What does China want?

Jonathan Steele

  • Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia by Philip Shishkin
    Yale, 316 pp, £20.00, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 18436 5
  • The Chinese Question in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Change and the Chinese Factor by Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse
    Hurst, 271 pp, £40.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 1 84904 179 9

The usual view of the ‘stans’, the five states that emerged in Central Asia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, is that they are a potential site of geostrategic rivalry: it is after all the only place in the world where three imperial powers are fighting for control of the same territory. Russia, the most recent external ruler, exploited the area for two centuries; for commercial as well as nostalgic reasons it is reluctant to lose its remaining influence. China sees the region as a temptingly underpopulated and energy-rich borderland ripe for investment in new infrastructure, transport links, migration and settlement. The United States has built large military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which are all the more useful for being located on the frontiers of the increasingly assertive Russia and the rising military power of China. The risks of serious confrontation are clear.

There is, however, an opposing view, which holds that Central Asia is a small corner of minimal international significance, a semi-desert, with no outlet to the sea and a population set to be ruled for many more years by authoritarian regimes that have no interest in fomenting regional strife. Any competition between the world’s three most recent empires – Russia past, US present and China future – will be purely economic. Political Islam may be a threat, but jihadi militance is likely to pose more of a problem for the local regimes than for the three outside powers. Indeed, the potential threat from political Islam is more likely to lead to co-operation than conflict among the big three since they all have an interest in containing its spread.

These two books tend towards the latter view. Both emphasise the distinctions between the five states and the differences in their history. Both argue that the danger posed by Islamism tends to be exaggerated. With the exception of Tajikistan in the 1990s Islam hasn’t been a significant factor in any of the countries’ internal politics. As for global jihad, it is noticeable that there are few Central Asians among the foreign militants fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or in Syria. Gunmen from other parts of the former Soviet Union have turned up on these proxy battlefields, most notably from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, but almost none from Central Asia. This shouldn’t be a surprise. During the Cold War some Kremlinologists claimed that the region was more prone to dissent and rebellion because its Muslim population was inherently anti-communist. The US and other Western governments expanded their broadcasts to Central Asia during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the hope of provoking revolt – the assumption being that the people were outraged by Moscow’s invasion. But most of the population had adopted Soviet secularism and, if they observed Islamic rites at all, did so as a marker of cultural tradition and not as a political statement. The Soviet high command sent a disproportionately high number of Central Asian conscripts to fight in the Afghan war and their confidence was repaid: only a few defected to the mujahedin resistance.

After independence in 1991 there was a boom in mosque-building, largely financed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. By permitting this construction, providing visas for foreign imams to come and preach, and letting Central Asians join the haj in large numbers, the region’s regimes sought to buy off potential Islamists. Just in case of trouble, Islamist political parties are banned everywhere except Tajikistan. The strategy seems to have worked. The rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an armed group which operated out of the mountains in Tajikistan and northern districts of Afghanistan, was short-lived. There were a number of incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, but several hundred of its members were killed fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. While the Taliban were able to relaunch their movement a few years later, the IMU has remained marginal in Central Asia. There is no large pool of local sympathisers for it to draw on as there is in Afghanistan.

The restless valley of Philip Shishkin’s title is the Ferghana Valley, which connects eastern Uzbekistan and south-western Kyrgyzstan. There have been several episodes of public unrest in the valley, all brutally repressed, but they have had more to do with ethnic tensions and local politics than religion, as Shishkin makes clear. Born and brought up in Russia and with Tatar ancestry on his mother’s side, Shishkin moved to Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, in 2005 to write for the Wall Street Journal. Having no need for fixers and translators he merged into the local scene more effectively than most Western correspondents. His book is dominated by stories of ruthlessness, greed and massacre. They bring to mind a complaint common among the foreign journalists who covered Gorbachev’s perestroika with excitement but were then alarmed at the chaotic transition to crony capitalism under Yeltsin: ‘We came to Moscow as political correspondents. We leave as crime reporters.’ The ex-Soviet Central Asian republics travelled a similar path from one-party authoritarianism to a highly corrupt form of the market but – with the exception of Kyrgyzstan – without any interlude of political pluralism and open debate and with an even grimmer end-point. The commanding heights of the Russian economy are shared today by a few dozen oligarchs and presidential appointees; wealth in the Central Asian republics tends to be in the hands of a single family. In Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan the Communist Party chief who was in power when the USSR broke up succeeded in turning his newly independent state into a source of immense riches for himself and his relatives, using every form of crime, from the expropriation of public assets to bribery, imprisonment and murder.

