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The New Silk Road’s significance for Central Asia



Marlies Linke,

Nazarbayev University, established in 2010, is the country’s flagship academic institution.
China's President Jinging did not choose Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan's capital Astana by chance to propose in September 2013 that China and Central Asia should jointly build a Silk Road Economic Belt. Nazarbayev University, established in 2010, is the country’s flagship academic institution., CC BY-SA 4.0, Beshbarmak, via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the Silk Road was a conduit for people to exchange goods, information, cultural objects, and technologies. Only rarely would a traveller travel its entire length. This picture of human exchange would not only lose much of its colour if the route’s Central Asian trade points were to “fade from memory”; even then they were an essential component of the overland connection between China, other parts of Asia, and Europe.

Marlies Linke is a political scientist and heads the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Central Asia Office in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Translated by Ryan Eyers and Kate Davison for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

It was no coincidence that Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, chose Nazarbayev University in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana as the location for his September 2013 speech, in which he first proposed that China and Central Asia work together to construct a “Silk Road Economic Belt”. He expanded on this vision a month later in Jakarta, Indonesia, announcing a “Maritime Silk Road” initiative. This signalled the beginning of a flurry of projects and transport linkages that are today being carried out under the umbrella term “Belt & Road Initiative”. Also in response to the Chinese initiative, Central Asian countries put forward several major project proposals of their own highlighting points of connection with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The “Nurly Zhol” (“Bright Path”) plan initiated by the Kazakhstani president in 2014, for example, was thus geared towards the development of infrastructure encompassing transport, logistics, industry, energy, public amenities and services, and housing.

As in other regions showing interest in the BRI, in Central Asia there is often a grey area when it comes to delineating which older projects should fall under the BRI umbrella, and whether the initiative has become so broad as to encompass almost every aspect of the bilateral relationship between China and the state in question. Here, too, responses to interactions with China are far from uniform.

Looking at the list of BRI projects in Kazakhstan, 55 projects—with a total volume of 27.5 billion US dollars—are in the engineering, industrial, agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, and energy sectors. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia in which no BRI projects are being developed; nevertheless, many Kyrgyz have placed a lot of hope in the infrastructure projects being carried out with Chinese support. Alongside other roads and bridges, this includes the North-South highway. There are vast differences in the levels of development between the two parts of the country; stronger connecting routes could work to counteract the disintegrative tendencies emerging between them.

With regards to transregional cooperation, it remains to be seen what opportunities will emerge from the joint brainstorming efforts between BRI representatives and those from other cooperative platforms, and whether the concrete prerequisites for these already exist or could be realized. What impact, for example, would an improved digitalization of customs clearance procedures in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) have on the speed with which goods are able to travel between Asia and Europe? Long before the creation of the RCEP free-trade zone, for example, Kazakhstan had made plain at a meeting of ASEAN representatives that Central Asia was open to trade with ASEAN countries via Chinese trade routes, thereby also presenting itself as a potential multi-directional transport network hub.

Not all plans capable of expediting the transport of goods in the region are being implemented, partly due to security concerns both within and outside the region. For example, a 400-kilometre stretch of railway track in Kyrgyzstan that would complete the corridor between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and which has been in the pipeline since 1966, remains unbuilt. Goods arriving from China’s sea ports are thus loaded onto trucks at Kashgar, a transport hub in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, for further transport to Western markets.

What expectations surround the projects in the region that fall under the “BRI” banner, or at least those being realized with or through China? Many people in Central Asia hope that the BRI will lead to development opportunities for their respective countries and for themselves. The average age of the population in Central Asia is 27, and in Uzbekistan alone, 700,000 new young people enter the labour market each year. Consequently, economic development and the creation of additional jobs are key to the region’s future.

Uzbekistan is one country which harbours great expectations for its future cooperation with China, with many Uzbeks anticipating a targeted expansion of special offers to Chinese tourists in order to stimulate a number of economic sectors. In addition, the country is banking on the joint projects resulting in greater access to modern technologies. Whether such an upgrade occurs, and to what extent it actually provides the region’s national economies with a long-term boost, is one of the factors against which the effectiveness and virtue of such cooperative efforts will be measured.

In Kazakhstan, there have been rumours that the country’s 55 BRI projects rely on outdated technology, which the Kazakh government has officially denied.

Migration does not rate a single mention in the original BRI concept, with the term “mobility” appearing once, and “labour market” and “workforce” five times each. “Movement” is used solely in reference to capital and resources. What, then, of the employment possibilities stemming from BRI projects? If Chinese investors bring in labour from China for the completion of projects in these regions, the hopes among local populations of finding a good job will be dashed. According to Kyrgyz sources, 6,711 of the 8,757 foreign specialists working in the country in 2019 were Chinese citizens. Due to their ability to speak Mandarin, ethnic Kazakhs who have immigrated to Kazakhstan from China (known in Kazakh as Oralmandar, literally “returnees”) are often the first to be offered employment at a firm with Chinese connections.

