China’s Public Memory Management in Kyrgyzstan

(Source: SCMP)

Executive Summary:

  • Beijing practices public memory management beyond its borders to neutralize critics by coopting elites and suppressing independent voices.
  • Despite protests, Kyrgyzstan has consistently supported Beijing’s interests, particularly regarding a land transfer and the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
  • Beijing continues to incentivize ruling elites in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere to prioritize PRC interests over national interests, fostering economic dependence through trade deals and investments.

Beijing regularly practices public memory management well beyond its borders. The approach of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has proven quite effective over time, neutralizing critical events that could have left a strong mark on bilateral relations with numerous countries. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has perfected various methods that it continues to use in responding to and adjusting any inconvenient narratives against Beijing.

In Kyrgyzstan, in the early 2000s, a mass attempt was made to stop a controversial land transfer to China (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, February 11, 2002). In concluding the closed-door negotiations with Beijing, then-President Askar Akayev asked the Kyrgyz parliament to ratify the transfer of 125,000 hectares of Kyrgyz territory to China, including the Uzengi-Kush mountain range which contains high-value deposits of minerals and is a critical water source for Western Xinjiang (Commission of Security and Cooperation in Europe, April 7, 2005;, September 27, 2021; Central Asian Survey, August 22, 2022). Opposition groups, however, united against the initiative and enjoying mass support from across the country, rallied in the capital (Eurasianet, December 16, 2002). Over 700 citizens participated in hunger strikes to stop the land transfer (OMCT, August 3, 2002). In response, the government arrested opposition members of parliament and ordered violence against the protesters. In Aksy, the hometown of Azimbek Beknazarov, leader of the opposition alliance, police shot dead five peaceful protesters (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 19, 2002).

In a strange twist, among the few remaining local Kyrgyz critics of Beijing, almost no one touches on how the PRC incentivized the ruling elites in Bishkek to further Chinese goals even at the cost of their own national interest. Instead, some focus their comments on debt issues, while others stick to stereotypical negative comments about the Chinese people.

On March 16, 2022, 20 years after the violent crackdown, I stood at a street corner across from a monument put up in memory of those who gave their lives to protest the land transfer. At 10:00 a.m., police arrived with groups of men in plainclothes, ostensibly to prevent any sort of demonstration from breaking out. I left to join a memorial event organized by a local nongovernmental organization, where only about 30 people showed up. To my disappointment, even there, the conversation did not center on the land transfer and the alleged corruption. The word “China” was barely even mentioned.

Over the past 20 years, the CCP has continuously managed public memory of the Aksy event and the land deal by coopting elites who have worked to shield Beijing from criticism, propagating their own narratives. These efforts also suppressed independent views on the issue. At the time, Askar Salymbekov, mayor of Naryn and owner of Dordoi Bazaar, in a clear conflict of interest, was one of the lobbyists who insisted that the Uzengi-Kush mountain range was not valuable (Author’s interview, 2021). Having obtained control over the country’s only trade route bordering the PRC in Naryn, Salymbekov grew the Dordoi Bazaar into a regional hub for Chinese products. This development cemented Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence on the export and import of Chinese commodities. In 2014, the bazaar contributed to one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (, February 5, 2014). Salymbekov went on to become one of the most successful businessmen in Kyrgyzstan as a pro-China lobbyist who has consistently backed Chinese projects, including a controversial $275 million Chinese logistics hub in his hometown, At-Bashy (South China Morning Post, October 17, 2020;, September 2022).

At the memorial event, discussion centered around admiration for those who went on extended hunger strikes and disproval against local law enforcement for shooting at the protesters. Yet, it seemed to me that some seriously important storylines were missing from the conversation. I was even more shocked to see Ishak Masaliev, head of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, as a speaker invited to talk about how government-ordered violence was a mistake. Masaliev himself is a known supporter of Beijing’s oppressive treatment of the Muslim population, a self-proclaimed frequent visitor to the PRC, and an admirer of the CCP’s “successes.”

In recent years, PRC land grabs in the surrounding region have extended to Nepal and Bhutan, where yet again the public is kept in the dark with no access to the closed-door negotiations (China Brief, February 2). In Bishkek, several veteran independent journalists told me that the government did all it could to contain the situation. Initially, government officials told state media not to report on the protests. Then, they created their own narratives in an attempt to break up national solidarity in protecting Kyrgyzstan’s land. Bishkek even directly ordered media outlets not to mention the world “China” in their reporting on the Aksy event. “At that time, the State Secretary invited me to the 5th floor of the White House [in Bishkek] and handed me a very thick envelope with money. I refused. He recommended that I flee to Europe” (Author’s interview, December 2021). Some citizens told me that, even today, children of the key opposition figures who fought against the land deal are still being threatened not to talk about the event.

Despite numerous changes over the past 30 years, Kyrgyzstan has maintained its approach to supporting PRC interests. On Uyghur issues, Bishkek has sided with Beijing from the beginning, enacting policies and fomenting sentiments that frame the groups that protested ethnic-based discriminative policies in Xinjiang as terrorists. An independent journalist who tried to write about this reality in connection with the 2016 Chinese Embassy bombing in Bishkek was subsequently barred from entering the PRC. He was approached by local law enforcement who told him that the PRC ambassador intervened and protested his reporting (Author’s interview, 2022). Today, few Kyrgyz citizens know about the discriminative policies that the ethnic minorities across the border are suffering, including land grabs, eradication of ethnic languages, denial of access to education, and unemployment.

Bishkek even evokes a sense of pragmatism and patriotism among the population as a response to any negative comments about Beijing. In explaining this approach, a Kyrgyz member of parliament (MP) told me that no one had to physically intimidate or threaten him. Coercion was calm and indirect, with members of the Presidential Administration simply saying, “We need financial support from China, when you speak out on China like this, do you think that they will still give us money? Think about what you said and how many poor Kyrgyz lives here you will cost” (Author’s interview, 2021). This same parliamentarian once made a request to the Foreign Ministry to initiate an investigation on the conditions of Kyrgyz citizens who have been detained in the re-education camps across the border.

The rationale today is that voices critical of Beijing are not conducive to local development and hurt Kyrgyzstan’s economic interests. Therefore, all protection of PRC interests in the country are justified. This approach seems to have worked, the Kyrgyz MP told me. “Only because of my little speech can China deprive us of grants. I understood that with this action. I can make a huge mistake that may lead to even worse economic situation for my Kyrgyz people” (Author’s interview, 2021).

Managing public memory is not just a domestic practice for Beijing. Abroad, the CCP uses a continuous, fluid, and adaptative approach to expanding its interests. The underlying method of coopting elites, suppressing independent voices, and eventually creating national dependency ends with the consolidation of resilience against any critical voices, be they official narratives or individual protests.

Today, the mountain range that makes up the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan is widely referred to within the country as “Tian Shan (天山),” the Chinese name. Even the public policy think tank at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek is named the Tian Shan Policy Center. The designation “Uzengi-Kush” itself has been almost completely removed from public discourse.