“They’re gone – the water has become cleaner, and the grass is growing normally again”

The Central Asian governments are doing their best to attract investment from the PRC, despite the discontent of the population. There are more and more such stress points in Central Asia. Kloop, the leading portal of independent journalism in Kyrgyzstan, visited one of them – the gold mine of Solton-Sary, 300 km from Bishkek.

“We don’t need these Chinese, we have been living cattle breeding all our lives and we will live, and they come digging our lands, mining our gold, spoiling the ecology, cattle are dying, the children are sick!” The man shouts angrily on a horse. The crowd gathered at the foot of the mountain whistles approvingly and hoots. There is dust around, between horse-drawn parked riders in caps (Kyrgyz headdresses, which are traditionally worn by deeply patriotic men). Behind them, a bulldozer with broken windows rides down a mountain, a young man looks out of his window and takes everything off to a smartphone camera. “This is how we drive the Chinese out,” he concludes excitedly. A flag of Kyrgyzstan sticks out from another bulldozer window. 

At the top of the mountain, a group of people dressed in beige overalls are trying to escape from the trap – on the one hand there are snow-white peaks of the mountains, and on the other an angry crowd. The parties are constantly moving back or forward – as in some group dance – pushing each other out. Stones are flying in both directions and on both sides. Around beige overalls, kalpaki and flags of Kyrgyzstan – they are furious with resistance and are ready to conquer this territory by force. The police are not enough to take control of the situation.  

“Everything would have been decided peacefully, but the Chinese began to throw stones at us and received a response for that. They were the first to attack, ”the protest says indignantly, not noticing the bleeding abrasion on his face. 

The Chinese are employees of Zhong ji Mining, a gold mining investor who works at the Naryn deposit in Solton-Sary. The company secured this site back in 2009, and planned to start developing it only after 2019. They began to build infrastructure only this year, but during this time they managed to build more facilities here than the local company in twenty years of work. 

The locals don’t like it – according to them, the Chinese spoil the environment because they build too fast and too much. “For a year of work, they could have searched everything here, but where will we graze cattle?” Say local shepherds. Salton-Sary is not only a gold mine, but also a pasture used by residents of eight villages. In addition, locals believe that Chinese entrepreneurs pollute their land and water, and animals die from this. 

“We do not have any benefit from these Chinese, we always lived on our own – grazing cattle, because no one will give anything for free. And then the Chinese come and dig our lands, mine gold, pollute everything. 

What about us? What will then remain for our children if cattle die from dirty water already today and the children begin to get sick? What will happen to their future? ”

asks Zaive, a native of one of the villages closest to the field, holding a little granddaughter in her arms.     

If they do not free our lands, then the people themselves will drive them out
In 1994, KyrgyzAltyn, a Kyrgyz enterprise, began to mine gold at Solton-Sary. This plant was the first mining enterprise of independent Kyrgyzstan, built with its own money. Zhong Ji is the second company to be licensed to develop a neighboring field in the field.

Locals opposed this back in 2011, when the Chinese company had just begun intelligence work, but the authorities then hushed up this conflict, having held several round tables and discussions. The confrontation escalated in the summer of 2019 – the company was accused of poisoning the water and the death of livestock. But the authorities conducted an audit and said that the residents themselves were to blame – they did not vaccinate the cattle on time. The company paid the money to the shepherds who lost their livestock as a charity, and the case was hushed up. Everything seemed to be well again.

But on August 3, 2019, a fight broke out on the basis of a Chinese company – two locals against a dozen employees of the company. According to the Kyrgyz guys, they just asked for water, and the Chinese brutally beat them. The Chinese company says that the guys were drunk, and their employees simply defended themselves. We don’t know what was in the house at the entrance to the deposit, but here are the facts: the guys were in the hospital, and the next day, from 500 to 1000 men went to the mine, demanding the closure of the enterprise.

The governor of the Naryn region, Amanbai Kayypov, came to prevent clashes between the locals and the workers, but all his arguments were smashed into an ultimatum – the Chinese should leave Solton-Sary. He promised them to resolve the issue and went back to Naryn. Protesters gave him time until the evening. 

– If they do not free our lands, then the people will do it themselves. Those who run away – cowards, – the man shouted from the crowd, urging the audience to stand for the closure of the enterprise to the end.

