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Kazakhs Protest Against China's Growing Influence

Protesters today in downtown Almaty

Protesters today in downtown Almaty

ALMATY (Reuters) -- Kazakh protesters scuffled with police today at a rally against their government's burgeoning ties with neighbouring China.

Many in Kazakhstan, a vast but thinly populated nation, are suspicious of China's growing influence in resource-rich Central Asia and accuse the government of selling out oil riches to their giant, energy-hungry neighbour.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev said last month China had proposed renting a million hectares of Kazakh land to grow soya and other crops. The government later denied any plans to lease land to China.

Shouting "Down with Nazarbaev!" and carrying banners depicting China as a threatening dragon, hundreds of people gathered in the biggest city Almaty.

"Handing over land to foreigners should be forbidden," opposition activist Marzhan Aspandiyarova told the rally.

Dozens of people tried to stage a march across Almaty and clashed briefly with police who blocked their way. Police detained one protester and broke up the crowd.

Nazarbaev has been in power since 1989 and enjoys sweeping powers in the former Soviet republic. He tolerates little dissent and public criticism of the veteran leader is taboo.

Analysts say China now controls nearly a quarter of Kazakhstan's annual oil output of 75 million tons. Kazakh oil is shipped to China via a pipeline with capacity of 10 million tonnes a year and there are plans to expand it.

In 2009, China invested more than $10 billion in projects in Kazakhstan.

"They [the government] borrowed $13 billion from China and now they want to pay it back with our land," Bolat Abilov, a leader of the opposition party Azat, said at the rally.

China has lent Kazakhstan about $13 billion in sectors ranging from oil to metals over the past year, a welcome infusion of liquidity for the Central Asian state's crisis-hit economy.

A wary attitude towards China is deeply rooted among Kazakhs whose nomadic ancestors fought many wars against their eastern neighbour. Ties with China were also strained during Soviet times when Kazakhstan was under Moscow's rule.

At the protest, anti-China sentiment ran high. "No Chinese soya beans on the Kazakh land!" shouted one protester. "Death to the Chinese panda!"