China faces growing resistance to its economic projects in Kyrgyzstan as Beijing expands its economic footprint via its Belt and Road Initiative. Anti-Chinese protests and social media activity could portend larger economic and political challenges for China in Central Asia and factor into Beijing's regional competition with Russia, as Beijing's growing presence could threaten Moscow's position.
Around 300 protesters rallied in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on Jan. 7 to call for the deportation of illegal Chinese migrants, oppose the granting of citizenship to Chinese who marry Kyrgyz nationals, challenge the persecution of ethnic Kyrgyz in re-education camps in China's Xinjiang province and push against China's broader economic ties to the country. More protests were called for Jan. 17.
Following these demonstrations, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov emphasized the importance of China to Kyrgyzstan's economy. "Those who are seeking to spoil our relations with China will not achieve their aim," he said Jan. 9. His remarks came one day after Kubatbek Boronow, Kyrgyzstan's first deputy prime minister, dismissed protesters' claims of Chinese migration into Kyrgyzstan that have also circulated on social media. Boronow cited statistics from the Kyrgyz State Border Service, stating that 35,215 Chinese citizens arrived in Kyrgyzstan in 2018, a 15 percent decline compared with the 41,307 Chinese citizens who arrived in 2017, while 34,436 Chinese citizens left Kyrgyzstan in 2018 (40,690 citizens left in 2017). Boronov also dismissed claims that Kyrgyzstan was ceding some of its land to China.
China has significantly boosted its economic ties in Kyrgyzstan and broader Central Asia, with the country and region playing a key role within Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. Kyrgyzstan has been a particularly active site for protests against Chinese economic activities, especially in villages near Chinese mining operations. For example, angry locals in the village of Maydan in Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken region locked representatives of a Chinese gold-mining company in a metal shipping container in September, with the locals accusing the Chinese workers from Golden Group of "illegally" exploring the mine's gold reserves. Last April, local villagers in the southern Jalal-Abad region, motivated by environmental concerns, attacked the Kyrgyz-Chinese joint venture, Makmal GL Developing, and set it on fire.
Why It Matters
The Jan. 7 anti-Chinese protest marks a growing pushback against China's expansion of economic ties and broader geopolitical influence in Central Asia. While the demonstration was relatively small, it has taken on a broader nature than protests against specific mining activities, with a number of grievances against China aired by the protesters. It is also important that the Kyrgyz government felt it needed to respond to the protests by emphasizing China's economic importance, clarifying the numbers of Chinese migrants into the country and speaking against the spread of inflammatory rhetoric against China on social media. Previously, several Kyrgyz citizens were detained for spreading "provocative messages" about China on social media. The Kyrgyz government has yet to deploy security forces in response to the protests, but such a deployment is possible if these demonstrations grow.
Anti-Chinese demonstrations and social media activity is expected to grow as China continues to expand its economic footprint in Kyrgyzstan. This, in turn, could complicate Beijing's plans to invest in and develop infrastructure projects in the country as well as in other Central Asian states. This will also factor into Russia's position in Central Asia, as Moscow seeks to curb Chinese influence in the region to preserve its own role as the region's primary external power.