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  • Jess Driver

Kazakhstan: Paying the Price For Belt and Road?

Western-style development has become the new fashionable thing to criticise. Organisations like the OECD, World Bank and IMF march into every corner of the so-called ‘third world’ and throw money at corrupt governments in exchange for restructuring of economies and political systems. This conditional aid has been called a modern form of colonialism, imposing neoliberal, capitalist standards where they aren’t wanted. Fortunately, China is here with a new way of feeding the world’s poor.

China’s development aid is condition-free, turning a blind eye to tyrannical dictators, human rights abuses or dodgy economic practises. It works by offering loans to recipient countries that can be paid for via resource extraction. With these loans, governments can build rails, roads, power plants, airports and so on, thereby improving access and economic prospects for populations. Most importantly, it gives recipient governments much needed agency over their own decisions, as opposed to the West’s paternalistic imposition.

So what could possibly be the problem here? Many academics are quite taken by China’s non-interference policy, though the examples they use almost always come from Chinese exploits in Africa. While there have been some success stories, the unsavoury side of Chinese development aid is easier to see if we examine recent developments in the case of Kazakhstan.

It should not be surprising that the Chinese government is no bastion of transparency and morality. The well-publicised re-education camps that have appeared in Xinjiang this year remind us of this. For centuries, the people living in the borderlands between Kazakhstan and China’s Western Xinjiang province moved freely, visiting family and seeking work. However, as of 2017 this situation has changed dramatically.

Muslims living in or travelling to Xinjiang, among them ethnic Kazakhs, are harassed and taken to camps where they are forced to live like prisoners, denounce Islam as a religion of terrorism and extremism, and sing the praises of Xi Jinping. This summer, horror stories straight from the mouths of Kazakh detainees have been making headlines in the national media. Protests are in full swing after a conference set up by NGO Atazhurt Young Volunteers, where dozens of children begged to be reunited with parents who never came home from their travels to Xinjiang.

Anti-Chinese sentiments have been brewing for some time in Kazakhstan. In 2016, the country experienced its largest demonstrations in 20 years, when the government proposed allowing Chinese investors to take ownership of large parts of Kazakh land. These protests were small-scale, and nothing that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's authoritarian grip on the security forces couldn't handle. However, this new move by China threatens Kazakh identity at its core. This time, protesters stand for much more than territorial rights. They represent a proud, oppressed people standing up against a bullying superpower.

So where does this leave Mr. Nazarbayev?

There has been little in the way of official response to the camps, and for good reason. China has been steadily increasing its development aid to Kazakhstan after the announcement of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project in 2013. Under OBOR, Kazakhstan becomes a conveyor belt to transport goods to Europe by road and rail, and China floods its stagnant economy with loans in exchange for oil and metals. For Nazarbayev’s government, with its chronic corruption and tendency to imprison journalists, China is the ideal business partner.

So far, 51 agreements have been signed totalling $27.7bn. The development aid that wasn't pocketed by Nazarbayev's nearest and dearest went towards grandiose infrastructure projects that gave the population the illusion of progress. Meanwhile, China claimed its rewards in the form of raw resources pumped straight back into the Chinese economy. This system had been working very well for those at the top, and while many ordinary Kazakhs were suspicious, they were kept in the dark about any malicious practises.

Development aid from the West is wrapped in misguided and often harmful conditionality, but is China’s approach really the lesser of two evils? Chinese development aid has a sort of implicit conditionality. Countries signing these deals agree to build infrastructure that serves Beijing’s economic goals, built by Chinese contractors, with Chinese workers. They allow Chinese companies to build on their land and bleed them dry of their resources. They open the floodgates for huge quantities of Chinese imports. This locks them into an economic dependency that they cannot escape.

Perhaps even more significant is the diplomatic conditionality that precedes a development aid program. While no official documentation is signed, recipient governments are expected to agree with Beijing’s core policy – Xinping’s government has the right to rule over the current, united territory of China. Nazarbayev has made many a statement supporting this. It doesn’t seem like much until you understand that the Xinjiang Muslims dispute the Chinese government’s right to rule over them.

Furthermore, China claims that the camps only exist to protect itself from dangerous, radical Xinjiang separatists. Nazarbayev can’t afford to argue with that kind of reasoning, for fear of undermining Chinese territorial integrity. China’s grip on Kazakhstan extends beyond economic dependence. Diplomatic conditionality has paralysed the government’s ability to stand up for the unfair imprisonment of its own people. In the end, is this any less an example of neo-colonialism than the West insisting a country builds democratic institutions or open markets?

Kazakhstan's extensive economic co-operation with Beijing is not turning out to be the no-strings-attached miracle it promised to be. Nazarbayev is authoritarian, but he is not a tyrant, nor is he omnipotent. In August, public pressure forced Kazakh courts to allow an illegal Chinese immigrant to remain in Kazakhstan after she gave her testimony of life in the camps.

As public outrage mounts in the face of upcoming elections, Nazarbayev will have to decide whether he can morally justify serving China’s economic ambitions now that it has openly declared its hostility towards all Central Asian Muslims. I hope the authorities can resist temptation and stand up for their people.

Author: Jess Driver

Jess is a student of International Studies at the University of Leiden.

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press