LiveStrong for Make Benefit of Kazakhstan?

Why one of the world's most bankable athletes is competing for an autocratic former Soviet republic.

As Lance Armstrong enters the second week of the Tour de France, questions abound. Why did he come back from retirement? Will his much-discussed rivalry with teammate Alberto Contador cost both of them the race? And even in such a commercialized sport, why is an iconic American athlete -- a Texan, no less! -- racing for ... Kazakhstan?

When Armstrong announced last September that he was coming back to try for an eighth Tour win, one of the more prosaic questions -- after those about his motives and abilities -- was what team he'd ride for.

Most observers saw only one option: Armstrong would rejoin the team of his friend and former manager Johan Bruyneel. An ex-pro himself, Bruyneel took control of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 and was among the first people to think the Texan could be a Tour de France winner.

But Armstrong was hardly returning to the situation he left when he retired in 2005. The Postal Service's replacement, the Discovery Channel, ended its sponsorship after the 2007 season. Bruyneel still had a solid team, including that year's Tour winner, Contador. But after doping scandals plagued the Tour in 2006 and 2007, even cycling's equivalent of the New York Yankees couldn't find a corporate backer.

Yet as luck would have it, one of those very scandals eventually brought Armstrong and the Kazakhs together. In 2006, a pair of Kazakh racers -- Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin -- was collateral damage in a doping scandal. The manager of their Spanish-based Liberty Seguros team was found to be part of a massive doping ring called Operación Puerto. Although neither racer was personally involved, the criminal investigation -- which took place just weeks before the Tour -- cost the team its sponsor and jeopardized its Tour entry. Vinokourov, a national hero in his home country, appealed to the chairman of the Kazakh national cycling federation for help.

The man in charge of Kazakh racing was not just anyone; he just happened to be Danial Akhmetov, whose day job was prime minister (and, later, defense minister). Akhmetov swiftly put together a consortium of eight Kazakh companies to sponsor the team under the nationalist name Astana (Kazakhstan's capital and second-largest city), but the team failed to field the necessary number of starters and was not allowed to race. In 2007, Vinokourov raced the Tour on Astana, but tested positive for blood doping and was sacked. Kashechkin was busted a month later, and both were banned for two years.

Shorn of its stars and without confidence in the team's Swiss management, Kazakh authorities turned to Bruyneel, who effectively blended the remnants of Astana and Discovery Channel into a new team under the Astana banner. As a historical irony, one of the riders who joined was Contador, himself a former member of the doomed 2006 Liberty Seguros team.

Everyone had their motivations for making Astana work. Bruyneel's primary love is winning, and in the 26-year-old Contador he had the sport's best stage racer and a likely champion for years to come. For Akhmetov and the Kazakhs, the team was a high-profile PR set piece -- a means to gain respectability and burnish Kazakhstan's image. As a further point of national pride, the team would mentor and develop promising young Kazakh cyclists.

It was into this complicated arranged marriage that Armstrong entered, and the relationship was rocky from the start. Contador felt his rightful place as team leader was being usurped, a dynamic that is currently animating the Tour. But separately, there appeared to be little affinity between Armstrong and the sponsors.

Armstrong -- who all season had appeared in Astana team kit only when strictly necessary according to racing rules (preferring LiveStrong jerseys when he was training, or those from his Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's) -- remarked that he knew Kazakhstan mostly from Borat and said, pointedly, "It's not my team; it's not my sponsor."

In February, Astana's eight corporate backers quietly stopped paying the bills to the Kazakh cycling federation, which then shut off payment to Bruyneel's management company and, by extension, riders and staff. By mid-May, the team was in danger of folding, and the team and its owners began to fight openly. At the prestigious Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), the riders broke out uniforms with sponsor logos all but faded from legibility as a way to shame the owners into paying.

The "Team Faded-Jersey" gambit worked and under pressure from the sport's governing body, the sponsors (including, now, the federal government) ponied up the cash to keep the team going until the end of the year.

Two competing theories explain Astana's payment issues. The simple answer is that amid the commodities collapse that accompanied last fall's economic crisis, the natural resource companies that constitute a major part of Astana's sponsor roster simply had a cash squeeze. But in the world of big business, the $15 million it takes to fund the team is a rounding error.

