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Pleasing China, appeasing at home: Central Asia and the Xinjiang camps

Article by Francisco Olmos

November 29, 2019

Pleasing China, appeasing at home: Central Asia and the Xinjiang camps

Around 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups have been interned in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang.[1] While the Chinese authorities say they are there of their own free will, recently leaked files from the Chinese government indicate that they are locked up in camps subject to mistreatment, from forced labour to sexual abuse.[2] The reaction of the United States (US) and Europe is known, with the US taking the strongest approach so far in condemning Beijing’s actions and blacklisting a number of organisations for their involvement in the campaign.[3] However, not much attention has been paid to the response of China’s closest neighbours to the west. These countries have closer ties to China, some of them even share a border with Xinjiang, and also have cultural and ethnic links to those minorities victimised by the Chinese authorities. The Central Asian republics have all supported China in regards to its treatment of the Muslim minorities, but the way the governments of these countries have responded to it differs depending on the role and strength of their own civil societies as well as the relationship they have with those being persecuted.

The Uyghurs have not been the only minority, although they are the largest one, targeted by the Chinese authorities. Other Turkic groups, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and non-Turkic Central Asian groups such as Tajiks, have shared the same fate. However, unlike the Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks do have states where their kin is the titular nationality. This, together with the fact that in broad terms they share the same religion, puts Central Asian republics in a different position when it comes to dealing with China’s actions in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, rather than a romanticised solidarity of a shared ethnicity or religion, what is defining the Central Asian states’ response is political and economic pragmatism, despite domestic opposition in some cases.

From the Caspian Sea in the west to the Tien Shan Mountains in the east, China is increasingly becoming the main trading and investment partner for the Central Asian nations. Some cases are more extreme than others, with Turkmenistan’s economy depending almost entirely on its exports to China and with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan heavily indebted to Beijing. The unwillingness of the republics to alienate their powerful neighbour is what defines their response to the current situation.

While the five republics have publicly backed China in its actions in Xinjiang, they can be divided into two categories. The first group is made up of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who have voiced their support of Beijing whenever possible. The second group is formed by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, whose governments have also supported Beijing but have done so in a more tactful manner to better deal with those in their society who vocally oppose China’s repression of their ethnic peers at the other side of the border, fuelling the already existing anti-Chinese sentiment in their countries.

No space for dissent

In July 2019, 36 countries signed a letter supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang as a response to another letter sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council by mostly Western nations calling on China to halt its interment campaign. Two Central Asian republics were among those who defended Beijing: Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. A few weeks later, Uzbekistan joined them.

It should come as no surprise that Turkmenistan stands firmly by China, even when signing the aforementioned letter contravened its policy of neutrality in the international arena. The nation ruled with an iron grip by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is the country in the region that depends the most on the Asian giant. Through a series of trade blunders and lack of vision, China has become the sole market for Turkmenistan’s gas, notwithstanding Russia’s token imports. This means that China is now the destination for almost 80 per cent of Turkmenistan’s exports.[4] It is therefore expected for Ashgabat, also notorious for its lack of freedoms and human rights abuses, to unequivocally take Beijing’s side.

Tajikistan similarly has links too close to China to be able to afford displeasing it. Dushanbe owes Beijing almost half of its foreign debt, $1.2 billion out of $2.9 billion.[5] Furthermore it has the closest relationship with China in security terms in the region. Up to 40 guard posts along the Tajik-Afghan border have been built or refurbished by the Chinese, who in addition have boots on the ground through an outpost in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.[6] Despite reports of ethnic Tajiks in the internment camps, Emomali Rahmon’s regime has explicitly supported China.