And when evening came, there was still no reaction from the authorities or from the Chinese company. Then the first stone flew. 

Local vs main investor of the country 
“Incidents between local residents and foreign workers should not cause the company to stop or stop working. If, because of each such incident, people will demand to close the enterprises, then all investors will turn their backs on us, ”was the reaction to the incident of the Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Muhammedkalyy Abylgaziev. 

His deputy, vice prime minister, who arrived in Salton Sarah the next day after the hassle, also could not influence the decision of the locals. At that time, they had already compiled a list of 83 requirements for Zhong Ji and threatened the official to block the Bishkek-Torugart strategic road if they did not fulfill them. But the local authorities could not promise anything.

The reason is China is one of the main strategic partners and investors of Kyrgyzstan, it’s just not possible to abandon these relations.

But China also has a direct interest in Kyrgyzstan. According to Dirk van der Clay, program director for China Matters, an Australian think tank, which specializes in relations between the PRC and Central Asian states, China divides the countries in the region into two groups. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are of interest to China as suppliers of resources and partners in infrastructure projects. For example, nearly 80% of gas produced in Turkmenistan is exported to China through gas pipelines that pass through the territory of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The latter is also an important partner of China in the “New Silk Road” initiative, a large-scale infrastructure project that will allow Chinese products to easily enter the markets of European countries. Most of the land paths of this “belt” run through Kazakhstan.

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But even in Kazakhstan, the vigorous activity of Chinese businessmen provokes discontent of the local population – in their opinion, China takes away jobs and better lands from them. Immediately in several large cities, Kazakhstanis go to anti-Chinese rallies, but authorities dismiss them as saying that China is one of the country’s largest investors and creditors.  

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are not the main participants in the latest major initiatives of the PRC, but this does not prevent them from working closely with China. He is the largest investor in Kyrgyzstan – over the past year, Chinese direct investment in the Kyrgyz economy amounted to about $ 338 million. This is almost 40% of all direct investments in the country. And according to a Kyrgyz researcher specializing in economic relations between China and the Central Asian countries, Daniyar Moldokanov, the most interesting thing for Chinese investors in Kyrgyzstan is minerals – for example, gold.  

Chinese investment = political dependence?
Gold reserves in the Buchuk section – part of the Solton-Sarah, which is being developed by the Chinese – are 12 tons. Zhong Ji Mining was going to mine two tons each year. But the Chinese employees did not have time to start developing the field – protests prevented this. 

After skirmishes at Salton Sary, the Kyrgyz government temporarily suspended the work of the Chinese company. But after two months, there is still no decision from the authorities, and Zhong Ji Mining’s work has not been resumed. Its leaders took their employees and equipment back to China and are waiting for the Kyrgyz authorities to complete the investigation into the August riots. An investigation is underway, but the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan has demanded severe punishment for those who “illegally invaded” the territory of the field.    

“For many years, Chinese enterprises have been investing and doing business in Kyrgyzstan, making a significant contribution to improving the welfare of the local population and strengthening traditional friendship between the peoples of the two countries, which is highly appreciated by the government of the Kyrgyz Republic and various circles of society in Kyrgyzstan,” the embassy said after incident in salton sary.  

China does invest a lot of money in Kyrgyzstan, even if direct investments are not taken into account. As of 2019 , Kyrgyzstan owes China about $ 1.7 billion – for all the loans the PRC has given it over the past decades. The debt of the Export-Import Bank of China makes up almost 80% of the external debt of Kyrgyzstan. According to researcher Daniyar Moldokanov, the conditions of Chinese loans are opaque: “If you take loans from the IMF or the World Bank, then there is a clear transparent list of rules that is the same for everyone. The terms of Chinese loans are less transparent and depend on how the parties agree. ” According to him, the Kyrgyz authorities are taking money from China because “it is simpler, faster and there is no red tape.” 

But such an economic dependence does not entail a political dependence, says Dirk van der Clay. In his opinion, China exerts greater political influence on Tajikistan than on Kyrgyzstan – because of the proximity of the former to Afghanistan, the Chinese armed forces have even begun to work there. Nevertheless, van der Clay believes that China is very adept at influencing what politicians in the region say. “China’s leverage is such that they are very good at redeeming silence or verbal support,” the expert said. 

