Central Asia Struggles With Fallout From China’s Internment of Minorities

Kazakh case draws attention to plight of hundreds of thousands detained in Xinjiang

Uali Islam shows photos of his wife Sairagul Sawytbai at his house in Baidibek village, Kazakhstan.  (Izturgan Aldauev/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Uali Islam shows photos of his wife Sairagul Sawytbai at his house in Baidibek village, Kazakhstan. (Izturgan Aldauev/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN—This month witnessed a rare and surprising display of justice from Kazakhstan’s judicial system. To hurrahs from a cheering crowd, Sairagul Sawytbai, a 41-year-old ethnic Kazakh woman who had illegally crossed the China-Kazakhstan border and worked as a teacher in the highly secretive concentration camp system in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, was not sent back to China and was instead allowed to remain in Kazakhstan as an asylum-seeker.

The ease of the verdict was unexpected. Because of Sawytbai’s prior access to “state secrets,” many believed that China would exert pressure to have her extradited. Reunited with her husband and children, she now stood outside the courthouse and thanked everyone who had campaigned for her, before joining her large group of supporters for a series of celebratory banquets. However, as Sawytbai would later tell the Globe and Mail, this happiness “failed to last 24 hours.” In her home region of Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities were quick to arrest her sister and two friends.

The human rights abuses continue to pile up, shocking observers, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region—a large territory just north of Tibet that shares many of the same problems. Traditionally populated by ethnic Uighurs, who now make up under half the population following decades of state-backed migration by the Han Chinese, the region has long been prone to ethnic tensions, with many Uighurs seeing Han rule as illegitimate and repressive. Since the appointment of hard-liner Chen Quanguo as the region’s new party secretary in late 2016, however, the state has employed a terrifying combination of Orwellian surveillance and concentration camps to crack down on the Uighurs in an unprecedented manner, with the other Muslim ethnic minorities in the region, such as the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, and the Hui being hit as well. Based on testimonies from ex-detainees, the immediate goal of the camps is to force the members of these ethnic groups to abandon Islam, to abandon their culture, and to become devout believers in the Chinese Communist Party.

Anger and complaints from those outside this province-sized “open-air prison” have also been piling up—most notably, from relatives abroad whose loved ones have become trapped in Xinjiang’s new reality. However, while large international protests by the Xinjiang diaspora in many Western countries have generally been carried out with local support, the issue has been a very thorny one in China’s—or rather, Xinjiang’s—immediate neighbors. Though people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan all demand the reunification of their families and the safety of relatives in Xinjiang, their governments, despite not openly supporting China’s internal policies, still find themselves numb before an overwhelmingly powerful neighbor.

The numbness is understandable— too much of these countries’ future development depends on China. Kazakhstan, owing to its geographical location, seeks to benefit from being a crucial partner on the Belt and Road Initiative’s New Eurasian Land Bridge, a series of rail links set to traverse Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, cross through Russia, and terminate in Europe. The analogue for Pakistan is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62 billion infrastructure project that is predicted to create hundreds of thousands of jobs while speeding up the country’s growth. For Kyrgyzstan, it’s less about ambitious projects and more about loans and investment—in addition to owning oil refineries, plants, and mines in the country, China also owns about half of its debt. Dependent on remittances and unable to generate enough income for investment, Kyrgyzstan is forced to borrow if it wants to maintain its growth.

However, despite cooperation from both governments and China-facing entrepreneurs in these Muslim-majority countries, the fact that the Chinese government is keeping as many as a million of its own Muslims in concentration camps has not made for smooth partnerships. Of the three countries, Kazakhstan is the one where things have been the rockiest by far, as thousands of people—many of them Chinese “Oralman,” or ethnic Kazakhs from China—have seen their relatives in Xinjiang detained over the past year and a half, in many cases for such simple “transgressions” as keeping in touch with them via WhatsApp, a chat client that is now banned in China.

