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Is anti-Chinese mood growing in Kyrgyzstan?

A series of protests in Kyrgyzstan point to growing public feeling against China, one of the country’s biggest investors.

Kamila Eshaliyeva
13 March 2019
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, 17 January 2019.
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AKIpress / YouTube

In December 2018, members of the Kyrgyz nationalist Kyrk Choro organisation held their first protest action outside the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. According to media reports, around 50 people turned up to demand that the government deport illegal migrants within a month — and to stop the persecution of ethnic Kyrgyz in China.

A few weeks later, a second protest - this time spontaneous - took place on 7 January this year, on Bishkek’s central Ala-Too Square, where witnesses report seeing about 300 people. The aim of this action? Activists once again demanded that “illegal” migrants be deported. Representatives of Kyrk Choro stated that they were not involved in this protest.

Then, on 17 January, another anti-Chinese protest was organised in central Bishkek. Its organisers demanded that the Kyrgyz government check Chinese citizens’ work permits, lower the foreign workers’ quota, and cancel the country’s debt to China (approximately $1.7 billion, according to the Finance Ministry); some protesters even demanded a ban on Kyrgyz women marrying Chinese men. The demo ended with the arrest of 21 protesters: the police claimed that the activists were obstructing traffic and using foul language.

This series of increasingly well-attended protests has provoked discussion on Kyrgyz social media — unsurprising at a time when public fears about the detention of ethnic Kyrgyz in Xinjiang are high.

But two points so far remain undiscussed: how far do the protesters’ fears match up to official data? And what is the relationship between those organising these protests and Kyrgyz state institutions?

17 January 2019: disruptive scenes during anti-Chinese protest at Ala-Too Square, Bishkek. Source: RFE/RL.

I contacted Amanbol Babakulov, a Kyrgyz opposition activist who organised the most recent rally, to find out more. Speaking on a TV talk show prior to the protest, Babakukov had called for a commission to expose illegal migrants working for Kyrgyz businesses. The first to be inspected was the Djunda oil refinery in Kara-Balta, in the north of the country, where 300 Chinese citizens are employed.

“We went there a few days later,” says Babakulov, “and discovered that the workers had been warned of our visit and there were no illegal migrants to be seen. We checked everyone’s ID and visas, but there were no illegals.”

This was the starting point for the 17 January protest. People started organising via a WhatsApp group after Babakulov gave out his phone number during the talk show. After that, all sorts of people started calling him, mostly to find out when the next anti-migrant protest would take place. The day before the protest, roughly 500 people were registered in the WhatsApp group.

After the speeches finished on 17 January, a group of five people were invited to meet Kyrgyzstan’s Vice-Speaker Mirlan Bakirov, who promised to set up a commission to resolve the issue of illegal migrants. The activists then returned to the square, where Babakulov tried to tell the crowd about Bakirov’s proposal, but instead the crowd set off towards the White House (the President’s residence). The police began dispersing and arresting the most active protesters.

Later, several Kyrgyz news agencies published reports claiming that the demonstrations had been sponsored by ex-president Almazbek Atambayev. One website published an article stating that some politicians believed Atambayev was a member of the Kyrk Choro organisation. But while Amanbol Babakulov denies any connection to either Atambayev or current president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, rumours are still flying around the country’s social media.

Unofficial partners

Nationalist organisation Kyrk Choro (“Forty Knights”) first made its presence felt four years go, after activists organised an unsanctioned raid on one of Bishkek’s karaoke clubs in December 2014.

Citing a memorandum with the Interior Ministry, State Security Committee and the General Prosecutor’s Office, Kyrk Choro detained 17 Chinese citizens and 22 Kyrgyz women whom they suspected of involvement in sex work. Though the State Security Committee later reported that Kyrk Choro is not permitted to conduct raids, the organisation still carried out raids on several other karaoke clubs, saunas and other leisure facilities, searching for girls offering intimate services to foreign citizens.

December 2014: Kyrk Choro raid Bishkek karaoke club. Source: Kloop.