As the least repressive of the five republics, Kyrgyzstan was the obvious place for a roving reporter to be based. Its leader, Askar Akayev, an optical physicist, was the exception to the rule that the old party boss became the new plutocrat. A late entrant into politics, Akayev had headed the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences until he emerged as the compromise candidate for the new post of president of the republic in 1990 and was voted into the job by the Supreme Soviet. In his first decade in power, he was thought of by Western diplomats as a liberal, and with its mountains and lakes Kyrgyzstan was said to be on the way to becoming the Switzerland of Central Asia. Akayev permitted the existence of other political parties as well as hundreds of small NGOs, many funded from abroad. This was the embryonic ‘civil society’ beloved of Western donors, though many of the NGOs were one-man bands. US money and grant-giving advisers poured in, as Washington sought to gain a strategic foothold in a region that had been closed during the Cold War. After 9/11 there were more immediate objectives. Within days of toppling the Taliban, the Bush administration persuaded Akayev to let the Pentagon build a base at the airfield at Manas: it would allow the US to rotate troops in and out of Afghanistan more easily and to operate flying tankers to refuel its planes.

But then the arrogance of power began to affect Akayev and his family. His son and son-in-law won lucrative contracts to supply the US base. His wife, Mairam, was the gatekeeper to the presidential palace, keeping ambitious politicians in line and controlling access to top jobs. By the time Shishkin arrived public dissatisfaction was growing. Parliamentary elections that winter were seen to be rigged, and young protesters took to the streets, as they had done in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. In Shishkin’s eyewitness account the Tulip Revolution, as it was called by analogy with the Colour Revolutions, was an almost farcical business. As crowds gathered outside his palace, Akayev fled. The police retreated in the face of a mob which had had no expectation of being able to enter the building and had no idea what to do next other than loot whatever they could find. Members of the old elite who had fallen out with Akayev gradually gained control and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former prime minister and leader of a powerful southern clan, became president, and soon proved to be more corrupt and unpopular than his predecessor.

Not long after Akayev’s fall, troops in the city of Andijan in Uzbekistan killed scores of anti-government protesters on the orders of the president, Islam Karimov, who feared that events in his country might take a similar course. He closed the city to outsiders, but Shishkin sneaked in to hear grim tales from survivors. When the nearby town of Kara Suu was closed to journalists too, Shishkin was twice stopped at checkpoints and warned by police to stay away; the third time he somehow found a way through. In spite of these exploits there are no false heroics in his account. He almost slept through the change of power in Bishkek, having gone home for a nap; luckily, a friend rang and told him to get to the main square immediately.

The Tulip Revolution, the Andijan massacre and the clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the city of Osh weren’t all part of the same phenomenon. Like Georgia and Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan allowed some measure of party politics. In countries with all-out repression, dissidence tends to manifest itself as individual resistance, and protest movements rarely take off. Group resentment that turns to violence is more easily sparked by ethnic jealousies than by anger with the regime. This was the case in 2010 in Osh, where an Uzbek commercial class dominated the town at the expense of poorer recent migrants from Kyrgyz villages. During the Soviet period Kyrgyz nationalism had been largely suppressed, manifesting itself only in demands for more schools that taught in Kyrgyz. But Kyrgyz were a minority in Bishkek, their own capital, where they were outnumbered by Russians and Ukrainians among others, and after independence their resentment grew. In the republic’s second city, Osh, Russians and Uzbeks formed the largest group. Many Russians left after the Soviet Union collapsed, as part of a huge Slavic exodus from all of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In Osh their vacant flats were taken by the Kyrgyz villagers, who eventually attacked their Uzbek neighbours. In four days of violence the official death toll was 295 Uzbeks and 123 Kyrgyz. Dozens of people were tortured and raped; property was looted and burned. Hundreds of Uzbeks fled and those who remain still risk kidnapping and extortion by criminal gangs and sometimes the police. What was remarkable during the killing was the subdued response of the government of Uzbekistan. Although many Kyrgyz feared, and Uzbeks hoped, that as the larger, more populous and powerful state Uzbekistan would press the Kyrgyz authorities to protect the Uzbeks of Osh, Karimov was careful to avoid confrontation.

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Osh was an exception: ethnic tensions in post-Soviet Central Asia have rarely led to violence. There have been far worse problems in the part of Central Asia subject to China’s rule, as Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse, two French scholars of the region, both at George Washington University, point out in their book. In Xinjiang, where massive immigration by Han Chinese has reduced the Muslim Uyghurs to about 45 per cent of the population, resentment is religious as well as ethnic and has frequently manifested itself in political protest and lethal clashes with the police. China’s military modernisation, and Washington’s focus on Beijing’s naval expansion as a challenge to the seventy-year US monopoly of sea power in Asia, have kept most analysts’ eyes fixed on the threat from the east. The usual scenario posits clashes breaking out in the next few decades around Japan, the Korean peninsula and Taiwan. But Central Asia may come under Chinese military pressure sooner than that. With its huge energy resources, its land border with China, and its sixty million people spread thinly across vast empty spaces, it is vulnerable to Chinese expansionism. Chinese trade and investment are growing rapidly in all five post-Soviet states, and the flag usually follows when the dominant power decides its merchants and settlers need ‘protection’.

