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Culturological Aspect of the Kyrgyz-Chinese relations: Case Study of The Mining Sector

Conflicts in the mining sector of Kyrgyzstan are often attributed to the environmental, socio-economic, political and managerial issues. However, some believe that these conflicts are a manifestation of deeper civilizational factors, namely the differences between the Kyrgyz and Chinese cultures. The difference in values ​​and worldviews is expressed in the practice areas, in this case – in the oppositional approaches to the issue of mineral resource exploitation.

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The mining sector in Kyrgyzstan takes leading positions both in the industrial sector and in the national economy as a whole[1]. It accounts for over 8.5 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, more than 50 percent of the country’s industrial production and exports, and more than 15 percent of tax revenues[2].

In its plans, the state attaches great importance to the exploitation of mineral resources in the country, particularly precious metals, considering them as one of the main sources of fiscal revenue along with the attraction of foreign borrowing.

The key strategic document – the National Development Strategy of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2018-2040 (Chapter 3. Section 3.3 “Priority development sectors. Industrial potential of the country”) states the following: “Mineral development should ensure the financial resources generation for development. Subsoil revenues should be directed not only to solving current issues and environmental sustainability but also to strategic goals. Renewable capital funds should be created aiming at future developments of technology and innovations, as well as innovations in business, economy, culture, etc. ”[3].

Most of the companies involved in the mining of precious metals were created with the participation of foreign capital, including Chinese one. Currently, in Kyrgyzstan, there are 111 companies with a Chinese share of participation, of which 26 are classified as large and medium[4].

For all the years of the recent history of the Kyrgyz Republic, the activity of mining companies has been and remains the subject of social protests and the cause of discontent among the population, mainly the inhabitants of those places where mining operations are underway. These demonstrations have gained a particular scope since the beginning of the 2010s.

Such frequent social demonstrations confirm the urgency of the problem of mining in Kyrgyzstan. In the case of Chinese mining companies, this issue has already turned into another factor affecting bilateral interstate relations between Kyrgyzstan and China[5].

Conflicts in the mining sector of Kyrgyzstan are often attributed to the environmental, socio-economic, political and managerial issues. However, we believe that these conflicts are a manifestation of deeper civilizational factors, namely the differences between the Kyrgyz and Chinese cultures. The difference in values ​​and worldviews is expressed in the practice areas, in this case – in the oppositional approaches to the issue of mineral resource exploitation.

This article aims to compare and analyze the worldview differences in the Kyrgyz and Chinese cultures, as well as their impact on the practice of Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan.

What is common and different between nations?

The worldview of a nation is best reflected in its cultural heritage, including epics, folklore, and philosophical thought. When comparing the values and worldview traits of the Kyrgyz and Chinese peoples, it is essential to consider them according to three fundamental subsections, namely through their relation to space (nature), time and power. 

Attitude to nature

Typologically, both Kyrgyz and Chinese cultures belong to environmental-centric systems. This means that both cultures are oriented toward nature-conformity. Nature affirms the fundamental unity of all living things and combines the spiritual and material principles of the world order. Man is included in the natural world order of the whole, as a result of which both the Kyrgyz and the Chinese have always had the concept of harmony with nature. However, there are also noticeable differences.

The current Kyrgyz society predominantly (2/3) is a rural agrarian[6]. The livelihoods, well-being, and life of rural residents are directly related to the state of the natural environment – pastures, rivers, forests, glaciers, soil cover, etc. The world outlook and attitude of the rural population is traditional in its essence.

According to Kyrgyz traditional culture, based on nature-conformity, the whole world is built in a plane, horizontal projection. The plane principle of the organization of the universe affirms the metaphysical equality of all existing natural forms.

The relationship between man and the world was built based on trust and complementarity. A man was not exalted above nature and other forms of life. He was fully included in a single world order and shared a common fate with it. In this view, the attitude towards nature in traditional Kyrgyz society had a deep ethical meaning and spiritual complicity.

