Chinese workers in Kyrgyzstan are known for their stoicism amid rising xenophobia and appalling labor conditions. But something seems to have snapped this week for a crew of migrants toiling to build an oil refinery in the northern city of Tokmak.
According to Kyrgyz and Russian press reports, 39 Chinese migrants downed tools, blocked entry to the facility and took several Kyrgyz employees hostage on June 30. Police fired shots into the air to break up the protest, according to a police source.
Twenty-five of the migrants were working illegally, police say, and have been deported. The rest have been fined.
The riot coincided with payday and the Chinese appear to have felt shortchanged. According to Kyrgyz media outlet Knews, citing local police in contact with the refinery’s Chinese director, the migrants were angered that pay was being withheld to cover the cost of their transport from China.
The Chinese Embassy in Bishkek has not commented on the incident.
The event will likely fuel more rhetoric from Kyrgyz nationalists arguing that Chinese labor migration into the country is out of control. Thousands of Chinese nationals work in Kyrgyzstan, mostly on infrastructure projects with Chinese funding. As the Chinese become more visible, Kyrgyz have grown suspicious that their tiny country could be swallowed by their giant neighbor. Sometimes that suspicion turns to hysteria: Back in February, as pressure on an even bigger Chinese-built refinery in the provincial town of Kara-Balta started to mount, a local official claimed that nearly 100 women had been impregnated by Chinese workers and begged the government not to give the offspring Kyrgyz citizenship.
Early last year, Chinese workers were accused of taking several Kyrgyz hostages during a fight in Osh Province. The Chinese were building a high-profile power line to connect parts of southern Kyrgyzstan with the north. The project was delayed by the outbreak of violence.
The Tokmak refinery is scheduled to enter production in late summer and produce 500,000 tons of petrol annually for consumption in Kyrgyzstan, a country traditionally heavily dependent on Russia for its domestic fuel needs. The facility in Kara-Balta, worth $250-$300 million and slated to produce 850,000 tons of refined fuel, has been dogged by constant protests.
Having been kicked out of Kyrgyzstan, the gang of 25 may want to try their luck in Tajikistan’s Khatlon Province, where China is currently building a refinery, with a capacity of over 1,100,000 tons, close to President Emomali Rakhmon’s hometown.