Why China Will Decide the Future of the Steppe

Bolatbek Gabiden/Ulaankhus, Mongolia

“You are now a Tatar like us,” the Mongol General Batu said to the Russian king, offering him the fermented mare’s milk known as kumis. “Drink our drink.” The year was 1246, and the greatest land empire the world had ever known was reaching its apex. The two met on the grasslands of the Steppe, a massive region stretching from beyond the Black Sea in the west to nearly the Pacific Ocean in the east. The story of that empire is the greatest chapter in the history of a landscape which has profoundly shaped the history of the Eurasian continent and the world.

Little more than a century and a half after this alleged meeting, the Mongol Empire disappeared into history.

But at its height, it was the only era in history where the entire Steppe was united under a single Khan. From Hungary to China, Mongol dominance allowed products, resources, people, and information to flow freely from east to west and back again. Centuries before the term globalization was created to describe the global spread of maritime European empires, the Mongols had built a transcontinental realm.

The Steppe today is a far cry from the open plain that was once home to enormous nomadic tribes that would frequently crash onto nearby settled civilizations. Throughout the 20th century, the Steppe became an anvil for the forces of modern development. Populations largely left out of urbanization and modern technology were forcibly settled and mobilized by foreign powers, often at a heavy human price. Industrial needs, the space race, and terrible military technologies spurred the territorialization of the Great Steppe along the hard borders of closed and paranoid states. A once open space was divided among the USSR, Mao’s China, and the Iron Curtain.

Today, it is still in flux. New independent states across Central Asia have taken up the mantle of their ancestors. The collapse of the USSR and the market liberalization of China have opened the Eurasian continent like it has not been for centuries. But these states are still forced to coexist with the power centers in Moscow and Beijing, both of whose borders cut across swathes of the Steppe itself.

From the Pontic to the Mongolian Steppe, ‘Eurasianism’ of various kinds has become the new vogue. Regimes across the steppe speak of building a new order—one that shifts the economic and political center of gravity away from America, away from the oceans, away even from Europe, taking it back home to the steppes of Eurasia.

But for the first time in centuries, China is the most important and powerful player on the Steppe, not Russia. What China will do with that power is yet to be seen, but the question of what it can do with that power is becoming clearer by the day.

Modern technology and futuristic ambitions give the Steppe a potential importance it has not had for centuries. The process of the Steppe’s territorialization will only accelerate as Central Asian states, as well as Russia, China, and other powers move quickly to control the region’s trade routes and development paths. Of these states, China alone seems poised to dominate across the entire Eurasian space, bringing new dangers to the vast and sparsely populated region under the shadow of two of the world’s most powerful countries.

The Steppe and its People

The Steppe is a vague term. It has exact uses in geography, but its historic and cultural definition is far more expansive.

Roughly, it describes the flat plain of mostly grasslands that encompasses the Pannonian Steppe in Central Europe, the Pontic Steppe mostly in southern Ukraine and Russia, the Kazakh Steppe in Central Asia, and the Mongol Steppe in East Asia. These steppes together form what is known as the Eurasian Steppe. However, the term is used more broadly to define the areas inhabited and traversed freely by the nomadic peoples of the continent.

From the perspective of great cities like Baghdad and Samarkand, those peoples were seemingly innumerable. Their lack of material records only adds to the air of mystery. Even the tribes we do know are hard to describe precisely, since they did not leave written accounts, such as the Scythians who ruled the Pontic Steppe for four centuries. The ones we know best are those like the Hungarians or the Bulgars, who invaded Europe or other regions in dramatic fashion only to settle down and assimilate to the local settled cultures over time.

Nowadays, there are few such great migrations across the Great Steppe. Its western reaches are home to the farmlands of Hungary, Ukraine, and Russia, while its central and eastern portions are largely controlled by sovereign states: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and others. In the Steppe’s east-central region is the Chinese-ruled province of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghurs and smaller groups of Kazakhs and others.