Until the early 1990s Soviet Central Asia was hermetically sealed from China. Ideological disputes between the two communist giants had almost brought them to war after border clashes in 1969. Under Gorbachev tensions eased and in 1988 the two states permitted people in frontier areas to cross without visas. Three years later they reached agreement on border lines. When Central Asia unexpectedly became independent, Beijing and the three republics that have borders with China built on these foundations and border treaties were concluded within a decade. Although Mao had argued that the 19th-century tsarist treaties which set the borders were ‘unequal’, his successors accepted a deal that left 57 per cent of the territory China had claimed in Kazakh hands. In Tajikistan China took only 3 per cent of what it had asked for, a small area of largely mountainous terrain. The problem was with Kyrgyzstan, most of which Mao had claimed. The new Chinese rulers reduced the claims but Akayev still ceded 90,000 hectares of arable land, arousing large protests, thereby undermining his authority. The land swaps failed to include any deals on sharing water, still a difficult issue, because as Xinjiang’s cotton and wheat production increases and its population swells, the demand for water increases. In response, China has been drawing increasing amounts from two of Kazakhstan’s main rivers.

The fate of the Chinese Uyghurs is a particularly thorny subject. Sometimes known as the ‘sixth people of Central Asia’, they live on both sides of the border and are seen in Beijing as potential separatists. Before the People’s Republic of China was created, Xinjiang saw the Soviet Union as a key political and economic partner. The Uyghur intelligentsia in Xinjiang’s capital, Ürümqi, looked to Moscow rather than Beijing. In the 1950s and 1960s Mao was happy to let tens of thousands of Uyghur move to Soviet Kazakhstan, leaving space for Han colonisation. Central Asian independence changed the dynamic overnight, suddenly offering a political model and a dream of national liberation for the Uyghurs who had stayed behind. Inside Xinjiang, China has largely responded to the threat with repression. In the Central Asian states it has had to tread more carefully. Mao’s territorial claims were reduced, Laruelle and Peyrouse argue, in return for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan agreeing to help settle the Uyghur question. ‘Although no official proof can confirm this,’ they write, ‘the Chinese authorities exerted pressure at the highest state level, which is to say directly on the presidents themselves, threatening to undermine the very foundations of the new states’ if the Central Asians interfered in the treatment of the Uyghurs. (The land swap treaties have never been published, making such suspicion plausible.) In Uzbekistan, where all independent political activity is suppressed, there is no active Uyghur association. Under pressure from China, Kazakhstan too dissolved Uyghur groupings in the second half of the 1990s. In acquiescing to all this, the Central Asians were subscribing to the Chinese belief that ‘three evils’ have to be fought: separatism, extremism and fundamentalism. Although broadly allied with Moscow in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, China and the Central Asian states irritated Putin by not recognising South Ossetia, the territory which broke away from Georgia in 2008. With Uyghur separatism under control and the border disputes resolved, trade between China and Central Asia has skyrocketed in the last ten years. In 2002 turnover was around a billion dollars. By the start of the global economic crisis in 2008 it had reached $25 billion, only just behind Central Asian trade with Russia. China has its eye on Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas and is investing heavily in road and rail construction throughout the region.

In a fascinating chapter, Laruelle and Peyrouse analyse recent polls on Central Asian attitudes to China, Russia and the United States. They show that negative views of China, built up by the Soviet media over decades, have been strengthened by China’s tough behaviour, including its dealings with Uyghurs and other Muslims. The predominant Central Asian view is that China still harbours imperial designs on Central Asia, fuelled now by greed for markets and energy and eventually for land. As for the United States and its military bases, it is trusted even less. In the same way that Indians see the old imperial power as a state in decline towards which one can feel mild affection, Central Asians overwhelmingly favour Russia over China and the US and see it as less threatening.

The elites may see things differently. China has reinforced the regimes’ authoritarian political style and supported them in conflating political opposition with Islamism, a distortion facilitated by the US war on terror. But their alliance with Beijing is an axis of convenience. They share China’s rejection of liberalisation and regime change but envisage no real political rapprochement. Laruelle and Peyrouse quote one of Moscow’s foremost Central Asian scholars, Konstantin Syroezhkin: the Sino-Central Asian alliance, he says, is ‘cold politically and scorching economically’.