The general anti-China sentiment in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has only helped rock the boat, and recent incidents in both countries—from the breakup of a wedding banquet for a Kazakh-Chinese couple to protests by Kyrgyz miners—may indicate an increase in hostility in how the locals see China. In Pakistan, things have been much quieter, but here too the incarceration of at least 50 Uighur women—the wives of Pakistani traders from Gilgit-Baltistan—has elicited concerns and anger among a small fraction of the local population.

Gauging the actual power of this discontent is hard. In all three countries, the vast majority of citizens do not have relatives who are suffering in Xinjiang, and, between limited empathy and lack of strong institutions, the cries may often be ignored. The case with Pakistan seems to illustrate this very well, as the complaints over the detained Uighur wives appear to have been given a pass by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nor does there seem to be any sort of foothold for protest in Kyrgyzstan, where the relatives of those detained in Xinjiang have been mute.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, offers some hope, with the prominent example being that of the volunteer group Atazhurt Zhastary (“Youth of the Homeland”). Led by activists Qydyräli Oraz and Serikzhan Bilash, the organization was formed in early 2017 out of “the need to have a group that actually defended the rights of [Chinese] Oralman,” as Oraz put it. Since then, it has collected some thousand testimonies from family members of Xinjiang detainees. It was also Atazhurt, in fact, that played a major role in the trial of Sairagul Sawytbai, helping bring her case to national and international attention while also providing moral and logistical support.

According to Oraz, the group has seen a surge in testimonies over the past few weeks, and is now receiving around 20 visiting parties a day. There, people share their stories in a roundtable discussion, and the result is multi-pronged: The stories are recorded and shared on social networks, the aggrieved sign written testimonies, and the information is documented in Atazhurt’s ever-growing database.

“A lot of people waited for a really long time, hoping for their relatives to be released,” Oraz explained, “but nothing’s happened. So now they’re all coming to speak out.”

Some of the visitors have even crossed the border from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where Atazhurt hopes to help set up a similar organization, though Oraz doesn’t expect the testimonies received there to be much more than a hundred, given the relatively low number of Kyrgyz in Xinjiang.

This rise in the number of people willing to speak up has had both good and bad results. Despite refusing to recognize Atazhurt as an official organization, the Kazakhstan government has tacitly recognized its influence—confirmed by its summoning Bilash and issuing him a formal warning about a month ago, as a means of curbing the group’s activity. That Zhang Wei, China’s consul-general in Kazakhstan, has been forced to break his silence on the issue very likely says something as well. In an interview with Tengrinews.kz meant to address “those spreading rumors about the ‘Chinese threat,’” Zhang issued a warning to evildoers, complete with the bemusing statement that “good always triumphs over evil.” More positively, the increased civil pressure has forced Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiate the release of at least some of those detained in Xinjiang, even if they’ve done so “carefully” and mostly for Kazakh citizens, attributing the detentions to administrative problems—notably, to so-called dual citizenship issues.

The outcome of the Sawytbai trial was initially seen as a triumph. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch commented that the case showed that “the Kazakh authorities can stand up to China,” the Diplomat’s Catherine Putz concluded that Kazakhstan has chosen Kazakhs over China, and Bilash was quoted as saying that the judgment was “very good” and “a first in Kazakhstan.” Still, the days that have followed the trial have seen old shadows return, and not only because of the reported detention of Sawytbai’s friends and relatives.

After a day or two of apparent freedom, Sawytbai has effectively been barred from seeing anyone—reporters especially—by her own lawyer. In an interview with 365info.kz, Saule Abedinova, a local journalist who has remained close to the lawyer and Sawytbai following the trial, confirmed that Sawytbai—arguably the most important witness of China’s concentration camp system—will remain inaccessible until she gets asylum, which could take anywhere from three months to a year. On top of this strange decree, there is also Abedinova’s own report of a break-in at Sawytbai’s home and recent photos of Abedinova and the lawyer with members of Jebeu, a local government organization with documented ties to the Chinese consulate.

While Sawytbai’s verdict seemed like a small victory, the ongoing campaign—of basic human rights over economic or personal interests—is very far from won.

Gene A. Bunin is a writer and translator who has been researching the Uighur language in Xinjiang since 2008. He is currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

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