The Chinese Communist Party would like to maintain good relations with the Kyrgyz authorities and look attractive in the eyes of the local population. Therefore, in his opinion, there is no connection between the way Zhong Ji Mining conducted its work and the strategy of the Chinese authorities in the region.

“It seems to me that the Chinese authorities should be very annoyed by this situation, because such moments complicate the work of other Chinese companies in the country,” says van der Clay.

Even before the conflict, the State Environmental Inspectorate found 83 violations in the company’s work and issued a fine of 448 thousand soms or 6.5 thousand dollars – according to a local official, the Chinese began to correct the violations found. But the villagers do not agree – they say the miners simply ignored these requirements.  

Deteriorating ecology at the center of conflict with Chinese investors 
“The Chinese are gone – the water has become cleaner and the grass is growing normally again,” says Mirlan, who grazes his flock just a few kilometers from the Chinese plant. 

He and his wife live in a yurt nearby. Of the amenities – a small generator and smartphones that catch 4G. And if you pick them up, the family’s life does not differ at all from the way the Kyrgyz lived a hundred years ago – in the center of the yurt there is a small stove that feeds and warms the family, and outside there is a large cauldron, a dog is basking in the sun. But as soon as the owner mounts his horse to drive the rams into a stall, she immediately jumps up and runs after him.

Mirlan’s wife sets the table. Everything is only of our own production: oil, sour cream, ayran and tortillas. The latter are already ending, which is why she starts cooking new ones — with her hands she quickly rolls out the dough, and then casually throws it onto the surface of the iron furnace. The cakes quickly rise and she throws a few dungies into the fire. 

Mirlan is one of those who first started talking about the company’s violation of environmental standards. According to him, in June, the first ram died without any signs of illness. The next day he lost two more animals, and in a day still as many.

“They were all vaccinated. They just died – they drank water from a stream and died there a few meters away, ”Mirlan recalls bitterly.

For him, the death of even one sheep is a significant financial loss. And in the summer, according to him, he lost 36 goals.

The representative of the State Inspectorate for Veterinary Safety in the Naryn Region, Kumara Isakova, stated that in July 2019, only 22 sheep were killed – in the carcasses of two of them nitrate and arsenic were found, the rest were clean.  

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But Mirlan is sure that his cattle died due to contaminated water in streams flowing to pastures from the Buchuk site, which is being developed by a Chinese company. “When they blew up the rock on the mountain, then such dust rose, nothing was visible. The snowy peaks turned brown, and then it all fell into our water, ”says Mirlan. Most local residents support his opinion – this is not the first time they have blamed the company for the pollution of drinking water, as early as 2018, this brought about a hundred emgekchilts to protest .

The water that some locals and cattle drink is meltwater from glaciers on the tops of the mountains. At the bed of one of them, a Chinese company was planning to build a sump for industrial waste and even built a dam so that water would not leak there. But members of the commission from local residents, which monitors the work of the company, are sure that the dam is not built correctly and will soon begin to pollute the water. 

But the Chinese company says that all the checks did not find violations in their sump, and the head of the Veterinary Inspectorate said that the cattle had fallen due to infection with parasites and insufficient vaccination. 

To “build a positive image” of the company, the Kyrgyz authorities asked investors to pay money to herders who lost their livestock. But it was not possible to create a positive image – a few weeks after that, local and company employees were already stoning each other. 

Opaque deals between authorities and China fuel public discontent
“Foreign investment in agriculture and mining in any country usually does not provoke a positive reaction from local residents, but in this case, the fact that investments come from China makes the situation more complicated,” said Dirk van der Klei. According to him, the deals of the Chinese with the Kyrgyz authorities are opaque, which causes the local population additional suspicion and distrust of investors. 

In addition, the role is played by the fact that the Chinese authorities simply do not know how to create a good image for themselves – they prefer to just quietly survive crises and be silent in case of victories.  

Daniyar Moldokanov believes that the authorities are not explaining well to the public why the country needs investments from China. “The authorities are also afraid of the people, they are afraid that if they say that we have millions of Chinese projects and that Chinese business is flourishing here, they can be removed from their seats,” the researcher said. 

The Prime Minister admitted that explanatory work with the local population was carried out only formally and in times of crisis.

