PRC Manipulation of Information Gatekeepers in the Kyrgyz Republic

A Dungan mosque in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan. (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • Beijing aims to enforce censorship outside its borders by targeting the gatekeepers of information and manipulating narratives that it does not currently monopolize.
  • Over the past two hundred years, groups like the Uyghurs, Dungans, and ethnic Kyrgyz have fled China for the territory of present-day Kyrgyzstan. Even Sinophilic groups such as the Dungans are censored in the media for trying to share their history. Some are eventually coopted by the pro-Beijing regime.
  • Li Bai, one of China’s most famous poets, was born in present-day Kyrgyzstan. But emphasizing this, or what it entails about the expansionist aspects of historic Chinese dynasties, is strongly discouraged by Beijing.

In Beijing’s approach to information operations, censorship and manipulation are two sides of the same coin (see Jamestown Perspectives, April 12). The need to continuously manage overseas narratives about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not only a matter of addressing potential cross-border threats to the regime but also of securing the basis for strong bilateral relations. Enforcing censorship within a foreign country on a mass scale is not an easy task, which is why much of the work abroad centers on manipulation. To cloud people’s judgement, Beijing focuses on trying to censor the gatekeepers of information.

In the Kyrgyz Republic, Beijing specifically targets narratives that it does not currently monopolize. Older generations across Central Asia have strong memories of conflicts during the Soviet era. This is especially true for those who fled from the PRC as well as those who had escaped to the PRC in the past, but have since decided to return. Among them, the Uyghur people face well-documented oppression across the region, as well as extreme censorship from Beijing.

Other groups, such as the Dungans and the ethnic Kyrgyz, who have historically lived between the borders, are also targeted. This is despite their having obtained Kyrgyz citizenship long ago. Starting in the late 19th century, the Dungan people—who now number close to 80,000 in Kyrgyzstan—fled from central China. This migration was triggered first by their conflict with Qing authorities and later by famine during the turmoil of the 1960s. According to 2022 statistics from the Kyrgyz National Statistical Committee, the Dungans are now the third-largest ethnic group in the country, after Russians and Uzbeks (, accessed May 29).

Visiting Dungan villages in the Kyrgyz Republic was one of the first things I did after relocating to the region in 2019. The Dungan dialect is not far from Mandarin Chinese, but I had to learn new vocabulary. For instance, rètóu (热头), which literally means “hot head,” is used in the Dungan dialect to refer to the Sun. In these villages, I met a vibrant community that endeavored to maintain the traditions of Chinese culture, language, and food. I even went to the house of a tailor who showed me vintage red Chinese wedding dresses. Many of the people there were taking advantage of their language skills and working as translators or runners for the Chinese business community. Some even conduct their own independent Chinese-language classes, with textbooks teaching conversational Mandarin Chinese. The Chinese characters, however, are all transcribed into Cyrillic.

At the same time, the Sinophilic Dungan people face direct efforts from Beijing to suppress their history. Journalists working for a Chinese-owned newspaper in Bishkek who write pieces to insert into mainstream local media told me that they faced direct editorial censorship from their Chinese editor. This individual wanted to “distort the real history of the Dungan people for the interest of Chinese politics” (Author’s interview with a former staff member of a Chinese-owned newspaper in Bishkek, 2022). The Chinese editor, dispatched from the Xinjiang office of one of the PRC’s largest state media outlets, was “irritated” by the narrative that the Dungans consider themselves refugees from atrocities they faced in China. “We argued for a long time,” one journalist said, adding that they were shocked about the extent of Beijing’s control. They tried to resist but were later fired by their Chinese employer.

The Kyrgyz population that has emigrated from the PRC, on the other hand, faces much harsher censorship. In 2018, Chinese Kyrgyz who had obtained citizenship from Kyrgyzstan began advocating for Bishkek to take the situation of 50,000 Kyrgyz who were beginning to be put into concentration camps in the PRC seriously. This number included some who were dual citizens (RFERL, November 30, 2018). The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted these efforts, and they have yet to resume. Over my four years in the region, I only managed to find a few Chinese Kyrgyz who were willing to tell me their story.

