In early 2017, reports began to emerge that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang were ratcheting up security, flying in troops, and parading police convoys through the region’s cities. Chen Quanguo, appointed Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang the previous August after five years as Party secretary in Tibet, called it a “a people’s war.” The term isn’t new, but the level of repression has progressed dramatically from the collection of DNA of individuals en masse, to the confiscation of passports, to mass detentions and incarceration in “re-education” camps.
A year later, a handful of former detainees have begun to tell their stories. It’s no accident that some of those now speaking up are Kazakh citizens, released after the intervention of their government, which remains a key partner in China’s larger regional ambitions — embodied by the Belt and Road Initiative — and a critical state bordering Xinjiang. Astana has been careful not to raise too loud a cry about the issue while also attempting to secure the release of its citizens, walking a careful line with a powerful neighbor.
Nargis Kassenova, an associate professor and director of the Central Asian Studies Center at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan, told The Diplomat via email, “My understanding is the issue has been raised very diplomatically to signal the concern (after all, support of Kazakh diaspora is one of the goals of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy according to the current Foreign Policy Concept), but not cause the wrath of the Chinese government. There is very good understanding of Beijing’s heightened sensitivity when it comes to Xinjiang.”
Beijing has embedded its concept of the “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism into regional security structures like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Kazakhstan is a member. In Beijing’s eyes, all three evils have taken root among the native Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — which includes the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture — resulting in unrest and spurts of violence and, as Chinese authorities allege, support for Uyghur terrorist groups domestically and abroad. Xinjiang has also seen an influx of Han Chinese and heavy handed police tactics — all before the latest wave of detentions.
As Kassenova noted, Astana has a good understanding of Beijing’s sensitivities and while Kazakhstan is a Muslim-majority state, its secular government, part of its Soviet heritage, engenders it to taking China’s concerns about extremism seriously. Although Kazakhstan has a Uyghur population of its own, Astana has responded to Beijing’s past requests to arrest and return wanted Uyghurs to China.
The detention of ethnic Kazakhs and Kazakh citizens, however, adds a new dimension.
In May 2018, the Associated Press carried a detailed report about the camps, highlighting the story of an ethnic Kazakh who spent months detained in China. Omir Bekali recounted in detail how he and other detainees “had to disavow their Islamic beliefs, criticize themselves and their loved ones and give thanks to the ruling Communist Party.” When Bekali refused to follow orders, he was punished, sent into solitary confinement and deprived of food for 24 hours.
While Chinese authorities generally deny the existence of such camps — with the AP being told by China’s Foreign Ministry that it “had not heard” of the situation — mounting reports and analyses prove otherwise.
Bekali, born to Kazakh and Uyghur parents in China in 1976, moved to Kazakhstan in 2006 and received Kazakh citizenship in 2009.
In 2015, the Kazakh government claimed that since the country’s independence in 1991, nearly 1 million ethnic Kazakhs have resettled in the country. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that 200,000 ethnic Kazakhs from China have become citizens of Kazakhstan since 1991. Referred to in sum as “Oralman” — from the Kazakh word for “returnee” — in 2015 they made up an estimated 5.5 percent of Kazakhstan’s total population (at the time) of over 17 million. And while life in Kazakhstan may not be all that some had imagined, ethnic Kazakhs now caught up in China’s “people’s war on terror” may yearn for a friend in Astana.
Early on in the latest surge of pressure on Xinjiang’s Muslim population, new reports cataloged difficulties encountered by Kazakhs and ethnic Kazakhs. Families split over the border were first affected, with Chinese authorities reportedly confiscating the passports of ethnic Kazakhs, including Kazakh citizens whose families live in China. Given the aforementioned 200,000 Oralman from China, there are a considerable number with families remaining across the border. In June 2017, RFA reported that ethnic Kazakhs holding Chinese passports and Kazakh residence cards were “also being told to hand in their Kazakhstan-issued residency cards to Chinese police ‘for safe-keeping.’” While orders were reportedly issued to return the Kazakh residence cards, rumors arose — fueled reportedly by a salacious video — that China was eyeing expansion into Kazakh lands.
Subsequent reports underscored a deteriorating situation. By August 2017, reports indicated that dozens of ethnic Kazakhs had been detained in Xinjiang. A Kazakh student with a Quran app on her smartphone was detained at the border; members of a WeChat group discussing emigration to Kazakhstan were detained; another student was detained after visiting relatives in Kazakhstan and a herder was detained for having “frequent contacts” with friends and relatives in Kazakhstan. By November, RFA had carried several troubling reports: 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 detention of 50 ethnic Kazakhs for watching a banned video of a world-class boxing match featuring welterweight Kanat Islam (a Chinese-born boxer who became a Kazakh citizen in 2011).
In April 2018, a senior U.S. State Department diplomat put the number of those detained in re-education centers “at the very least in the tens of thousands.” Adrian Zenz, a researcher focused on China’s ethnic policies at the European School of Culture and Theology, Korntal, Germany, estimated that between several hundred thousand and just over one million have been detained in Xinjiang.
