LOOKING FORWARD: The Future of China-Central Asia Relations

Establishing political background

Warm Welcome of China ‘help’ in Central Asia

Uzbekistan is no more in isolation


All member states of the SCO recognize digitalization as an essential step to development. SCO member states have thus welcomed China’s eagerness to share and sell its tech-driven practices and insights. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has made digitalization one of his most urgent tasks and focused on emulating the Chinese model. Kazakhstan praised China’s success. Pointing to a specific Chinese company, Hikvision, he said the company’s techniques “have gone far ahead, they deeply digitalized all major cities. You click on the screen, the data on the person comes out, including literally everything. When he graduated from university, where he goes in his free time, and so on … We need to go in this direction. This is a global trend. I set this task just before our capital’s leadership”. Countries are set on a long-term path of reliance on Chinese technologies, with limited development of local capacity. In a worst-case scenario, this reliance – combined with a lack of local capacity – exposes Central Asian countries to deep potential national security problems, with the little domestic capability to manage these things themselves.

Green Finances

It is trendy in the age of digitization to move the economy to green color, investing more in green and self-sustaining development projects. For example, European countries are interested in investing in green energy, and Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic are rich in water resources and could self-sustain in the coming decades if investing in their development now. Overburdening developing countries with large loans as the Sri Lanka experiment showed, does not bring any good.

Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

China’s long-term policy toward its Western frontier

20th National Congress of the China Communist Party held on 16-20 October 2022 in Beijing. The congress concluded by approving the members of the standing committee and politburo (2296 members-delegate) and, for the third term, approved the selection of the Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, for the next five years.

Humiliation of predecessors

Western frontier – Central Asian countries

The importance of this engagement is the broadening of China’s historically economy-led (Chinese public and private investment and commerce) presence in the region to include hard power – strategy-security-military dimensions too. Friendly and neighboring states that are more aligned with their foreign policy prerogatives and long-term economic calculus. Underestimates the extent to which China is prepared to recouple and deepen trade ties – selectively – in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

What Central Asian countries think about China?

Central Asia Barometer is a Bishkek-based nonprofit that engages in applied social science research. It conducts large-scale public opinions surveys in the Central Asia twice annually. One key question is how respondents perceive about China.

In Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan the most common response to this question is “somewhat favorable.” Yet in all three countries, when asked about China, the share of people giving a favorable answer has dropped noticeably in recent years.

Kazakhstan has faced more pressure in the last five years from China as Kazakh authorities deal with local anger at the Chinese government’s forced detentions of ethnic minorities (especially Uyghurs) in the Xinjiang region.

Combined Heat and Power plant (CHP) in August 2017.

The 4-year modernization of the city’s only source of heat for over half a century was initiated by the ex-president, and cost $386 million, which was borrowed from China on credit. The contractor chosen for the project, Tebian Electric Apparatus Stock Co LTD (ТBЕА), which built two new boiler units, each with an emission capacity of 150 megawatts (MW) of power and 150 gigacalories of heat.

On 26 January 2018, during a period of unusually hard frosts, an accident at the CHP plant led to a four-day breakdown of its heating system.

Kyrgyzstan’s member of parliament demanded that the culprits be put behind bars and took themselves en masse to the CHP plant to discover why the boilers had packed up.

Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

Kazakh’ minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

Turkish-speaking minorities under oppression

The oppression of Turkic-speaking indigenous peoples professing mainly Islam, forced sending of Uyghur, Kazakhs and others to “political re-education camps”, seizure of their passports, placement under so-called house arrests. Many minorities of Xinjiang have fled China for fear of detention. The Kazakhs are the second largest Turkic-speaking ethnic group in Xinjiang after the Uyghurs and estimated around 1.2 million people.

The protests

Kazakhs in Uyghur Tribunal

    Sterilization + Birth Control = Genocide

    Xinjiang and Central Asia: What’s Going On!

