China's growing involvement in Central Asia economically, culturally, politically and even militarily has been a contentious topic for people from the region. While some view China's involvement as offering Central Asian countries an opportunity for advancement, others view it in more negative ways, with China having tremendous influence in the affairs of their country.

An article published in the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics, in particular, notes that findings conducted at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan  show that Central Asia’s future elites are probably to feel positive about trading with China.

“Perceptions of China in Central Asia: Findings from an Elite University in Bishkek” by Christopher Primiano at KIMEP University (the independent American-style, English-speaking academic institution in Kazakhstan), Dana Rice of the Australian National University, and Alma Kudebayeva of KIMEP says the survey questions elicited responses that focus on perceptions of trade with China and China's actions regarding COVID-19, which are both polarizing issues in Central Asia.

In total, 120 people were surveyed: 56% were from Kyrgyzstan; 20% from Afghanistan; 16% from Tajikistan; 3% from Uzbekistan; 2% from Kazakhstan; and the rest from other countries. Sixty-one percent were female and 39% were male. The vast majority are reportedly from urban areas, with 79% stating they are from an urban area and 21 stating they are from a rural area.  Regarding participants’ major, 33% are majoring in Political Science; 31% in Business; 3% in Law; 3% in Journalism; and the rest in another discipline. Fifty-six percent are in either their first or second year of university; and 44% are in their third or fourth year.

The authors acknowledge that such studies miss out on the more nuanced perceptions of other social groups.  They, however, argue that the students in a prestigious university like AUCA are likely to be among the ‘future elites of the Central Asian region and therefore their views are disproportionally important to understand.

The authors found statistically significant findings for four different topics: 1) trade with China; 2) concern regarding debt to China; 3) China's assistance to other countries in handling coronavirus; and 4) the handling of coronavirus inside of China.

The survey findings show that trade with China was viewed positively, with a mean of 6.38 on a 10-point scale (possible scores ranged from 0 to 10, with 0 being strongly against and 10 being strongly for).  Female students were more positive than male students.

In terms of concern regarding debt to China, Kyrgyzstani nationals are more worried than people from other countries.  They reportedly expressed concern that Kyrgyzstan could lose its autonomy to China due to debt.

The survey participants rated China’s domestic response to COVID highly, offering a mean 7.67 points out of 10.

The positive assessment fell for China’s pandemic assistance abroad, with a mean of 5.61. Kyrgyzstan nationals were more positive than their peers.

Those who watch Western television were more likely to give China favorable ratings on its pandemic assistance.

Political science majors were reportedly the most skeptical of China’s pandemic aid abroad.

Students who believe Russian is the most important foreign language to study in Kyrgyzstan are more likely to view China’s pandemic assistance negatively.

The authors plan to scale up the research at other schools in Kyrgyzstan.