A commercial matchmaker has come under fire in Kazakhstan over efforts to recruit bachelorettes for wealthy Chinese customers willing to plonk down hard cash for a mate.
Word of the arrival of a "group of grooms" from Beijing drew just a handful of vocal critics to a protest in Astana early this month, but it sparked questions about Kazakh identity and kindled fears that "foreigners" who land local girls could also eventually snatch up valuable farmland.
Kazakhstan, a relatively prosperous former Soviet republic with major fossil-fuel and uranium deposits, is also one of the ex-U.S.S.R.'s most ethnically diverse countries.
But a historical Kazakh wariness when it comes to the neighboring Chinese continues despite extensive trade, transport, and political ties, particularly with respect to marriage and control of natural resources, including cultivable land.
So holiday cheer gave way to grumblings in the media recently when matchmaking agency Gimeney posted an online advertisement -- which has since been taken down -- offering its services to introduce women in Kazakhstan to Chinese citizens for marriage.
The agency also said that "a group of grooms is coming from Beijing to Astana to get married," local media reported.
"We are planning several [matchmaking] events," Gimeney boasted, according to the main Kazakh news aggregator nur.kz. "They are well-off, Europe-educated, Russian- and English-speaking young men."
A group of around 15 people gathered at the Gimeney offices in the capital, Astana, on January 11 to call for measures to prevent marriages between Kazakh women and foreigners, saying such unions pose a threat to the country’s identity.
"[Chinese clients] marry Kazakh girls and then take [Kazakh] citizenship, and then their children also become citizens," protester Aydin Egeubaev, a member of the ruling Nur Otan party, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service. "So what will happen to us?"
Egeubaev and his fellow demonstrators held signs urging that Kazakh women who marry foreigners "must be stripped of their citizenship."
Gimeney's director, Tatyana Logvinenko, responded by inviting the protesters into her office to discuss the matter. She stressed that her company was operating within the law.
She said a Chinese "singles club" had referred people to her company "to find brides in Kazakhstan."
"Fifteen Chinese citizens expressed interest and filled out special forms and sent them to us," Logvinenko said. She said 20 Kazakh women had responded with interest, adding, "The Chinese applicants were aged 25 to 46. The ages of the Kazakh ladies were between 18 and 40."
Police did not intervene to prevent the unauthorized protest, although authorities under longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev's regime frequently intervene to disperse even minor demonstrations.
Azamat Qanatbekov, an employee of the local prosecutor’s office, told the protesters that authorities would look into the matter.
Egeubaev and eight other individuals who described themselves as "public activists" posted an open letter to the Internet on January 12 that they said was also addressed to top Kazakh officials, including the chairman of the National Security Committee, the justice minister, and the head of the presidential administration.
The signatories urged authorities to check whether dating agencies were operating within Kazakhstan’s marriage and family laws.
They also reiterated calls for Kazakh laws to be amended to prevent "our girls" who marry foreigners from keeping their nationality and the foreigners involved from being granted Kazakh citizenship.
"Some foreigners might marry Kazakh citizens in order to take Kazakh land into ownership," reads the letter, which was republished on a popular, nationalist-leaning website.
The warnings recall mass protests that took place across Kazakhstan last year against a bill on land privatization and the leasing of land to foreigners.
Thousands of people took to the streets for almost two weeks in April and May 2016 amid rumors that farmland available for lease would be snatched up by the Chinese.
The protests were seen as an expression of widespread discontent toward government policies at a time when low oil prices and economic recession in neighboring Russia hit Kazakhstan’s economy hard, as well as of public fears of growing Chinese influence in the country.
Such concerns have also been expressed in other Central Asian republics, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which also share borders with China.
Kazakh media frequently cite a perceived China threat, fueled by the latter's growing economic might and reports of Han Chinese migration to the country.
In September, the opposition newspaper Zhasalash raised alarm over the "frightening" number of Chinese labor migrants moving to Kazakhstan, a country of 18 million people. The paper quoted the Health and Social Development Ministry as putting the number at 48 such migrants a day.
The nationalist website qamshy.kz warned in October that China was "seeking the weakest sector of the Kazakh economy and getting in," referring to plans to build 51 Kazakh-Chinese factories in Kazakhstan over the next five years.
Written by Antoine Blua and Merhat Sharipzhan, based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service