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Kazakhstan: How Astana Should Respond to Oppression of Ethnic Kazakhs in China?

“On the one hand, Kazakhstan understands the sensitive attitude of the Chinese authorities to the Xinjiang issue. On the other hand, the Kazak diaspora is one of priority directions of the foreign policy of Kazakhstan, as well as the citizens abroad are under protection of their homeland,” political analyst Berikbol Dukeyev wrote in his article specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Brief review of the article: 

  • Securitisation by means of terrorism threat not only gives an opportunity to govern Islam in Xinjiang, but also contributes to the control of religious identity of local Uighurs and Kazaks, as well as other ethnic groups;
  • The authorities of Kazakhstan try to solve this issue in the framework of available treaties between the parties and by high-level negotiation.
  • No integral approach to the condemnation of the situation in Xinjiang should be expected. Such manoeuvres will be deemed as the intervention into the China’s domestic affairs.
  • Beijing understands the importance of bilateral economic relations with Kazakhstan. Chinese authorities try to keep control of the situation and enter into dialogue with the Kazak party.

Chinese authorities  focus attention on local Muslims of Xinjiang who join terrorist groups abroad, which, in their opinion, is a signal of growing radicalisation in the region. Photo: Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

The Chinese government has been strongly criticised by the international community for their oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of P.R.C. (hereinafter referred to as Xinjiang). What should be the reaction of Kazakhstan in a situation when its citizens cannot leave or have been detained in the so-called political education centres or camps of Xinjiang? In general, the situation in Xinjiang has shown that the narrative of priority of the Kazak diaspora abroad is in fact the background of the foreign policy.

Tightened security in Xinjiang

Due to the tightened security, in May 2014 China actively launched its Strike Hard Campaign against violent extremism in Xinjiang. The goal of the campaign is to eradicate the threat to ethnic harmony and social stability in China. Although, in fact, securitisation with the use of terrorism threat not only gives an opportunity to regulate Islam in Xinjiang, but also contributes to the control of religious identity of local Uighurs and Kazaks, as well as other ethnic groups.

Distinguished by awards, the picture by the Uighur farmer meets the message of the China’s chairman Xi Jinping in 2014  to Uighur masses to get rid of the Uighurs suspected of terrorism as of parasites. Photo: livingotherwise.com

According to experts, tightened security in Xinjiang is related to the two major domestic political events in China: the 19th Communist Party congress held in 2017, and the first sessions of the parliament and the public chamber in 2018. Before and during these events, the flawless domestic security is deemed the key priority for the Chinese authorities. As a rule, the tightened security control in Xinjiang becomes periodical during such internal political events in the P.R.C. The authorities expect active protests and discontent of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Therefore, they apply drastic measures to control security in the region.

Another important factor in the tightened control is China’s largest infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road initiative that connects Xinjiang with Eurasia. By this project, China will ensure access of European markets, as well as possible increase in internal migration flows to Xinjiang. Moreover, China will have regional stabilisation in the long-run.

The pretext for such total control has been the increasing threat of terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang. China’s authorities focus their attention on local Muslims of Xinjiang joining terrorist groups abroad, which, in their opinion, is a sign of growing radicalisation in the region. Although, there have been few persons joining terrorist groups (114 ethnic Uighurs have joined ISIS), and the likelihood of their return to Xinjiang is quite low due to the toughened domestic security measures in Xinjiang, the strict fight against extremism, terrorism and separatism in Xinjiang can have a reverse reaction.

The wall propaganda in Kucha, XUAR, P.R.C.  “Wearing ethnic costumes is a way of inheritance and development of ethnic culture, yet wearing a burqa is the betrayal of the ethnic culture.” Photo: livingotherwise.com

The implementation of the toughened security has been vested in former head of Tibet, Chen Quanguo, famous for his tough control measures of public order. His appointment to Xinjiang has been related to his previous experience of control of such ethnically diverse border region as Tibet. Under the current leader of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, the people of the region are under active surveillance by means of advanced technologies; the number of police stations has increased, so has the number of checks of mobile phones and checks at checkpoints among the Muslim ethnic minority of Xinjiang. Chen Quanguo has expectedly controlled the construction of centres or so-called political education camps.