A more salacious rumor holds that the nonpayment was sporting politics: Vinokourov's suspension ends July 24, and the sponsors want him back on the team. Bruyneel, however, doesn't. Although unsupported by hard fact, that theory got a bump when Vinokourov -- with Nikolai Proskurin, deputy head of the Kazakh cycling federation, at his side -- held a press conference in Monaco before the Tour's start to announce his return. "It's my team," he said of Astana. "If Johan [Bruyneel] has a problem with me, it is up to him to leave the team, not me."

That kind of breakup, honestly, may be what everyone wants. During the height of Astana's financial difficulties in May, Armstrong announced that he was interested in forming his own team in 2010 as a rider and owner. And, had Astana defaulted on its payment deadline and lost the team sponsorship in June, Armstrong was ready to step in with LiveStrong and Nike as replacement sponsors (now the deal appears likely for 2010). Bruyneel will likely go too, and hence, Vinokourov can return to Astana.

Whether you believe that Armstrong's return is primarily about raising cancer awareness or is also, as has been floated in various forums, a springboard to a political career, racing the sport's highest-profile event for Livestrong-Nike would sure beat a scrum of unpronounceable natural resource companies from an obscure Central Asian republic with a president for life and a spotty human rights record.

But until July 26, when the race finishes in Paris, Armstrong will not be riding for Livestrong, Nike, or even his bike shop. He's on board for state holding company Samruk-Kazyna, natural gas producer KazMunaiGas, and mining concern Kazakhmys. Lance may yet break away from his competitors on the race course, but he can't quite drop his sponsors just yet.

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images


How China Wins and Loses Xinjiang

The Chinese government can put down a riot -- but its heavy-handed tactics ensure that ethnic tensions will keep simmering.

Photo Essay: Who Are the Uighurs?

On Sunday, more than 1,000 Uighurs clashed with police in the western Chinese city of Urumqi -- marking one of the country's bloodiest ethnic conflicts in recent years.


The government's crackdown on the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group that has long chafed under Beijing's rule, was nasty, brutish, and short. Overnight curfews were imposed. Thousands of police officers dispersed. President Hu Jintao left the G-8 summit in Europe to focus on putting out fires at home. But not all aspects of China's policies toward Uighurs and other minorities are characterized by such precision.

If you visit Xinjiang, the restive province that's home to China's roughly 8 million Uighurs, you'll realize there's a gap -- often a chasm -- between official intention on minority issues and what happens in practice. Sometimes the government's missteps appear to be the product of malevolence, sometimes of ignorance. The results are both tragic and absurd.

On bad days, the tragedy is obvious: More than 150 people, Uighur and Han Chinese, have died in recent riots. But there is also a thread of dark comedy, a continual drama of miscommunication and miscalculation, as Han authorities try to hamstring the practice of Islam and local politicians try to at once appease and suppress the Uighurs.

On paper, Islam is one of China's five officially recognized and legal religions. And the central government, in order to foster a "harmonious society," aims to help all minority peoples prosper alongside their Han neighbors. But in practice, ethnic policies as implemented alienate and inflame the largely Muslim population of Xinjiang. Tensions run high, liable to erupt at even distant provocations. (The spark that lit last Sunday's riots was the mistreatment and murder of Uighur factory workers in faraway Guangdong province.)

Recently, Robert D. Kaplan argued in The Atlantic that, on purely pragmatic grounds, in the case of Sri Lanka, repression worked. Other writers have recently made similar assertions in the case of Xinjiang. One line of argumentation indeed holds that China's uncompromising stance toward its ethnic populations may be unsavory to Westerners, but is in fact the surest way to keep the peace.

If only Beijing's iron fist were so dexterous. China's government is indeed effective at disbanding protests, building skyscrapers, and staging high-profile spectacles like the Olympics. It's also proved relatively adept, to its credit, at managing the financial crisis and keeping factories churning.

But you don't have to look far for signs of breakdown or miscoordination. Take the embarrassing wavering over Green Dam, the much-maligned Internet nanny program; or last year's scandals over tainted milk, an economic and international public relations disaster for Beijing. China routinely looks more vulnerable from the inside than the outside, and its volatile minority affairs are just another example.

Ultimately, China is more adept at creating fearsome impressions in the moment -- grand like the Olympic Opening Ceremony, or cruel like the crackdown on protestors -- than at maintenance. When you look close, it's apparent how much muddle there is beneath the surface, especially when authorities attempt to formulate policy around something they don't truly understand.

