Kazakhstan’ s government is mulling a plan that would enable China to lease a large swath of Kazakhstani land for agricultural use. The proposed deal is stirring passionate opposition in the Central Asian state, with critics expressing concern about the country’ s sovereignty. Controversy has been brewing since December, when President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced that China had expressed a desire to lease a million hectares of Kazakhstani land. Under the proposal, Chinese growers would cultivate soybeans and rapeseed, which is used to produce vegetable oil, on the leased land. The government insists that opponents of the lease-scheme are overreacting.
Despite government assurances, the possibility that China could possess Kazakhstani territory leaves many citizens skittish, and their fears were on full display at a January 30 rally against the plan. The officially sanctioned gathering drew roughly 1,500 people, an unusually large crowd in a country where public protest is tightly controlled and rallies sometimes elicit an apathetic public response. Participants portrayed the deal as a threat to national security. Some waved a turquoise Kazakh national flag with a yellow Chinese dragon imposed on it. Others carried placards with the slogan: «The fate of the land is the fate of the nation!" Even before the late January rally, the strong public reaction to the plan had officials backtracking. „No one is going give land away to the Chinese," Prime Minister Karim Masimov said on December 14. «People are especially speculating on such feelings.“ Both he and Nazarbayev pointed out that the constitution bans foreigners from owning land in Kazakhstan. Deputy Agriculture Minister Arman Yevniyev clarified the same day that what the government has in mind is the joint production of soybeans, rapeseed and corn in Kazakhstan with Chinese growers. «Negotiation procedures are now starting, and in the near future representatives of the Chinese side should come for talks," the Novosti-Kazakhstan news agency quoted him as saying.
Critics of Chinese influence also point to Beijing’ s heavy involvement in Kazakhstan’ s oil and gas sector. In 2009, Beijing extended a $10-billion dollar credit line to Astana, at the same time acquiring the MangystauMunayGaz energy concern, which controls proven reserves of 500 million barrels of oil. The deal boosted China’ s already significant influence in the sector through interests controlled by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).