The Kyrgyz field at the epicenter of the conflict is very different from the neighboring one being developed by a local company. There, in a familiar routine, a crusher crunches stones beside a building where gold is separated from ore. Against the background of their leisurely work, the Chinese at their site for some months were able to cut roads on the side of the mountain, build a dam and lay the foundations for future buildings.   

It was such a pace of work of the Chinese company that could scare local residents, said the director of the state agency for investment promotion Shumkarbek Adilbek uulu. “If the Chinese want to build a plant in 6 months, then they are doing it at an accelerated pace,” says Adilbek uulu. 

Therefore, the Chinese are attracting their workers to the construction, which local residents also don’t like – according to Adilbek uulu, the Kyrgyz “are often delayed”. Although, in his opinion, after the completion of construction, Chinese companies begin to hire more workers from among local residents. According to the government, of the nearly 500 employees working on the creation of the company’s infrastructure, nearly 300 are Kyrgyz. But according to the head of the Min-Bulak ayil okmotu, only 126 local people worked at the enterprise. 

Experts explain this approach of the Chinese to business simply. According to Dirk van der Clay, jobs are the main currency in Sino-Kyrgyz relations, and they are needed by both. Therefore, job creation for both the Kyrgyz and the Chinese is often a condition for investment transactions between Chinese companies and the Kyrgyz government. But, according to Moldokanov, our country has a relatively low human capital, there are no professionals, and therefore it is not worth wondering that Chinese companies bring their own workers with them.

“Monetary interest” behind growing sinophobia 
The first conflict related to the work of Zhong Ji Mining arose in 2010-2011. Then the residents of the village of Emgekchil opposed the fact that the license for the development of the field was given to the Chinese, and not to the local company Altyn Emgekchil . By the way, one of its co-founders is Berdibek Daiyrov, whom I also suspect of co-organizing anti-Chinese rallies on January 7, 2019 in Bishkek. The second co-founder of the company is someone named Joo Joon Rong.  

The road to Emgecchil begins with an arch, which is guarded on both sides by two gilded lions. The inscription above them reads: “A beautiful village, like gold, silver and pearls! Welcome to the hospitable Emgekchil! ”To get to the hospitable Emgekchil you need to drive a few more kilometers along the road with a fabulous landscape – only rare cars spoil a picture similar to a Windows screensaver.

Especially for you Alihanrin Alihan!

In the center of the village there was a small mosque – according to residents of neighboring aiyls, in recent years Emgekchil has become fanatically religious.

Recently, local activists bought all the alcohol in the village and crushed it with bulldozers, announcing an informal dry law.

True, the barely standing man who crosses the road in front of our car apparently violated this law. Swaying rhythmically, he wraps around the tall fence that hides the pompous mansion. In front of the mansion there is a trimmed green lawn, from cows passing by it it is fenced only with a neat iron gate. “Of course, the owner of this house was engaged in gold mining,” says our driver.

In the mines that now belong to the Chinese company, locals used to mine gold themselves and then sell it on the black market. The advantage was occupied by the inhabitants of Emgekchil, where almost everyone had home-made devices for separating gold from ore. For this reason, Emgecchilites were the first to oppose Chinese investors – they wanted to mine the precious metal themselves. 

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According to local activist Zhanybek Sopiev, no one has been engaged in gold mining in the village for a long time. We drive through mansions, which in their pomp are more reminiscent of elite villas than clay houses that are usual for Kyrgyz ayyls. But he asks to close this topic – the video report, released in 2016, about how the Emgekchilians independently mine gold, did not bring benefits to local residents, but only attracted the attention of law enforcement officers. 

In the video, Zhanybek, still without a beard and skullcap, tells how local people mine gold in makeshift mines. He says he has to pay the police so that they do not interfere with work. “We are afraid for our health; there are risks. But we are not here from a good life, ”says a colleague of Zhanybek, squatting in a narrow tunnel.

For the 15 hours spent in the mine, the Emgecchilites could earn $ 150 each – according to them, this is good money for a place where there is no more work.

Over the past ten years, the Naryn region has almost always remained in the top three in terms of poverty among the regions. 

Although not everyone believes in the plight of the Emkechiles. “There were times when even teenagers in Emgekcil walked with bundles of money. Sometimes, after a successful trip to the mines, the locals walked in Naryn and let down hundreds of dollars in one night, ”says local journalist Mirlan. 

