News | Central Asia - The New Silk Roads How the BRI Spurs Chinese Migration to Kazakhstan

Growing Chinese influence in Kazakhstan is stoking fear and popular anger


Trucks transporting wind turbine blades for a wind farm contracted by Chinese firm Universal Energy in Kazakhstan’s Kostanay Region pass through the Guozigou bridge in Xinjiang, April 2020. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

Contradictory assessments of the demographic, economic, and socio-political consequences of the increasing Chinese presence in Kazakhstan over the past three decades, along with Kazakh state policy on the immigration of Chinese citizens, are a constant object of analysis by local experts and periodically arouse heated public debate.

Although the official attitude towards migrant flows from China is positive, concerns within Kazakh society about the uptick in Chinese migration show no sign of abating. At the same time, Sinophobia is common among the general public. This includes alarm at the influx of Chinese migrants and their plans to marry to obtain permanent residency, and fears of territorial claims and financial dependence on a neighbour with a powerful economy.

On a governmental level, the desire to maintain good relations is evident, since China is a major market for the export of energy resources and one of the leaders in international investment in the Kazakh economy, primarily as part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As President Tokayev noted at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, the BRI has faltered somewhat due to COVID and trade wars with the US, but now is an opportune moment to reboot it under conditions that are more favourable to China’s partners, above all to the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Leyla Muzaparova is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Central Asia Office in Almaty.

Svetlana Kozhirova is co-director of the joint Centre for the Study of China and Central Asia at Fudan University and the International Science Complex Astana, and director of the Centre for Chinese and Asian Studies.

Translated by Helena Kernan and Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

As a rule, Chinese investments entering Kazakhstan and the region of Central Asia, including those that form part of the BRI, are accompanied by the procurement of Chinese equipment, the recruitment of Chinese contractors and, to a large extent, the use of Chinese labour. As is common practice in other global regions, small businesses and migration follow the arrival of major Chinese business in Central Asia, Kazakhstan included.

Growing Chinese influence is exacerbating concerns in Kazakh society about the country’s relationship to its eastern neighbour. What’s more, fear of Chinese migration occupies a special place on the list of national phobias. All the same, official statistics reveal that such a threat does not exist: according to data from the Kazakh Ministry of Internal Affairs, as of 1 June 2022 only 3,651 citizens of the People’s Republic of China are officially employed on the territory of Kazakhstan. It is possible that the actual number of Chinese citizens working in Kazakhstan is larger, but not by much.

Besides, mass migration from the border region of Xinjiang, where the minimum wage is around 200 euro compared to 120 euro in Kazakhstan, seems unlikely. It’s just that in Kazakhstan, according to Temur Umarov, research associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the contrast between the densely populated cities of its neighbour and its own uninhabited spaces creates the illusion that Chinese people want to seize more land for themselves.

One factor in illusory ideas about the mass migration of Chinese people to Kazakhstan is the specific nature of this migration, which in practice consists of two groups of people: (1) ethnic Kazakhs resettling in Kazakhstan from China (known as oralmans or kandas), and (2) Chinese people migrating to Kazakhstan for employment, trade, or business purposes.

The first group has its origins in the Kazakh diaspora in China and its partial repatriation to Kazakhstan as part of the state policy of returning ethnic Kazakhs to their historic homeland that that the Republic of Kazakhstan has pursued since independence in 1991. The Kazakh diaspora in China is the product of centuries of migration to the border regions of the country (particularly the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, XUAR) and currently numbers 1.5 million people — around 6 percent of the population of the XUAR. This figure has shrunk slightly over the past 30 years: between 1991 and 2021, around 235,000 ethnic Kazakhs moved back to Kazakhstan from China.

The second group, which covers migration for labour, trade, and business reasons, is ethnically diverse. For example, most labour migration comprises Han Chinese people, while trade and business migration are the domain of Han Chinese as well as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Dungans. The number of Chinese migrants working in Kazakhstan changes from year to year, and reached a peak of 14,000 people in 2015.

There are significant differences between these two groups, not only in terms of size but also in terms of policies of state regulation. For example, ethnic Kazakhs returning to their historical homeland are not limited in number and are even encouraged to migrate by the government through a raft of state support measures: provision of plots of land, assistance with employment, healthcare and education subsidies, free services to aid adaptation and integration, and cash benefits.

The number of migrant workers, by contrast, is regulated by the state on the basis of annual quotas for recruiting foreign labour, with the aim of protecting the domestic labour market.[1] Although Chinese people form the largest proportion of foreign workers in Kazakhstan (4,068 people in 2021), only 0.1 percent of the total number of employees in Kazakhstan are Chinese, which does not exert any significant influence on the labour market.

