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China's New Security Concern – The Kazakhs

A screengrab from a video purportedly showing young Uyghurs training somewhere in the Middle East and making threats against China. There seems to have been a crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs living in China since the film was released online.
A screengrab from a video purportedly showing young Uyghurs training somewhere in the Middle East and making threats against China. There seems to have been a crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs living in China since the film was released online.

Relations between Kazakhstan and China have been good for more than two decades now.

The two neighboring countries have what could easily be described as excellent economic ties, with trade between them totaling billions of dollars annually.

Recently, however, security concerns have crept into the Kazakh-Chinese relationship.

Chinese authorities have been waging a campaign against "separatists" in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region for decades, and there have been a series of violent attacks recently in Xinjiang that authorities blame on the Uyghurs.

As the full title of the region's name suggests, the region now known as Xinjiang is the traditional homeland of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people that converted to Islam several centuries ago.

Some Uyghurs have been fighting an essentially nationalist campaign to avoid being swallowed up entirely by Han Chinese culture.

Sometime early this year, the Islamic State militant group posted a video of Uyghur fighters in Syria who made an assortment of threats against China.

It was not the first time Uyghur militants in the Middle East released a video threatening China, but on this occasion it certainly caught the attention of President Xi Jinping, who vowed on March 10 to build a "great wall of iron" to protect Xinjiang.

Chinese authorities had already imposed new regulations on the Uyghurs designed to break the Uyghurs' connection to Islam.

Except for the elderly, Uyghur men could not have beards; Uyghur women were banned from dressing in burqas; children under 18 were forbidden from attending mosque; and Chinese authorities made no provision for Ramadan, insisting that Uyghurs not fast during working hours and ordering Uyghur merchants to keep their shops open.

But those rash words of a handful of Uyghurs in Syria, caught on film and disseminated via the Internet, unleashed a fierce new crackdown on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Kazakh Diaspora

The Kazakhs are a Turkic Muslim people, and many Kazakhs live in China.

In fact, China is home to the largest Kazakh diaspora -- between 1.25 million and 1.5 million, most of whom live in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture and the Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) and Altay prefectures in the northern part of Xinjiang, bordering Kazakhstan.

The same restrictions Chinese authorities have imposed on the Uyghurs apply to the Kazakhs.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that, in early June, a popular Kazakh imam known simply as Akmet was detained in Xinjiang.

That came after a Kazakh imam named Okan was detained earlier this year, apparently for performing traditional Islamic prayers at a funeral.

Okan was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Akmet died while in police custody on the night of June 4.

Authorities said he hanged himself.

Local authorities started detaining Akmet's friends and by July RFA had reported that more than 100 of the imam's friends and classmates were in custody.

State Media Turns A Blind Eye

China has become such an important economic partner of Kazakhstan that authorities in Astana could be expected to be wary of information about Xinjiang reaching Kazakhstan's citizens.

Rumors in early 2016 that impending land reforms in Kazakhstan would give Chinese the right to purchase Kazakh land sparked the biggest protests Kazakhstan had seen in two decades.

So, China's moves against ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang have not been reported on in Kazakhstan's state media, although several small independent media outlets have carried information on it.

Long lines for visas at the Chinese consulate in Almaty suggest that Beijing is now keeping much closer tabs on Kazakhs traveling to and from Kazakhstan. (file photo)
Long lines for visas at the Chinese consulate in Almaty suggest that Beijing is now keeping much closer tabs on Kazakhs traveling to and from Kazakhstan. (file photo)

The Qazaq Times website, for example, posted an article on June 6 with the headline: "Why is Akorda [Kazakhstan's presidential palace] not interested in protecting the rights of the Chinese Kazakhs?"

The website reported on a press conference some well-known Kazakh writers organized in June to call on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to help ethnic Kazakhs in China.

The Kazakh government has been able to publicly avoid the issue of the treatment of China's Kazakhs, but Astana faces a more difficult task as the problem spreads to Kazakhstan.

Shortly after independence in 1991, Kazakhstan opened its doors to ethnic Kazakhs around the world, inviting them to return to their historic homeland and take up residence.

Kazakhstan is a large country with a small population and a demographic that, right after independence, showed the majority of people living in Kazakhstan were non-Kazakhs

In an effort to correct this, Kazakh authorities have repatriated some 1 million Kazakhs from other Central Asian states, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, and from China.

They are called "oralman."

Unexplained Detentions

Some of the oralmans from China have been telling RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyk, that they and their relatives have been encountering difficulties with Chinese authorities recently.

Raushan, who only gave her first name, is an oralman who moved from China to Kazakhstan in 2005 and received citizenship in Kazakhstan in 2008.

Her husband, Omir Bekaly, 46, is also an oralman and he went to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on March 23 on a business trip.

Bekaly attended the meetings in Urumqi then decided to go see his mother in Turfan and bring her back to Kazakhstan.

Bekaly disappeared and Raushan has not heard from him since.

Raushan was successful in contacting Bekaly's mother, who said he had been detained.

Azattyq contacted Bekaly's employers; the Akku tourist agency located in Almaty.

A representative named Fariza confirmed Bekaly was an employee, and that he had gone to China and was detained there, but there was no more information.

Raushan said she has appealed to Kazakh authorities to help find her husband in China, but so far without any success.

Another oralman, Berik, who asked not to use his last name for fear of reprisals against his relatives in China, said Chinese authorities started detaining oralmans in January.

That would be about the time IS posted the video with the Uyghur militants.

Berik recently made a trip to Xinjiang and said oralmans were often taken to "political education" centers and kept there for periods ranging from three days to several months.

Berik's and Raushan's accounts are supported by a leaked copy of a June 5 speech from Zhu Hailun, the deputy party secretary of Xinjiang.

'Propaganda Work'

Zhu said a new priority for regional officials is "dealing with the issue of Chinese nationals [...] in Kazakhstan."

Zhu also said, "We must also properly carry out propaganda work with the Chinese Kazakh population in Kazakhstan."

Azattyq has been reporting for months that now there are often problems for citizens of Kazakhstan to obtain visas to go to China, even for students who have been attending Chinese universities.

Kazakhstan's citizens, ethnic Kazakhs included, are not radicals.

However, a small number of Kazakhstan's citizens have gone to the Middle East and joined extremist groups and, generally, citizens of Kazakhstan are able to more freely practice Islam.

That seems to be enough to have convinced Chinese authorities that greater caution is warranted with the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan, especially with the Uyghurs and, now, the oralmans.

This new policy of Beijing will not help China's image in Kazakhstan.

But the Kazakh government, which does not exercise the same degree of control over the media that China's government does, will struggle to keep a lid on it. It's only a matter of time before what is happening to the ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and what is happening to Kazakhstan's oralmans, becomes common knowledge in Kazakhstan.

Galym Bokash, Ruslan Medelbek, and Nurtai Lakhanuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.