China, Kazakhstan, And The Territorial Dispute That Isn't

Fake news can have a real impact.

On December 9, 2019, an article appeared on the Chinese news site Sohu.com entitled Why Is Kazakhstan Eager To Get Back to China? that argued that Kazakhstan is a historic part of China and that the country wants to the motherland. Eventually, word of the story was spread around in Kazakhstan, stirring up an already simmering pot of anti-China sentiment, which resulted in the Chinese ambassador being summoned to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry.

I did an overview of this situation yesterday at Kazakhstan: China's New Territorial Dispute?. Today, I will dive in a little deeper.

While the original article has long since been deleted, I was able to find a partial screenshot:

This is the gist of what it says:

“Looking at world history, loose leaf going back to its roots is not only an individual’s need, but also a nation’s. For many countries that end up being independent from their home country, they all inevitably want to return. As the saying goes, it’s cooler under the shade of a big tree. East Germany had a hard time with their economy, but after it returned to its home country their income multiplied and they got rich and developed. Besides them, countries like Belarus are also trying to get back to it’s own [home country]. There are many countries who are exceptions to this case, the most typical of which is Kazakhstan. So why haven’t they returned? Here are three reasons why:”

Unfortunate for my Western-indoctrinated knowledge of history, I may never know what these three reasons are, as that’s as much of the original story that I was able to procure. However, I was able to locate excerpts from it published on Chinese social media, one of which being:

“Although modern sciences has proven that they [Kazakhs] are genetically closer to the Europeans, they still think they are Chinese descendants, and want to bring the land back to China.”

In addition to this, other media sources have extracted other quotes from the story that alleged that the Kazakh tribes of old showed allegiance to the Chinese emperor, which is why the people of modern Kazakhstan “do not have too many complaints” about being invaded by China, and so on.

Basically, the article referenced a period during the 18th century when the Qing Dynasty was engaged in the conquest of Dzungaria and, for a time, administered a portion of what is now Kazakhstan.

You get the point here. The story had all the ingredients in it to kick Kazakhstan in its soft spot, igniting already combustible fears over Chinese involvement in Kazakhstan and outrage over counter-terrorism initiatives in Xinjiang which have targeted ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs. The government of Kazakhstan certainly took it as a provocation.

But where did this story come from?

While the article did appear on a major media platform, Sohu.com, it was in a sub-section called “Revealing the Truth Behind History,” which seems as if it may be self-published or at least lacks proper editorial oversight.

What’s particularly interesting is that this story seems to have provoked a reasonable about of public outrage in China as well, with multiple reaction posts being published which tore it apart and comments like, “such self-orgasming is pathetic and unnecessary.”

I believe it’s safe to conclude that this story doesn’t represent mainstream Chinese thought.

However, as we covered in yesterday’s story, the rhetoric in the article in question was the same as that which is used to support China’s real territorial claims now and in the recent past: we’re not invading, we’re just reclaiming what was already ours. As China engages in territorial disputes on many of its other borders, this is something that Kazakhstan, a country with less people than the city of Shanghai, is rather sensitive about.

While the Sohu.com story appears to be tantamount to fake news delivered by an insignificant actor, there is a fear as to what could happen if that narrative wasn’t isolated and begins to spread and gain popular support.

“Of course, there is a kind of China-phobia,” admitted a Kazakh logistics coordinator who goes by the name Sister on this site. “But, nevertheless, it is worrying. This is how these things start.”

Another argument from Kazakhstan is that, as everyone knows, China maintains a tight grip on its media platforms — articles, videos, blog posts, social media, and even chat apps are subject to having content removed and accounts deleted. As the Sohu.com story in question was allowed to be published and was not taken down until it created an issue, it is perhaps logical to conclude that elements of the Chinese government, on some level, supported the message.

Perhaps.

Another explanation is that nationalistic revisions of Chinese history are not really sensitive topics domestically and probably wouldn’t be prone to censorship. The Great Firewall doesn’t really take into account how Chinese media is perceived abroad.

For example, there is a story making the rounds right now that says that the United States forcibly expelled 100,000 ethnic Chinese from the country due to coronavirus. Of course, this never happened, but people in China are free to read about it and discuss it, and some may actually believe it. Sometimes, even high-ranking government officials will promote such fact-deprived claims.

However, stories in Kazakh media have insinuated that the Sohu.com story was not an isolated instance and that there may be an element in China who are advocating not only for deeper economic integration with Kazakhstan but political as well. While I haven’t seen much hard evidence to suggest this, it also doesn’t make much sense for the Kazakh government to have taken such strong and public action over a single post on a Chinese website.

Update, 4/16:

Global Times Responds

After I published the initial version of this article and sent the newsletter out, an article was published on China’s Global Times which responds to this issue:

Major Chinese social media networks and websites deleted a series of nationalist misleading articles which spread fake information online about China's neighboring countries and regions "eager to return to China" and relevant accounts also get banned, with Chinese experts said that these articles are not mainstream voices in China at all and they have no influence on China's policy making, so neighboring countries don't need to worry. 

With the worsening situation of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, a series of misleading articles for hyping nationalism claiming China's neighboring countries or regions including "Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Kokang of Myanmar and Manipur of India" are "eager to return to China" or "become a part of China" have emerged among Chinese social media network including WeChat public accounts and some private-owned major websites like Sohu.com and 163.com recently, which draw attention from other countries and even brought formal diplomatic to protest from Kazakhstan.

These articles are very similar and only provide made-up information without solid evidence, and they are not influential at all since most of them only received a few thousands of views or even less. 

But given some social media accounts and major websites also posted these articles, they caught the eye of the outside worlds, and now most of them have been deleted and relevant accounts also get banned. 

As China increases its global footprint and more people around the world learn to read Chinese and consume Chinese media, look for situations like this to repeat themselves in the future along the Belt and Road. China doesn’t exist in a bubble anymore, which is something the country seems to be having a difficult time coming to terms with on many fronts.