Chinese Labour Migration and the BRI

China has become one of the primary sources of foreign labour in Kazakhstan in the years since 2010, when the large-scale construction of infrastructure was rolled out as part of the BRI. In particular, this concerns two key BRI projects in Kazakhstan — the “Western Europe–Western China” highways and the Beineu-Bozoi-Shymkent gas pipeline. Overall, implementation of the BRI in Kazakhstan has facilitated the growth of Chinese private equity in the construction and reconstruction of the country’s major industrial facilities,[2] as well as the growth of bilateral trade and economic activity.

In the 2010s, migrant workers from China were actively put to work at Chinese or joint enterprises, working rotating shifts constructing gas and oil pipelines in remote areas. They were also employed at specifically Chinese businesses such as Chinese restaurants and Chinese medicine centres, where they usually provided services for other Chinese citizens.

According to experts, the domestic environment in the People’s Republic of China facilitated the uptick in labour migration from China between 2010 and 2015 during this period. The state was forced to search for outlets for the accumulated strength of the Chinese economy. It was no longer profitable for Chinese citizens to work on a contractual basis, so major Chinese companies began functioning as co-investors, funnelling their own labour as well as their own profits and loans from Chinese banks into construction projects. In addition, Chinese corporations working outside the country’s borders still benefit from substantial state support, subsidized loans, and tax concessions.

From 2015 to 2021, 17 Chinese projects were launched in Kazakhstan at a total cost of over 4 billion US dollars, the majority of which were linked to implementing the BRI. During this period, more Chinese migrants in Kazakhstan became managers and qualified professionals in the oil and gas industry.

This reveals a distinctive feature of Chinese migration to Kazakhstan: while the main reason for hiring migrant workers from China in the Russian regions that border China’s Far East is the large number of vacant, undesirable posts at domestic companies, the majority of Chinese migrants in Kazakhstan are employed by projects that are themselves Chinese.

A Portrait of Chinese Migration to Kazakhstan

The vast majority of Chinese people on Kazakh territory are temporary migrants who work on a contractual basis at major Chinese companies, both state-run and private, as well as at joint Kazakh-Chinese enterprises[3] and in the small business sector.

The landscape of Chinese labour migration to Kazakhstan has changed over time, and the socio-professional status of Chinese migrants arriving in recent years has become much more diverse. The Chinese presence is increasingly apparent not only in traditionally Chinese sectors (trade, domestic services, catering, medical services, hospitality), but also in other sectors such as industry, construction, the production of construction materials and foodstuffs, and gambling.

As a result of the Chinese government’s strategy of actively moving Chinese business beyond its national borders, the level of education and cultural sophistication among Chinese migrants is growing, the number of qualified employees is increasing, and their skill level and profile is changing. Nowadays, those who either work on a full-time basis or run their own businesses dominate this group. Entrepreneurs from China are acquiring property in Kazakhstan, founding their own firms, and showing increased interest in renting buildings and spaces.

Another important characteristic of Chinese migration to Kazakhstan is the Chinese tendency to settle in one place as a concentrated minority and preserve their national identity, an impulse that is also typical of Chinese migrants elsewhere in the world. A closed system of self-sufficiency is emerging, even in small Chinese communities in Kazakhstan. Chinese migrants have trouble integrating into the local milieu — mixed marriages with the local population are rare and usually undertaken not with the aim of settling in Kazakhstan, but rather of engaging in entrepreneurial activity, strengthening the accumulation of capital, and capturing and retaining the market for subsequent relocation to Russia and Europe.

While Chinese communities are based on familial and interpersonal connections that more often than not exist between people from a single region, in Kazakhstan these communities are frequently expanded to include people from different geographical areas. The main geographical areas involved in Chinese migration to Kazakhstan at present are Urumqi, Beijing, Shanghai, Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Anhui, Guangzhou, and Dalian.

Refugees from Xinjiang

A different part of the picture of Chinese migration is occupied by refugees from Xinjiang — primarily ethnic Uyghurs but also Kazakhs who are subjected to all-encompassing digital surveillance in China or imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps” for the Muslim population.

The crackdown on ethnic Kazakhs and other Central Asian ethnic groups in China is actively discussed in Kazakhstan. Kazakhs living in Xinjiang nearly all have oralman extended family (ethnic Kazakhs who have returned to Kazakhstan) who share stories about the violence suffered by their relatives, which in turn generates public sympathy across the nation. The situation in the XUAR is genuinely fraught, and pressure from the authorities, judging by witness accounts, is not limited to the latest technologies of digital control: police power is often abused to maintain and reinforce public order.

That said, the existence of such camps and so-called “re-education” processes, which take the form of brainwashing via propaganda films and physical labour, is still not regarded as officially proven, despite of a range of witness testimonies. In any event, upon their return from the camps, people prefer not to talk about what has happened to them, which only serves to intensify the atmosphere of secrecy and fear.