Traditionally, Kyrgyz had strict standards for the use of natural resources: pastures, the water of rivers and lakes, flora and fauna. It was believed that a person, being included in the general world order of life, should carry out all his activities in accordance with its fundamental laws. Therefore, a person’s violation of these fundamental rules entailed retaliation by the existing proportional to the negative power of human influence. A classic example of this is the plot of the legend of the hunter Kozhozhash, who violated the principle of reasonable attitude and respect to nature and was severely punished for it.

Traditionally, Kyrgyz had strict standards for the use of natural resources: pastures, the water of rivers and lakes, flora and fauna.

The importance of caring for the environment in traditional Kyrgyz culture is especially pronounced in the etymological meaning of the word “nature” itself. Nature in Kyrgyz language, Zharatylysh, is derived from the verb jaratuu (create). Hence, nature literally means “creation” of God (Zharatkan in Kyrgyz), which reflects the ontological proximity of the Creator and his creation.   

One of the most important cosmological foundations of the Kyrgyz was the principle of an impenetrable sky, which meant the presence of a metaphysical limit in the fixation of the upper sacred borders of the world. There was also a notion of solid, impenetrable earth, according to which the lower underground world level was perceived as the habitat of sacred energies and forces. Therefore, no one could disturb it by any anthropogenic activity, including excavations, mining, and the consumption of everything that is below the earth’s plane was not welcomed.

Within the framework of the nature-centered traditional Kyrgyz culture, the mission and role of man consisted in the physical preservation and spiritual transformation of the existing natural way of life since each form initially contained sacred completeness and was encompassed in the general order of pre-established harmony. This led to the nomadic way of life as the most optimal model of social organization in terms of interaction with the environment. The principle of a careful harmonious attitude to nature held a central place in the value-ethical orientation of the Kyrgyz and served as the key to their popular consent.

A completely different world order existed in Chinese culture.

The great ontological principle of the Tao, embodying the highest transcendence, towered over all-natural dimensions and forms. It is the Tao that affirms the architecture of the entire existing world. The scripture “Tao de jing”, sacred to Chinese culture, says that even “the great Heaven follows Tao.” This is where the Chinese principle of a vertical hierarchical way of organization comes from, in contrast to the horizontal format of the Kyrgyz.

The presence of a transcendental Tao removes the sacred burden from pristine nature. The Chinese world is placed in a balance between the supernatural principle of Tao and the natural world. Therefore, in the Chinese cultural tradition, the pristine natural world is inevitably involved in the precise symmetry of forms through its anthropogenic transformation. The transformation process is total and grows vertically from the geometry of the cultivated peasant field to the accurate layout of the administrative system of the Celestial Empire.

In the Chinese cultural tradition, the pristine natural world is inevitably involved in the precise symmetry of forms through its anthropogenic transformation. Photo: worldi.ru

Nature is not excluded from the Chinese worldview but harmony with it is built based on its aesthetic inclusion in the world of regular forms through anthropogenic transformation. A vivid example is the archetypal myth of Great Yue, which tamed the raged earth waters and gave rise to Chinese civilization. This predetermined the technocratic character of Chinese culture, which was then expressed in the construction of grandiose infrastructure facilities, like the Great Canal of China and the Great Wall of China. This technocratism of the Chinese continues to amaze the world in the modern era both in terms of industrial solutions and projects and negative impact on the environment.

Mountains hold a special place in the Kyrgyz and Chinese worldviews. In the spiritual ideas of the Kyrgyz people and Taoism, the mountains were a connecting point for heaven and earth, a place of divine presence. However, there are noticeable differences.

For Kyrgyz people, as the ethnic group living in the mountains, each mountain zone had a sacred meaning. This was reflected in the deification of the mountains that were part of the habitat of the Kyrgyz tribes: Tenir-Too, Ala-Too (Heavenly Mountains), Altai (Golden Mountains). As the modern Kyrgyz thinker, Abdrasulov noted[7], “a mountain for a Kyrgyz nomad is what links him with the divine world.”

