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Foreign Policy

China, Central Asia, and Conspiracy Theories

Aug 17 , 2016

There is an insightful parable circulating among foreign policy wonks in Central Asia: One day aliens visited one of the Central Asian presidents and granted him a wish. Excited about this opportunity, the president asked the aliens to take him to the future for one day, so that he could see the results of his reforms. The aliens honoured his wish and brought the president to the local market of the future. As the president was surfing between the aisled and food stalls, he noticed that the prices for all products were very cheap. He became very proud of himself and decided to buy the bread. However, the baker refused to sell the bread to the president because the president was trying to pay in his national currency, while all the prices were set in Chinese yuan.

This anecdote reflects the general perception of both the leadership and population of Central Asia towards China and its policies in the region, demonstrating that the narratives of conspiracy theories are prominent in the political discourses of Central Asia. As discussed previously, incomprehension of the Chinese foreign policy goals in Central Asia by local elites, in addition to a historic legacy of confrontation between the Chinese empire and Central Asian nomadic tribes, serves as fertile ground for the popularisation of speculative knowledge. As a result, Chinese initiatives in the region are clouded by rumours and conspiracies. Some people believe that Beijing seeks to subdue Central Asia economically in order to turn the region into its Western province. Others think that in reality China seeks to capture the natural resources of Central Asia through the cover-up infrastructure projects. There are also those who fear that China eyes the Central Asian lands as a solution to the Chinese problem of overpopulation.

Indeed, although evidence-based policymaking is well established in the developed world, Central Asian states are yet to fully experience the benefits of informed decision-making. The commitment of both Central Asian scholars and policymakers to opinion-based rationales can be attributed to the dominance of geopolitical mindset in the region as the legacy of the Cold War. Ruling elites in Central Asia have been raised on the Communist dogmas of class struggle. Thus, institutional knowledge inherited from the Soviet past explains the prevalence of opinion-based policymaking in the region, which relies on selective or untested evidence often inspired by geopolitical deliberations, ideological views or simply speculative assumptions.

No wonder increasing Chinese engagement in the region is subject to conspirological theorising. Conspiracy theories are the discourses, which explain a significant event as secretly planned and executed by an agent or a group of agents.[1] The conspiracy theories about a ‘deep state’ and ‘foreign threats’ are among the most widespread conspirological narratives across the post-Soviet landscape, including Central Asia. The concept of a ‘deep state’ attributes conspirological narratives to the internal affairs of the state such as the inner-workings of ruling clans, security services or powerful presidential families, while the concept of a ‘foreign threat’ suspects the role of external actors interfering in domestic affairs. As John Heathershaw (2012) argues, being often the ideological artifacts of the Cold War, Central Asian conspiracy theories tend to legitimise the predominant order and reproduce elitism, patriarchy, and patronage as modes of governance in the region. In other words, conspiracy theories emerge as convenient tools for ruling elites to justify certain actions or inactions. The reinforcement of conspirological narratives on the political level is done, most likely, inadvertently, quite often due to the incomprehension of the Chinese foreign policy goals in the region by Central Asian elites.

However, certain actions by the Chinese counterparts also contribute to the popularisation of speculative knowledge. For instance, WikiLeaks cables, dated February 13, 2009, revealed that China might have pressured Kyrgyzstan to evict the American Air Base Manas from its territory. At the meeting with the then-U.S. Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller, Zhang Yannian, then-Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, refuted the idea that China promised a $3 billion financial package to Bishkek in return for the closure of the Manas Air Base. Gfoeller, however, noted that during the encounter, Zhang Yannian, a doyen of the Chinese diplomatic corps, was “visibly flustered” and “temporarily lost the ability to speak Russian and began spluttering in Chinese to the silent aide.” Moreover, his silent aide “uncharacteristically” jumped in to advise the American Ambassador to provide $5 billion to Kyrgyz counterparts in order to buy out both the Chinese and Russians. Accordingly, such signals reinvigorate speculations about ‘real’ intentions of China and its role in the so-called “New Great Game” on the Central Asian steppes.

In general, it will be inaccurate to claim that conspiracy theories in political discourses are exclusive to post-Soviet Central Asia. Moon landings, Illuminati, Bilderberg Group, and the New World Order are a small fraction of conspiracy theories that dominate public discourses around the globe. However, conspiracy theories shall not be regarded purely from an entertainment perspective, as these narratives often embody distorted realities of existing problems. As some note, conspiracy theories are not about truth or falsehood, but about their power to affect both political discourses and political practices.[2]


[1] Heathershaw, J. (2012) ‘Of national fathers and Russian elder brothers: Conspiracy theories and political ideas in Post-Soviet Central Asia’, The Russian Review, vol.71, no. 4, pp. 610-629.

[2] See, for instance, Ortmann, S. and Heathershaw, J. (2012) ‘Conspiracy theories in the post-Soviet space’, The Russian Review, vol.71, no. 4, pp. 551-564; Yurchak, A. (2006) Everything was forever, until it was no more: The last soviet generation, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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