In recent months, ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China’s westernmost province — Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — have been subject to pressure and detention by Chinese authorities.
On Friday, Radio Free Asia reported that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang had detained an ethnic Kazakh family that was returning from a visit to relatives in Kazakhstan.
Nurhoja Teksi was detained alongside his wife and two elderly relatives last month after crossing the border into China following a lengthy stay in Almaty, a Kazakhstan-based source said.
The couple were in the process of taking the elderly relatives back to visit their hometown in Xinjiang’s Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, she said.
A handful of Kazakhstan-based sources told RFA of routine detentions of “ethnic minority Kazakhs who attend mosque or who pray regularly.” One said his family in China refused to let him visit, fearful of increased police scrutiny. RFA has carried several such reports in recent weeks with troubling details: quotas for the detention of Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs (3,000 per week, according to RFA’s source); detention of ethnic Kazakh business owners; police-run re-education centers; teachers reporting students for “wearing ‘Islamic’ clothing and praying”; raids on ethnic Kazakh homes including confiscation of Qurans and prayer mats; and blacklisting of ethnic Kazakhs who visited relatives in Kazakhstan. In September, an ethnic Kazakh man reportedly died in custody of Chinese police after going to the police station to inquire about the whereabouts of his two “disappeared” brothers.
Human Rights Watch, monitoring the larger crackdown on Uyghurs — which China has pursued near and far — noted media reports which said “ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz have also been detained for having traveled abroad or having ‘spoken about Kazakhstan a lot.’ Other reasons for their detentions are not known.”
Beijing’s long-running campaign against Uyghurs serves as the model for the targeting of ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Bruce Pannier noted these trends in August, writing about the trouble faced by both the ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China: “The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs are increasingly seen by the Chinese authorities as — at the least — potential confederates of the Uyghurs.”
In the Borderland
Ethnic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs are largely grouped in two prefectures in Xinjiang — Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture and Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture. Each abuts Central Asia in a borderland that has long worried Beijing as a possible fertile ground for the three evils, “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.”
The territory was once disputed by China and the USSR. The 1996 Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions, signed in Shanghai between China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan formed the basis not only of the Shanghai Five (eventually the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) but also sparked a renegotiation of the borders between Central Asia and China.
The Chinese, by the mid-1990s, had reduced their territorial claims in Central Asia to about 34,000 square kilometers. (Mao, citing “unequal treaties” with czarist Russia and the USSR, had earlier laid claim to more than 900,000 square kilometers in Central Asia.) In 1999, Kazakhstan ceded about half of what Beijing claimed. As Pannier has written, “State media repeatedly focused on the fact Kazakhstan had received ‘56.9 percent’ of the disputed territory but critics pointed out that the remaining 43.1 percent had been Kazakhstan’s land until the new deal with China.”
A notable feature across the several RFA and RFE/RL reports about the crackdown on ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China is the targeting of individuals with cross-border connections. Given the fact that the border was adjusted less than 20 years ago, it’s no surprise that there are large numbers of ethnic Kazakhs on the Chinese side of the border with relatives who made the decision to move to Kazakhstan.
As Pannier wrote in August, after achieving independence, both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan sounded the call for their expatriates to return home. This was a decidedly bigger deal for Kazakhstan where, at the time of independence, ethnic Kazakhs were a minority. As Pannier notes, about 1 million Kazakhs from across the region and further abroad — Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, and China — were repatriated. They are known as “oralman.” The Kyrgyz equivalent, “kairylman,” are fewer in number but face similar issues.
For example, an RFA report from early November cites a source in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, as recounting a story about an elderly Kazakh woman who was “forced to sign a document declaring ‘an end to the maternal relationship with my son’ and to cancel her grown son’s household registration document linked to his family home, to enable him to get a visa to come home and visit her after he obtained Kazakhstan citizenship.”
RFA said, “New rules introduced since August have made it almost impossible for naturalized citizens of Kazakhstan who were once holders of Chinese passports to get a visa to come and visit relatives.
Muted Official Reaction in Kazakhstan
Astana has avoided commenting on the widespread detention of ethnic Kazakhs in China and elsewhere*. Indeed, when Egyptian secret police began rounding up more than 200 Chinese passport holding religious students at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Islamic University this summer, seven ethnic Kazakhs fled to Turkey after their asylum applications were rejected by Kazakhstan. Two more have been held incommunicado after being repatriated to China.
Kazakhstan — and all of Central Asia — has been relatively pliant in facilitating China’s pursuit of Uyghurs abroad. Beijing claims that it faces a violent, extremist, separatist movement in Xinjiang; meanwhile critics of the government’s rights-repressing tactics say that Beijing is only fueling the fire motivating Uyghur separatists. While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both have large Uyghur minorities, Astana and Bishkek have in the past extradited individuals sought by Beijing. The Uyghur issue came to a head in Kyrgyzstan last year when a man drove a car laden with explosives into the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. Kyrgyz and Chinese authorities ultimately pegged responsibility on Uyghur separatists.
Beijing and the Central Asian capitals share economic interests in maintaining a stable relationships — summarized largely in recent times by the Belt and Road Initiative.
In Kazakhstan, there is additional motivation to downplay the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in China. Anti-Chinese sentiment is already extant and showed itself most prominently last year when rumors about pending land code changes touched off significant protests across the country. The rumors held that the land code changes would allow Chinese to buy up large swaths of Kazakh steppe (the rumors were false, but the land code changes were scrapped for the time being anyway).
But Kazakhstan has a much more open media space, relative to China, especially Xinjiang. There have been discussions of Beijing’s treatment of ethnic Kazakhs on social media but they have not been too loud (Kazakhstan has sent citizens to jail for social media posts, after all). In Xinjiang, sites like Facebook and Twitter are routinely blocked and the Chinese government has moved toward blocking VPNs (through which Chinese citizens circumvent blocks). By detaining those who move between Kazakhstan and China, Beijing is further isolating the region.
*Update: After initial publication, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the ministry has held talks with the Chinese regarding the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. The issue is reportedly on the agenda for Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Aqylbek Kamaldinov’s visit to Beijing in December.