Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev is making a state visit to Beijing this week amid a wave of protests at home against what demonstrators describe as mounting Chinese influence through financial projects and assistance to the resource-rich Central Asian state.
The protests began in the volatile southwestern town of Zhanaozen on September 2 and have since spread to other cities, including the capital, Nur-Sultan.
Carrying banners saying things like "End Chinese expansion" and "No to Chinese factories," protesters across the country have demanded that Toqaev cancel his official trip and stop accepting loans from Beijing.
They challenge the government's plan to build dozens of industrial facilities in Kazakhstan with Chinese financial assistance.
China is one of Kazakhstan's major investors and primary trade partners, with official figures showing both investments flows and bilateral trade turnover rising steadily in recent years.
Deputy Prime Minister Zhenis Kasymbek told reporters on September 5 that 15 joint Kazakh-Chinese projects had been completed in Kazakhstan, with five more projects to be launched by December.
"Worth a total of $3.9 billon, the 15 projects have been launched in several sectors, including agriculture, the chemical industry, oil and gas, [and] transport."
Kasymbek said the joint projects had created 4,000 new jobs, with 95 percent of them going to Kazakh citizens.
Kazakh state media reported last year that the two countries were implementing at least 51 joint projects in industry, transport, and logistics that were worth approximately $28 billion.
In April 2019, influential former President Nursultan Nazarbaev said the two neighbors had signed a total of 55 investment projects in various sectors.
According to Nazarbaev, Chinese companies produce more than 20 percent of Kazakhstan's oil and that some 1,200 enterprises in Kazakhstan operate with Chinese capital.
The neighbors -- who share a land border of some 1,700 kilometers -- have reportedly set a goal last year of achieving $20 billion in trade volume within several years.
Total trade turnover was $10.5 billion in 2017 and amounted to $8.2 billion in the first three quarters of 2018.
Key Link For Belt & Road
With its enormous energy resources and vast lands, Kazakhstan is a key to Beijing's "project of the century" -- a $1 trillion worldwide infrastructure program known as One Belt, One Road.
The initiative aims to revive the ancient Silk Road and build up other trading routes with massive infrastructure projects connecting China with Europe.
Since 2014, Beijing has poured more than $100 billion a year into the Belt & Road megaproject, with new contracts, investments, and loans.
One of the most ambitious projects in Kazakhstan was creating the Khorgos Gateway, a so-called "dry port" for handling cargo for trains and trucks rather than ships in a remote area on the Chinese-Kazakh border.
The construction of Khorgos Gateway began in 2014 and just two years later more than 500 trans-Eurasian trains had already passed through the dry port, making it a major new transport hub.
Under the contracts signed with the Kazakh government, 80 percent of the workers at Khorgos Gateway had to be local Kazakh citizens.
Among others, One Belt, One Road projects in Kazakhstan include the Kazakh section of the Western Europe-Western China Highway, which will stretch 8,845 kilometers from China's Yellow Sea coast to the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg when completed.
Those who support the idea of Chinese investment and loans insist that such projects create jobs and financial opportunities for Kazakhs.
Critics, however, warn that the One Belt, One Road initiative mostly benefits Chinese companies and banks, pumping Chinese goods into world markets.
Some express concern about the so-called "debt-trap diplomacy" they say China is employing, arguing that China could in the long run gain control of such ports or other major infrastructure if the host country can't pay back the loan.
According to official statistics, Kazakhstan's debt to China in 2018 was about $12.3 billion.
'Listen To The People'
Former Kazakh Ambassador to China Murat Avezov has urged the Kazakh authorities to "listen to the protesters" and their concerns about the potential implications of Chinese influence in the country.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Avezov said Kazakhstan must make a greater effort to prioritize its own interests when dealing with China. He said Kazakhstan had always chosen to "concede" to China "in all affairs involving oil, land, water, border, and others."
The former diplomat warned that such a policy could bring "grave consequences" and even jeopardize the country's independence. "China has a huge population and not enough land. China needs land to accommodate its population, and therefore it is constantly looking for different solutions," he said.
Avezov said Kazakhstan needed to exercise caution in dealing with "China, which is always masterful in defending its own interests." He said the protesters in Zhanaozen and elsewhere in Kazakhstan had serious reasons to be worried about the flow of Chinese money into their country.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has been on the rise in Kazakhstan in recent months over the dire plight of indigenous ethnic groups, including Kazakhs, in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.
The United Nations said last year that some 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking indigenous people in Xinjiang were being forcibly held in what it described as "counterextremism centers" there.
Chinese authorities call the facilities "vocational education centers" that help integrate people into Chinese society and aid in combating "extremism."
Beijing claims people attend the camps voluntarily, despite extensive evidence they are being kept their against their will.