Among the Chinese, the circle of sacred mountains was limited to the five great mountains (Taishan, Huashan, two mountains of Hengshan, Sunshan), revered in Chan Buddhism and Taoism. They were a place of pilgrimage and sacrifices for the Chinese emperors. The akin restriction meant that the other mountains and landscape zones did not have sacred content, and therefore could become an object of anthropogenic impact. The latter was reflected in the famous Chinese parable about the old peasant Yugong, who set himself the goal of moving the mountains that blocked the path to his native village[8].  

Findings: With such a different attitude towards space, it is natural that the Kyrgyz and Chinese have diametrically opposed approaches toward mining activities.

As part of their worldview, the Kyrgyz population perceives the industrial activity of mining enterprises in Kyrgyzstan, including Chinese, as the destruction of the sacred natural environment of their places. This is particularly evident when mining companies use the rudest environmentally harmful mining methods, leading to a significant change in visible natural forms, whether it is the destruction of a mountain, a glacier, a change in the river bed, water pollution and other changes.

Hence, protests of the Kyrgyz population against mining companies will be natural and inevitable because they are perceived by locals as a matter of preserving their identity.   

In Chinese culture, a change in the natural environment, on the contrary, is perceived as curbing the formless natural elements, as a need to improve human living conditions. Therefore, Chinese investors logically, in their opinion, question why the local population opposes their activities.     

Relation to time

Within the framework of nature-centric systems, to which the Kyrgyz and Chinese traditional cultures belong, time is subordinate to space. It does not have its own independent goal-setting, as, for instance in monotheistic systems. Time does not have strictly linear orientation and is cyclical. At the same time, the Kyrgyz and Chinese have a different perception of the structure and duration of the cyclical.

In the Kyrgyz traditional worldview, there was no cosmological gap between the world and man. Accordingly, a person followed the laws of natural cycles, composing his spiritual, social and economic life.

The Kyrgyz cyclical time coincided with the natural seasonality: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. A year was the most common and familiar unit of time, followed by seasons, months, weeks, and days. The longest cycle was twelve years (animal cycle in Buddhist calendar) that organized the entire social rhythm of Kyrgyz life. Each cycle of 12 years for the Kyrgyz was called a “muchol”. Each subsequent cycle increased the social responsibility and status of a person, as well as the scope of his rights and obligations to members of his kin and tribe.  

The Chinese, along with the evident natural cycles, measured the cyclicity of time with extended supernatural cosmic cycles. The latter is embodied in the eternal mutually interchangeable dualism of Yin-Yang, which permeates any lower time cycle. It is the inclusion of time in the indicated dialectical dynamism that forms the internal eventuality of Chinese time.  

An example of this is the traditional chronological system according to dynasties in Chinese history, each of which went through the similar stages in its development: creation, rise, prosperity, crisis and decline. The factor influencing the reign duration of an imperial dynasty in China was the well-known so-called “Mandate of Heaven.” The acquisition and loss of a mandate depended on the level of virtue of the rulers and were the central events marking the end of the old and the beginning of a new historical era. Therefore, time was measured in longer segments – eras that could number tens, hundreds and thousands of years.

Findings:  The difference in the perception of time directly affects the time horizon of planning and organizing societal life. The Chinese time horizon is longer than of the Kyrgyz. If the former is used to planning their business activities for the long term, then the Kyrgyz prefer a shorter time frame, usually within one or several years. The duration of the business cycle takes many years in the manufacturing sector, including mining, starting from the investment to obtaining the results. All this creates an additional ground for mutual misunderstanding and conflicts between the local population and Chinese investors.

Attitude to power

Another significant difference between the Kyrgyz and Chinese cultures is the system of power relations in society.   

The peculiarity of the sociopolitical organization of the Kyrgyz people since the formation of the epic tradition is that the main carrier of sacred meanings and the legitimacy of power is the people. At the same time, the role of the managerial elite was primarily functional in nature and was abridged to preserving and maintaining the traditional way of life.

In the practical life of the Kyrgyz society, it manifested in the absence of a privileged social group (dynasty, estate) that would have a monopoly on the possession of sacred power. The power groups (elite) of the Kyrgyz society were formed horizontally from the masses themselves. Khan was elected by the people’s kurultai, who delegated the right to temporarily govern them. Therefore, the nature of power was dictated by the socio-political situation of the time, which determined the level of its legitimacy and the consolidation of people around the ruler.

