Beijing Pushes Local Censorship to Protect PRC Companies in the Kyrgyz Republic

Kyrgyz festival with people playing the traditional sport Kok-boru in 2017. (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • Beijing pressures the Kyrgyz government to censor voices criticizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC), its companies, and its citizens within the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • As PRC companies have expanded in country—particularly in the mining sector—extensive environmental damage has provoked local protests.
  • Some cultural products that dramatize protests against PRC companies have faced censorship, occasionally with apparent collusion between the Kyrgyz government and PRC journalists.
  • PRC companies operating overseas will sometimes vet potential employees by making them take tests to discern their loyalty or hostility to the PRC.

Among Beijing’s priorities for managing public memory in the Kyrgyz Republic is ensuring that its contributions to the country’s economy continue to be positively received. The Kyrgyz Republic is a democracy with frequent changes of government. As such, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) seeks to inoculate itself to shifting political sands and cement strong bilateral relations by increasing the small republic’s degree of economic dependence. PRC companies operating overseas often behave in ways that run counter to these aims, however. Frequently, they are so eager to turn a quick profit that they ignore environmental protections and other laws. This leads to tense relations with local populations.

Kyrgyz citizens are aware of and often privately opposed to the poor conduct of PRC companies operating in their country. Environmental activists and journalists have been instrumental in bringing these violations to light, though they now face mounting censorship. In the cultural realm, the fates of four popular movies released over the span of a decade that paint portraits of bad-faith Chinese investors illustrate the shrinking civil society space for criticism of PRC activities in the country. Each movie has been more critical than the last, mirroring a perceived worsening of these companies’ conduct. For many, this emerging trope reflects the lived experience of many across Kyrgyzstan.

The first of these movies, Svet-Ake (The Light Thief), was released in 2010 and centers on a Kyrgyz electrician who is on a mission to bring light to his rural village (YouTube/The Light Thief (Svet-ake) by Aktan Arym Kubat, December 24, 2019). Ultimately, he wants to harness the wind to generate the power needed to light up the village. For now, however, he taps into electricity lines from the state power grid. The movie became infamous for what has come to be referred to as the “shame scene.” Set inside a yurt, young Kyrgyz women are presented to visiting male Chinese investors at the invitation of a Kyrgyz businessman. The businessman is nominally fundraising for the electrician’s wind power project, though instead he is involved in a side scheme to collaborate with the government for profit. These women’s offers of sex to the investors incenses the electrician, who intervenes as the men start undressing. He flees but is eventually hunted down and murdered.

In 2021, the movie’s screenwriter, Aktan Abdykalykov, told me in an interview that he was the first person to call out the behavior of Chinese investors in Kyrgyzstan (Author’s interview, December 2021). “I think it was an unconscious prediction of the future,” he said. Reticence about the PRC and its actions is hardly a new phenomenon in the country, however. On a separate occasion, Aktan, who is in his late 60s, was quick to recall the shooting by police of peaceful protestors in the village of Aksy who opposed a land deal in which 125,000 hectares of Kyrgyz territory was transferred to the PRC. “I do not understand geopolitics,” he told me. “But my fear of China is reasonable. They already took our land in the Uzengi-Kush” (see Jamestown Perspectives, April 12).

Svet-Ake was followed in 2013 by Salam, New York! (“Hello New York!”) and by Kök Börü (Game of the Tough) in 2018 (YouTube/Салам Нью-Йорк!, September 6, 2014; IMDB, accessed June 25). Both were written by Ruslan Akun, a young writer in his 30s who as a teenager became enraged after witnessing the disregard with which Chinese gold miners were treating the local environment. Akun emphasized that he is “not Sinophobic” but is concerned about the actions of Chinese workers in the country. When I asked him what kind of research he did for his movies, he recounted the following story (Author’s interview, January 2022):

I saw a very dirty river. It was in the summer, so it shouldn’t be dirty. I wondered why, [as] our mountain river comes from glaciers and is always crystal clear. Then we drove further, and I saw excavators digging at the head of river. These people were mining gold in a very savage way. I asked who they were; they were Chinese.

