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One belt one road. New Chinese trade silk road. map infographics
One belt one road. New Chinese trade silk road. map infographics illustration

Why China Leans Hard on Central Asia

The region is critical to China’s ambitions, hence the generous offers of state-of-the-art surveillance technology

China is providing several Central Asian former Soviet bloc countries surveillance technology for free. But as we have seen there is always a cost to doing business with China. In this case, the cost is that the data gleaned from these technologies goes back to Beijing where the Chinese government can monitor activity and purchases in those countries.

Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have also received loans from China as well as surveillance technology for security and policing largely from Chinese tech giant Huawei. At a conference in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2017 Huawei held its inaugural Central Asia Innovation Day in which the company outlined its plans to help build a digital silk road through the development of information and communications technologies, particularly through its “smart cities” projects. Kyrgyzstan, for example, opened a new police center in its capital that is equipped with facial recognition and other security-based technologies.

China’s current relationship to Central Asia goes back two decades. China, Russia, and the four former Soviet bloc countries formed a collation called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001 as a kind of counterpart to the European Union or NATO, calling itself “an alliance of the East.” Today, Pakistan and India are also members of the SCO and all eight members seek unity and mutual benefit in the region.

The fall of the Soviet Union figured largely in this alliance. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan gained their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Before that, these countries relied on Russian investments. But with China emerging as the financial superpower, all four of these countries and Russia have become increasingly dependent on China for funds.

In the years following 1991, several conflicts arose over borders between the Central Asian countries, China, and Russia. Today, Tajikistan still has some border issues with China but China is using Tajikistan’s extensive debt as leverage in the negotiations (more on this later). While China has economic influence in Central Asia, Russia still has a cultural influence on these countries. Thus, despite a mutual antagonism toward the U.S., Russia and China retain a precarious partnership in the region.

The Belt and the Road

To understand China’s interest in Central Asia, we need to look more closely at China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the geography of the region. It is no accident that China is courting the countries that border the Xinjiang province (Uyghur Autonomous Region).

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s billion-dollar global investment project. The announcement of the BRI laid out ambitious goals, but China remained intentionally vague in how it would go about accomplishing these goals. It is ostensibly a way for China to venture out into the global economy, and involves Chinese investments to better connect the country to its trading partners.

Adam Taylor, ““Why countries might want out of China’s Belt and Road”” at The Washington Post (August 22/, 2018)

As the Brookings Institute has pointed out, the loans China provides for much-needed infrastructure projects in Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America are not philanthropy. They are a money-making scheme, pursued in China’s best interests and they may very well end up hurting these countries economies in the future.

The “belt” of the Belt and Road Initiative is the Silk Road Economic Belt, which spans from Xi’an in central China, through the Xinjiang province, and into Kazakhstan via the border city of Horgos. From there it will extend through the Middle East and into Europe. China has provided technological assistance to help several cities along the belt develop into “smart cities.” These smart cities serve as technological nodes along what is termed the “digital silk road” in the BRI project. According to Foreign Policy, “…the initiative aims to boost the country’s tech giants worldwide, construct China-centric digital infrastructure, and gain a monopoly over the global data supply chain.”

The Xinjiang Province in northwest China, home to several million Uyghur people, is vital to the project. It is the doorway to Central Asia: It borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. Its natural resources include oil and natural gas, two resources that China desperately needs. In the wake of uprisings by some Uyghur radicals in 2009, China has attempted to eliminate Uyghur culture from the region. Internal government documents leaked to the New York Times show how China makes use of high tech surveillance, biometric databases, and internment camps to control the people of the region.

Notably, the Chinese government has targeted other minority groups including Kazaks living the province. Xinjiang’s neighboring countries, like the Uyghur population, are predominantly Muslim, so maintaining good relations with the countries, including providing substantial infrastructure loans ensures that these Central Asian countries will practice discretion before speaking out against the Chinese government’s oppressive tactics in Xinjiang. Also, China emphasizes using their “smart city” technology to prevent any terrorist threats, one of the “three evils” according to Chinese policy:

As perceptions of international terrorism persist, a cross-border social credit system could be in the works, especially in light of vague policy deals between China and Belt and Road countries…Such a system would be especially plausible in Central Asia, where a decades old terrorism discourse against Uyghur separatists continues to be the main agenda between Chinese and Central Asian officials.

Yau Tsz Yan, ““Smart Cities or Surveillance? Huawei in Central Asia”” at The Diplomat

Beyond the geography and natural resources, there’s also the infiltration of Chinese technologies. The smart cities are built predominantly with equipment provided by Huawei, one of the largest Chinese tech companies, and Hikvision, which came under scrutiny for advertising facial recognition technology that can distinguish Uyghur features from Han features.

