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Prospect Of Chinese Farmers Brings Controversy To Kazakh Soil

President Nursultan Nazarbaev inspects a Kazakh wheat field in this 1992 photograph.
President Nursultan Nazarbaev inspects a Kazakh wheat field in this 1992 photograph.
By Bruce Pannier
Kazakhstan has a unique problem. It's long on land and short on the people to farm it.

The Central Asian country is huge -- about six times the size of France -- but has less than one-quarter of France's population -- just 16 million people.

Although Kazakhstan's desert and mountainous regions are not arable, its ample steppe land is, and enough of the Kazakh population turns to farming it to make the country one of the world's leading grain producers.

There is still an ample amount of land that goes uncultivated, however.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev addressed this issue during a recent meeting of his office's Council of Foreign Investors on December 4. And he surprised many in his country when he mentioned a possible solution, saying neighboring China was interested in renting 1 million hectares of Kazakh farmland.

As Kazakh officials have increasingly made mention of a formal Chinese proposal, seeds of opposition have grown.

In the commercial capital, Almaty, on December 17, Kazakhs assembled for the second straight day to protest the prospect of Chinese farming their land.

Bolat Abilov, co-chairman of opposition party United Social Democratic Party Azat, warned the crowd of the potential consequences.

"Citizens, dear citizens, dear compatriots! I will talk briefly, about only one problem -- about the land issue," Abilov said. "If we tomorrow give, or distribute, 1 million hectares of land, it would mean 15 people working per hectare. That means 15 million people would be brought from China. If one of those 15 people were to give birth each year, that would be the end. In 50 years there would be 50 million Chinese [in Kazakhstan]. Let's stop this move announced by Nazarbaev."

'We Do Not Agree'

Many critics fear that Nazarbaev decided early on to grant China's wish.

Gulzhan Yergalieva, editor in chief of the independent Almaty-based newspaper "Svoboda Slovo," spoke to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on December 11, shortly after Nazarbaev first floated the idea of renting land to China.

Yergalieva was attending a rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, where a small group of activists were trying to hand over a note of protest to the Chinese ambassador.

"We believe that if the president is talking about this proposal, then this is a serious matter," Yergalieva said. "And in this regard we wanted to, through the consulate in Almaty, hand over our note to the Chinese government saying that we do not agree to this proposal."

Participants at the rally also had a message for the Chinese president, who was due to arrive in Kazakhstan the next day.

They unrolled a placard that read: "Mr. Hu Jintao, we will not give up Kazakh land!"

Kazakh Agriculture Minister Akylbek Kurishbaev later said Hu and Nazarbaev did not discuss the issue of renting Kazakh land.

But Deputy Agriculture Minister Arman Yevniev, in an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, shed light on the state of discussions on the issue.

"It's obvious the discussions are about China's need for agricultural products like soybeans. Their annual imports come to some 40 million tons, and the tendency is toward an increase of these volumes every year," Yevniev said.

"As concerns our zone in south Kazakhstan, the steppe of south Kazakhstan and Zhambyl provinces, if this land were effectively cultivated, [soybeans] could grow there."

Foregone Conclusion?

Yevniev was clear, however, that Kazakh law does not allow another country to "rent" land.

"Concerning the 1 million hectares, we are talking not about handing it over or sectioning it off," Yevniev said, "but about organizing production in 1 million hectares of [agricultural] fields."

Yevniev stressed that Kazakhstan and China are talking about organizing production on farms and investment in such farming projects.

Fears that Chinese involvement in Kazakh agriculture is a foregone conclusion appear to be at least partially correct.

Yevniev, the deputy agriculture minister, said a "test" is about to start.

"Probably even this year there will be a test on 10,000 or 15,000 hectares of land, growing soy within the framework of this project," Yevniev said, "although we have soy planted on some 70,000 hectares."

One person in Kazakhstan who has a long history in dealing with China is urging caution.

Murat Auezov was Kazakhstan's first ambassador to China, serving in Beijing from 1992 to 1995.

'Who Will Grow The Crops?'

Commenting to RFE/RL on the possibility of a deal being worked out for 1 million hectares of farmland, Auezov posed a number of questions.

"This is a project that requires the migration of many people. Who will grow the crops? Who will harvest and prepare it? Who will get it ready for sale?" Auezov said. "We know what the strategic aims of China are, and how China can use any kind of terminology to achieve its goals."

And Auezov had some candid comments on China's methods of doing business.

"The Chinese are masters in the art of bribery on different levels. But what kind of China asks Kazakhstan to make available 1.2 million hectares of land to grow soybeans?" Auezov said. "This is the China that gave Kazakhstan $10 billion in credit during one of the [Kazakh] president's recent trips."

Auezov also noted a border demarcation agreed upon by the two countries at the end of the 1990s. Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union 34,000 square kilometers of "disputed" territory claimed by China.

After several years of talks, both sides concluded a deal that was unpopular with many in Kazakhstan at the time.

"When they defined the disputed territory," Auezov said, "it was important for the Chinese to take the strategic high ground and leave the Kazakh border guards down in the lowlands. And when [Kazakh authorities] told the people that Kazakhstan did not lose one meter of land and even gained 51 percent [more land], they were referring to all this territory that was disputed -- not one meter of it on the Chinese side of the border, all of it on our side. But this division of 51 percent turned out to mean that from our previous 100 percent the Chinese took 49 percent."

