China’s ‘Route of Friendship’ in Central Asia

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

By Tom Cryer

With the exponential growth of media interest in Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps’ in recent months, the so-called ‘story China wants the world to forget,’[1] it is safe to say that Xi’s China has steadfastly abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘keeping a low profile.’ (taoguangyanghui)

Many of the details will be depressingly familiar for Western observers. Responding to a market bombing in Urumqi in April 2014, President Xi Jinping called for ‘nets spread from the earth to the sky’ and ‘walls made of copper and steel.’[2] A ‘people’s war on terror’ was declared, leading to the detention of one million Uyghurs at a cost of over $100 million according to the most comprehensive analysis of available information.[3] A report released this June by the China Tribunal, led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, concluded that ‘forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims.’[4] Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on the region’s ‘Integrated Joint Operations Platform’ which collates CCTV, facial recognition, ‘Wi-Fi sniffers,’ ID cards, health records, banking records, legal records, and mandatory DNA samples.[5]  Under the newly appointed Party Chief Chen Quanguo, internal surveillance spending rocketed 92% from 2016 to 2017 alone, to a total of $9.1 billion.[6] Such spending is all the more efficient in a Chinese legal system recently found to have a conviction rate of over 99%.[7] As one official opined ‘You can’t uproot all the weeds hidden among the crops…you need to spray chemicals to kill them all.’[8]

Nevertheless, since the failure of both the US and EU to enforce the Hague’s landmark decision against the PRC in the South China Sea Case of 2016, economic retaliation has been the primary danger for PRC policymakers tasked with steering an economy that has recently reported its lowest quarterly growth rates in 30 years.[9] Particularly concerning for Beijing are any negative repercussions in the adjoining states of Central Asia. Since the launching of the Belt Road Initiative in September 2013, President Xi has aimed to emulate an old Silk Road described as ‘more a route of friendship than a route of trade.’ That year, Xi promised that ‘by moving towards the community of common destiny in Asia, we will promote the building a community of common destiny for {humanity}.’[10]

Yet in the wake of Xinjiang, the East Asian Forum has recently warned that the ‘grand Guignol of menacing Chinese investment into Central Asia appears to be rearing its head in public discourse.’[11] This January, Anti-Chinese protests occurred in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan calling for a reduction of Kyrgyz debt to China and a ban on Kyrgyz-Chinese marriages.[12] Further attention was drawn to the recent trial of one Sayragul Sauytbay, 41, an ethnic-Kazakh Chinese citizen who before crossing into Kazakhstan had been the head administrator of a nursery in the region and thus deeply embroiled in ‘re-education campaigns.’ Sauytbay described what are officially called ‘political camps’ as ‘prisons in the mountains,’ recounting the forced feeding of pork to Muslim detainees and the execution of another ethnic Kazakh woman for sending a video of a flag-raising ceremony to relatives in Kazakhstan, an ‘illegal transfer of information.’[13] Research suggests 10,000 Kyrgyz and 10,000 Kazakhs are housed in such conditions.[14]

Key to maintaining China’s position in the region will be economic aid, vital for providing electricity and manufactured goods, as well for allowing the citizens of 33% impoverished Dushanbe, Tajikistan to visit the world’s second tallest flagpole. A more nebulous form of Sino-Globalisation, however, is the export of similar surveillance technologies to the region. Recent reportage has raised attention to such technologies’ impact in Latin America[15] and Africa,[16] a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report suggesting that technology linked to Chinese companies are found in sixty-three countries worldwide, thirty-six on the Belt and Road Initiative .[17] Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan now benefits from over 2,000 such cameras and a handy ‘Facepay’ app for public transit.[18] Of course, such firms’ intentions are not wholly malevolent, and it would be blasé to ignore the considerable contribution of American and European firms to surveillance technology. Yet Huawei, in particular, is unique for the depth of its ties to the state, one recent study suggesting that 99% of its shares are controlled by a ‘trade union committee… in all likelihood a proxy for Chinese state control.’[19]

With American-based bodies such as the Carnegie Endowment warning that Central Asian states have  ‘notions of democracy different from American ones,’ there is therefore concern that such technologies will only further entrench autocratic regimes in the region.[20] Indeed, given the limited response to the situation in Xinjiang thus far from even Muslim-majority governments in the region, it appears that securing further access to Chinese investment remains their dominant priority. Granted, all five Central Asian states are bound by the CSCE Helsinki Final Act 1975 and the Copenhagen Document 1990 due to their participation in the OSSCE, and all five have ratified six out of nine UN Core Human Rights Conventions.[21] Yet as ‘heightened demands for better governance will likely only increase the pressures under which regional governments operate,’ there is a perturbing likelihood that history will repeat itself.[22]

[1] <https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2019/09/xinjiang-story-china-world-forget-190907080927464.html>

2 <https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2014/05/29/Chinas-president-calls-for-anti-terrorism-nets-spread-from-the-earth-to-the-sky/1911401385094/>

3 Zenz, A., 2019. ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang. Central Asian Survey38(1), pp.102-128.

4 <https://chinatribunal.com/final-judgement-report/>

5 < https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/26/china-big-data-fuels-crackdown-minority-region>

6 <https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-spends-more-on-domestic-security-as-xis-powers-grow-1520358522>

7 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/12/china-forced-confessions-report>

8 <https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/wealthiest-01052018144327.html>

9 ‘An Arbitration before an arbitral tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China.’ PCA Case No. 2013-2019; <https://www.ft.com/content/73f06b8a-a696-11e9-984c-fac8325aaa04>

10 Hayes, A., 2019. Interwoven ‘Destinies’: The Significance of Xinjiang to the China Dream, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Xi Jinping Legacy. Journal of Contemporary China, pp.1-15; p5.

11 <https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/10/30/chinas-complicated-relationship-with-central-asia/>


13 <https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-officials-testimony-chinese-reeducation-camps-muslims/29396709.html>

14 Zenz, A., 2019. ‘Thoroughly reforming them towards a healthy heart attitude’: China’s political re-education campaign in Xinjiang. Central Asian Survey38(1), pp.102-128.

15 <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/technology/ecuador-surveillance-cameras-police-government.html>


17 <https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/09/17/global-expansion-of-ai-surveillance-pub-79847>

18 <https://www.rferl.org/a/china-kazakhstan-technology/30223745.html>

19 Christopher Balding and Donald C. Clarke, “Who Owns Huawei?” SSRN Scholarly Paper, Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.

20 <https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/18/societal-change-afoot-in-central-asia-pub-80086>

21 Lehner, O., 2009. Respecting Human Rights in Central Asia: Will this stabilize or destabilize the region? Security and Human Rights20(1), pp.48-55.

22 <https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/18/societal-change-afoot-in-central-asia-pub-80086>

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