The Steppe is not quite what it used to be. Entire populations have been frozen in space for generations, cut off from much of the world. To travel from Mongolia to Hungary by land, you need more than a few buddies and your horses—much more. In your way is the closed-off and heavily policed region of Xinjiang, followed by thousands of miles of poorly paved Russian and Kazakh provincial roads. Make it through Russia, and you will have to avoid the active warzone in eastern Ukraine. Finally, you arrive at the barbed wire fence that marks the border of the highly protectionist European Union.

Of course, a number of rail routes have been slowly built up over the decades, with expansions and new routes set to follow. But these routes serve the trade needs of states and global corporate powerhouses, not the average citizen attempting to make life work. Most of these new routes are being built to service trade between China and Europe. They are being built to go over the Steppe, not through it.

Along the Steppe, there is neither peace, nor freedom, nor development. Instead, there are vast unused or underutilized swathes of land ruled either by corrupt local elites, corrupt international elites, or corrupt communist and post-communist elites. In each case, ruling over immense but hardly occupied lands has presented countless challenges for those attempting to govern them.

Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on the planet, with just 2 people per square kilometer. Kazakhstan is also near the bottom, with 6.7 people per square kilometer, or just under 20 million total in a land mass nearly the size of India.

After Mongol conquests, the Steppe spent centuries under the control of the Russian Empire, then of the USSR and China. For each of these powers, the question has always been how to use that vast empty space. If nomads are no more—which the Soviets made sure of—what use can humanity find in that vast expanse?

The Utopian Laboratory

Before it was called Nur-Sultan, or Astana, or even Akmola, the current capital of Kazakhstan went by a different name: Tselinograd.

That was not its first name either, but rather the result of Nikita Khrushchev’s grand Soviet scheme to modernize the Steppe and turn it into the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. It was called the Virgin Lands Campaign—hence Tselinograd, which is derivative of the Russian word for virgin. The campaign eventually brought 46 million hectares of previously wild land under cultivation. That is an area of farmland larger than either Germany or Japan.

Though the campaign was successful in some ways, it hardly turned the territory into a new breadbasket of the Soviet Union. That position remained held by Ukraine.

But the Soviets left a legacy in this region nonetheless, one which scarred generations of its inhabitants. The only reason the Virgin Lands Campaign was needed in the first place was due to persistent famine, the worst of which was borne by Ukrainians and Kazakhs along the Steppe itself. It was particularly harsh for the Kazakhs, since they had been forcibly settled into collective farms by the Soviets under Stalin, destroying their native way of life and sources of nourishment. The drive for collectivization was the result of Soviet attempts both to bring the land under cultivation and to fully integrate the Steppe territories into a Soviet whole. Even up to the eve of collectivization in 1929, Kazakhs continued to live nomadic or semi-nomadic lives with traditional tribal and clan power structures, which had even taken over their local Communist Party apparatus.

The purpose of collectivization, rather than simply economic development, was to entirely destroy Kazakh culture and reshape the people into a new Soviet mass. As the USSR acted to integrate the Steppe into its domain, it included the local populations themselves in the process. It is estimated that up to 40% of all Kazakhs perished during the famine of 1932-33, the largest proportion killed of any ethnic group in the USSR.

In true Soviet fashion, the man responsible for the famine boasted to the Central Committee of the USSR of the “enormous successes” of his five-year plan in Kazakhstan. It was a step too far even for the Soviets, who promptly had him removed from his post, though the damage had already been done. As if that was not enough, the Soviets tested almost 500 nuclear weapons on the country with no regard for the local population. For good measure, they also destroyed the entire Aral Sea by redirecting its tributaries to grow cotton to export for hard currency.