According to the Human Rights Watch report published in September 2018, the number of officially detained in Xinjiang has leaped three-fold compared to the previous five-year period. The report based on the interview with a former detainee said that the Chinese government has held people in pre-trial detention centres, prisons or the so-called political education centres or camps. According to some data, the so-called political education camps contain over a million people. In many cases, the detainees are Muslim ethnic groups of Xinjiang such as Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, other ethnic groups. Former detainees in the so-called political education camps have reported that prison regulations had been very tough, and also detainees had had to learn Chinese language and history as well as to praise the Communist Party of China.  The Chinese authorities believe such centres contribute to the eradication of terrorism in Xinjiang.

Situation with ethnic Kazaks in Xinjiang

There are over one point five million ethnic Kazaks living in Xinjiang. Thanks to the state programme of ethnic repatriation, over a million of ethnic Kazaks have returned back to Kazakhstan for the years of independence, including 14.2 per cent who came back from China. The Kazaks who have come back to their homeland receive the status of oralman (literally translated from Kazak as returnee) and in one year can apply for the citizenship of the Republic of Kazakhstan, according to new amendments to the law. The improvement of economic situation in Xinjiang, as well as the turnover rate under the ethnic repatriation programme has reduced the number of Kazaks arriving from China. Moreover, a part of Kazaks have historically lived in Xinjiang, while another part, the second and third generations of immigrants, has totally integrated into local communities.

Along with other ethnic minorities of Xinjiang, the Kazaks living in this region have been pressured in the so-called political education centres or camps.
In general, the Kazaks in Xinjiang are loyal to the political order of P.R.C. as they have no separatist moods compared to the Uighur population. In response, the Chinese authorities treat them with confidence. The Kazak diaspora in Xinjiang plays a role of the bridge of friendship in bilateral relations between Kazakhstan and China. It’s Uighurs who have been mainly detained and thoroughly checked. Nevertheless, the fight against violent extremism, which has toughened control over the Muslim population, has affected the Kazaks, too. Along with other ethnic minorities of Xinjiang, the Kazaks living in this region have been pressured in the so-called political education centres or camps.

The first cases of offences and oppression of the Kazaks have become known in the first half of 2017. The Kazaks that have moved from China and obtained the citizenship of Kazakhstan have been detained during their visit to relatives in Xinjiang. Local authorities of Xinjiang have accused some Kazaks of violating the Chinese border crossing rules. In turn, the Xinjiang-based Kazaks have claimed they have surrendered the citizenship of China. Along with other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan has been officially listed among 26 sensitive countries of the world. According to the list, persons who have been to these countries or who have relatives in these countries or any other relations have been additionally checked and some of them have been taken to the so-called political education centres or camps.

Reaction of the authorities of Kazakhstan

The problem of the Kazak diaspora in Xinjiang has been emphasised after a question was asked to the head of state during the global kurultai (assembly) of Kazaks in Astana. By order of president Nazarbayev, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan has tried to solve the issues through diplomatic negotiations with their Chinese counterparts.  They mainly consider private cases of people addressing the ministry. So far, the ministry has received more than 600 inquiries and more than 100 petitions from former citizens of China who have obtained the citizenship of Kazakhstan. The ministry’s involvement is likely to be restricted by consideration of private cases.

The public reaction to this problem has been supported after the trial of Sairagul Sauytbai, an ethnic Kazak woman, who claimed that she was pressured by the authorities of Xinjiang, so she fled to Kazakhstan, where her children and husband lived. According to Sairagul, she has worked at the political education centre at Xinjiang and signed the statement of non-disclosure of state secret of China and if she returns, she would be imprisoned. In her trial, she was found guilty of illegal crossing the border of Kazakhstan; however, she was not excluded from the country.

