Kazakhstan Protests Chinese Language Article questioning its Territorial Integrity
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF

On April 14, 2020, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan summoned Chinese ambassador Zhang Xiao to register a formal protest against the publication of an article on a major Chinese website, Sohu.com. This website was the official sponsor of internet content service for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.1 The article titled 'Why Is Kazakhstan Eager to Get Back to China' stated that historically, Kazakhstan was a part of Chinese territory. And many Kazakh tribal leaders had pledged their allegiance to the Chinese emperors. The article also mentioned that the people of Kazakhstan believe that China invaded their territory repeatedly, and they do not seem to have objections about this.2 Kazakhstan raised the issue with the Chinese ambassador and also with the Chinese Foreign Ministry. After meeting with the ambassador, the Kazakh Ministry issued a statement that noted that issues like this go against the spirit of 'permanent comprehensive strategic partnership' signed between the two countries in September 2019. 3

Why is This Issue Notable?

Recently, one after another, countries like Nigeria and France have had diplomatic issues with China. Following the trend, an article on the Chinese online media questioning territorial integrity of Kazakhstan has also caused the two closely related countries to fall into diplomatic trouble.4 The ambassadorial summon is a surprising move as Central Asian countries usually avoid criticising China.

Kazakhstan shares a long border with China's north-western province, Xinjiang. China is a significant investor in various sectors of Kazakhstan and is one of the leading markets for its exports. Kazakhstan also gets enormous revenues from transit of Chinese exports to Europe through its territory. Almost 1.5 million ethnic Kazakh live in Xinjiang, which makes them the second-biggest Muslim population after Uyghurs.5 There are reports that ethnic Kazakhs, along with Uyghurs, have been put into detention camps by Chinese authorities. Kazakhstan has witnessed several anti-Chinese protests in cities like Almaty and Nur-Sultan over ethnic Kazakhs being detained and tortured in these camps.6 On the contrary, China claims that these camps are designated to eradicated terrorism and to provide vocational training, and they do not violate the rights of ethnic minorities.

The ethnic minority policies of Beijing have drastically affected the lives of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, but the Kazakh government has been careful to not criticize China over the issue.7 In the recent past, China's influence in Central Asia has increased with proposed projects through its Belt and Road program.8 Currently, to fight against the COVID-19, China donated medical supplies to Kazakhstan. On April 9, 2020, a medical team from China reached to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan to assist Kazakh Government's ongoing efforts to limit the menace of COVID-19. The 10-member crew also brought medical assistance, including 4,800 N95 respirators, 49,600 disposable surgical masks, 2,000 protection suits, two ventilators, and other medicines.9 However, despite having strategic influence in Central Asia, China is often seen with suspicion in its ambitions in the region, especially among the local population.

The article, which prompted the protest by Kazakhstan, was not the only case of its kind. A lot of other articles with the same title but corresponding to different countries have been circulated on China's dominant social platforms. These articles include Mongolia, Vietnam, the Kokang region in northern Myanmar, and Manipur in India. It said China's links with Manipur is dated back to 202 BC. These articles state that "even though these regions are physically in another nation, they have long been looking forward to returning to the motherland."10

China's neighboring countries considerately monitor the Chinese perspectives about their countries on the internet and any controversial opinion even those unpopular ones draw their attention as they are susceptible to the bilateral issues, especially about their sovereignty. Also though Chinese government does not endorse these viewpoints, but it troubles China's diplomatic ties with its neighbours. China's presence in these countries is impactful, so it becomes mandatory for them to be concerned if they see any signs of Chinese hyper-nationalism against their sovereignties. 11

Chinese Response

Foreign Ministry of China sent a statement to Reuters clarifying that the article does not reflect the position of the Chinese government. Therefore, diplomatic ties between the two countries' friendship shall not be affected by this.12 Two of China's primary social media websites, Weibo and WeChat have been cleared out after this incident. According to WeChat, it has banned 153 accounts indulged in these activities and deleted more than 200 similar articles.13 China emphasized that these articles are misleading and are the result of emerging hyper-nationalism due to the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic. Also, they do not influence Beijing's policymaking. These articles are identical and only provide fabricated information without any substantial evidence. Such articles do not hold any significance as most of them have only received a few thousands of views or even less. However, since they were circulated on some major websites, which made them, catch the eye of the outside world. Subsequently, that malicious content has been deleted, and relevant accounts have also got banned.14

Kazakhstan’s firm response has made the Chinese foreign office as well as the mainstream media to disassociate them from such pernicious attack on Kazakhstan's sovereignty. Other neighbouring countries facing the same attacks could also follow this approach even though the Chinese may be less sensitive to their concerns.

  1. China Tech News, November 7, 2005. https://www.chinatechnews.com/2005/11/07/3114-sohucom-to-run-website-for-beijing-2008-olympic-games/
  2. ‘Kazakhstan Protests Over Chinese Article Questioning Its Territorial Integrity’, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, 14 April 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-protests-over-chinese-article-questioning-its-territorial-integrity/30553141.html
  3. ‘A meeting with the Chinese Ambassador was held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan’, Press Centre, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of republic of Kazakhstan, 14 April 2020. https://www.gov.kz/memleket/entities/mfa/press/news/details/v-mid-kazahstana-proshla-vstrecha-s-poslom-kitaya?lang=kk&fbclid=IwAR2pSOpvWo9sD9TrUS4mXKtItjJ2fdhEwuovOUX-9-6VTxI6EsYChe4Ej1Q.
  4. James Palmer, ‘Why Chinese Embassies Have Embraced Aggressive Diplomacy’, China Brief, Foreign Policy, 15 April 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/15/chinese-embassies-embrace-aggressive-diplomacy-coronavirus-pandemic-misinformation/.
  5. Reid Standish, ‘Our Government Doesn’t Want To Spoil Relations With China’, The Atlantic, September 3, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/09/china-xinjiang-uighur-kazakhstan/597106/
  6. Osama Bin Javaid, ‘Ethnic Kazakhs 'detained and tortured in Chinese camps’, Aljazeera News, 31 December 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/ethnic-kazakhs-detained-tortured-chinese-camps-191230193900576.html
  7. ‘Kazakhstan summons Chinese ambassador in protest over article’, World News, Reuters, 15 April 2020 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kazakhstan-china/kazakhstan-summons-chinese-ambassador-in-protest-over-article-idUSKCN21W1AH.
  8. Elizabeth Shim, ‘Kazakhstan protests Chinese article for territorial claims’, World News, UPI, 14 April 2020. https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2020/04/14/Kazakhstan-protests-Chinese-article-for-territorial-claims/8291586884730/
  9. ‘Chinese medical team arrives in Kazakhstan with supplies’, Xinhua, 10 April 2020, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2020-04/10/c_138962423.htm
  10. Mimi Lau, China shuts down 153 social media accounts for carrying fake nationalistic content, SCMP, 18 April 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3080551/china-shuts-down-153-social-media-accounts-carrying-fake
  11. Yang Sheng, ‘Banned social media nationalist articles do not reflect China's mainstream’, Global times, 16 April 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185852.shtml.
  12. Deng Xiaoci, ‘China-Kazakhstan ties unaffected by online article amid joint fight against pandemic: Chinese envoy’, Globaltimes.cn, 17 April 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185885.shtml
  13. ‘Kazakhstan, called “eager to return to China”, summoned the Chinese ambassador, and deleted the post on WeChat and Weibo’, BBC, 16 April 2020. https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/world-52306918.
  14. Yang Sheng, ‘Banned social media nationalist articles do not reflect China's mainstream’, Global times, 16 April 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185852.shtml.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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