    Since 2017, there have been reports from China of harassment of Turkic-speaking indigenous peoples, who profess mainly Islam, the forced sending of Uighurs, Kazakhs and others to “political re-education camps”, the confiscation of their passports, and the placement under so-called house arrests. In recent years, many members of Xinjiang’s indigenous ethnic groups have fled China for fear of detention. China’s policies are sharply criticized by Western countries, including the United States, which call what is happening in Xinjiang genocide. Beijing rejects the accusations, calling the camps “vocational training centers” set up to fight extremism and terrorism.

    Central Asia support in solving the problem of Xinjiang. This means deporting any requested Chinese citizens of several ethnic groups– Uighurs, Kazakhs or Kyrgyz – back to China. Illegal border defectors are in most cases immediately sent back without ascertaining whether the person is seeking refugee status. This worked quite successfully for a while, but internal pressure from the Kazakh population on their government also led to the authorities slightly softening their position for ethnic Kazakhs. Kazakhstan’s political elites are now in a very difficult situation.

    China also appreciates regional support for the Xinjiang issue in the international arena. Central Asian countries, which have consistently voiced their support for Beijing, have proven to be an important counterweight to Western voices, and it has become clear that Central Asian countries are more likely to side with China than the West. In addition, from time to time we see politicians from Central Asia talking in Chinese newspapers about supporting China’s policy towards Taiwan or supporting China’s national security law in Hong Kong. This is purely political influence of Beijing in order to form its own support group, although the region may not know or be interested in the situation in Taiwan or Hong Kong, but Central Asian leaders simply agree with Beijing’s position.

    Beijing’s political influence is that Beijing should get what it wants. For a long time, China only wanted support on its domestic issues, but that is changing. Now China is dissatisfied with anti-Chinese sentiment among the local population in Central Asia and is asking political leaders to solve this in some way. This is a more direct intervention that can polarize the relationship between the political class of Central Asia and the local population. Repeatedly, representatives of the Chinese embassy came to complain about how poorly China is portrayed in the Kyrgyz media, they told Kyrgyz politicians that this is a bad practice of good neighborliness. The situation is similar in Tajikistan, there is a hidden message that the anti-Chinese position is a crime, so there are no protests there, citizens can be arrested for this. In Kyrgyzstan, police are also arresting and threatening leaders of anti-China protests, and at the moment, people can still complain about China, but China is already demanding that Central Asian governments prevent this.

    Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

    China Corrosive Capital in Tajikistan

    To fight with corrosive capital will not be an easy task for a developing state like Tajikistan. It will have to improve the quality of institutions and ensure the rule of law, improve governance. It will be especially challenging when the sole donor of infrastructure investment is not the traditional donor who provides aid on conditionality of good governance reform.

    In Tajikistan it’s necessary to scrutinize the BRI loan and credit projects to assess possible risks, governance and ecological impact and minimize corruption, these funds should be returned eventually. Public discussion about equality, justice, governance and equal business opportunities should be hold beneficial not only for Tajikistan future but for China’s BRI trust, image and legitimacy. More professional civil servants with mortal integrity are needed to fight against corrosive capital. Civil society activists need to strengthen their oversight on investment and aid implementation. Civil society in Tajikistan was significantly circumscribed. For building huge infrastructure objects, the country should have a greater regulation, transparency, law enforcement, integrity of elect officials and member of the parliament, and civic activism so collectively can overcome the negative externalities caused by adaptive governance approach promoted by China

    Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

    Digital Silk Road in Kazakhstan: surveillance and censorship under the veil of security

    The complicated geopolitical situation that has arisen as a result of the war in Ukraine, as well as large-scale Western sanctions imposed on Russia and Belarus has raised a new question about how the Belt & Road Initiative will develop in the future. This is especially of concern to Kazakhstan, which has managed to take an important role in transcontinental routes. The blocking of the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian directions puts an end to the most important routes going to Europe. Bypass routes through the Caspian or the Middle East are working, but the cost of transportation and the labor costs of the trans-Caspian route are significantly inferior to the sea routes.

