The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a new front in great power competition — global health posturing. Whether it is assigning blame, providing medical aid, or modelling the most effective response, great powers are waging an information war against each other. China is aggressively defending its crisis management methods in the face of rising criticism from the international community. Alongside its "face mask diplomacy," China is touting its governance model as the most efficient in dealing with crisis situations. But how well positioned was China before the crisis really hit?
Some answers can be found in Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, long an object of Chinese soft power. As the crisis developed, we surveyed ordinary people in Kazakhstan for their opinion on the different great powers, and which they believed had best coped with the pandemic.
First among equals?
In February 2020, we organised a nationally representative survey in Kazakhstan as part of a project on geopolitical orientations. In it we asked respondents about the degree to which they approved of the presence of various major powers in world affairs.
Our survey (see the chart below) shows that Russia remains first among all external actors: 49 percent of Kazakhstani respondents are satisfied with the relationship as it is, while 26 percent would like even a closer relationship. Nevertheless, the 17 percent that would prefer less Russian presence in Kazakhstan should not be ignored: it confirms the gradual structuration of more nationalist, anti-Russian constituencies which have become more vocal since the early 2010s.
Although no other external actor comes close to challenging Russia in terms of desirability , the perception of this bilateral relationship is not without ambiguity. For instance, only 24 percent of respondents see Russia as a model to emulate, quite a low result given the country's preeminent role in Kazakhstan. This demonstrates that the large majority of Kazakhstanis call for an independent trajectory for their country's development, projecting themselves not as Russia’s junior partner but as its equal.
Washington versus Beijing
Compared to Russia, the USA is met with much less approval. Only 23 percent are satisfied with the degree of American presence in the country versus 65 percent who would prefer less interaction with the USA. This negative trend has already been confirmed by other surveys such as Gallup, which has captured low favourability for the USA for more than a decade: Kazakhstanis' approval of the US leadership went down from an already low 37 percent in 2013 to a dramatic eight percent in 2015. Although this partially recovered, to 24 percent in 2017, it still remains below pre-crisis levels. The US is generally accused of an aggressive foreign policy, especially toward the Muslim world and Russia, of promoting “morally corrupt” values such as LGBTQ rights, and of “cultural imperialism.”
China finds itself in the same category of unwanted partners, with 24 percent satisfied of with the country's current presence in Kazakhstan, and 55 percent asking for less of it. There are several reasons for these low results: fear for Kazakhstan’s sovereignty around the question of foreign citizens renting agricultural land, resentment toward the way Chinese firms operate in the country, environmental concerns, worries about Kazakhstan’s debt to Beijing, and a deeply rooted cultural animosity, fed, among others, by conspiracy theories about China’s “quiet demographic invasion” of Kazakhstan.
But while China can contend with 12 percent asking for more presence — meaning that constituencies with pro-Chinese positions do exist — the USA is the least popular, with only four percent hoping for more interaction with Washington. None of these two countries are seen as potential models for Kazakhstan's development: here the USA receives just 3.9 percent, and China remains at a very low 3.2 percent, confirming that both countries' political systems do not attract Kazakhstanis. American politics are seen to be infused with moral values deemed too liberal or even decadent, while the Chinese Communist Party dominated system has no supporters in Kazakhstan.
No soft power?
Kazakhstanis' perceptions of both the US and China are steeped in negativity. When asked to identify Kazakhstan’s main enemies, all countries scored less than one percent with only two exceptions: China with 10 percent, and the USA with 7.4 percent (half of the respondents said that their country has no enemy). Not only are both countries are largely perceived negatively, but they also have difficulties rallying positive feedback even from the minority of the population which approves of them. As for the question “who is Kazakhstan’s main friend?”, China was named by just 2.5 percent, and the USA by 0.1 per cent. Russia, in contrast, was named by 51 percent, while 20 percent believe that Kazakhstan has no single best friend.
What can be concluded from these findings? That while “multivectoralism” may be Kazakhstan’s official foreign policy, at the popular level, Russia remains the primus inter pares. The main caveat here is that it is not so much that Russia is welcomed by an overwhelming majority of Kazakhstanis, but that its potential competitors — the USA and China — rank extremely low in popularity.
Thus the USA and China will have to work hard to improve their image and to counter the negativity they inspire among the population of Kazakhstan. This negativity can be explained differently: the anti-American posture of Kazakhstani public opinion is largely nurtured by local media and media from Russia, while anti-Chinese feelings directly contradict the Kazakh authorities’ official position of friendship with Beijing. The popular understanding of COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” is only likely to increase this animosity.
So far, China’s charm offensive has had few results in Kazakhstan. Certainly, Kazakhstan's authorities encourage discourse celebrating China’s successful management of the crisis. At the same time, unfortunately, some xenophobic acts against Chinese migrants, tagged as carriers of the “Chinese virus” carriers, have been reported.
Even during a pandemic, China’s soft power diplomacy has proven to be a hard sell in Kazakhstan.