Khan was elected by the people’s kurultai, who delegated the right to temporarily govern them.

Despite existing managerial elite, Kyrgyz clans and tribes retained broad rights to their lands and resources. The functions of the ruler included mainly protection from external threats and judicial mediation. The term “power” in the Kyrgyz language biylik is derived from the word biiy, i.e. judge, arbitrator, mediator.

As a result, given the wide autonomy of the social lower classes in traditional Kyrgyz society, the decision-making had to be negotiated with and approved by the broad masses. The stability of power groups and the general controllability of society directly depended on that.  

The situation with power in Chinese culture is completely different.

According to the cosmological ideas of the Chinese, power represented by a ruler (emperor) in the state structure occupies a central position. The emperor acts as the bearer of the Heaven Mandate and the spokesman of the highest heavenly order. According to Chinese tradition, he is perceived as the Son of Heaven with unity in his person of both political and spiritual powers. The rulers were not only responsible for caring for citizens and ensuring social order, but they also approved laws of cosmic harmony in the Celestial Empire, including the pacification of natural elements.  

The power of the ruler in China was of the highest sacred nature and determined the basic orientations of internal and external life for all Chinese people.

The emperor approved the world order and gave it a meaningful content by determining the capital location, its transfers and renames, identifying the most revered deities and building their hierarchy, as well as performing sacred rituals and rites. Therefore, the power of the ruler in China was of the highest sacred nature and determined the basic orientations of internal and external life for all the Chinese people. The decisions made by the emperor were infallible and binding on all territories and people subject to him.

Findings: The different nature of power in Kyrgyz and Chinese cultures is noticeably reflected in the practice of Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan. The Chinese side, based on its civilizational ideas about power relations, believes that official permission from government bodies is a sufficient basis and a guarantee for doing business, particularly in the mining sector. The Chinese prefer to negotiate directly with state representatives, while this contradicts the traditional decision-making practice for the Kyrgyz. As reality shows, the local population has been and remains a vital actor, the implementation of any investment projects depends on their position. This means that taking public opinion into account is often even more important than the power of formal permits by the state.


The economization and legalization of all aspects of public life, which is growing everywhere in the world, ignore or barely consider the deep civilizational foundations of peoples, their worldview features that have developed over the centuries. This enhances the conflict potential in relations between and within countries.

Public protests over the years of independence in Kyrgyzstan against the activities of mining companies serve as a good case study. Although this article considered Chinese companies, the situation applies without exception to all enterprises engaged in the mining industry. In addition to recent incidents with Chinese investors in the mining industry, the Kyrgyz public is also concerned about the environmental situation around other similar projects involving foreign capital, namely Kumtor Gold Company CJSC (Canada[9] ), Central Asian Uranium Company ”(Russia[10]), Alliance Altyn LLC that exploits the Jeruy gold ore deposit (Russia[11]) and others.

Besides cultural difference as indicated in this article, the growth of negative sentiment towards Chinese mining companies in Kyrgyzstan is due to two more circumstances. Firstly, as can be seen from the list of licenses for the extraction of precious metals and stones issued by the State Committee for Industry, Energy and Subsoil Use of the Kyrgyz Republic, Chinese companies are represented in the mining sector of Kyrgyzstan more than any other foreign commercial organization[12]. Secondly, the level of norms and standards used by Chinese companies in mining operations remains relatively low compared to developed countries. Thus, according to the anti-rating of countries on environmental pollution, compiled by Numbeo, the world’s largest database of cities and countries, China ranks 7th in the world and 6th in Asia[13]. In terms of environmental efficiency, China occupies 120th place in the world, while Kyrgyzstan is 99th[14]. And although China has actively begun the transition to building an “ecological civilization” within the framework of the thirteenth 5-year plan, the country continues to be one of the world leaders in environmental pollution[15].

Problems with Chinese (and more broadly – foreign) investments in Kyrgyzstan have much broader causes than political, economic, and technical reasons. The primary role of cultural factors is self-evident.