The Uighurs, as well as Islam itself, mystify China's secular leadership. In Xinjiang, a vast western province -- three times the size of France and bordering eight countries -- China's long-term policy toward minorities is puzzled in principle, capricious in execution, and the result is much suffering on the part of both Uighur and Han. Far from containing tension, the heavy-handed approach fans the flames. It is a brutal kind of confusion.

Xinjiang has been called the "Texas of China," and it certainly exhibits a rough-and-tumble frontier feel. Oil and mineral wealth have in recent years attracted Beijing's attention, and an influx of Han businessmen, swashbucklers, and entrepreneurs migrating from east China. When the western desert territory was incorporated into the People's Republic, the Chinese leaders selected as their provincial capital Urumqi, a city undistinguished by landmarks or history. In a region with a long and storied past, and a landscape dotted by historic mosques and the sites of famous battles and tombs of Uighur kings, the new capital was a relative blank slate. It seemed a place that new settlers could, in effect, start over.

But, on the face of it, official policy in Xinjiang is not to erase Uighur history or identity. Indeed, special efforts are made to highlight certain aspects of the past. Airport gift shops sell books printed by Han publishing houses about the charming customs of Xinjiang's minority groups. A stream of tourists, international and Han Chinese, comes to visit the historic old towns in cities like Kashgar, located in southwest Xinjiang. The local government is flirting with, or at least trying to make a few yuan off of, what the spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in London described to the BBC's Radio 4 as the region's "multiculturalism."

Outside Urumqi, the troubled provincial capital where Sunday's riots took place, new highway signs are posted in both Mandarin characters and the Uighur language, written in an Arabic script. But there's a danger of getting lost if one tries to follow those signs. If you ask the local Uighurs, they say that what passes for signage in their language is often nonsensical transliterations, a version of "Chinglish" in Uighur. There's ornamental appeal, sans utility -- evidently Uighurs weren't consulted in planning or proof-reading.

Special funds are allocated by the central government for religious affairs and poverty reduction bursaries in Xinjiang, as in other western provinces. But how are they spent? Take the "Xinjiang Minority Street" project in downtown Urumqi. It's a five-story market complex with an exotic-looking exterior, dominated by pale yellow turrets and fanciful archways, with numerous stalls and winding staircases inside. A placard by the entrance proudly announces that it was built in 2002 for the benefit of Xinjiang's minority people, as a place to sell their ethnic handicrafts, for the hefty sum of 160 million yuan (around $23.4 million).

But inside, most of the stalls, if they were ever occupied, are now empty. A few are home to Han jewelers selling jade trinkets. The paint is beginning to peel. A Chinese hostess stands outside a deserted restaurant with décor resembling how Walt Disney might imagine Arabia. In short, this is what a boondoggle looks like. Or rather, it's how local officials and contractors conceive of what Uighurs want (or at least how they can capture funds Beijing sets aside for minority affairs), without much consultation with Uighurs themselves. Sadly, the building sits adjacent to what is in fact the heart of the city's Uighur district, where families live in one-story shanties of brick and mud that could badly use money for repairs.

The building, a work of pure architectural and promotional fantasy, epitomizes the vast disconnect between how Han officialdom envisions China's minorities and how Uighurs see themselves, and Islam.

Last year I was in Kashgar during October's Golden Week -- an extended national holiday commemorating the founding of the People's Republic of China. My hotel sat on the grounds of the former Russian consulate -- a reminder of when Western powers fought over influence in Central Asia. That afternoon Chinese state television was showing continuous coverage of the Golden Week celebrations, including parades of China's officially-recognized minority peoples in bright costumes, singing and dancing, and saluting the legacy of New China.

But outside, residents of Kashgar were gathering to mark a rather different festival: the end of Ramadan, the month-long fasting period for Muslims. The final day of Ramadan, when the fast is broken and people celebrate, is called Rozi Festival. Annually, 10,000 men and their families from across southwestern Xinjiang travel to Kashgar to commemorate the holiday outside the ancient Id Kah mosque.

The sight of thousands of devout Muslims kneeling on unfurled prayer mats in a ceremony unsupervised by the state of course makes local authorities deeply nervous. The government hasn't razed the mosque or explicitly prohibited worship, but it has recently erected a giant TV screen in the public square facing the mosque. Kazakh soap operas are now screened at regular intervals throughout the day, timed to coincide with daily services. Unsurprisingly, this hasn't had much impact on mosque attendance.

