In Almaty on November 2, a non-governmental organization called Atazhurt held a press conference at which the children of ethnic Kazakhs held at re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang pleaded for their families’ release.
“I ask the whole world, please, help us get our mom back,” one little girl says between sobs in a video posted by RFE/RL, “We miss her very much.”
The heartbreaking footage underscores the role the people of Central Asia have had in putting a human face on the incarceration of an estimated million Muslims in Xinjiang by Chinese authorities. While the great majority of those detained in what Beijing calls free “vocational education and training centers” are Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz — both Muslim and each with their own prefecture within Xinjiang — have also been detained in the camps.
What the ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in Xinjiang’s camps have that Uyghurs don’t is a neighboring state that has, in the past, claimed them as brethren.
When Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, its leadership realized that the titular ethnicity wasn’t even a majority of the state’s citizens. As ethnic Russians and other groups migrated out of Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan beckoned ethnic Kazakhs to come home. By 2015, according to Kazakh authorities, nearly 1 million ethnic Kazakhs had taken advantage of the Oralman (meaning “Returnee”) program and resettled in Kazakhstan. At the time, the majority (61.5 percent) had moved from Uzbekistan, followed by China at 14.3 percent.
According to Chinese authorities in 2016, there were approximately 1.46 million ethnic Kazakhs in China, the vast majority in Xinjiang.
One effect of the Oralman program, and Kazakhstan’s simplified citizenship process for ethnic Kazakhs, is that split families developed. This was at the heart of the very public case of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen detained in Kazakhstan for illegally crossing the border to join her husband and children, who had been living in Kazakhstan since 2016 and had become citizens. In other cases, grandparents stayed in China while their children moved to Kazakhstan to attend university. This cross-border existence wasn’t a problem until Chinese authorities began detaining Muslims and seizing their passports.
Kyrgyzstan, like Kazakhstan, launched a program to encourage ethnic Kyrgyz to resettled in the country; their term is “Kairylman.” There are about 200,000 ethnic Kyrgyz in China, so the numbers of returnees are far fewer than ethnic Kazakhs from China to Kazakhstan. But the story remains the same. As Bruce Pannier noted in an August 2017 article, “…the kairlymans have the same problem Kazakhstan’s oralmans are having; they sometimes disappear when they cross back into China to see relatives.”
Recently, a group of activists in Bishkek formed the Committee To Protect Kyrgyz People In China. The group, as RFE/RL reports, is mostly ethnic Kyrgyz who moved to Kyrgyzstan from China and obtained residence or citizenship. Like the children gathered by Atazhurt in Almaty, the members of the Committee To Protect Kyrgyz People In China say they have relatives in Xinjiang who had disappeared or who visited the region after moving to Kyrgyzstan and have not returned.
As publics in Central Asia — primarily Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — become more vocal about their personal connection to the misery playing out in Xinjiang, their governments find little room to maneuver and less political will to make a scene. Even Astana, far more powerful on the global stage than Bishkek, is meek in the face of Beijing. Kazakhstan has managed to free some Kazakh citizens detained, but unable to budge China on the larger internment issue. Kyrgyzstan could find small success in a similar fashion.
But, as noted above, the Uyghurs have no other state that claims them and thus no other state to advocate for them. In the past, Central Asian states, as well as Turkey and others, have bowed to Chinese pressure to deport individual Uyghurs back to China. A Kazakh court may have refused to deport Sauytbay earlier this year, but Astana also rejected her asylum application.
Where will this lead? With the world fumbling, stewing in its apparent inability to motivate policy change in China — or perhaps better put, unwilling to bear the costs of attempting to motivate policy change in China — the future looks bleak. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan could make loud public statements about the situation in Xinjiang, but the political calculous likely foresees such an effort as only tanking the region’s relations with a major supplier of trade and aid.
As civil society organizations, like Atazhurt and the Committee To Protect Kyrgyz People In China, garner attention they also face risks.
Serikjan Bilash, Atazhurt’s co-founder, told NPR last month that he’d received four warnings from the Kazakh government to stop his work on behalf of Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs detained in China’s camps.
“They’re silent about this because they need Chinese money. They’ve sold their religion. They don’t want heaven. They want Renminbi,” he said, referring to Chinese currency.
In general, Bishkek is far more accepting of public protests than Astana, but how far each state will let these groups go is an unknown.