Sairagul Sauytbai talks to her son in the courtroom. Photo: informburo.kz

The Chinese authorities haven’t recognised the existence of the so-called political education camps for a long time. However, after the increased attention of the international community to this issue, the official sources of China have reported the existence of vocational training centres. According to the Chinese party, people in such centres acquire free vocational education and improve their skills. Thus, the Chinese authorities seek to further legalise the so-called camps and try to mitigate the narrative of the global community.

“The official position of the Kazakhstan ministry of foreign affairs focuses attention on the solution of issues of ethnic Kazaks that have the citizenship of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”
Due to the patchy response of China, the official line of Kazakhstan doesn’t use the term of political education camp or oppression of the Kazak diaspora in Xinjiang. On the one hand, Kazakhstan understands the sensitive attitude of the Chinese authorities to the Xinjiang issue. On the other hand, the Kazak diaspora is one of priority directions of the foreign policy of Kazakhstan, as well as the citizens abroad are under protection of their homeland. In this regard, the authorities of Kazakhstan try to solve this issue within the framework of existing agreements between the parties and by high-level negotiations. Thus, the diplomats of Kazakhstan can only contribute to the solution by means of instruments, i.e. allow personal inquiries to the ministry of foreign affairs; however, no integral approach to the condemnation of the situation in Xinjiang should be expected. Such manoeuvres will be deemed as the intervention into the China’s domestic affairs. It should be noted that the official position of the Kazak ministry of foreign affairs focuses attention on the solution of issues of ethnic Kazaks who have the citizenship of the Republic of Kazakhstan. According to the most recent data, the number of inquiries to the Kazak ministry of foreign affairs regarding the oppression in Xinjiang was 915, including 29 cases suspected of double citizenship and 15 persons were released after the involvement of Kazak diplomats. According to the agreements with the Chinese party, over 2,000 ethnic Kazaks who had never been arrested before have been permitted to leave Xinjiang.

In turn, Beijing understands the importance of bilateral economic relations with Kazakhstan. Therefore, Chinese authorities try to keep control of the situation and enter into dialogue with the Kazak party. The Chinese authorities have reported that some ethnic Kazaks have been detained because they have violated the rules of crossing the national border of P.R.C. In mid-August, the foreign ministry and embassy of China organised a visit of Kazakhstani public members to China at their own initiative. During this visit, public leaders have had an opportunity to raise concern about the situation of ethnic Kazaks in Xinjiang. As a result of such meetings, few Kazaks detained in political education centres or camps have been released.

Recommendations

The situation with ethnic Kazaks in Xinjiang has again revealed the problem of ethnic repatriation in Kazakhstan, in particular, the renunciation of the Chinese citizenship after obtaining the citizenship of Kazakhstan. In order to avoid such cases in future, the authorities of Kazakhstan should settle this matter with the Chinese party, for example, by bilateral agreements with the Chinese party regarding the cancellation of additional visit to China upon acquisition of citizenship of Kazakhstan.

Another important issue is that there have been cases when returning Kazaks couldn’t acquire the citizenship due to time-consuming bureaucratic procedures despite the fact that ethnic Kazaks can obtain the citizenship of Kazakhstan within a year. In many cases, processing papers of ethnic Kazaks wishing to move to Kazakhstan is associated with complicated paperwork. Online processing of papers would simplify the whole process.

Discrimination against ethnic Kazaks in Xinjiang has been widely covered in Kazakhstan due to the trial of Sairagul Sauytbai. However, only one part of Kazakhstani public leaders and non-governmental media cover the situation with the Kazaks in Xinjiang, while the majority keeps out.  In this context, the Kazakhstani public activists and non-governmental media should cover widely the situation with ethnic Kazaks in Xinjiang based on the international sources, which cover this issue more actively. Public leaders and media of Kazakhstan can speed up the settlement of the situation with ethnic Kazaks in China along with the foreign ministry of Kazakhstan.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinion expressed in the article does not reflect the position of the editorial board or the donor.

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