realized that censorship was present from the beginning of their stay. Even the earliest stages of learning Chinese are focused on demonstrating and building admiration for Chinese culture and keeping their opinions to themselves. One respondent explained: “Upon arrival in China, we were given direct instructions to not express our opinion on Chinese politics and study quietly.”
Some reflected that political censorship was also felt during some classes, when teachers would avoid discussing political subjects if brought up by the students.
Despite the respondents not having politics-related degrees or paying much attention to political events, the mainstream media and social environment in Kyrgyzstan would often generate political discussions in their daily life. The respondents — interested in politics or not — have a rather romanticized view of mass demonstrations, which frames them largely as attempts to confront the wrongdoings of the government. This positive perception among the youth often comes from encountering the activities of Kyrgyz civil society on social media openly tackling different issues.
Having at times experienced anxiety from being under strict control in China, some respondents were convinced that the frequently imposed regulations were too heavy and unnecessary. The November 2022 demonstrations across China shocked the world with their scale and the courage of the youth on China’s streets. The respondents empathized with the Chinese protesters. It was even more symbolic for some to see mass demonstrations along the Wulumuqi (Urumqi) Road in Shanghai, as they had experienced discrimination as Muslims during their studies in Urumqi. A prominent trading city along the Silk Road route in the past, Urumqi now is the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where there have been numerous independent reports of mass detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities, including Kyrgyz, in re-education camps since 2017.
Can Kyrgyzstan Learn from China?
Although the respondents see China’s censorship as a source of extraordinary discipline, they vehemently oppose it. The respondents see the historical situation in China as complicated and perceive a great risk of destabilization if the Chinese government ever stops suppressing the freedom of speech. The growing censorship in Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, is seen as a clear stagnation of the country’s development. One respondent said, “I am against the complete shutdown of independent media as there is no trust in state media and their impartiality of news coverage.”
Other respondents believe that political censorship, at its heart the restriction of the right to express oneself, is emotional violence. They said that it dulls the sense of civic responsibility among citizens and could create an information bubble in Kyrgyzstan, similar to their experiences in China.
The respondents were largely convinced that opening up politics to public discussion is an ultimate win. They are against spending state resources on suppressing the population that collectively show their discontent with political processes, whether through protests or other efforts to raise awareness. The rise of censorship tendencies in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the media and social media networks, seems terrifying to the students who saw such systems in practice in China, especially in a context characterized by rampant corruption and non-transparent state budget regulation.
Living in an information bubble while in China failed to convince the respondents, all from the post-communist generation in Kyrgyzstan, of the attractiveness of absolute control. Despite the Chinese economic miracle, they don’t want to see the Chinese system of governance transplanted into Kyrgyzstan.