Despite Kyrgyzstan government’s support, the exploitative nature of Chinese investment in the country is leading to frequent protests by the local citizens. Most of the domestic opposition is centered on the loss of employment opportunities for the locals and the degradation of environment due to the Chinese projects in different parts of Kyrgyzstan.
Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan is on a rise after the latter agreed to join the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. More than 20 BRI projects worth around $2 billion have been implemented or are underway in the country. However, the rise in number of projects also means increase in the level of Chinese debt for the country. At present, external debt of Kyrgyzstan is approximately $4.8billion of which around $1.8 billion is owed to China. Further, Chinese interest in establishing new transit routes across Central Asia through Kyrgyzstan resulted in the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) Railway project. The railway line would connect Andijan, Uzbekistan, with Kashgar, China, via Kyrgyzstan and would shorten the transport of goods between Europe and China.
Apart from CKU, mining and other extractive sectors of Kyrgyzstan are key attractions for China. Yet, the Chinese mining projects have undergone a constant spate of local protests over environment and local jobs concerns. In the latest case, a Chinese company named “Full Gold Mining” has become a target of local push-back, leading to suspension of its operations. The company is developing the Ishtamberdi gold deposit in Ala-Buka district of Jalal-Abad region in Kyrgyzstan with an investment of around $200 million. It is allegedly using unsafe methods and hazardous materials exposing the workers and surrounding environment to a major risk.
Most recent protests were triggered by the death of two workers at the mine in October 2022. Alisher Erbaev, a Kyrgyz MP from Butun Kyrgyzstan party claimed that the company uses a Chinese cyanide like chemical in gold mining. He further asserted that the mine is at the verge of catastrophe as environmental and technical requirements are not met. At a press conference later on October 10, 2022, the First Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, Ecology & Technical Supervision, Kanat Sadykov admitted that the company does not provide proper working conditions.
The Chinese company also bears the image of an exploitative employer in the area. Earlier this year, it witnessed a strike by the local workers who complained of stagnant wages and poor working conditions. The workers demanded a 50% wage increase, better food quality and an end to the policy of deducting the cost of damaged equipment from workers’ wages.
Environmental degradation by the company is another major concern in nearby areas. In June 2022, the residents of the Terek-Sai village of Chatkal district staged a demonstration against the company and demanded compensations and relocation of tailing dumps of the mine. After the protests, Kyrgrz State Environmental and Technical Safety Inspectorate conducted a check and asked the company to take action for environmental protection including control over the tailings dumps, riverbed protection, installation of sensors measuring carbon dioxide concentration, etc. Nevertheless, Environmental and safety lapses are not new for the company. In October 2020, a large fire had engulfed its buildings. During the same month, there were reports that the mine had been seized by 300-400 local people, with Chinese workers forced to flee from the site. In the latest case, the Kyrgyz authorities have directed for suspension of mining at the site till the company takes remedial measures.
Ignoring concerns of Kyrgyz residents have cost China dear in some other projects as well. In 2020, Kyrgyz government cancelled a Chinese project worth $275 million in the eastern part of the country following mass protests against it. The agreement to build a major logistics center in the Naryn region was signed by the two countries during President Xi Xinping’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in June 2019. The work had to be stopped due to protests by some local residents of the At-Bashi district. According to the recent Central Asia Barometer (CAB) survey, only 19 percent of people in Kyrgyzstan strongly support Chinese investment in energy and infrastructure projects, while 31 percent strongly oppose the same. Furthermore, 66 percent of people are “very concerned” that Chinese projects will increase Kyrgyzstan’s national debt to China. Clearly, Chinese companies have to undertake major reforms in their working ethics to salvage their image in Kyrgyzstan.