According to Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service, 35,215 Chinese citizens entered the country in 2018, and 34,436 left it. The State Registration Service says that 11,966 citizens of China received temporary residence permits, and 9,498 of them were also given temporary work permits. But during the January 2019 protest rally activists announced, without any evidence, that 50,000-60,000 illegal migrants were living in Kyrgyzstan.

In late January of this year, it was announced that Kyrgyzstan’s State Migration Service and Kyrk Choro had carried out a joint inspection of businesses in the country’s Chuy region. They visited the Tokmok oil refinery and an asbestos-cement pipe plant, and found that once again, all the workers had the correct documents. The activists suspect, however, that these inspections only uncover Potemkin villages.

“People phone me from Naryn [a regional centre in central Kyrgyzstan – ed.] and tell me that there are a lot of illegal Chinese workers there,” Babakulov tells me. “People are angry that we mostly use Chinese labour, and there are very few Kyrgyz workers building our roads. That’s why I proposed a trip there to see with our own eyes whether it’s true. And that will be the end of that.”

Babakulov tells me that Kyrgyzstan has a 15,000 worker quota for foreign labour, 70-80% of which goes to Chinese workers: “Our own countrymen go off to work in Russia and other countries. Why does our government offer quotas to other countries? We need to set up a commission to check out these Chinese citizens, and deport anyone who is working illegally.”

Medetbek Aydaraliyev, a former head of the Kyrgyz State Migration Service, has confirmed that over 14,000 foreign workers receive work permits under a quota system, and 70% of that quota goes to citizens of China. And according to information released by the country’s Migration Service in 2017, Chinese migrants are most likely to be found working in the mining industry, road construction and oil refineries, as well as at local markets.

Meanwhile, according to Kyrgyzstan’s National Statistics Committee, in the period January-September 2018, China invested more than $123 million in the country, with two sectors - mineral extraction and scientific and technical activities – receiving the highest funding. The figures also show, however, that the level of Chinese investment is dropping: Kyrgyzstan received $227 million for the same period in 2017. Despite this, China remains the one of the largest investors in the country.

On 9 January 2018, Deputy PM Kubatbek Boronov called a press conference to discuss the protests, and announced that 397 Chinese businesses and 170 joint enterprises were operating in Kyrgyzstan, the largest being the Djunda oil refinery and the Altyn-Ken gold-mining company.

I also contacted Shumkarbek Adilbek uluu, director of Kyrgyzstan’s Investment Promotion and Protection Agency, who believes that the protests will have no effect on the investment climate between Kyrgyzstan and China.

“There are some concerns, of course,” Adilbek uluu tells me. “Many of the protests were very chaotic and sometimes got out of control. But the situation is different now. Everything depends on the extent to which the government can rapidly and effectively react to issues raised by investors.”

The growth of nationalism?

During the 19 January demo, some activists expressed dismay at the fact that many Kyrgyz women are marrying Chinese men, although the official figures show that between 2010 and 2018 only 60 marriages with Chinese nationals were registered. The activists also suggested banning women from marrying foreigners, and reinstating the “ethnicity” line which was dropped in the new-style passports issued since 2017.

Rada Valentina kyzy, a feminist activist, believes that gender stereotypes are still strong in Kyrgyzstan, and that the idea that a Kyrgyz woman can only belong to a Kyrgyz man is still strong among the public. “This ‘concern’ for Kyrgyz ethnic purity can have terrible consequences: a young woman can be attacked for going out with a man from a different ethnic group. And men’s belief that women are their property is a barrier to rejecting the traditional practice of abducting young women for marriage. It’s obvious that in uncertain times for the country, national identity becomes extremely important for many people. But no one has abolished critical thought.”

In Kyrgyzstan, anti-Chinese sentiments have also emerged on social media. In December 2018 the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that posts containing incitement to racial hatred were becoming more common on the net, and warned that citizens spreading provocative material would end up in court.

These recent demonstrations in Bishkek have brought quick results. The migration service, police and state security committee have continued to cooperate with Kyrk Choro, taking the responsibility for managing anti-Chinese sentiment in the country.

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