It is safe to say that the legacy of the USSR on the Steppe is one of failed utopian experiments and devastating intergenerational scars. The 20th century was without a doubt the darkest period in the Steppe’s history. A vast, open plain became an open-air prison, home to unwanted and exiled people, nuclear waste, and ecological disaster. That period was poetically described in the title of Kazakh writer Mukhamet Shayakhmetov’s memoir as “The Silent Steppe.”

On the easternmost steppes of Mongolia, millions of people found themselves divided between Soviet vassaldom and direct Chinese rule. From 1924 to 1992, a Russian-backed puppet state governed there in the form of the Mongolian People’s Republic, though nearly twice as many Mongols lived in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia than in Mongolia proper. Mongolia sided with the Soviets after the Sino-Soviet Split, which meant that for most of the Cold War an Iron Curtain—even more closed off than its European counterpart—ran straight through the Steppe that had been traversed freely for millennia. It divided ethnic Mongols from their kin, while Kazakhs in the USSR were likewise cut off from their compatriots in Xinjiang.

The failed and lopsided development strategies pursued by Communist authorities along with the physical reality of the “forgotten” cold war between China and the USSR fractured the Steppe and its people to a previously unimaginable degree. Rather than improving horizontal communication and infrastructure along the Steppe as a road between East and West, the region was either developed as a place to extract resources to Moscow, or neglected by Beijing. Its people existed in a frozen state, subjected to the ‘world-historical’ forces of geopolitics and development at play in far-off superpowers.

But the Steppe’s long era as a backwater is fast coming to an end.

Premonitions in Xinjiang

In 2013, China announced its grand project to reshape the Eurasian continent—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It was announced in Kazakhstan, giving it the epithet “buckle” of the “belt” that would connect Eurasia. “Belt” and “road” respectively refer to land and sea routes in this Sinocentric global development program.

It is hard to imagine longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was anything but delighted when he learned of the project, since he has been speaking about “Eurasianism” and “Eurasian integration” since the early 1990s. If you look at Kazakhstan’s 20th century, it’s not hard to see why. Even as part of the Russian Empire, foreigners were completely banned from visiting the region, something which functionally continued throughout the Soviet period. It was the most isolated part of an already isolated Soviet world.

The Steppe invites wholesale economic reconstruction in line with the 21st century realities of regional and global trade, and China’s uniquely successful blend of Leninist statecraft and state-guided capitalist development claims it can do just that. In addition to the political division of the Steppe by borders, the increasing Chinese presence is also beginning to divide it along the lines of ideology and global loyalties. While Belt and Road may have seemed like a dream come true to Central Asian states like Kazakhstan, it is nothing short of a nightmare to its Turkic cousins and countrymen across China’s border to the east.

In the past five years, China has interned as many as a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities on its western Steppe territory of Xinjiang. That has gone hand in hand with the physical destruction of everything from small mosques to entire Uyghur towns, which have disappeared off the face of the map seemingly overnight.

China’s actions on the Steppe are in pursuit of similar fundamental goals as the Soviets had, but aided by a far more powerful state, as well as the absolute  surveillance that only digital technology can provide. The Chinese authorities—like the Soviets before them—are trying to completely eliminate the traditional power structures of the Turkic Muslim population, where mosque and family play a higher role than state and party. That is a stepping stone to the full territorialization of the region and integration into a unified Chinese state.

A description of how the Soviet authorities viewed their effort bears a striking resemblance to scenes in Xinijang: “mass education and propaganda would introduce the new socialist morality and undermine Islam, as well as providing technological education.” The prerequisite logic may be identical, since the Soviets were similarly suspicious of the local nomads—whether nominally loyal Communists or not—and believed that “neither a loyal Kazakh elite nor a supportive Kazakh mass base could be created while the traditional authority structure continued to exist.”