“Now everyone here is engaged only in cattle breeding,” Zhanybek insists stubbornly, while we pass by a man who suspiciously goes over the breed in a large vat of water. Rumor has it that the locals did not stop mining gold – Salton-Sary is far from the only deposit in the Naryn region. 

The neighboring Min-Bulak, the center of the rural district, at the disposal of which is Solton-Sary, should not occupy pomposities. Its chairman Kazybek Usupov meets us in his chic office, sitting at a dark wood table. It forbids to take pictures of yourself on video, and for photography sits down at a more modest table in the office next door. He says that he will not comment on the conflict between the locals and the Chinese until he receives an order from above. In fact, he is afraid to talk about it – he understands that if he publicly supports the Chinese, the locals will not understand him, and if he takes the side of the local, then the Chinese will not understand. According to official figures, Zhong Ji Mining allocated over 500 thousand dollars to the Ming-Bulak rural district – about a third of the local budget.   

“Our aiyl okmotu is recognized as the best,” Usupov says proudly, sitting at his big table. “We don’t even have agricultural equipment like ours.” While we chat, he watches what is happening in the ayil okmotu building on the two monitors of his computer.   

Min-Bulak is considered one of the richest rural governments — precisely because of the material assistance from Zhong ji Mining. For this money, local officials repaired schools, kindergartens, paved roads and bought agricultural machinery.

“Kyrgyzstan needs investors for development, all countries have developed like that,” Usupov said.

But, according to experts, Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan is always accompanied by big kickbacks to all officials who meet on the way to the investor. “China is adapting to the status quo. If there is corruption in the country, then the Chinese will act within the framework of this system, ”says researcher Daniyar Moldokanov. 

Why China is expanding in Central Asia: lessons for other regions
Kyrgyzstan is not the most important market for China – trade with Central Asian countries is a tiny fraction of Chinese foreign trade. But the region may be attractive to Chinese investors for another reason – in China they simply have nothing to do. According to Dirk van der Clay, mining and agricultural companies in China now have a hard time – they have to raise salaries for employees, maneuver between environmental laws and restrictions, and compete with thousands of their kind. Therefore, so many companies based in the Chinese provinces are trying to find foreign markets that they can enter.

Central Asia in this regard is a tidbit – there is low competition and great opportunities. For example, Tajikistan has become attractive to cement producers – its prices there are quite high, and there are almost no worthy rivals. Therefore, despite the difficult business environment and the need to participate in corruption schemes, Chinese companies invest more and more money every year in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. And the Kyrgyz authorities would gladly accept more investment from China, but, according to van der Clay, they fear misunderstanding from civil society. Kyrgyz people with great distrust of any Chinese infusion.

According to expert Sheridal Baktygulov, the roots of the negative attitude to China lie in the Soviet propaganda of the 1960s – then Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were part of the Central Asian region, which was preparing for a war with China. “Starting from the school bench in the lessons of initial military training, the population also prepared for this confrontation. The Soviet-Chinese border conflicts that arose during that period led to the fact that the negative attitude about the Chinese firmly entered our consciousness, ”the expert says. In addition, the tragic events of 1916 also do not add love to the Chinese – then after an unsuccessful uprising against the Russian empire, the Kyrgyz fled to China, where most of the survivors died. 

“Do you know about Urkun?” How then did the Chinese kill the Kyrgyz people and are doing it now. This water, which flows from Buchuk, we drink. And the Chinese do not care [what quality she is], like the government, ”

says one of the elders (venerable elderly) Min-Bulak, sitting on a stool in the shade of a tree. Passers-by stop and respectfully greet the old man. “Ecology is badly spoiled, it will affect our future generations”   

But without Chinese investment, the Kyrgyz economy, like any other Central Asian economy, will be difficult, experts say. This is understood by the locals. Ulanbek, the owner of the house in which there was a fight between local guys and Chinese workers, twists and spits when we ask him which side he supports. 

“Why did you rent them a house then?”

– You are so interesting! – his tanned and weathered face folds into a grimace – to what only life does not lead! You now wear your ripped jeans and sneakers that you made in China. Why? Because they are powerful. Here we are.

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