Knowledge transfer from China to Central Asia is not only expected in the fields of technology and jobs. China has launched special grants and education programmes to promote the “New Silk Road”. Whether and by whom these are used, and whether an actual growth in knowledge occurs as a result, also depends on the training conditions at existing educational institutions, the degree to which foreign students are integrated into the training process, and, last but not least, how well they learn the Chinese language.

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s largest national population at 33 million, 5,000 of whom studied in China in 2020. China has also become a more attractive education destination for young Kyrgyz citizens in the last two decades, with numbers increasing from 100 to around 3000 in 2018. The majority of students from Kazakhstan in China, for example, pay for their own studies or receive financial support from sources unrelated to the BRI grants. In 2018, 11,784 people from Kazakhstan studied in China, a considerable number for a country with a population of around 18.3 million people. On the whole, however, the number of Kazakhstani students in China has fallen in recent years. One factor underlying this trend is the fact that many graduates have been unable to find adequate employment since returning from their studies.

In a number of Central Asian countries, the high expectations attached to the BRI’s potential contrast with sceptical and even hostile attitudes towards China among some parts of the population. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, these critical perceptions of China are fed by a perception of imbalances in economic, political, and military potential, by experiences of shared history, and by observing how China’s leaders have treated Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It has been carefully noted in the predominantly Muslim countries of Central Asia that not only Uyghurs, but also Muslim minorities such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are being subjected to “re-education” in Xinjiang due to their religious beliefs.

Precisely because of the region’s history, territorial claims are observed with suspicion and provoke similarly mistrustful responses. For instance, following the publication in April 2020 of an article entitled “Why Kazakhstan is eager to return to China” on the platform, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister sent a note of protest to the Chinese ambassador.

Kyrgyzstan is illustrative of the problems that can arise when different contracts concerning projects and their respective financing are drawn up and finalized between numerous partners and various Chinese stakeholders, only to find that ambiguity still reigns with respect to overall costs and repayment conditions. Such situations can also become a burden for future governments if a country’s resources have been used as security to gain credit, the repayment of which cannot otherwise be guaranteed.

The absence of negative experiences resulting from situations involving less direct contact can also play a role in shaping a population’s perceptions of China: in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there is less apprehension and a greater sense that cooperation with China offers an opportunity for their country to develop.

A certain amount of voiced criticism is generally informed, but not all anti-China protests are based on facts. The question that many neglect to ask is: who benefits from Sinophobia and who has an interest in its spread? Now and again, general anxieties regarding the effects of closer cooperation with China find their expression. Protest also comes from those who do not see their expectations of positive flow-on effects as having been fulfilled.

These protests are fuelled by people fighting internal enemies. A number of anti-Chinese manifestations in Kazakhstan in September 2019, for instance, have been linked to Mukhtar Ablyazov, exiled leader of the banned party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. These protests took place ahead of Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s trip to China, during which he and the Chinese president agreed to a “permanent and comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two countries.

It should not be forgotten that the region is also important for other major global players. Protests against China in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, for example, and mistrust of China’s intentions in Central Asia are slowing down potential cooperative endeavours with China and drawing attention to offers from other interested parties. Central Asian states suffer enormously from corruption. Accusations that BRI or other bilateral projects with China would have a corrupting effect are therefore not only directed at (potential) investors, but often also decision-makers at various levels in the respective countries.

The number of projects completed by Chinese stakeholders or with Chinese participation in Central Asia has risen sharply since 2013. Not all of these projects, which follow China’s “Go Out” (zou chu qu) policy, are prepared sufficiently, and not all stakeholders have access to a realistic picture of their host country’s specificities or the necessary means for financing. Projects that fall through create disappointment and strengthen local scepticism towards China.

Protests have also been occasionally triggered by negative environmental effects of projects under Chinese supervision or with Chinese participation. In Tajikistan, cement works using outmoded technology were imported from China, which not only enabled it to cover its own cement needs but transformed Tajikistan from a cement importer to a cement exporter. The local people living in close proximity to these cement works did not perceive a resulting improvement in their quality of life, however. In 2018, the failed modernization of the power station in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, financed with the aid of Chinese credit, was the subject of much discussion. Accusations were widespread that the plan was too expensive, driven by corruption, and involved use of outdated technology. What’s more, the station’s emissions mean that Bishkek intermittently finds itself ranked among the cities with the poorest air quality in the world.

The success of cooperative endeavours with Central Asian countries will also be a yardstick for measuring whether cooperation with China accords with a change in its philosophy and practice of international togetherness, as put forward by Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017: “This is what socialism with Chinese characteristics entering a new era means: […] the path, the theory, the system, and the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics have kept developing, blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.”