As Kazakhstan models China's brutality, will China model its protests?

On Friday, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev ordered security forces to “kill without warning,” a desperate bid to end violent protests that have claimed more than three dozen lives and resulted in more than 3,000 detentions.  

The disturbances are the worst since the former Soviet republic declared independence in 1991.  

“China is willing to provide necessary support to Kazakhstan to help Kazakhstan tide over its difficulties,” Chinese ruler Xi Jinping declared in a message to Tokayev. “Regardless of the risks and challenges encountered, China is Kazakhstan’s trusted friend and reliable partner.”  

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Events in neighboring Kazakhstan are unnerving the leadership of the seemingly mighty Chinese state. And Beijing has every reason to be worried. 

Protests in Kazakhstan erupted on Jan. 2. The day before, the price of liquefied natural gas, often used to fuel cars, doubled as the government lifted caps. On Thursday, officials promised to restore the price caps for car fuel for six months, but the pledge did not stem unrest. 

Tokayev has resorted to lethal force. The Kazakh interior ministry announced 26 “armed criminals” have been killed. Russian troops, part of a Collective Security Treaty Organization “peace-keeping” force, have just arrived to restore order.  

Governments willing to kill can stay in power. For instance, China’s Communist Party kept itself in place by killing protesters on June 4, 1989. Then, paramount Deng Xiaoping wanted the Chinese people to know he was determined to maintain Communist rule.  

The demonstration of brutality worked, ending not only the massive protests in Beijing but also those in some 350 other Chinese cities.  

The lesson from China is that brutality can work, but it has to work fast. No regime can withstand enraged and fearless citizens for long.  

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Kazakhstan’s people are enraged. It did not help Tokayev’s cause when he called protesters “terrorist bandits.” “We are neither thugs nor terrorists,” one woman told CNN.  

The issue is how much blood Tokayev is now willing to spill. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was willing to shed none, and that is one reason the Soviet Union is no more. He dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Christmas Day 1991.    

Gorbachev is hailed as a hero outside Russia because he recognized that the USSR could not be saved. In China’s ruling circles, however, he is vilified because he did not believe in communism. 

“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse?” Xi Jinping asked in a secret speech to Guangdong province cadres in December 2012, one month after being named general secretary of China’s ruling organization at the 18th National Congress. “An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered.”   

“Finally, all it took was one quiet word from Gorbachev to declare the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party, and a great party was gone,” Xi declared in Guangdong. “In the end, nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.”   

No one doubts Xi Jinping’s willingness to resist, but the Kazakh protests present a challenge he may not be able to handle. After all, the unrest could spread across the 1,060-mile China-Kazakh border into the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where ethnic Kazakhs live.  

Yet Chinese officials face a broader problem than feelings of ethnic solidarity. Like Tokayev, they must deal with upset citizens for many reasons. For one thing, Xi Jinping is embarking on a Maoist-inspired “common prosperity” program. Throughout Chinese history — two millennia of imperial rule and the first years of the People’s Republic — similar programs always resulted in economic failure. The consequence? The Chinese people, like their Kazakh neighbors, are ready to take to the streets as they feel the ill effects of Xi’s “reforms.”  

Moreover, Chinese citizens, like Kazakhstan’s, resent rampant corruption and they now share anger over draconian COVID-control policies. Fury spread throughout Chinese social media in the last few days when a woman in disease-stricken Xian was denied entry to a hospital, bled while sitting outside the hospital door and miscarried. That horrible incident followed the heart attack death of a man also turned away from a Xian hospital.  

The last thing Chinese leaders want is to have Chinese citizens take inspiration from their Kazakh neighbors. This is not just a theoretical concern. “The sudden outbreak of unrest in Kazakhstan should be seen as a motivation and a warning for China to improve governance,” said Feng Shaolei of East China Normal University to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.  

President Tokayev talks tough. “They need to be destroyed,” he said on Friday, referring to the protestors in his streets.   

Despite the rhetoric, it is not clear that Kazakh leaders are as brutal as the Chinese ones. Beijing is hoping they are, and Xi Jinping must be watching nervously.  

Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China.” Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.