The current interests and attitude of the state and the population of Kyrgyzstan to the activities of mining companies, including Chinese, are diametrically opposite. While government agencies view mining as one of the key drivers of a country’s economic development, people are actively opposing exploitation.

The current clearly shows that the existing mechanisms for attracting and realizing the foreign investment in the Kyrgyz Republic do not adequately consider the cultural specifics of the country. The current and future development of the mining industry in Kyrgyzstan will directly depend on how much balance is found between the fundamental spiritual values ​​of society and the needs of economic development.

It should be noted that due to the lack of a long-term vision and a plan for resolving the above dilemma, the activities of the Kyrgyz government are more responsive than preventive.

In the short term, it is vital to create permanent platforms or communication channels between the local population, mining companies, and government institutions. It is necessary to use environmentally-friendly methods and technologies  for developing resources in the mining sector that would not violate the natural forms in the producing fields.

Given the prospects for global climate change, as well as the ethical and value characteristics of the Kyrgyz population, the state in the long term will have to search for appropriate non-resource-intensive models of economic development. The country’s economy should be built based on the cultural and civilizational characteristics of Kyrgyz society. The emphasis should not be on the consumer attitude toward nature but on the choice of those forms of economic activity that contribute to the growth of natural diversity. The most suitable option might be a model of a green economy, which allows the selection of appropriate business projects, including foreign business. 

In general, appropriate consideration of the cultural and civilizational peculiarities of Kyrgyzstan in the development of investment projects will increase both the opportunities for socio-economic development of the country and its integrated sustainable development.

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

Cover photo: Vlad Ushakov (RFE-RL)

[1] http://stat.kg/ru/news/top-200-kompanij-kyrgyzskoj-respubliki-po-rezultatam-proizvodstvennoj-i-finansovoj-deyatelnosti-za-2017-god/https://www.kumtor.kg/ru/media-relations/contribution-to-the-kyrgyz-economy/ 

[2] https://24.kg/ekonomika/76299_otgornodobyivayuschey_otrasli_vbyudjet_postupilo_okolo_10milliardov_somov_/

[3]  http://www.president.kg/sys/media/download/52135/

[4] https://www.akchabar.kg/ru/news/v-kr-rabotaet-svyshe-100-gornodobyvayushih-kompanij-s-kitajskoj-dolej-uchastiya/

[5] https://knews.kg/2019/08/06/posolstvo-kitaya-sdelalo-rezkoe-zayavlenie-po-intsidentu-v-solton-sary/

[6] http://www.stat.kg/ru/news/nacstatkomom-kyrgyzskoj-respubliki-podgotovlen-analiticheskij-material-o-chislennosti-postoyannogo-naseleniya-na-nachalo-2017g/

[7] https://kgcode.akipress.org/unews/un_post:1678 

[8] https://books.google.kg/books?id=G_8rDQAAQBAJ&pg=PT229&lpg=PT229&dq=%D1%8E%D0%B9-%D0%B3%D1%83%D0%BD+%D0%BF%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B4%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B3%D0%B0%D0%B5%D1%82+%D0%B3%D0%BE%D1%80%D1%8B&source=bl&ots=6hOnixifX6&sig=ACfU3U365SkDoVv1OsPoaB8zyIZK09sfkg&hl=ru&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjcjpC-nLvlAhXMUJoKHVRGDWIQ6AEwEnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%D1%8E%D0%B9-%D0%B3%D1%83%D0%BD%20%D0%BF%D0%B5%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B4%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B3%D0%B0%D0%B5%D1%82%20%D0%B3%D0%BE%D1%80%D1%8B&f=false

[9] https://www.centerragold.com/

[10] https://eco.akipress.org/news:1542605

[11] http://www.alliance-altyn.kg/o-kompanii/

[12] http://www.gkpen.kg/index.php/2017-12-22-09-23-23

[13] https://www.numbeo.com/pollution/rankings_by_country.jsp?title=2018

[14] https://epi.envirocenter.yale.edu/downloads/epi2018reportv06191901.pdf

[15] http://russian.news.cn/2017-11/03/c_136726299.htm

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