Among young Kyrgyzstanis, the more years they have studied at university, the likelier they are to feel positive about trading with China.
That is among the findings of a small new study on how Central Asia’s future leaders feel about their giant neighbor – a topic of much speculation but little structured inquiry. Though China is Central Asia’s largest investor, and it is frequently targeted by protestors concerned about unchecked development, human rights, and concerns over land use, there is little public opinion polling on China in the region.
“Perceptions of China in Central Asia: Findings from an elite university in Bishkek,” was published recently in the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics by Christopher Primiano at KIMEP University in Kazakhstan, Dana Rice of the Australian National University, and Alma Kudebayeva of KIMEP.
The sample size was small – and limited to students at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Kyrgyzstan’s capital – but offers some rare insights.
Primiano and his colleagues acknowledge “that such studies miss out on the more nuanced perceptions of other social groups. However, we argue that the students in a prestigious university like AUCA are likely to be among the ‘future elites’ of the region and therefore their views are disproportionally important to understand."
Rather than widely distribute the survey and risk self-selection bias, the scholars administered their questionnaire during live classes they joined over Zoom. So as not to influence the students on a loaded topic, they framed their questions to appear that they were seeking opinions on a variety of issues, not only China.
The scholars collected 120 responses from students across all four years of university, or about 10 percent of the AUCA student body. Sixty-one percent were female. Just over half were Kyrgyzstani; 20 percent were from Afghanistan, 16 percent from Tajikistan, and a couple each from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Some findings:
- Male students were more negative overall toward China than female students, a finding that the authors believe may be a result of “numerous news articles highlighting concerns about Chinese men becoming involved with local women.”
- The authors found a correlation between education and perceptions of trading with China: “We found that the more languages one speaks and the more time one spends at university, the stronger one’s support for trade with China.”
- Trade with China was viewed positively, with a mean of 6.38 on a 10-point scale. Female students were more positive than male students. (Possible scores ranged "from 0 to 10, with 0 being strongly against and 10 being strongly for.")
- A majority expressed concern that Kyrgyzstan could lose its autonomy to China due to debt. (The question could be considered leading, however: “How concerned are you that Kyrgyzstan will lose its autonomy as a result of debt to China?”)
- Participants rated China’s domestic response to COVID highly, offering a mean 7.67 points out of 10.
- The positive assessment fell for China’s pandemic assistance abroad, with a mean of 5.61. Kyrgyzstan nationals were more positive than their peers.
- Those who watch Western television were more likely to give China favorable ratings on its pandemic assistance.
- Political science majors were the most skeptical of China’s pandemic aid abroad.
- Students who believe Russian is the most important foreign language to study in Kyrgyzstan are more likely to view China’s pandemic assistance negatively.
The authors plan to scale up the research at other schools in Kyrgyzstan.
A 2020 poll of 4,500 people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan found that the longer Central Asians host Chinese investors, the keener they are on seeing them leave: In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, more than 70 percent of respondents were “very concerned” by Chinese people purchasing land in their countries.