Illegal kidnappings and broken promises: the case that reveals the true nature of the Chinese Belt and Road project

A train runs through a deserted area near the Altynkol railway station, near the Khorgos border crossing, on the border with China (REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev) (PAVEL MIKHEYEV/)

The Chinese Initiative Belt and Road (BRIfor its acronym in English) faces increasing critics as it expands around the world. Although the Chinese president Xi Jinping conceived it as a ambitious infrastructure project To boost China’s trade and influence, the BRI became the emblem of the corruptionthe bankruptcy and the repression of human rights of the communist regime.

These problems are evident in places like Khorgosan international transportation hub, free trade zone and cross-border cooperation center between China and Kazakhstan.

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When Kazakhstan signed the BRI agreements with China ten years ago, Khorgos was presented as the next dubai: a new center emerged from the desert that It would revolutionize world trade, with a huge logistics port for the transit of goods, duty-free shopping centers and a special economic zone with warehouses and factories producing for export.

A decade later, China is clearly the main winner of the BRIwhile Kazakhstan reaps far less than its share of the benefits: on the Chinese side of Khorgos There are skyscrapers, conference rooms, people and traffic. On the Kazakh side, in the special trade zone there are just a handful of buildings and shops where goods can be purchased in Chinese yuan instead of the tenge Kazakhs.

An office building that houses the International Trade Center in Khorgos.  (REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev)
An office building that houses the International Trade Center in Khorgos. (REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev) (PAVEL MIKHEYEV/)

In that border area, the BRI also brought problems such as sovereignty violations by China, since there have been reports kidnappings of Kazakh citizens by suspected Chinese agents.

The British newspaper The Telegraph told the case of Asqar Azatbeka Kazakh citizen kidnapped by a group of armed men who violently snatched him from his country and took him at full speed towards China. Azatbekthat had moved to Khorgos in hopes of taking advantage of the commercial boom that the BRI promised, ended up being sentenced in China to 20 years in prison for alleged espionage.

The family appealed, but has not heard from the cousin since.

The kidnapping of Asqar has been one of the most visible of the numerous acts of Chinese overreach in Kazakhstan. But in recent years several more have been reported. Some were allowed to return home after being interrogated in China, while others remain missing, relatives told the British newspaper. Meanwhile, the local population lives in a state of increasing fear.

Gulpiya Qazybek, 46, an ethnic Kazakh who fled China in May 2019 with her family, said Chinese police have regularly questioned her brothers, suggesting they organize a meeting in Khorgos, something she believes is a trap. “I think they’re trying to trick me,” she said. “I’m still afraid, because if I go [a Khorgos]they could stop me.”

These incidents have increased the distrust and the controversy around the BRI, and have led to questions about the true nature of the projects infrastructure projects supported by the Chinese regime abroad.

Exporting the “Xinjiang model”

The kidnapping cases in Kazakhstan also show that the BRI allows China exporting their human rights abuses abroad.

Concern increased because the affected country shares an extensive border with the region of Xinjiangwhere the regime carries out a brutal repression against the Muslim minority of the Uyghurs: hundreds of thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained in “reeducation” camps and abuses such as beatings, rapes, forced sterilizations have been documented.

As in Xinjiang, China has now even reached detain foreign citizens in Kazakhstan on dubious chargeswhich has increased fears of Chinese surveillance and intimidation in the neighboring country.

One of the infamous
One of the infamous Chinese “re-education camps” in Dabancheng, in the Xinjiang region (REUTERS/Thomas Peter/file) (Thomas Peter/)

Rakhima Senbai35, a Chinese-Kazakh interpreter at a Khorgos store, said she was detained in a “re-education” camp after authorities accused her of “terrorist” tendenciesbecause he had seen other Muslims praying in Kazakhstan.

Authorities also said she was a criminal for using WhatsApp, an “illegal” program banned in China.

“If they tell you that you are breaking the law, you have to agree with them,” he told The Telegraph.

He counted having been overcrowded with 80 women in such a small cell that they had to take turns sleeping. When she was not behind bars, shackled, she had to undergo political indoctrination, forced to praise the ruling Communist Party.

Other former detainees interviewed by The Telegraph They have described beatings and rapes, and the obligation to chant: “Long live Xi Jinping!”

Military expansion

China’s regional and military expansion is another of the risks that the BRI entails and is evident in places like Kazakhstana country that finds itself in a delicate position due to its growing dependence on Beijing amid tensions with Russia and the lack of viable alternatives.

It worries me because the Chinese don’t invade by making a war; They enter the country little by little, increase their population and assimilate,” he said. Nursapa Nurqadyra 33-year-old Kazakh who fled China and works as an engineer at the last station in Kazakhstan before the railway lines enter China. “They have the resources to buy many things and are interested in Kazakh land”said.

Trains loaded with containers are seen at the Altynkol train station near the Khorgos border crossing (REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev)
Trains loaded with containers are seen at the Altynkol train station near the Khorgos border crossing (REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev) (PAVEL MIKHEYEV/)

Concerns that the BRI could pave the way for China’s regional and military expansion It is not unfounded.

In TajikistanChina is behind the construction of a new presidential administration building and a parliamentary complex, in addition to having built a secret military base near the border with China and Afghanistan, next to the corridor Wakhan.

Stopped projects and debt

The Belt and Road Initiativewhich initially promised economic flourishing and mutually beneficial cooperation, has also been overshadowed by accusations of corruption, stopped projects and concerns about “debt trap” in the receiving countries.

Several countries are rethinking their relationship with China. Italy, which signed the BRI in 2019 – the only G7 country to do so -, is about to retire.

About a third of BRI projects have been affected by corruption scandals, labor violations and environmental risks.

In Astana, In the capital of Kazakhstan, a Chinese-funded light rail transportation program was halted following the conviction of local officials for corruption.

In Jordana shale power plant has been criticized because Amman will lose $280 million a year and consumers will be forced to pay more for electricity.

In Kenyaa plan to connect the coastal city of Mombasa with the capital, Nairobihas not materialized, as the tracks have stopped in a field a few hundred kilometers from their destination.

Recipient countries also bear at least $385 billion of hidden debt or unreported in 2021, kept off official balance sheets through China’s use of loans to non-governmental entities.

The Hambantota port in a photo from 20218 (Atul Loke/Bloomberg/file)
The Hambantota port in a photo from 2018 (Atul Loke/Bloomberg/file) (Atul Loke/)

China often reserves the right right to demand reimbursement at any timeallowing Beijing to pressure countries to take its side on hot-button issues, such as its territorial claims over Taiwan or its repression in Xinjiang.

In some cases, China has confiscated foreign assets when countries cannot repay loans. Sri Lanka It was forced to give up control of its Hambantota port and 15,000 acres of surrounding land for 99 years after failing to repay $1.3 billion in Chinese loans.

The opacity of the loan conditions also makes it difficult to estimate the world’s total debt to China, a growing risk for the global economy.