China’s Public Memory Management in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan China

China aims to manage the minds of its people. Such an assertion is evident from the use of technology to monitor and surveil the populace to a point where the Communist Party of China is watching every citizen’s move. A 2022 Reuters story (8 April) talks of how China has integrated Artificial Intelligence into its software, surveillance equipment and cameras to monitor its citizens. During the Covid pandemic, the Chinese state tightly controlled information, both on the pandemic itself, its outbreak and the feeling of the Chinese people about the handling of the pandemic. While domestic management of information and perceptions comes naturally to the Chinese state, its export to other countries, including those in Central Asia is another facet of the influence operations carried out by China.

One such instance has come to light recently. An article by Niva Yau written for the Jamestown Foundation (12 April 2024) provides evidence of China’s public memory management beyond its borders to neutralize critics by coopting elites and suppressing independent voices. The country in question is Kyrgyzstan, which has consistently supported China’s interests, particularly regarding land transfer and the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Further, China continues to incentivize ruling elites in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere to prioritize PRC interests over respective national interests. This is because China has managed to control the narrative coming out of Kyrgyzstan in its favour.

In the early 2000s, an attempt was made to stop a controversial land transfer to China. The deal to hand over 1,250 square kilometers of Kyrgyzstan’s land to China was signed in 1999. At that time, there was ample, vocal opposition, including calls to impeach then President Askar Akaev and it lasted for several years. Ratification by the Kyrgyz Parliament took place in May 2002, but the protests and opposition continued. The land transfer of 125,000 hectares of Kyrgyz territory included the Uzengi-Kush mountains which contain high-value deposits of minerals and is a critical water source for Western Xinjiang. Opposition groups, however, united against the initiative and enjoying mass support from across the country, rallied in the capital (Eurasianet, 16 December 2002). Over 700 citizens participated in hunger strikes to stop the land transfer. In response, the government arrested opposition members of Parliament and ordered violent dispersal of protesters. In Aksy, hometown of Azimbek Beknazarov, leader of the opposition alliance, the police shot dead five peaceful protesters (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 19 November 2002).

Several veteran independent journalists in Bishkek recalled that the government initially told the state media not to report on the protests. Then, they created their own narrative to break up national solidarity against the transfer of land to China. Notably, the Kyrgyz State even directly ordered media outlets not to mention the word “China” in their reporting on the Aksy event. One reporter recalled, “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” (Jamestown Foundation, 12 April 2024). Even today, children of the key opposition figures who fought against the land deal are threatened not to talk about the event.

The tragedy is that despite the protest against the land transfer, no one talks of how China 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. Nive Yau has done another study on Chinese influence on Kyrgyz media which looks into the tactics used by Chinese state actors to create positive coverage about China, spread negative political talking points about the United States and the West, and suppress or drown out stories about China’s interests in Central Asia, such as concerns over an internment-camp system for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its neighbouring Xinjiang Province. On Uyghur issues, Kyrgyzstan has sided with China 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 the 2016 Chinese Embassy bombing in Bishkek was barred from entering China. He was approached by local law enforcement officials who told him that the Chinese Ambassador intervened and protested his reporting. 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. The rationale today is that voices critical of China are not conducive to local development and hurt Kyrgyzstan’s economic interests. Therefore, all protection of China’s interests in the country are justified.

Niva Yau points out that Askar Salymbekov, Mayor of Naryn and owner of Dordoi Bazaar, is one of the lobbyists who recently insisted that the Uzengi-Kush mountain range was not valuable. Having obtained control over the country’s only trade route bordering China in Naryn, Salymbekov developed Dordoi Bazaar into a regional hub for Chinese products. This cemented Kyrgyzstan’s economic dependence on the export and import of Chinese commodities. 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 US$ 275 million Chinese logistics hub in his hometown, At-Bashy. The logistics hub was subsequently scrapped in view of popular protests (The Diplomat, 20 February 2020) .

Managing public memory is not just a domestic practice for China. Abroad, the CPC uses a “continuous, fluid, and adaptative” approach to expanding its interests says Nive Yau. The method of coopting elites, suppressing independent voices, and eventually creating national dependency ends with the consolidation of resilience against any critical voices, be it official narratives or individual protests. For instance, the mountain range that makes up the eastern part of Kyrgyzstan is today widely referred to as “Tian Shan”, 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. China thus regularly practices public memory management well beyond its borders. China’s approach has proven quite effective, neutralizing critical events that could have left a strong mark on bilateral relations. The CPC has perfected various methods that it continues to use in responding to and adjusting any inconvenient narratives against China.

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