"If this question is decided in favor of the proposal from China," he continued, "then it will be the very colonization of Kazakhstan. And we're not talking about one region but across a wide front."

Successfully Complained

The influx of Chinese workers has already been causing friction with local populations in other neighboring states -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In Kyrgyzstan, there have been several informal local campaigns to chase Chinese merchants from local bazaars. In some cases, local residents have successfully complained to officials about Chinese merchants taking over Central Asian bazaars by their sheer number, prompting immigration checks that thin Chinese merchants.

In Tajikistan, Chinese laborers have been building new roads to connect Tajikistan to China. There have been several incidents in the last two years of fights involving scores of locals and Chinese workers.

As China's neighbor for millennia, Central Asians long ago grew wary of this goliath on their doorstep.

And now, with China rich (again), Beijing is willing to sign deals to not only purchase Central Asia's energy resources but to fund construction of the infrastructure needed to bring it to China.

And as China loans billions of dollars to the Central Asian states, especially those with oil and gas, its expanding influence is being felt throughout the region.

Erzhan Karabek and Sultan-Khan Zhussip of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: bb from: USA
December 17, 2009 18:28
I personally don't think that is a good idea. There must be some other solutions to the problem. For instance, less than 3% of the US population produces enough food to feed 2 billion people, each year. That is achieved by modernizing the agriculture. Of course, it is going to take years and enormous smart investments, however, I think this a better solution.

by: Sergey from: Chicago, Illinois, USA
December 17, 2009 19:17
Dear RFE/RL.

You may dislike what China does in Central Asia, but whether you like it or not, China, like any great and assertive civilizaion starting with ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians, seek to expand its influence beyond its current borders. It is as natural as sunrise and sunset.

After the collapse of USSR, you might had hoped that European Union or United States will take care of the region and, hopefully, make it into another EU, but now you see that this is simply not going to happen. EU has too much headache with expansion into Eastern Europe and it's unlikely to go anywhere further. United States is recovering from economic and financial meltdown and is too busy fighting in Afghanistan and wrapping things up in Iraq--both of places can be in flames at any moment because Islamists are not utterly defeated in either country.

As far as I know, many RFE/RL and BBC analysts were not happy about continuing Russian influence in Central Asia, but in this harsh and often cruel world, if one big power leaves the area, it is usually taken over by other big power--not necessarily benelovent one. So don't be surprised and always be careful what you wish for because you might get it.

by: Jake from: WI
December 17, 2009 22:08
These comments support what I came here to say: this is a blessing in disguise for both Kazakhstan and Russia.

The biggest threat to Kazakhstan's survival has always been a Bosnian-Serb-style insurrection by the Slavic majority in northern Kazakhstan. The Kremlin has unleashed a force beyond its control by trying to co-opt Russia's street hooligans with their own "loyal" nationalist slogans and paramilitary gangs: the DPNI, Nashi, and everyone else screaming "Russia for Russians!" as they murder Central Asians with impunity. Kazakhstani Slavs can stay immune from this disease for only so long, living as a huge but increasingly disenfranchised minority in a non-Slavic, non-Orthodox state moving out of Moscow's orbit and into Beijing's.

The best possible safety net is the social glue of a perceived common threat. Sad, but that's human nature. China is the only candidate for common enemy capable of appealing to both Slavs and Kazakhs. America is too distant, Europe is too nonthreatening, and "the Wahhabi menace" is too exaggerated.

Fortunately, the man at the center of all this is the world's ultimate political gymnast. If anyone can pocket Beijing's money AND keep his subjects ever-conscious of "creeping Chinse influence" without resorting to violence, Nazarbayev can.

by: Peoples Emperor Hu Jintao from: Seven City Han Turkestan
December 18, 2009 18:32
Kazakhstan, the Xinjiang of tomorrow!

Chinese strategy is obvious. Find a place. Fill it with Chinese. Eventually it becomes China. It's that simple.

China is doing this in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. This is easy. They have so many people, so huge a surplus of humanity.

by: J from: US
December 19, 2009 01:46
>about six times the size of France
that's remarkable. So France with her Charlemagne, Louis XIV and Napoleon was only able to gain 1/6th of that...The valliant Kazakh kings must have been much more efficient.

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
December 19, 2009 20:21
Yes, I share the view that if Chinese immigrnats begin to flow into Kazakhstan, it will be the next Uyghuristan...

The enormous Chinese population with its huge revenues makes China a scary neighbour. Not only for the low inhabited countries such as Mongolia with 3 million people or Kazakhstan's 16 million but also for Russia with is almost empty Far-East...

The greatest security threat for Russia is the Chinese immigration in the east.

Kazakhstan has no other choice but to align with China. It's no use to resist as it is impossible.

But for Russia there is other way. To take the side of the West and integrate into western institutions. Join NATO alliance and EU. As Russia also need friends in its great game against growing Chinese influence. Alone Russia has not enough power and financial resources to resist.

by: KZBlog from: Astana
December 26, 2009 04:47
I understand the theoretical threat in so far as China has a huge population and Kazakhstan has a small one, but I don't see why it's an actual threat. Yes, China has filled Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xianjing provinces with ethnic Chinese, but those territories have been recognized as part of China. This is a domestic strategy--and one carried out by many nations including Kazakhstan itself when it populated the Russian-dominated north with Kazakhs. Is there any sign that modern-day China is trying to expand its borders by renting land from other countries? If not, I think this is just an irrational, if understandable fear.

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