In Salam, New York!, a Kyrgyz man decides to leave his life as a successful lawyer living the American dream and return home to fight for his father’s land, which is being forcefully sold to Chinese mining investors. Kök Börü centers on similar themes. It tells the story of a village coming together to compete in a national tournament of the eponymous sport, a traditional game played on horseback with the carcass of a goat. The villagers hope to get their hands on the prize money to pay for their legal fees in the battle to have their land returned after it was forcefully sold to a PRC company.

A fourth movie, Meken (“Homeland”), was written by Mederbek Zhalilov and released in 2020. The film can be seen as a natural progression from the previous movies (IMDB, accessed June 25). Meken was banned from cinemas—an indication of the PRC’s long arm of censorship that has been growing since the late 2010s (Kaktusmedia, July 27, 2020). The movie’s plot revolves around a legal and, at times, physical battle between local villagers and a PRC gold mining company that has bombed mountains and polluted water, leading locals to fall ill and cattle to die.

In 2022, Bektemir Mamayusupov, the movie’s producer, shared with me the nightmare of their attempts to get Meken released (Author’s interview, March 2022). He recalled how the Kyrgyz presidential administration asked for two censors to review the movie in advance of its release. “But before they gave me an answer,” he told me, “a woman called, saying that she was a journalist working for a Chinese media outlet.” The journalist appeared to know a lot about the script, which surprised Mamayusupov, who had not shown the film to anyone but the two government officials. The angle of her questions soon became apparent, however. “She was asking me if I thought that my film would damage relations between China and Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

A special government committee was then set up to review Meken. “We cut [scenes] at their request. But the intervention did not stop,” the producer lamented. “They called again and again and saw it again and again. Every time they saw our movie, they asked to cut more and more scenes.” Having lost hope that the movie would be released in theaters, the Meken team eventually gave up waiting for permission they knew would never come. Pivoting instead to publishing the movie on YouTube, Meken racked up one million views within a week—a huge success for the Kyrgyz Republic, a country of only 6 million people. The positive interest was even echoed by politicians, albeit privately. According to Mamayusupov, “All the politicians that I talked to liked [the movie]. No one said a bad word. But they did not openly support it. Everyone was scared.” As of early 2024, the movie has been taken down from YouTube. No clear reason has been provided for its removal.

The lack of positive energy around PRC investment in the Kyrgyz Republic has become a key target of Beijing’s public memory management. Censoring movies is an effective way to prevent hostile views taking root. Censorship also occurs more directly, targeting the kinds of people that are valorized in these movies—namely, environmental activists and their supporters.

In an interview with a prominent local environmental activist, the impact of PRC-directed censorship in the Kyrgyz Republic became clear to me (Author’s interview, December 2021). He drew attention to a discussion with a man who was fired from his role as a department head at a PRC mining company. His employment contract contained nondisclosure clauses that prohibited them discussing both the company and its Chinese employees. He also told me that I should give up trying to find local mine workers to speak to because they, too, had been made to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Remarkably, one former employee was willing to speak to the environmental activist. He shared information about unusual company practices prior to his onboarding, alleging that the firm made everyone take a test that included questions on what they think about the PRC and the way it treats other countries. In addition to the prospective employees’ personal political views, questions were even asked about where they wanted their children to study abroad. This suggests that PRC companies take actions to vet workers on their potential ideological orientation, ensure loyalty, and reduce the need for direct censorship.

PRC companies often try to pay off or coopt critics. A local journalist at the center of a separate dispute told me that the mining company alleged to have perpetrated the violations tried to recruit him as a press secretary. “They said they will give me a high salary if I write good things about Chinese investors,” he said. After he refused, he told me that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Committee for National Security accused him of taking money for his activities. “They are still monitoring me,” he said. While he stood by his principles, he adds that he knows of another activist who did end up taking the job (Author’s interview, December 2021).

The choices activists and would-be critics must make in the face of enormous pressure and constant harassment are stark. This is especially the case when the Kyrgyz government also appears willing to submit to PRC pressure. From Svet-Ake to Meken, Kyrgyz cinema has sought to dramatize stories of the David and Goliath struggles playing out across the country. With the stifling of these creative outlets, however, life is increasingly imitating art, and the ability to debate the consequences of PRC malfeasance in the public domain is slowly disappearing.