But China has additional motivations. It is looking beyond just its portion of the Steppe at a whole Eurasian continent that it hopes to one day dominate. At least part of the logic behind China’s hardline approach in Xinjiang is that the region is a springboard into the rest of Central Asia, and it is one China wants firmly pacified and integrated. The BRI’s external success is in many ways dependent on internal dynamics. Uneven development across the country, as well as the limits of geography on Chinese supply chains, could soon hinder China’s incredible growth rates, a key pillar of the CCP’s legitimacy. The BRI offers a way of easing pressure on Chinese supply chains and developing its interior, laying down the infrastructure for future growth.

Chinese sees the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism—rife in Xinjiang in the CCP’s eyes—as threats to the internal stability of the country as well as the success of the BRI. Their solution appears to follow in Soviet footsteps by eliminating the culture of the local people and reforming them into Chinese citizens in identity and culture. Kazakhstan served as a warning of what came to Xinjiang. Now, Xinjiang may be a warning to its neighbors as well.

Back across the border in Kazakhstan, locals wonder if Chinese investment—often described by their regimes as a pure positive—could be much more ominous. Roads, bridges, and pipelines may boost GDP and line the pockets of elites with money that average Kazakhs will never see. The reliance on completing BRI projects with Chinese labor ensures this. To this day, what does exist in terms of a middle class in Kazakhstan is focused in the sectors of banking and government, rather than development. Despite the dubious benefits, Kazakhstan sees geopolitical value in joining the project as a balance against Western and Russian interests. But what happens when China wants something in return?

In 2016, a wave of anti-Chinese protests swept the country due to a land bill up for consideration that opponents claimed would allow the Chinese to purchase huge swathes of Kazakh land. The protests were small, but enough to make the government shelve the plans.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is high across central Asia, both because of China’s policies in Xinjiang—which local regimes avoid criticizing—as well as Chinese investments, which are controversial among locals. This is both out of concern for the terms of Chinese loans, which Central Asian countries can’t pay, as well as the fact that primarily Chinese labor is used when building  roads, bridges, and factories from Mongolia to Croatia. Brawls have broken out frequently between locals and Chinese workers on the rare occasions when they do interact.

The Kazakh government is particularly sensitive to the issue, since along with anti-Chinese sentiment comes Kazakh nationalism—two areas the Russian-speaking and Chinese-bribe-taking Kazakh elite is particularly weak on.

People in the Russophone world are also very aware of what is happening across China’s northern border, where for years Russia has been leasing land to Chinese companies at discount rates. The uses for China are almost endless. Timber, soybeans, corn, pork, and countless other food products. All produced for the Chinese market with Chinese labor. Much of the land is leased for a period of 50 to 70 years, where under new regulations companies do not even need permits to hire foreign Chinese workers.

Officially, the Russian government says there are only about 50,000 Chinese in Russia, but unofficial estimates put the number at between 300,000 and 500,000.

Though Russia has about a tenth of the population of China, its far east is host to just 6 million Russians. That is a density of less than one person per square kilometer, less than even Mongolia. Add to that high migration, low birth rates, and general economic hardship, and the prospects for a Russian far east look grim. China probably remembers better than anyone that most of that Russian far east was only added to Russia in the last two centuries and taken during China’s “Century of Humiliation.”

The passive pressure of China’s huge population, economy, and political influence is already visibly changing its neighboring regions in a distinctly Chinese way, but if recent events are a guide of what’s to come, passivity hardly looks like it will be China’s defining feature.

By all indications, China’s ambitions under Xi Jinping are huge and highly focused on strengthening China and its place in the world. Moreover, the Communist Party’s grip on the Chinese political and economic system appears stronger than ever. The two most glaring examples of that are China’s move to fully integrate Hong Kong and the concerted effort to forcibly assimilate the indigenous Turkic peoples of Xinjiang. Both have come up against strong Western objections but enjoy support from much of the rest of the world, including states like Turkey and Pakistan.

The Belt and Road program speaks about cooperation, connectivity, and countless other buzzwords which we familiarly associate with globalization. But the underlying logic behind the BRI as a whole—as well as most of its individual projects—is one of Chinese interests at home and abroad.

