The treatment of the Uyghurs in China has raised human rights concern globally, less discussed however is the equally horrific treatment of the second largest ethnic minority in north-western China – the Kazakhs.
The vast majority of the Kazakh population residing in China’s border are descendants of those who fled from the modern-day state of Kazakhstan during 1916-1941. The increasing voluntary and forced migration of ethnic Russians to the central Asian republics resulted in mass displacement of central Asian peoples from their homeland. Angered by the Russification/Sovietisation policies of the government in Moscow, a large rebellious movement took hold in these republics (the Baschami Movement). However, the movement had largely subsided by 1926 after the Soviet government’s iron-fist approach to rebellion in the Central Asian Republics. The result was thousands of fatalities and the mass destruction of the agrarian livelihoods of the local population. Combined with the government’s mismanagement of food and labour, the Kazakh people were also victims of two devastating famines in 1919-1922 and 1931-1933. Thus, an approximate 200,000 Kazakhs fled across the border. By 1941, the number of Kazakhs living in China was reached an estimated 325,000. The current number is estimated to be around 1.8 million Kazakh Chinese citizens.
Like the Uyghurs, the Kazakhs also present a challenge to China’S majoritarian view. Facing calls for separatist movements in the Xinjiang region from members of its ethnic minorities, China has increasingly clamped down on what it deems dissent from the local population. The Chinese government’s problem with the Kazakh minority focuses especially on the Muslim identity of the community. Thus, China has progressively increased the number of Kazakhs in re-education detention camps; China maintains they are vocational schools for criminal offenders. The aim of the Chinese government is to alter the identity of ethnic minorities (ideological purification). Hence, in re-education camps, detainees are forced to: embrace CCP propaganda, learn Mandarin, continuously recite Chinese rhymes and songs, and to give up their religion. Moreover, the detainees are fed only one meal a day, forced to sleep on metal beds, forced to provide biometric data (including voice samples and DNA) and undertake laborious activities on measly wages. As more escapees have come forward, the vast scale of the human rights abuses and torture endured by the detainees has become evident.
China asserts that it treats its ethnic minorities well, arguing that those in Xinjiang have a measure of autonomy. The Kazakhs who mainly reside in Illi Autonomous Kazakh Prefecture, part of the larger Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, vehemently oppose the actual degree of autonomy granted to the minorities. As per China’s law, the individual head of the autonomous prefecture or region should be given to the region’s ethnic minority. Yet with China’s authoritarian political system in which the CCP dictates the affairs of the state, power resides with the local Party Secretary. The local Party Secretary is a post elected by party officials and is given to those of a Han Chinese background and not to those from an ethnic minority. Indeed, this was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of protests in 2008 in Xinjiang.
China has a longstanding fear of ethnonationalism amongst its ethnic minorities and especially those in Xinjiang. The Kazakh people straddling the 660-mile long Kazakhstan-China border have traditionally traversed the border without too much concern for the Westphalian understanding of state boundaries. The fear of Kazakh ethnonationalism and terrorism rising in China’s north-west has worried the CCP into coercively carrying out the mass detention of Chinese Kazakh citizens. Travel between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang also raises suspicion amongst China’s authoritarian government. Kazakhstan features as one of twenty-six countries deemed “sensitive”, meaning any travel to and from the country raises suspicion leading to interrogation and arrests. This has included the arrests of Kazakhstan’s citizens who are simply visiting family members in China.
The role of Kazakhstan in the issue is double-edged. On the one side, there is growing resentment amongst its population against China’s treatment of Kazakhs; on the other is China’s economic importance to the state. Kazakhstan imports approximately 23% of its goods from China, and exports approximately 10% of its goods to China, resulting in China being the second largest exporter and importer for Kazakhstan. Furthermore, China’s aim to rebuild the silk road has economic importance for Kazakhstan, potentially allowing the country to benefit greatly from increased trade links with China and European states. The result has been to mainly reaffirm China’s view on the treatment of its ethnic minorities in its borders. Indeed, Kazakhstan went as far as to arrest Serikzhan Bilash, the leader of Atajurt – a large human rights NGO based in Kazakhstan assisting Kazakhs with family members in China’s detention camps. Bilash, charged with inciting hatred, was eventually released owing to international pressure but on the condition that he would end his activism. Recently, Kazakhstan also arrested two protestors outside the Chinese Embassy in Nursultan who were demanding the release of family members in China’s re-education camps. Other times, however, Kazakhstan has successfully lobbied for the release of Kazakhs in re-education camps, China allowed 2,000 Kazakhs to give up their Chinese citizenry and emigrate to Kazakhstan. Moreover, Kazakhstan permitted two Chinese Kazakhs to remain in Kazakhstan despite their illegal border crossing on the basis that they may face persecution at the hands of China’s authorities.
As the international community becomes more aware of the grave human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang, it is important to amplify the voices of the ethnic minorities of the region. At the very least, the release of minorities forced to live in detention camps should be guaranteed. China’s style of governance ensures that even when individuals are released from camps, there will be heavy monitoring of their activities. An approach to back Kazakhstan’s government to demand the release of detainees is unlikely to get far. Kazakhstan’s government is strategically and economically dependent on China and thus is unlikely to take any bold approaches. For now, the best approach may be to continuously raise the issue of human rights abuses on the global stage and challenge China’s government on its use of detention camps.