Bekali told AP that in March 2017 he had driven from Almaty to Xinjiang for a work trip. When he visited his parents he passed through police checkpoints and showed his old Chinese identity card. The next day the police came for him. He was then taken 500 miles to Karamay’s Baijiantan District public security office where the interrogations began. After a few months in a jail cell he was released into a re-education camp, where he went through a course of political indoctrination.
Another man, Kayrat Samarkan, who was released in February told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Kazakh service that he had recently been approved for Kazakh citizenship after living in the country since 2009. He returned to Xinjiang in October 2017 to sell his home and land but was called in for questioning by the police. They questioned him for three days and then ordered that he spend three to nine months in a re-education center. At the center, Samarkan said there were three kinds of prisoners: “The first category was people connected to religion; the second was those who had gone abroad; the third were those who had violated social order.”
RFE/RL reported that Chinese authorities claim that some of the Oralman, when becoming Kazakh citizens, “did not complete all the paperwork needed to officially renounce Chinese citizenship, which leaves them open to arrest and confinement when they return to Xinjiang on business, to visit family, or, as in Samarkan’s case, to settle unfinished matters back in Xinjiang.”
Bekali claimed that his release in late November 2017 came after the intervention of the Kazakh government; Samarkan’s February 2018 released coincided with a diplomatic note sent to the Chinese Foreign Ministry by Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov.
While Kazakhstan has certainly raised the issue of detained Kazakh citizens through diplomatic channels, it has done so carefully, quietly, and to seemingly limited effect.
In early November 2017, Kazakh media reported that Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to China Shahrat Nuryshev had met with Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Li Huilai regarding Kazakh diaspora issues. Toward the end of that month, Kazakh Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Akylbek Kamaldinov met with Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Hanhui. Then Kamaldinov traveled to Beijing, though there’s no mention of the issue of Kazakh detainees in the Chinese readout of his meetings with Chinese officials.
Last month, Kazakhstan made its strongest and most public comment on the issue with a statement from the Foreign Ministry commenting that in mid-May during the latest “Kazakhstan-Chinese consultations on consular matters” the two sides discussed the “protection of the rights and interests of the citizens of the two countries, and also the mutual trips of residents of Kazakhstan and China.”
The statement went on to say, “The question of the situation of ethnic Kazakhs, who have resettled from China to Kazakhstan and have become citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan, was raised by the Kazakh side. An urgent request was expressed about an objective and fair review of affairs and the release of those ethnic Kazakhs detained in China who have dual citizenship.”
“The Kazakh delegation wasn’t exactly holding the Chinese feet to the fire with that statement,” Bruce Pannier of RFE/RL writes, “but diplomacy is often a delicate art, especially when you represent a country of 18 million people in a conversation with representatives of a country with 1.4 billion people.”
Astana, in delicately handling the matter, is navigating between its core social and economic interests. “In my view, our government officials are genuinely concerned,” Kassenova says, “however, there is not much they can do given Kazakhstan’s growing dependence on China.”
Kassenova believes the issue has an impact on the wider Kazakhstan-China relationship. In particular, “it undermines China’s efforts to develop [a] good image and soft power in Kazakhstan that had a low start to begin with, and contributes to the narrative of the elites making deals with China to their own benefit at the expense of national interest, land, future generations who would need to pay off debt, and now also the sufferings of Kazakhs in Xinjiang.”
In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled what we now call the Belt and Road Initiative while in Astana. Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan — is positioned as key node on the road to Europe. That has led to an uptick in Chinese businesses investing in Kazakhstan — to mixed reactions from locals.
Anti-Chinese sentiments aren’t new to Kazakhstan and the detention of ethnic Kazakhs could further deepen already extant beliefs about ulterior motives for Chinese activities in Kazakhstan. In 2016, part of the fuel that fed protests over proposed changes to the country’s land code were rumors that the changes would allow foreigners, namely Chinese, to buy up large swaths of Kazakh land. Kazakh sensitivities about land have their roots in a 1999 deal that saw 43.1 percent of 34,000 square kilometers of previously Kazakh territory ceded to China, which had long disputed the previous Sino-Soviet border in the region. The video mentioned earlier in this article that surfaced in summer 2017 claimed that Kazakhstan “occupies” rightfully Chinese territory.
The 2016 protests were suppressed by Astana, which while claiming a democratic government has yet to hold elections judged free and fair by international observers and goes to great lengths to tamp down on public protests and inconvenient dissidence. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been at the country’s helm since before independence, taking office as president for the first time in 1990.
“Perhaps, if we had some political life, we would have a force that would raise the issue and the government could point to it in negotiations with their Chinese counterpart,” Kassenova commented. “As it is, the government is on its own.”
So far the detention of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang has not sparked a large public response in Kazakhstan.
As for what happens next, Kassenova doesn’t think much will change, “unless the Chinese government understands that the ultra-harsh policies are counterproductive” domestically as well as in its dealings abroad.
The BRI is supposed to traverse Xinjiang and in the estimation of some the development is intended to tame the region. “It remains to be seen how the Belt… can develop with Xinjiang in a constant state of emergency, or does Xinjiang risk [turning] into a transit zone not benefiting from real connectivity, opposite to the original plan?” Kassenova asks.