Do Kazakhstanis care about their kin in Xinjiang?
The potential threat of ‘Chinese expansion’ has mobilised Kazakhstanis at home, yet the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang has not
For over 100 days, small groups of people, many of them women, have been picketing the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, seeking information about family members who have ‘disappeared’ in Xinjiang, just over the border in China.
“We will not stop until they release our relatives,” one of them shouted on the 100th day of their protest, on 18 May. “Even if we are shot, even if we are chopped up, even if we are killed.”
These protests have highlighted how both ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens, and Kazakhstani citizens, have been swept up in China’s forced re-education programme that predominantly targets Uyghurs in the northwest of the country. Individual stories reveal that families have been separated and children have been left without parents. Testimonies of Kazakhs who have experienced the so-called re-education camps in China, and accounts of their escape from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan, have been shared widely.
Yet while some Kazakhstanis have expressed solidarity with the picketers by sending money for food and transport, the protest has not aroused a strong public outcry. Despite evidence of strong currents of anti-China sentiment in Kazakhstani society, the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang has failed to strike a chord, due, it would appear, to a combination of restrictions on civil society, and resentment against Kazakh diaspora returnees.
Since 1992, Kazakhstan has actively sponsored the return of ethnic Kazakhs from neighbouring countries through a series of laws and regulations, which became informally known as the Oralman Programme, named for the Kazakh word for returnees. More than a million ethnic Kazakhs have migrated to Kazakhstan since the start of this programme, contributing to the demographic and economic growth in the country. However, a sustainable integration programme has not evolved. Populist statements by the government on embracing blood-kin ties have not been supported with coordinated long-term policy initiatives.
Nuriddin Sultanmuratov, political analyst at the Tsentr Aziya journal, has argued that “repatriation has become a big dilemma” for Kazakhstan. Some Kazakhstanis have questioned why Oralman Programme participants receive special benefits when the rest of the population is in dire need of financial support.
Initially, the government allocated a number of returnees to each region of the country, but this distribution system failed to consider regional workforce needs. In 2011, ethnic returnees were blamed as ‘outsiders’ who provoked the massacre that concluded an oil workers' strike in Zhanaozen. In the wake of events there, the government froze the repatriation programme until 2014, when it resumed sending returnees to regions in need of new workers, this time taking labour needs into consideration.
Rallying of public opinion against China’s economic presence has not been matched by support for the campaign to help ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang
Since the mid-2000s, so-called ‘integration centres’ for returnees have been established across the country. Field visits to these centres in Aktau, Karaganda, and Shymkent in 2017 by the author revealed that, while their initial purpose was to provide temporary accommodation to facilitate adjustment, returnees stayed on, living at the centres for several years. A slow bureaucracy, a stagnant job market, and difficulties in obtaining legal assistance were all stumbling blocks in the integration process. In particular, Kazakh returnees from China living in Karaganda said that the absence of paperwork in the Kazakh language required them to pay for its translation from Russian.
Social alienation and economic inequality therefore became concrete risks for returnees. The word ‘Oralman’ was increasingly used in a derogatory way, further stigmatising the low-skilled jobs that these people were able to obtain. In 2020, the government officially changed the term ‘Oralman’ to ‘Kandas’ (from the Kazakh for ‘compatriot’).
Fears over Chinese influence
For several years, there has been persistent and considerable discontent in Kazakhstan over China’s economic presence in the country.
In 2016, scaremongering messages on social media that farmland would be rented by and ultimately sold to Chinese companies sparked discontent. Rallies against legislative changes that would have enabled foreigners to lease farmland for 25 years galvanised more than 2,000 people in major cities throughout Kazakhstan – an unprecedented act in a country where public gatherings are strictly controlled, and often suppressed, by the state.
To placate the public, the government froze the project and initiated a limited public discussion. In May 2021, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a law banning the lease and sale of land to foreigners.
In September 2019, just before Tokayev went to Beijing for a state visit, small protests occurred against the potential establishment of industrial and agricultural enterprises by Chinese companies in Kazakhstan.
These protests initially started in western Kazakhstan, where China’s investment is visible in the oil and gas sector, a key industry for the country’s economy. Further, small-scale rallies against the ‘economic expansion’ of China took place in 2020 and 2021. Most recently, protests took place in March and May in Almaty, when a few hundred people expressed their discontent over the construction of Chinese factories in Kazakhstan. Earlier in 2019, authorities had listed more than 50 joint projects as part of Kazakhstan’s official industrial and innovation cooperation with China.
But this rallying of public opinion against China’s economic presence has not been matched by support for the campaign to help ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
Human rights activists and organisations are among those at risk of persecution from the state in Kazakhstan. This situation has affected Atajurt, a grassroots organisation that has documented testimonies of relatives and eyewitnesses of conditions inside the Xinjiang re-education camps.
Atajurt gathered around 5,000 testimonies from those who had lost touch with their families in Xinjiang, including written petitions and video testimonies. Atajurt volunteers travelled to cities and rural places in Kazakhstan to collect testimonies, and some of them resulted in the return of people from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan. International human rights organisations have highlighted both the organisation’s work and its testimonies in bringing the issue to a global audience. Before the onset of COVID-19, the Kazakhstani public expressed solidarity with the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang by sharing the posts of Atajurt on social media and by sending donations to support the organisation.
However, official pressure on Atajurt increased. In 2019, Serikzhan Bilash, Atajurt’s leader, was arrested and charged with ‘incitement of social hatred’. He was later released after accepting a plea bargain which banned him from engaging in activism for seven years. Bilash initially fled to Turkey after he was released, and now lives in the US.
Social alienation, marginalisation and economic inequality inside the country have all contributed to a waning public interest in the support of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang
In the aftermath, Atajurt suffered both internal and external problems. The organisation first split over an internal feud, and later broke down due to lack of funds. The organisation was also targeted in an open letter by a group of well-known public figures, including openly nationalist figures, who denounced Atajurt for its incompetence in addressing the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. They argued that a matter of this scale could only be handled by the government and not by non-governmental organisations.
This internal lack of consensus on how to push the campaign forward, as well as allegations of incompetence, has proven beneficial for the governments in both Kazakhstan and China, as it has allowed the issue to drift to the margins of their foreign policy agendas, and diminished public support.
Social alienation, marginalisation and economic inequality inside the country have all contributed to a waning public interest in the support of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. Meanwhile the government has proved reluctant to deal with the larger cause.
One of the picketers outside the Chinese consulate is Baibolat Kunbolatuly, an ethnic Kazakh man who returned in 2002 to Kazakhstan from Xinjiang and became a citizen in 2008. Kunbolatuly’s brother has been missing in Xinjiang since 2018. In a phone interview, Kunbolatuly told openDemocracy, “I think my brother is a political prisoner. He did not commit any crime.” Baibolat’s brother was sentenced to ten years in prison for writing an article on social media that allegedly incited ethnic strife.
In 2020, Baibolat wrote to the Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), requesting assistance in his attempts to obtain information on his brother. The MFA replied that, because Baimurat Naurizbekuly, Baibolat’s brother, is a Chinese citizen, it cannot intervene, as it would constitute an interference in the domestic affairs of another country.
This situation leaves Baibolat and the rest of the families of the victims of violence in Xinjiang without any government support or public voice. Paradoxically, for Kazakh nationalists, not selling land to Chinese businesses is higher on the agenda than helping fellow Kazakhs trapped in China’s re-education camps.
Get our weekly email