Lake Baikal in Siberia
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Protests along the BRI: China’s prestige project meets growing resistance

Anti-Chinese protests in Russia and Kazakhstan show that Beijing’s Belt and Road projects can be undone by the popular resistance and local politics of their host countries. Government support is not enough, says Oyuna Baldakova.

Powerful anti-Chinese protests in Russia and Kazakhstan show that popular prejudice and local politics can endanger Chinese projects even in countries whose governments regard Beijing as a crucial partner. China is learning the hard way that the greater its influence abroad and the more numerous its foreign initiatives, the more carefully it has to tread.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping declared Russia and China would form a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” when they met in Moscow in June ­– only three months after a public outcry led a court to shelve construction of a Chinese-financed water-bottling plant on Lake Baikal in Siberia.

The Irkutsk court disagreed with previous findings that drawing water from the world’s largest freshwater resource would have no major environmental impact. This was noteworthy as the plant at Kultuk would not have been the first one on Lake Baikal - some environmentalists did not even feature it in their Top Ten of regional environmental dangers.

The judge’s ruling that the AkvaSib plant was illegal cheered a population in which anti-Chinese sentiment is rife. Grievances range from local ones about an influx of Chinese tourists and the mushrooming of illegally built, Chinese-owned lakeside hotels to wider regional worries about sizeable – and at times illegal – logging of timber for export to China and the large-scale lease of farmlands in the Russian Far East to Chinese farmers.

Anti-Chinese sentiments are often instrumentalized

Historically conditioned Sinophobia feeds such attitudes, but so too does local mistrust of all levels of often intransparent and uncommunicative Russian government. When it combines with worries about China’s influence, potent dramatizations can result – for example, fears about corrupt officials “selling off” land or other assets to Chinese investors. Local elites too can instrumentalize such narratives to score points against local or national political rivals.

One of the alleged sponsors of a massive online campaign against the AkvaSib project was often said to have been the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. He owns one of the existing water-bottling plants on Lake Baikal and has an interest in keeping the number of companies shipping water to China as low as possible. In September’s elections for Irkutsk city council, a number of candidates unabashedly used anti-Chinese rhetoric to attract voters.

Anti-Chinese sentiments are often instrumentalized not to score points against Beijing, but to send a message to the host countries’ rulers. With weak judiciaries and almost no independent media, populations are susceptible to strong political messages that spread via messaging apps and other unregulated social media channels.

Rumors spread by social media in Kazakhstan unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese rallies throughout its major cities in September – just before President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev traveled to Beijing to upgrade the Sino-Kazakh from an “all-round strategic partnership” to a “permanent comprehensive strategic” one. Popular mobilization was often attributed to Mukhtar Ablyazov, the exiled leader of the banned party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.

Local shows of dissent are a big problem for Xi Jinping

The protests started in Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan with high unemployment that witnessed the bloody repression of protests in 2011. Rumors spread that China planned to relocate factories to Kazakhstan. Stories of the “55 Chinese factories” came with warnings about potential Chinese expansion and an influx of Chinese workers, the mounting debt owed China, and the mass detention of co-ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.

The episodes centered on Kultuk and Zhanaozen stand for a string of other anti-Chinese protests in countries whose governments declare themselves major BRI-supporters. Local shows of dissent are embarrassing for the leaders of these host countries. But they are a bigger and urgent problem for Xi, as they show how difficult it has become for Beijing to avoid or control any unintended consequences related to its multitude of BRI projects.

A growing number of China’s firms are “going out” to tackle projects abroad even though their ability to undertake a thorough analysis of complex realities on the ground and engage with local populations is limited. There is a real risk that more projects could be derailed for reasons other than the projects being ill advised. And this could feed a vicious circle as the negative effects of the “projects gone bad” reinforce popular anti-Chinese sentiments.

China cannot control a host country’s local politics or the commercial interests of local oligarchs. But it does have considerable sway over Chinese companies venturing abroad. It is in Beijing’s interests to make these outward investments more transparent and to take tighter control over the projects being tackled by Chinese companies “going out”. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

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