One night I asked a Uighur man headed into Id Kah mosque about the TV. "If they put it somewhere else, people would be happy," he said. "But not here -- here it makes us angry."


Miscalculations about Uighurs and their religion have graver implications, too.

Beijing claims that new industry and oil exploration in Xinjiang is bringing wealth into the region, benefiting both Han and Uighurs. Yet according to the Asian Development Bank, income inequality in Xinjiang remains the highest in all of China. Hiring discrimination is a substantial barrier, often fueled by the Chinese Communist Party's perplexed attitude toward religion. "You have a party that is primarily Han and officially atheist," explains Gardner Bovingdon, professor of East Asian and Eurasian studies at Indiana University. "The party doctrine is founded on notion that religion is a mystification. It requires its members to be atheist; any party member or teacher in Xinjiang must renounce Islam."

The vast majority of the new jobs in Xinjiang are state-affiliated: Construction crews, bank clerks, police officers, nurses and school-teachers all work for the government (there isn't much private business on the frontier). Many of those positions are off-limits to publicly observant Muslims. The state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the largest development company in the province, for instance, not long ago filled, by mandate, 800 of 840 new job openings with Han Chinese.

Such policies exacerbate inequality and rile ethnic tensions. But do they also help the government squash would-be separatist movements?

Most analysts do not believe that religion itself, or radical Islam, animates pro-independence factions in Xinjiang. To target actual separatists, more precise strategies could be envisioned. "The way to respond to a small minority in a society is not to prevent the religiosity of an entire population," Bovingdon explains. "That's counterproductive, and makes plenty of people resentful."

And yet, that appears to be precisely the strategy the local government has adopted. Since 2002, when the U.S.-led "war on terror" gave China cover for greater surveillance of its own Muslim populations, the Xinjiang public security bureau has increased crackdowns on what it deems, with alarmingly broad brushstrokes, the "three evils" of "separatism, religious extremism and terrorism."

In practice, this means that loudspeakers in mosques are banned in Urumqi; families hosting dinner parties during religious festivals must register with the government; the interiors of even small rural mosques are plastered with tawdry government propaganda, and routinely visited by Han inspectors (who don't bother to doff their shoes when they enter and check log books). Although Islam is not officially outlawed, Uighurs are subject to a litany of intrusions on daily religious life, which leads them to see the government as an antagonistic force. As one man in Kashgar told me, "Because I am born a Uighur, I am a terrorist -- that is what the government thinks?"

The authorities' overreach is also clear in the way security policies target children. During certain religious holidays, anyone under 18 is barred from entering a mosque. In Kashgar, communal meals are imposed at school during the fast period of Ramadan, and attendance is required at special assemblies timed to coincide with Friday prayers. There's no reason to treat every Uighur child like an aspiring terrorist or separatist, unless the aim is truly to stamp out religion from next generation. But this tactic would seem a high-stakes gamble for the CCP.

Andrew Nathan, chair of the political science department at Columbia University, explains, "This is the Chinese style toward religion -- the government is very suspicious of religion. In Xinjiang, separatism is the thing they want to avoid. They conceive of the separatists as people who are religious fundamentalists. They're making a logical leap of faith. It produces resistance. It produces deep resentment."

And there are some indicators that China's attempts to curb Islam in the name of assimilating the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang are woefully backfiring. Even as the local government has tightened its "counterterrorism" policies in recent years, the U.S. Congressional Commission on China has determined, the level of unrest in the province has actually increased. Last year saw a string of bus bombings and attacks on police in southwest Xinjiang; Sunday's bloody riots in Urumqi were the worst in many years.

"China's attempts to suppress Islam," a recent Human Rights Watch report concludes, "is a policy that is likely to alienate Uighurs, drive religious expression further underground, and encourage the development of more radicalized and oppositional forms of religious identity."

Commenting from a different angle, Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, finds broader regional security implications. "A lot of Chinese problems do appear to be a bit of their own making," he said. "They justify a lot of what they're doing in the name of counterterrorism, but we fear it might also exacerbate a terrorist threat. Of course, the same could be said for some U.S. policies -- look at Iraq and Afghanistan."

Misunderstanding the Uighur culture and religion, the Chinese authorities fear the worst.  And their current policies seem more likely to foster resistance and resentment than peace and passivity. Perhaps the backlash is already beginning.

Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images