By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez
The recent award given to Sairagul Sauytbay, namely the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award (IWOC), has helped maintain international attention on the campaign of repression currently being carried out in East Turkestan (called Xinjiang by the Chinese government) against the Uyghur population, and other ethnic groups in the region, including ethnic Kazakhs.
In an exclusive interview, Mrs. Sauytbay shared her thoughts about how the US and the rest of the international community can keep pressure on China, and also what else the Kazakhstan government can do about the situation faced by ethnic Kazakhs in East Turkestan. Kazakhstan is generally regarded as the “buckle” in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but this strong dependency on Chinese investment and trade comes at a heavy price.
It is estimated that anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million individuals, primarily Uyghur Muslims, but also ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Kyrgyz, have been sent to the “re-education camps” in recent years. Now, the Chinese government is moving to the next phase of its grand strategy to deal with Uyghur culture and identity. Tens of thousands are now working in forced labor factories; as reported by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), “between 2017 and 2019, ASPI estimates the Chinese government relocated at least 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang in western China.”
Hence, Mrs. Sauytbay explained to the author of this analysis that while in Washington DC, she met with US government officials to support the Global Magnistky Act and the Uyghur Human Rights Act, in order to pressure the Chinese leadership into stopping their actions. She similarly expressed her desire to see greater support from the European Union and Canada towards the Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs.
Some of the companies where the Uyghurs are currently located produce well-known brands, such as Apple, Nike, Amazon, Samsung, Zara, H&M, Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz, Uniqlo, though the ASPI report indicates that it does not necessarily mean that each of these brands is directly using Uyghur forced labor, but rather that the owner of the factory was “listed as a supplier by the company or claimed to be a supplier itself,” as per reporting from Quartz. While this is an important distinction to make, it does not make the situation any less problematic and concerning.
To be fair, several of the aforementioned companies have issued statements in which they explain that they have no connection to facilities based in China that are employing forced Uyghur labor.
Nur-Sultan’s Problematic Situation….
One interesting fact about the ASPI’s “Uyghurs for sale” report is that it not only discusses the oppressed Uyghurs, but it also addresses groups like ethnic Kazakhs that are facing a similar fate. For example, the report’s appendix states that “as reported in early 2019, 46 workers (including Kazakhs) were transferred from Tekes county, Xinjiang, to work at Nanjing Synergy Textiles Co. Ltd in Nanjing in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province.”
Well-respected media outlets like Al Jazeera have also covered the abuses that ethnic Kazakhs have experienced in the camps. The news agency added that as many as half a million Kazakhs could be in the camps along with the Uyghurs, but reliable data is problematic to obtain.
This type of evidence puts the government of Kazakhstan in a tough situation. On the one hand, Nur-Sultan has very close ties with the Chinese government, particularly due to trade and Chinese investment in Kazakhstani infrastructure as part of Belt and Road – just look at the Khorgos dry port, the biggest of its kind in the world. Hence, there are constant meetings at the highest level between the two countries.
Case in point, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was in Beijing this past September 2019, where he met with President Xi Jinping in order to discuss “a permanent comprehensive strategic partnership,” according to Xinhua. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which two countries are members, was also mentioned during their discussion as a method to enhance security in Central Asia. A more recent meeting took place in early March, between the Kazkah leader and Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Mrs. Sauytbay suggests that Nur-Sultan could use China’s dependency on Kazakhstan as a corridor for its services as part of BRI to pressure Beijing into releasing ethnic Kazakhs from camps.
…But the Truth Continues to Come Out
It is not easy for Nur-Sultan to openly criticize Beijing’s policies in East Turkestan/Xinjiang, even if that includes the abuses of many ethnic Kazakhs. The situation has been vastly reported by now, including how ethnic Kazakhs and their Uyghur spouses are having trouble going to Kazakhstan, or maintaining a valid legal status once they are there, in order to not return to China.
For example, in an interview with Buzzfeed News, Tursunay Ziyawudun, an Uyghur woman married to a Kazakh, is currently in Kazakhstan on a visa that lasts until May. “She is afraid that she, like other Uighurs, will be detained again at the border if she returns to China. The idea of returning made her shake with anxiety, and as she spoke about it her voice broke,” the article explains. Meanwhile, two ethnic-Kazakhs from China also received asylum-seeker status in the Central Asian state late last year. In January of this year, a Kazakhstan court ruled that the two individuals, Murager Alimuly and Qaster Musakhanuly were given one year prison sentences for crossing into Kazakhstan illegally; but they will not be returned to China.
As for organizations keeping track of the situation of ethnic Kazakhs, one important example is the Atajurt group, led by the Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash. Similarly, the US embassy in Kazakhstan has published interviews with Uyghurs and Kazakhs that lived in East Turkestan/Xinjiang and faced persecution.
Spreading the truth about the situation is important since, as Mrs. Sauytbay explained to the author, Beijing has engaged in a campaign to disseminate fake news regarding the situation in East Turkestan in order to create misinformation and divisions amongst Kazakhstanis and the international community.
Other Sources of Tensions
At this point, it is worth stressing that there are also signs that the Kazakhstan population is getting tired of China’s influence in its country. For example, in late 2019 there were protests which started in “the small industrial town of Zhanaozen in Western Kazakhstan [where] about 100 people gathered to demand a ban on what they described as plans to move outdated and polluting Chinese plants to Kazakhstan,” according to Reuters.
Moreover, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has added a new source of tensions between these two countries, as some local government officials in Kazakhstan are seeking the expulsion of Chinese workers to defuse fears over COVID-19 arriving to border towns.
COVID-19 and the Factories
What will happen if, or rather when, COVID-19 reaches the aforementioned camps and factories where Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and others are detained? As a recent article in The Diplomat argues, “China does not seem to be allocating adequate resources to screen, diagnose, and treat potential victims in East Turkestan and has instead focused nearly all resources to combat the virus in Wuhan. Left ignored, the region could face mass outbreaks and much higher mortality rates than reported anywhere else.”
As Beijing has repeatedly denied, or minimized the accusations that it is detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, it stands to reason that, should a COVID-19 outbreak occur in a facility where Uyghurs are not supposed to be in the first place, this problem would likely be muted.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently described the persecution of Uyghurs as “crimes against humanity.” This is certainly not an overstatement, as there is more than enough evidence about the ongoing repression against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other minority groups.
Hence, the visit by Secretary Pompeo to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was important, as it served to maintain an international spotlight on this situation. Apart from discussing with the Kazakhstan government its relations with the US, “we discussed trafficking in persons and the plight of the more than one million Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs who the Chinese Communist Party has detained in Xinjiang just across the Kazakh border,” said Secretary of State Pompeo about his trip.
While the situation in East Turkestan is not likely to get better anytime soon, it is important to support the work of activists like Mrs. Sauytbay.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com or any institutions with which the authors are associated.