Technology, surveillance, and Huawei

Chinese interests and activities in Central Asia have been part of a carefully crafted plan. Initially, Beijing sought to demilitarize the borders, which was followed by a crackdown on the Uyghur community, the creation of a collective security framework through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the building of infrastructure and communications systems in the region, and finally an influx of soft power.

Aruuke Uran Kyzy, ““Why is anti-Chinese sentiment on the rise in Central Asia?”” at The Diplomat

Critics point to the way that China is exporting its surveillance technology to the countries in which it is investing. Huawei’s facial recognition systems, which use artificial intelligence algorithms to sift through large amounts of data from camera footage, have been sold to over fifty countries worldwide, including countries with oppressive governments. The smart cities along the digital silk road include Huawei surveillance cameras in the social centers and populated areas. According to Tokyo-based periodical The Diplomat, Huawei recently “closed a $1 billion deal with the Uzbek government to further its surveillance operations in the country,” in a package that includes buses equipped with facial recognition technology for the capital city.

Additionally, The Diplomat reports there are more than 2,000 cameras in Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan, where Huawei works with several local tech companies to support security surveillance using their cameras. Tajikistan spent $22 million dollars on Huawei’s “safe cities” system in Dushanbe, where the logo on Dushanbe’s police cars says “China Aid.” Similarly, Foreign Policy reports that “[s]ince May, China has provided buses, minibuses, SUVs, armored police cars totaling about $4.3 million to Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of the Interior.”

Where is all of the data going and where is it stored? The short answer is China. The Central Asian countries’ current laws do not adequately protect their citizens’ privacy. In fact, most countries in the world do not have adequate laws to deal with the potential harms of facial recognition technology: “China already has access to some data from these smart cities, and without appropriate laws in place to safeguard personal data, the infrastructure is in place for China to engage in largescale surveillance along the Digital Silk Road.” (Foreign Policy)

The UN has discussed regulating facial recognition technology,but recently leaked documents show that Chinese tech companies are influencing the UN standards.

All Is Not Quiet on the Western Front

Cracks are starting to form in China’s relationship with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. China’s easy terms for lending money comes at the cost of the encroachment of Chinese business and politics as well as erosion of the country’s ownership of its own resources. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, are at risk of debt-distress. China owns 41% of Kyrgyzstan’s debt and 53% of Tajikistan’s debt. Furthermore, Tajikistan and China have had an ongoing conflict over the border but in an effort to allay China’s debt repayments, Tajikistan has given over some border control:

When Tajikistan cannot repay its loans, it sells off land and grants China other concessions. In 2011, Tajikistan ended a border dispute by ceding land in a deal believed to have been agreed to in exchange for debt relief. Shortly after that, more land was given to 1,500 Chinese farmers in Tajikistan which one Tajik sociologist said would open the doors to China’s growing ‘influence in politics.’ The situation is exacerbated by the fact that much of the money obtained from Beijing goes to the Tajik regime’s vanity projects, like the world’s tallest flagpole, the region’s largest theater and a new parliament complex.

Aruuke Uran Kyzy, “Why is anti-Chinese sentiment on the rise in Central Asia?” at The Diplomat

Additionally, the relatively porous borders between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the Xinjiang province, mean that China’s oppression of the Uyghur people extends to other minorities. There are reportedly 22,000 ethnic Kyrgyz and 10,000 ethnic Kazakhs in China’s so-called re-education camps in Xinjiang. People in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have called upon their governments to get family members out of the detention camps, but their requests were denied because it would amount to interference in another country’s internal matters.

Central Asia is a key component to China’s ambitions. Certainly these countries have benefited from partnering with China in trade and development, at least in the short-term. However, this relationship is heavily one-sided, particularly in the poorer countries feeling the squeeze of China’s encroachment into their natural resources, land, and culture. Furthermore, China’s state-of-the-art surveillance system gives it eyes well beyond it’s own borders.

(The panorama above is of Khiva, Uzbekistan)

Here are some of Heather Zeiger s recent reports on the high tech battle for freedom in Hong Kong:

Hongkongers: The dread that lies ahead They fear the fate of the Uyghurs, under “complete video surveillance” They dread 2047 when Hong Kong comes completely under the jurisdiction of the Communist Party and is subject to the CCP’s rule of law rather than Hong Kong’s own laws under the current “one country, two systems” regime.

Tiananmen Square 30 Years On: Words Still Have Power Back then, students fought oppression via the fax. They depended on free media in Hong Kong to tell the world

Hi-tech Freedom Game in Hong Kong: Technology can oppress a people group or it can give them a voice

Can China really silence Hong Kong?

The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.


The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uyghurs, a strategically critical minority.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Why China Leans Hard on Central Asia