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China’s Impact on Democracy and Human Rights in Central Asia


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February 4, 2022 

by: Sebastien Peyrouse

This article analyzes the impact of China’s policy on politics and human rights in Central Asia. First, it discusses how Beijing’s narrative has supported authoritarianism in the region. Second, it analyzes some of the tools of authoritarianism China has exported to support the political legitimacy of Central Asian authorities and their efforts to monitor their citizens. In conclusion, this article argues that although China has had a tangible impact on human rights in Central Asia, other elements also need to be taken into consideration to understand authoritarian tendencies in the region, including the influence of other foreign actors such as Russia as well as the goals of the Central Asian leaders themselves, who are not passive recipients of Chinese policy but rather have embarked on their own on road of authoritarianism since independence.

Since the 2000s, China has engaged in a strategy to leverage not only its economic influence but also its political influence in countries where it invests and develops trade relations. One of the components of this has consisted of challenging the principles of democracy and universal human rights, which Beijing claims are Western-centric and tools to constrain China’s development, and instead promoting its own paradigm of democracy and human rights under which each state is entitled to revise and frame these concepts using its own historical, cultural, and local political considerations, in the name of non-interference and peaceful coexistence.

This approach has been clearly demonstrated in Central Asia. Beijing has sought convergences with Central Asian states’ approaches to governance and foreign relations in order to minimize uncertainty and to maximize its leverage over governments with similar political systems. China wants to prevent any possibility for political destabilization that it fears the West could initiate in the region through promotion of democracy and human rights and that could impact its interests, in particular its development program in Xinjiang. China also wants to secure its trade and investments in the region, which have grown significantly since the 2000s and are likely to increase further through China’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative, launched in 2013.

To this end, Beijing has endorsed the political authoritarianism of Central Asian regimes, which it views as a bulwark of stability, and has striven to counter efforts to promote democratization and universal human rights in the region which it views as attempts to westernize it. This policy has materialized in Chinese rhetoric endorsing Central Asian policies restricting political rights and restraining opposition activism, including anti-Chinese activism, as well as in the export of technology that enables governments to monitor the population.

This paper analyzes the impact of China’s policy on politics and human rights in Central Asia. The first part discusses as an example how Beijing’s narrative has challenged the political liberalization that was initiated in Kyrgyzstan shortly after its independence, and instead supported and legitimized authoritarianism, including in other Central Asian states. The second part analyzes some of the tools of authoritarianism China has exported to support the political legitimacy of Central Asian authorities and their efforts to monitor their citizens. In conclusion, this article argues that China has had a tangible impact on human rights in Central Asia but that other elements also need to be taken into consideration to understand authoritarian tendencies in the region, including the influence of other foreign actors such as Russia as well as the goals of the Central Asian leaders themselves, who are not passive recipients of Chinese policy but rather have embarked on their own on road of authoritarianism since independence.

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Sebastien Peyrouse a is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.