The official Kazakh position on re-education camps in the XUAR was articulated by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “Xinjiang is populated by citizens of the People’s Republic of China … There are international agreements stating that Kazakhstan and China do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries … As for reports from human rights organizations regarding individuals with Kazakh citizenship who are allegedly held in these re-education camps, these need to be verified … I think that in general this information does not correspond to reality. It is possible that there have been isolated cases of Kazakh citizens ending up in these re-education schools. But, as a rule, the way the international institutions or organizations spin it, that nearly every single Kazakh has been rounded up in these camps, clearly does not correspond to reality.”

Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang certainly has an influence on the perception of contemporary China in Kazakhstan. However, even if the country’s authorities share the discontent of its citizens, they nevertheless understand that criticism of the domestic policy of their powerful neighbour China could lead to serious problems.

For this reason, although refugees from Xinjiang (primarily ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs) seek temporary asylum in Kazakhstan, they do not remain there for long and attempt to leave for Europe, Turkey, or the US, where they feel safer, since in Kazakhstan there have been cases of refugees being extradited back to China.

Anti-Chinese Protests in Kazakhstan

Mass anti-Chinese protests have broken out twice in Kazakhstan. In 2016, several “agricultural” protests attended by thousands of people took place, provoked by concerns about China seizing Kazakh land. At that time, the Kazakh government was planning to introduce amendments to land regulations that would simplify the process of renting land to foreign entities. Protests attended by thousands across the nation forced President Nazarbayev to impose a moratorium on amendments to land regulations until 2021.

At the very beginning of his presidency, President Tokayev promised that land would not be given away to foreigners. In May 2021, the Kazakh parliament adopted a corresponding law that completely outlawed the transferral and sale of agricultural land to foreign parties.

Three years ago, in September 2019, a wave of anti-Chinese protests that erupted simultaneously in several cities swept Kazakhstan. They began in Zhanaozen — a city of oil workers in the south-west of Kazakhstan — with solidarity protests taking place two days later in Aktobe, Aktau, Almaty, Karagandy, Shymkent, and Nur-Sultan.

The formal reason for the protests was a post on WhatsApp based on a five-year-old news story about an umbrella agreement between Kazakhstan and China encompassing 55 joint projects, including BRI projects, signed in 2015. In practice, the protests were sparked by growing concerns in Kazakh society over increasing Chinese influence, including mounting debts owed to China and the ever-greater presence of Chinese goods and enterprises.

However, the protesters’ initial demand that plans to “transfer 55 factories from China to Kazakhstan” be halted was gradually joined by other accusations: “Chinese migrants are taking jobs from local people, their businesses are polluting the environment, their companies are buying up land on a mass scale, the Chinese authorities are persecuting Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and the Kazakh leadership is turning a blind eye to all of this in return for investments and bribes.”

The case of the “55 factories” began even earlier, in 2014, and was initially portrayed as the “transfer” of production capacity in the non-raw-materials sector from China to Kazakhstan. After a few years, the plans for the transfer were billed as a “programme of industrial development within the framework of Kazakh-Chinese co-operation”. According to a statement from the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese side would act in all cases as a supplier of new technologies, expertise, and investment, while the projects would create a total of 20,000 new jobs for Kazakhs.

In reality, just over a quarter of the 55 projects have been implemented to date (15 projects at a sum of 4 billion dollars), one fifth (11 projects) are in the implementation stage, and more than half have not yet been launched. What’s more, one of the implemented projects involves the straightforward purchase of shares in Kazakh companies by Chinese buyers, which by no means guarantees the creation of any new jobs.

As the anti-Chinese protests of 2016 and 2019 demonstrated, Sinophobic sentiment shows no sign of abating in Kazakh society and could be utilized by various entities for political infighting. Understanding that Kazakhstan’s economic growth depends on relations with China, the local elite is acutely aware of the need to cooperate with the People’s Republic. At the same time, by accepting their growing reliance on Chinese investment, the Kazakh authorities will find it harder to dampen anti-Chinese sentiment in the country. A failure to recognize the roots of Sinophobia will mean that these problems continue to worsen, as various domestic political forces increasingly manipulate such fears in their struggle for influence.

[1] The recruitment of foreign labour in Kazakhstan is only permitted within the bounds of a quota which takes the form of an annual number of foreign workers engaged in employment in Kazakhstan and is determined by the government. The quota is established as a percentage of the economically active population or as an absolute figure based on priority projects and the countries of origin of foreign workers. In 2022, the overall quota was set at 0.31 percent of the country’s workforce, or 28,300 people.

[2] The oil refineries in Atyrau and Shymkent, the gas refinery in Aktobe region, the Pavlodar electrolysis plant, the Aktau plastics plant, and the Moinak hydropower plant.

[3] According to official data, 2,674 Chinese companies and 822 joint Kazakh-Chinese enterprises were in operation in Kazakhstan in 2020. Data from the Kazakh Ministry of Internal Affairs shows that just over 3,600 Chinese citizens were officially employed in Kazakhstan in 2021.