Even though there is no official list of BRI projects, there is one distinct feature of every semi-official map floating around the internet: they never include the Americas.

In other words, one of the BRI’s underlying goals is to exclude America from Eurasian affairs entirely, to make China the origin and destination of all global supply chains—a great realignment of the global economy, with major geopolitical implications.

The former may be welcomed across the Steppe as long overdue, but the latter may not be.

The Middle Kingdom

Russia remains an important partner for Kazakhstan and other Steppe countries, as it does to its former satellite Mongolia. But it is a shadow of the interest and involvement it once had. Even as recently as the mid-2000s, Russia was still the most important partner for most of those countries, but not so in 2020. That political vacuum is what Beijing aims to step into.

Nobody must face the implications of China’s power more than its immediate neighbors. And few are as powerless in the face of China’s expansion than its land-rich and people-poor neighbors on the Steppe. China’s development in Xinjiang and other regions, as well as BRI projects abroad, are turning the question of territorial expansion into one of wants and needs, rather than means. China is actively laying down the infrastructure on its peripheries that opens the possibility of further expansion.

If that seems like an exaggeration, consider that recently Chinese state media outlets republished an article by a Chinese historian proposing China annex the Pamir mountain range in Tajikistan, causing a major diplomatic incident between China on one hand and Russia and Tajikistan on the other. China has already opened its first airport near the Pamir mountains in Xinjiang, and it plans to open 30 more—to “promote tourism,” despite just 20,000 Chinese citizens visiting Tajikistan last year. This conflict also comes a few months after another incident with Kazakhstan over an article published in China titled “Why Kazakhstan is eager to return to China.”

These words may not represent the daily thoughts of the highest-ranking members of the Communist Party, but they do reflect an increasingly popular mindset in China that puts the interests and needs of the Chinese state above everything else. The Steppe is rich in land as well as resources such as natural gas and uranium. And, as Steppe people have known for millennia, that land is the most geopolitically important land in Eurasia, serving as a bridge to Afghanistan, Persia, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Europe.

The Soviets territorialized their portion of the Steppe through their particular brand of nation-building and extreme social engineering. Tens of millions of people were moved permanently across the Steppe during the Soviet era: from Tatars and Germans forcibly settled in the Kazakh Steppe to the Kazakhs themselves who were detached from their way of life and forced into Soviet cities and collective farms. But somehow through all this hardship, identities and borders were shaped and solidified and survive to this day in the form of sovereign independent states.

Even when the more visionary statesmen in Central Asia speak of Eurasianism, they know all too well that it does not mean a genuine return to the openness of the Steppe their ancestors once enjoyed. It means cooperation and coexistence of strongly established states with their set borders and firm territorial integrity. It is a miracle of history that—out of the Russian Empire that Lenin described as the “prison of the peoples” and through a 20th century of unimaginable hardships—the Kazakhs, Mongols, Uzbeks, and others emerged intact with entire states in their own hands. The question now is whether this will be enough to secure their future.

To the south of the Steppe, China is expanding into the mountains, and to the north and east into Siberia’s forests. One thing is certain: it will be China and the systems it has devised that will shape the Steppe’s future and the future of those living along its vast plain. The Steppe shaped humanity’s past, but as China’s rise continues unabated, it will shape the futures of both.

The unity that the Mongols brought across the Steppe long ago will never be repeated. Instead, hard borders are solidifying that will confirm the Steppe’s territorial divides. But that is simply the price to be paid to join in the riches of 21st century globalization. Nowadays, not only is there plenty of refreshing kumis to be bought in supermarkets across the Steppe, there is plenty of everything else too. Italian coffee, Swedish furniture, American sneakers. Over the last thirty years goods, people, and ideas, have begun to move along the Steppe once again, and new empires are moving with them.

Luka Ivan Jukic is a graduate student at the UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. He has lived in and reported from many countries in Central and Eastern Europe.