By Umida Hashimova
At the end of May 2016, Kazakhstan experienced unexpected protests sparked by proposed amendments to the Land Law adopted in 2014 that were to enter into force in June 2016. The changes would have allowed foreigners to rent agricultural land for 25 years, up from the previous 10. There was some misunderstanding over an assumption that the amendments would allow foreigners to own land, which officials say is not the case. It is unlikely, however, that these changes to the law were the primary cause for the protests, instead reflecting underlying discontent with government actions and a popular fear of growing Chinese economic influence in the country.
A major underlying reason for popular discontent was the state of the economy, given that the price of oil had crashed and the Russian economy with it. This led to the devaluation of the Kazakh tenge, and a reduction in the value of savings, salaries, and social benefits. This, along with historical Kazakhstani fears of a more powerful China that might expand its territory into Central Asia under the cover of land deals, were the main significant contributing factors that led people to the streets. The amendments to the national law simply snapped the patience of Kazakhstanis with the state of economy and unsatisfactory government service.
Kazakhstanis in general are sensitive to anything related to their land, even more so if the Chinese are involved. The protests in May were not the first to drive people to the streets. The earliest land protests took place in 2003 when Kazakhstan entered into an agreement with China to rent 7,000 hectares of land – a deal that would have employed 3,000 Chinese workers. After the ensuing protests, the government of Kazakhstan had to reconsider this plan. The land issue emerged again at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 when the government of Kazakhstan supposedly had considered renting a million hectares of land to China. These protests delayed agricultural cooperation sought by the governments of both Kazakhstan and China.
Another reason that might have stirred up protestors is the perception of high Chinese migration to Kazakhstan. Annually, on average, around 50,000 Chinese citizens enter Kazakhstan, but most of these are ethnic Kazakhs of China’s Xinjiang province who enter temporarily to trade. Around 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent live in China. Han Chinese, who come through an annual labor quota available to foreign professionals constituted not more than a quarter of the total professional foreign labor force (Chinese Migration in Kazakhstan, Sadovskaya, E., Demoscope Weekly, 2015, Issues 629-630). Han Chinese also do not appear to be eager to become a permanent part of Kazakhstani society through naturalization. From 1995 to 2014, around 93,300 people from China immigrated through Kazakhstan’s state funded repatriation program. Most of them, 73,800, were naturalized. However, only 80 of them were Han Chinese and the remaining were ethnic Kazakhs.
Regardless, historical opinion polls conducted in Kazakhstan have revealed a trend of increasingly negative perceptions of Chinese – increasing from 18% in 2007 to 31% in 2012. The number of those who have positive perceptions decreased from 26% to 23% respectively. Thus, it is likely that any perception of China as a great power looking to displace the local population through increased migration may not be supported by statistical facts.
This type of generalized fear of domination can become more dangerous when a country is experiencing severe financial difficulties. The protests were a reminder that making decisions without considering the mood and possible reactions of the population can risk a government’s stability. Official decisions take on a meaning that transcends government decision-making and can gain unexpected negative momentum, as shown in this case. The amendments to the Land Law became a channel for some people’s anger in the economic context of today and also for anger against the government’s decision-making.
The fact that protests were more aimed at the government of Kazakhstan rather than Chinese investment is supported by the fact that there has been little protest against individual Chinese entrepreneurs investing in the agricultural sector. According to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Regional Development, by mid-2014, 32 Chinese citizens had rented a total of 4,750 hectares of land in Kazakhstan (overall around 19,000 hectares of land was rented to foreigners). Although Chinese citizens rent a very small amount of Kazakhstan’s land (the 4,750 hectares is approximately 0.0002% of Kazakhstan’s total land) there is still clearly interest from China in investing in Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector.
Moreover, it has not stopped the government of Kazakhstan’s engagement with Chinese business seeking to invest in agriculture, rather than rent land. After the land protests in May 2016, Chinese companies proposed to invest $1.7 billion in 19 projects to produce and process agricultural products. The biggest investments include $1.2bn by Zhongfu Investment Group into oilseed processing; $200m into beef, lamb and horsemeat production by Rifa Investment; $80m into the production of tomatoes and tomato paste by state-owned agricultural business Cofco; and $58 million into a grain processing venture by China’s AIJIU.
There has been evidence of some negative perceptions towards China. However, the land protests may be about more than just the risk of foreign control of land in Kazakhstan. Instead, it also served as an outlet for the population to express dissatisfaction with the government at a time of economic hardship. While the government of Kazakhstan wishes to maintain investment from China, it must also address the economic and political concerns of a restive and worried populace.
Umida Hashimova is a Researcher at CNA Corporation. The views expressed here are her own.