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James Ridley-Jones is a PhD student at King’s College London currently researching Geostrategy in Central Asia. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Development of Chinese Soft Power in Central Asia
Date Originally Written: July 15th 2020.
Date Originally Published: September 23, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that Chinese Soft Power, initiative failures are indicative of wider Chinese strategic engagement failures in the Central Asian region. For the purposes of this assessment Soft Power is defined as the use of investment diplomacy and cultural engagement to build relationships and project influence below the threshold of armed conflict.
Summary: Chinese Soft Power initiatives remain key to facilitating relations alongside Chinese investment. Although China retains good bi-lateral relations with the Central Asian states, a closer examination of Chinese initiatives demonstrates failures amongst the region’s general populations comparative to the ruling elites.
Text: The announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative by Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan 2013 led to the required development of Chinese Soft Power within the region. The purpose of this Soft Power is to enable political security alongside economic investment. The Belt and Road Initiative encompasses economic investment and diplomatic initiatives, which, when combined, develop working partnerships and economic corridors along projected routes. The initiative has also absorbed prior programs and investments into this framework.
Chinese investment in the region allows for key infrastructure developments that might improve economic and social capacities. Diplomatic and co-operative initiatives take the form of exhibitions, student engagement and the notorious Confucius Institutes. All of these aim to engage students, businessmen and key officials in cultural engagement for the promotion of relations.
Chinese Soft Power actions are not without a downside. High levels of one-sided investment can be, and are, perceived negatively. The often debated debt-trap diplomacy employed by China, together with the use of a Chinese workforce for such projects, leaves poor public perceptions of these investments, irrespective of the benefits.
Similarly, the potential reach of Soft Power initiatives is limited within the countries that China targets. This limitation is due to population dispersal and the extent of possible population engagement. Although there have been multiple exhibitions in Tashkent for example, they only reach a small percentage of the population.
Soft power through language learning to encourage engagement is increasing, but still falls behind state languages, the lingua franca Russian, and English for both tourism and business purposes. In Almaty Kazakhstan, the Confucius Institute remains one of the few places Mandarin can be learnt, compared with English which is far more prevalent in foreign language schools.
China, however, does attract significantly more students to its Universities (2017-2018), with approximately 12,000 Kazakh students currently studying in China. Comparatively there are only 1,300 Kazahk students in the United Kingdom and 1,865 in the United States. Although distance can be included as a factor for this decision, there are also additional Chinese grants and scholarships given to Central Asian students to encourage their attendance at Chinese Universities. This Soft Power will go on to affect the next generation of Kazakhs in the future.
The effectiveness of Chinese diplomatic initiatives is impeded in Central Asia by two main factors:
The first is the disparity between key parts of the target countries’ political and financial elite and the general population.
Although policymakers and businessmen in Central Asia benefit from Chinese initiatives and as such look to engage with China on business, such perceptions remain different to those of the general population who do not benefit in such ways. This disconnect requires a two-tier Chinese approach to inter-country relations that currently does not exist.
The second is the Uyghur problem, where current Chinese policy and actions are perceived very negatively by Central Asian populations. These differences on the Uyghur problem are illustrated in the government support given to Chinese actions, compared to feelings amongst the general populace. An indicator of this is a lack of support from specific Central Asian nations. Only the Governments of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (the two most closed off Central Asian nations) signed a letter in support of Chinese actions, suggesting the other countries are in more turmoil over the decision.
The Uyghur have ethnic, cultural and religious similarities to the other Turkic ethnic groups within Central Asia, as well as there being Uyghur minorities in Central Asia. Because of such ties Chinese attitudes in Xinjiang have significant negative connotations within the Central Asian general populace. Although this might not be demonstrated at a governmental level, Sinophobia can be noted across the general population.
Both of these issues take the form of anti-Chinese protests, such as those in Almaty, to even the car bombing of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek (2016). This car bombing, it was reported, was the action of an Islamist, but it has also been suggested that it was in retaliation for the mistreatment of the Uyghur people and Sinophobia.
In 2016, land reform protests revealed underlying concerns of potential Chinese control over agriculture in Kazakhstan. In 2019, there were protests at a Kyrgyzstan mine over environmental quality concerns, greatly affecting the local population. This issue is likely to be compounded with additional mines given or sold to Chinese investors.
More recent protests in Almaty and Nur Sultan, Kazakhstan and in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan September 2019 suggest relations remain frayed. The Kazakhstan protests stem from a variety of reasons to do with increasing Chinese influence in the region. Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan protests grew as a result of Chinese businesses side-lining existing Kyrgyz businesses in the capital.
All of these protests demonstrate the disconnect between Chinese investment and maintaining relations with the general populace through diplomatic initiatives.
Given the nature of the regimes in Central Asia, there is no available data on opinion polls of China, and if data was available the validity of results might also be questionable. Public protest in these countries becomes an available method of assessing public opinion, though it is limited in scope and nuance.
The increasing numbers of Central Asian students at Chinese Universities through both grants, scholarships and engagement programs, will most likely be the continued Soft Power tactic.
Although relatively ineffective currently, the Confucius Institutes will look to further develop language teaching capabilities and promote further cultural engagement.
Chinese exhibitions will most likely continue, but at a similar rate of engagement with the population, limiting their effectiveness.
Understanding and analysing Chinese Soft Power failures is important to the development of counter- Chinese strategy. Although inaction by others would allow for continued Chinese failure, these Chinese actions will eventually become successful as newer generations, specifically elites, are increasingly influenced by Chinese Soft Power initiatives, particularly through Universities.
Chinese Soft Power failure is a lack of ability to connect with the wider population beyond the national elites. Critically, Chinese Soft Power failure indicates a lack of cohesive strategy incorporating both investment and diplomacy.
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