ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- As President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev prepares to make his first official visit to China, Kazakhs are becoming the latest citizenry to push back against perceived Belt and Road intrusions.
The public mood began to sour in March, when Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only president Kazakhstan had ever known, abruptly resigned and Tokayev took over the very same day. Since then, mass protests have been brutally crushed, and President Tokayev has had the modifier "interim" removed from his title.
Now Tokayev's visit to Beijing on Wednesday and Thursday is stoking historic levels of Sino-phobia, especially among native Kazakhs but also among minorities who have been part of the country since its Soviet days (Kazakhstan was the last republic to leave the Soviet Union, doing so at the end of 1991).
On Sep. 2, hundreds of residents of the oil town of Zhanaozen rallied in a central square to protest joint Kazakh-Chinese projects and demand that Tokayev cancel his visit to Beijing. Zhanaozen was the scene of a brutal government crackdown against striking oil workers in December 2011 that resulted in at least 15 deaths.
Shockwaves from the Zhanaozen rally spread throughout the country. Kazakhs in the major cities of Almaty, Aktobe and Shymkent as well as in the capital of Nur-Sultan joined the call for dropping a reported 55 industrial and agricultural projects with China that Kazakhstan has been touting since at least 2014.
Tokayev's reaction was harsh. He blamed "ill-wishers for spreading such rumors to manipulate people's patriotic sentiments and achieve certain aims." He added, "I want to say it again that we will not surrender land to anyone."
Tokayev claimed that foreign investment led to the development of Japan and South Korea, who maintain a favorable image among Kazakhs. He did not specify where these investments might have come from.
A Kazakh government initiative to attract investment in agriculture by allowing the sale of farmland in 2016 provoked an unprecedented wave of protests throughout the country because of a popular perception that the country would sell farmland to China. Former President Nazarbayev was forced to shelve the legislation.
Tokayev is blaming his political opponents for the current anti-China sentiment.
"This could be a campaign by certain political groups that are not happy about the activities of the second president, Tokayev," Aidar Amrebayev, director of the Almaty-based Center for Applied Political Science and International Research, said, echoing Tokayev. "They want to knock down the second president in his own field as, we know, Tokayev is a Sinologist, and his possible affiliation with Beijing is on the surface.
Tokayev in the 1970s attended the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. For six months during his schooling, he took training courses at the Soviet embassy in China.
"The second president's first steps," Amrebayev said, "suggest that he at least doesn't agree to a mere role of an extra and is ready to play his own game."
Rasul Zhumaly, an independent Almaty-based political analyst, suggests that historic and recent Soviet-instilled fears of China could be at play in propagating the recent anti-China sentiment. But, he added, Beijing is also to blame because of its ruthless internment of Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kazakhs, in China's Xinjiang region, which borders Kazakhstan.
"Russia has also played a considerable role in fanning anti-Chinese fears," Zhumaly said. "And Russian media and Kazakhstan's Russian-language media have also added fuel to this." He said Moscow is motivated to act this way because Russia is "slowly but surely losing its political and economic influence in Central Asia and in Kazakhstan in particular."
At the same time, the analyst believes there are legitimate questions about benefits Kazakhs might realize from bilateral cooperation with China due to the opaque nature of the Kazakh government's dealings with China and due to the corruption that has marked at least one Kazakh-China project.
A light rail transit project in Nur-Sultan, part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, was scaled back following a massive embezzlement case.
"Since the 1990s all aspects of bilateral relations in terms of delimiting the common border, bilateral trade, Chinese companies' arrival in the Kazakh oil and gas sector and so on have been 99% closed to public scrutiny," Zhumaly said.
The political analyst continued that Kazakstan has had few resources to ensure that these deals are on the up and up. Meanwhile, across the table, China has held all the cards, including a public that does not demand transparency like in the West. As a result, China is benefiting.
"I don't think Kazakh-Chinese relations will change under Tokayev," Zhumaly said. "But circumstances demand, and I think, both Tokayev and the Chinese understand that some sort of transparency and clarity should be brought to Kazakh-Chinese relations."