Implications of Kyrgyzstan Revolt on China’s Xinjiang Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 8

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

As the political crisis in Kyrgyzstan reaches a turning point, after opposition forces seized the capital Bishkek in a bloody clash and ousted the president and his allies, Chinese leaders from regions across China have reportedly descended upon Xinjiang en masse in a rare spectacle that carried with it a heavy political undertone. The sight of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders at the top provincial party-secretary level arriving in droves in Xinjiang appears to highlight the importance that the Chinese leadership attaches to the future of this restive northwestern region in the People’s Republic that still hangs uncertainly against the backdrop of the violent Urumqi uprising last July (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], April 13).

There is little doubt that the turmoil transpiring in the neighboring Central Asian republic is on the minds of the Chinese leadership. Following the quick succession of events that eventually forced former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakyiev to flee the capital, the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately issued a statement expressing that it "is deeply concerned" about the situation and hopes the country will restore peace soon and maintain stability. "China hopes issues will be settled in a lawful way," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular briefing. Additional reports indicate that China is suspending road and public transportation links with neighboring Kyrgyzstan (China Daily, April 8; Ming Pao, April 13; Radio Free Asia, April 13).

The implications of political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan for China are sharpened by the country’s increasing strategic importance to Beijing’s "go-out" strategy. Kyrgyzstan is a key component in China’s overall approach to Central Asia and by extension Eurasia. China and Kyrgyzstan share a 1,100-km porous land border, with two main border crossings at the Irkestan and Torugart passes through the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Trade volume reportedly reached $9.3 billion in 2008, compared to $355 million in 1992, when Beijing and Bishkek established diplomatic ties (China Daily, April 9). Furthermore, XUAR exports to Kyrgyzstan were valued at around $2.97 billion in 2009, and Kyrgyzstan replaced Kazakhstan for the first time as the number-one export market for the XUAR. Kyrgyzstan is also rich in natural resources: oil, natural gas and gold, and could serve as an ideal conduit for Chinese trade (China Daily, April 9).

Yet Chinese leaders fear that due to the large number of Uyghurs that live in Kyrgyzstan (estimates range from 50,000 to 250,000) instability in the republic may spill over into Xinjiang and instigate radical elements in the Uyghur community within its borders. It could also put at risk the vast network of expansive infrastructure (e.g. road, railway, pipeline), which is part of China’s comprehensive economic development extending from Central Asia to Xinjiang.

China’s extensive and significant strategic and energy interests in Central Asia are closely tied to stability in Xinjiang, which in turn is increasingly contingent upon the neighboring republics’ internal developments. A Chinese observer on Phoenix Television, a popular Hong Kong-based television network that enjoys close ties to the central government, stated that if Kyrgyz authorities lose control, as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China should consider ways to intervene to help the country maintain peace (, April 12; Radio Free Asia, April 7).

The latest clashes in Bishkek will clearly affect trade relations in the short-term, but according to some Chinese analysts, bilateral ties will not be affected in the long-term. Xu Xiaotian, an expert on Central Asian studies at the high-profile China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), said, "no matter which party is in power, it will value China-Kyrgyzstan relations." "But it may temporarily affect some of China’s projects in this region, such as large projects in power and mining" (China Daily, April 9). According to Dong Manyuan, an anti-terror expert at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), "Its geographically strategic location means Kyrgyzstan needs to strike a balance between great powers. It doesn’t want to offend Russia or the US and it wants to maintain friendship with China" (China Daily, April 9).

While such macro-level analyses are reasonably valid, it overlooks the socio-political undercurrents that simmer beneath the current crisis. During the violent confrontation in Bishkek, a five-storey Chinese commercial center was looted and burned down. The estimated losses are up to $4 million. The rupture of violence in Bishkek has clearly unsettled the Chinese business community in the country, many of whom are concerned about reinvesting in the unstable country, particularly after suffering similar losses five years ago during the Tulip Revolution (China Daily, April 10).

In recent years, Kyrgyzstan’s dilapidated economy has fueled growing xenophobic attitudes toward Chinese immigrants in Kyrgyzstan. According to Chinese official statistics, nearly 30,000 Chinese now live in Kyrgyzstan, making it the largest foreign community with a population of roughly 5.3 million (China Daily, April 9). Unofficial estimates, which include traders and laborers, put the range as high as 100,000. While it is not the catalyst of the current political crisis, the country’s growing economic dependence on China was evidently a contributing factor that accentuated the ordinary Kyrgyz’s sense of economic disenfranchisement under the former regime (Eurasianet, March 18, 2009).

In spite of no evident link, this outbreak of instability will also likely deepen suspicion held by Chinese officials who are increasingly wary of foreign influence on the Middle Kingdom’s frontier regions. In an apparent attempt to strengthen its control over the restive region, the Chinese government has already taken steps to beef up regional security after the uprising last July. According to plans announced earlier this year, the provincial government plans to nearly double its public security spending to nearly 2.89 billion yuan ($424.8 million) this year, up 88 percent from last year’s budgeted 1.54 billion yuan, the China Daily said, citing a report from the annual legislative meeting (Taipei Times, January 17).

The Hu administration is understandably wary of the situation in the Central Asia republic, not only given what it portends for the stability of region, but also because of the potential impact it may have on the hold of CCP rule over Xinjiang. The recent incident underscores the volatility of the new regional environment and the limitations of Beijing’s existing policies toward Xinjiang. Yet, the central government’s efforts appear to follow the line of "more of the same." If this is the case, the Hu administration may find that its capability to maintain control will wane over Xinjiang not only because it fails to address the grievances of disaffected Uyghurs in Xinjiang proper, but also because its dogmatic pursuit of divorcing economics from politics may fuel greater political instability in the region.