One young Chinese Kyrgyz advocate, raised in a home of educated intellectuals, had the purest intentions when he moved to Bishkek in 2014. There he hoped to protect traditional Kyrgyz culture from both Sinicization and Russification. Despite obtaining Kyrgyz citizenship, he was regularly contacted by PRC authorities from “departments responsible for monitoring those who go abroad … I told them sincerely, we just want to clarify information about our family, what they did wrong” (Author’s interview with a Chinese Kyrgyz who runs a local cultural center in Bishkek, 2021). When he opened a cultural center, “they asked who are funding us, and I told them the center is only for cultural growth, we have no political views.” In 2021, he told me that he chose not to work with anyone, neither “China [nor] the Kyrgyz government, because that would mean we should say what they tell us.” This changed the following year. He started joining events run by the Kyrgyz government and reposting PRC-made content about the Chinese Kyrgyz ethnic group on his social media. We have not been in contact since.

I have always found it strange that the public within Kyrgyzstan pays so little attention to the issues faced by Chinese Kyrgyz across the border. It rarely comes up in conversation, much less in popular media. In various ways, a group of journalists tried to explain to me why they do not report on these issues. Some were transparent and candidly pointed to their fear of spoiling cooperation with the PRC embassy and other PRC entities. Others suggested that their media could not deviate from the official position of the Kyrgyz government (Author’s interviews with at least five journalists working at different state-owned media organizations in Bishkek who shared similar views, 2022). Others went still further, saying that they have no access to accurate and verifiable information. This indirectly contributes to the PRC narrative that existing reporting around the camps in Xinjiang is fabricated. It sounded convincing: “Firstly, we prioritize local news, and we do not have our own reporters in China. It is difficult to give a full picture of that situation there when you are limited in human resources.” All of them did, however, have access to information—from the population of Chinese Kyrgyz on the ground. I had heard similar narratives repeated to me in Malaysia. Journalists there, too, were reluctant to interview Uyghur migrants in Kuala Lumpur (Author’s interview with a journalist working for an independent media outlet in Kuala Lumpur, 2021).

For now, the fragile historical memories among the Dungans and the Chinese Kyrgyz are kept in the family. Keeping these topics completely out of public discussion is a key tactic Beijing employs to avoid the formation of discourses that cast a negative light on its conduct. This includes events that occurred decades, or even centuries, ago.

Li Bai (李白; Li Po), one of the most famous Chinese poets, is generally thought to have been born near Tokmok in the present-day Kyrgyz Republic at the start of the eighth century, when the territory was part of the Tang dynasty. The Kyrgyz government has invited the PRC to open a memorial museum for Li (, June 18, 2019). This invitation has been consistently declined, however. Full of confusion, many local experts asked me why the PRC never accepted the invitation. Instead of answering their question, I always respond by asking, “Who gets to decide this history?”

From the PRC’s perspective, although Li was born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, he lived at a time when the territory was under the jurisdiction of a Chinese empire. In other words, one reading of this history might suggest two problems: not only was one of China’s greatest cultural figures not born within the borders of the PRC, but also those previous borders entailed a history of expansionary territorial conquest, a characterization which the PRC resists. Bringing this particularly sensitive history into the public eye would be disastrous. Thus, the PRC has always preferred to keep Li Bai out of the spotlight.

Censoring the gatekeepers of information can be effective over time. Parts of history are easily forgotten, and those in whose memories the history survives will eventually pass away. Moreover, the information that is publicly available is tampered with and suppressed. In 2022, I asked a traditional Kyrgyz folk musician about a song he had written ten years ago about Chinese Kyrgyz person across the border (, April 17, 2012; Author’s interview with a Kyrgyz folk musician in Osh, 2022). He said that he has stopped featuring this issue in his lyrics. “Who will listen to me when I sing?” he lamented. “Does anyone listen?”