China’s presence in Kyrgyzstan under the OBOR initiative has not gone unnoticed. While Kyrgyz businesses and government officials welcome all funding and cooperation from China, the youth is less impressed with this trend and would like to see more cooperation with the West instead.
Beksultan, a student from Osh State University, said that “China is doing really bad things here, and no Kyrgyz person gets a job from their investments.” His classmates and he said that the ethnic Kyrgyz living in Xinjiang, a heavily militarised province of China mostly inhabited by Uyghurs, are being stripped of their passports and unable to travel or communicate with their families in Kyrgyzstan. There have been reports on ethnic Kazakhs living in the area facing similar situations, as well as a huge crackdown on Uyghur culture and Islam in the region. News about this quickly reached Kyrgyzstan he said, and most people are very afraid that with the One Belt One Road initiative, this cultural homogenisation and prohibition of religious practices might soon reach their country as well. In Sary-Tash, where many travellers coming from China over the Irkeshtam Pass stay the night, locals say that they would prefer seeing more Russian influence as opposed to Chinese, referring to the gruesome stories they receive from travellers and the decrease in tourists coming to and from the area.
Nevertheless, some people do welcome the increased influence of China, insisting that the new infrastructure built by Chinese companies is helping tourism flourish in even the more remote regions of the country, something that many taxi drivers, small tourist agencies and locals living in the Jailoo welcome, claiming to really be able to use this additional source of income. Alexei, an ethnic Russian and citizen of Kazakhstan but living in Bishkek, said that “Kyrgyzstan is profiting already from the increased infrastructure projects of China. Even though we have a debt to them, we will be able to export and transport more products abroad.” He also said that Kyrgyzstan needs China, because even though he would prefer European funds, they are not nearly investing enough in the region according to him.
Although very few actual agreements have been established between the European Union and the republics of Central-Asia as a whole, the EU did agree upon a common policy document named “Strategy for a New Partnership”, showcasing the main interests of the EU in the region and its main political and economic goals: political dialogue, education, rule of law, corruption reduction and energy dialogue. Nevertheless, with around one billion euros set aside for this Strategy over a 7-year period, they do not even come close to China’s investment, which has reached about 1 billion USD for Kazakhstan alone in 2016. While nobody denies the dependency of Central-Asia on these Chinese funds, opinions remain divided on whether this is truly a win-win situation for the region and China. Skeptics say that Central-Asia risks becoming addicted to Chinese funds, sometimes referred to as “predatory aid”. A citizen of Osh – who wanted to remain anonymous – said that “China only works on its own terms. They do not negotiate and one day Kyrgyzstan will have to pay back everything. We cannot do this, it means we will become a new colony.”
Most students in Osh still want to learn English over Chinese and see a career in the United States or Europe as an ultimate goal in life, which motivates them to learn English and interact more with tourists. Whether this changing opinion on China will heavily influence the future of OBOR in the region, is only for time to tell.
(names changed for privacy purposes)