    Under these conditions, BRI partners, including Kazakhstan, are setting the task of cultivating new points of growth in such areas as artificial intellect, big data, digital finance, e-commerce, and green energy. The implementation of this approach largely explains the sharp increase in trade turnover between Kazakhstan and China in 2022. The trade turnover between Kazakhstan and China in January-July 2022 reached $13.5 billion, which is 38.3% more than in the same period in 2021, which was then $9.7 billion. Moreover, the volume of Kazakhstani imports for seven months of 2022 from China is a record result for such a period: in 2022 Kazakhstani imports from China amounted to $5.5 billion, with an increase of 22.6% compared to the same period in 2021. Over the seven months of last year, imports amounted to $4.5 billion. The main growth in imports is observed in the commodity group “machinery, equipment, vehicles, devices and apparatuses” – by 19.4% (for the seven months of 2022 – $3.1 billion, for the seven months of 2021 – $2.6 billion).

    In general, the program for development of IT industry within the framework of BRI has been called the Digital Silk Road (DSR). The DSR is a government initiative where Chinese companies are key players. Chinese telecommunications giants such as Huawei and ZTE, as the largest telecommunications service providers and major 5G technology providers, are successfully achieving their goal of dominating the 5G market worldwide. Leading Chinese video surveillance companies such as Hikvision, Dahua and Huawei are among the main providers of surveillance services and technologies in developing countries, including Kazakhstan. According to a Fudan University report, it is noted that over the past two years, 201 Chinese companies in the digital field have completed 1,334 overseas investment and cooperation projects, 57% of which are related to DSR. In general, by developing next-generation telecommunications infrastructure, smart city technology and surveillance systems, data centers and storage infrastructure, and other high-tech tools, Beijing is seeking to increase its role in Internet telecommunications governance and cyberspace regulation.

    The rapid development of the IT sector in Kazakhstan, on the one hand, has a positive impact on the economy and makes the country more attractive for investment. On the other hand, the transfer of Chinese surveillance and censorship technologies is worrisome, and could further shrink civic space in Kazakhstan. The greatest concern is not only the import of Chinese technologies, but also the possible import of Chinese approaches to organizing the work of smart cities, which can now be called cities of surveillance and censorship. Smart cities built on Chinese surveillance technology promise increased security and convenience for residents, but at what cost?

    The examples of China itself are widely known. The most well-known measure of the Chinese government “to combat cybercrime” (in fact, for content restriction and total surveillance) is the so-called Golden Shield, or Dragon Firewall. It is a nationwide electronic barrier that filters and controls information flows in such a way that all Internet user data in China passes through a limited number of checkpoints (gateways), operated by a limited number of Internet providers. Since 2006, the entire Chinese segment of the Internet has come under the control of this state system.

    In Kazakhstan in the past few years, has been actively implemented the Smart City projects, within the framework of which CCTV cameras are installed on the streets of cities to ensure law and order and comply with traffic rules. For video surveillance systems implemented in Kazakhstan, Chinese products are mainly used.

    Since 2017, Sergek hardware-software complexes (which means “vigilant” in Kazakh) have been operating in the biggest cities of Kazakhstan, which are supplied by Korkem Telecom (a subsidiary of Open Technologies Group). These companies are Kazakh, but Korkem Telecom’s technical partner is Chinese Dahua Technology.

    Sergek is an intelligent video monitoring, analysis and forecasting system that includes:

    – A network of video recording modules that control key areas of the urban space – highways, squares, road junctions, house adjoining areas;

    – Image recording and recognition system;

    – Intellectual system of information processing and analysis.

    Sergek has computing power and special software that allows real-time processing of significant amounts of information. Hikvision, another Chinese manufacturer of CCTV cameras and security equipment, has been operating in Kazakhstan since 2015. Hikvision cameras in Kazakhstan monitor road safety as part of the Smart City projects, and are also used in the Unified Video Monitoring System of Almaty. This system should implement situational video analytics: recognize faces and license plates on cars.

    In September 2019, Reuters, citing unnamed intelligence sources and security experts, reported that hackers working for the Chinese government had hacked telecommunications networks in several countries, including Kazakhstan, to track down Uyghur tourists in Central and Southeast Asia. China seeks to monitor Kazakhstan because it is the historical homeland of many residents of China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; over the past few years, Chinese authorities have arrested more than one million people in Xinjiang.

