Depends on who you ask. A few days ago several hundred people gathered in the Kazakh city of Almaty to protest against the country’s proposal to lease farmland to China. Interestingly enough, back in December when the media leaked reports of this news to the public, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General’s Office led an investigation to rule on whether the leak “incited national enmity and hatred,” no doubt in an attempt to hush the growing dissent surrounding this issue. At that time, the officials said that this was not a farmland lease, but a “joint agricultural manufacture.”

Now that the proposal is public, the many sides of this controversy are beginning to take shape. Despite the many economic ties that the two countries have forged in the last few years (the “silk road” pipeline, Chinese investment in Kazakh oil companies), many issues still remain. Kazakhstan wants foreign investors to pour money into its agricultural sector and is willing to provide up to 3.5 million hectares of land, of which 1 million has recently been leased by China. China benefits from this deal because the farmland is suitable for growing soybeans, which constitute a large part of animal feed. Inevitably, the use of farmland by the Chinese means that there will be migration into Kazakhstan and therefore intensify the clash of cultures. Given that there are many ethnic Uighurs scattered throughout Kazakhstan, and given the Chinese government’s tumultuous record with this group in the Xinjiang province, it is no surprise that some people in Kazakhstan feel threatened by this so-called “expansionism.” As they see it, this is not simply a lease of land from one country to another, but a threat of exploitation and expansion against the context of increasing ethnic tensions between the Chinese and its immediate neighbours. The choice that the Kazakhstan government has made is a tough one — we can only wait and see if the benefits exceed the costs.

Written by Florence Au