    China has a lot more technical capabilities than it seems at first glance, and it’s not just about cameras, but also about Chinese-made mobile devices that are in high demand in Kazakhstan due to their low price, Kazakh cybersecurity experts say. Kazakhstani researchers consider the risks from the penetration of Chinese surveillance and censorship technologies to be very high, and point out that this aspect of the implementation of DSR initiatives occupies an undeservedly small place in public discussions on the topic of BRI in Kazakhstan.


    In January 2022, in Kazakhstan broke out protests, related to rising gas prices, which very quickly turned into political protests. A large number of citizens were detained – about 7,000 people, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs – who were detained based on data from street surveillance cameras. In response to an official request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs whether Face ID cameras and artificial intellect systems were used during the detention of protesters, the Ministry of Internal Affairs replied that such systems were not used. However, given the scale of the protests, and the large number of detained participants, this is hard to believe.

    Danil Bekturganov – Director, NGO “Civil Expertise”

    Public Perceptions of China in Tajikistan

    China’s acceptability in Tajikistan comes after Russia – the Tajik people and the Tajik government; why Russia is popularly accepted as a significant or dominant power – is clear; China comes after Russia. According to the Kenan Institute (based on a Central Asian Barometer survey), 54% of people strongly favor/support (in contrast, 73% strongly favor Russia and 40% strongly prefer the United States); 30% are somewhat favorable, and only 13% don’t know or refused to answer; 20% of people think that China is a reliable and friendly great power – it’s significant considering the number of percentages for Russia is 78% and for the US is 2%. Elizabeth Wood and Thomas Baker summarized the Central Asian Barometer Survey on Public Perception of China in Central Asia conducted from 2017-to 2021:  China’s public diplomacy wins the Tajiks’ admiration through culture, language, and civilization; the degree to which citizens and leaders view the PRC favorably could also be instrumental in advancing other economic, geopolitical, and security interests.

    Tajikistan presents high approval rates for the leadership of the PRC (63 percent on average). In contrast with the USA, it is less favorable (35 percent on average). Tajikistan is the case of China’s “extract” strategy, in which there are significant economic interests for the PRC, and the PRC has maintained high approval rates there.

    Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

    China in Central Asian: Debt-Trap Policy, and Dependency in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

    (2) A typical “No Paris Club” clause is present in the Chinese contract sample and are found in 43% of China Development Bank and 81% of Exim bank projects contracts;

    (3) Collateral or security clauses to ensure that the lender has cash available in the event of default. Security arrangements are used in 75% of China Development Bank’s and 22% of Exim Bank’s contracts, whereas only 7% of OECD bilateral creditors and 1% of multilateral creditors set do so.

    (4) Escrow or special accounts are used to secure repayment and are used by Chinese state-owned banks; Throughout the life of the loan, sovereign borrowers agree to maintain and fund bank accounts at the lending institution or at a bank “acceptable to the lender,” as well as route project revenues and cash flows through these accounts that are unrelated to the project funded by the loan; (5) Cross-default clauses are present in 100% of China Development Bank’s and Exim Bank contracts, “When the debtor defaults on its obligation to Creditor B, a cross-default clause allows Creditor A to pressure the debtor and protect its claim priority. If the debtor misses a payment to B, both A and B would have the ability to demand entire loan and accumulated interest repayment at the same time under a creditor-friendly version of the clause. A creditor may retain the right to cancel the loan and demand immediate repayment under various circumstances, including political and economic developments not directly connected to the lending relationship. Once the contracts are signed, the debtor’s exit options are very limited”.

    Umedjon Majidi – Author of the blog series, Expert/Research Consultant, Civic IDEA

    Xi-Biden Meeting – Key Takeaways

    The United States will continue to compete vigorously with the PRC, including by investing in sources of strength at home and aligning efforts with allies and partners around the world”.

    Both leaders intend to ease the tension between their respective states by foreseeing coexistence in competition.

    Ani Kintsurashvili – Author of the Article, Senior Researcher, Civic IDEA