Uzbekistan offers a different perspective to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Despite China already being a major trading partner, Tashkent may not be looking so much to its present situation but rather to the opportunities an increased collaboration with Beijing can bring. As part of President Mirziyoyev’s opening of the country to foreign investment, Uzbekistan is looking to bolster its relations with China. From infrastructure projects to attracting Chinese tourists by waving visas for short stays, Chinese-Uzbek relations are on the rise. As a result, Uzbekistan did not hesitate to deport Gene Bunin, an expert who collects data on the Xinjiang camps, or prevent a small gathering to commemorate the first president, an ethnic Uyghur, of the short-lived Second East Turkestan Republic (1944-49). Uzbekistan’s own Uyghur minority has no presence in wider society and its media does not cover the situation of the Uyghurs in China.[7]

What Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have in common and which defines their stance on the Xinjiang camps is the lack of an active civil society due to the authoritarian nature of their respective regimes. Notwithstanding the differences among the three countries, there is little space for people to voice their discontent on local or national issues, let alone those concerning foreign countries. Therefore, their governments have no impediment to back China. The fact that Tajiks are in camps or that Uzbekistan has an Uyghur minority does not make much of a difference in the authorities’ stance in regards to Xinjiang.

Balancing act

Neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan signed the letter in support of China that the other three republics did. This does not mean they do not stand by Beijing’s campaign in Xinjiang. Their governments do, but that view is not supported by some of its citizens. Both countries have to balance the need to be on good terms with China, as it is a vital economic partner, with the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations.

Kazakhstan is finding it the hardest to walk this tight rope. China is the main market for Kazakhstan’s exports, including an important proportion of its oil, bilateral trade that amounts to over $12 billion[8] and Nur-Sultan is a key partner in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. As with the rest of the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan cannot afford to alienate China and has no intention of doing so. However, unlike in the other republics, its demographics and rise of civil society result in a more complex situation. It is estimated that up to 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in the province of Xinjiang and they are among those targeted by Chinese officials.[9] In addition, as a result of the oralman or return programme of ethnic Kazakhs promoted by the government after independence, thousands of families are now divided between Kazakhstan and China, with those that moved to the former playing an active role in defence of their relatives, who in many cases have been interned. Uyghurs, the major group persecuted in Xinjiang, are also present in Kazakhstan, numbering up to 250,000.[10] The diaspora has established organisations to defend the rights of Kazakhs and Uyghurs, like Atajurt Eriktileri, which are raising their voices in defence of those repressed in the neighbouring country.

Kazakh authorities have responded by applying a policy of carrot and stick, with a preponderance of the latter, to navigate this situation. On the one hand, it has sent diplomatic notes to Beijing concerning itself with the situation of ethnic Kazakhs and it has given in to internal and external pressure in some high-profile cases like that of Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national who became a whistle-blower regarding the camps and avoided extradition to China from Kazakhstan to end up in Sweden. But more often than not, the Kazakh government has reacted as one would expect an authoritarian regime to by not allowing protestors to gather and dispersing them when they do. This includes the detention of the leader of Atajurt Eriktileri, Serikjan Bilash, and the co-optation of the group, now split in two.

If the situation in Xinjiang was simply about the internment of people the Kazakh authorities would be able to dismiss such events and opposition since they do not appeal to a majority of the population. However, they add to the existing anti-Chinese sentiment that has been brewing in the country in the last years. The dread of Chinese influence has resulted in a number of protests, from the 2016 demonstrations against a land reform to those in September 2019 against plans for China to build 55 factories, to name the most relevant. Fear of the Chinese taking land, controlling the country and the influx of Chinese workers fuelled the protests. The issue of Xinjiang is now being absorbed, or sits alongside, these anti-Chinese movements. This is taking place at a time when the Kazakh state is experiencing a political transition and civil society is increasingly demanding freedoms and accountability through activist groups like Oyan, Qazaqstan and Qaharman.

Kyrgyzstan faces a similar situation to that of Kazakhstan. Like Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic is heavily indebted to China. In turn, Beijing invests in multiple infrastructure projects around the country, some of doubtful quality like the ill-fated power station that left residents of Bishkek without heating in the middle of winter in 2018.[11] Furthermore, Chinese companies exploit the country’s mineral wealth and employ Chinese workers to do so. All these factors have contributed to a rising Sinophobic sentiment that has also emerged in neighbouring Kazakhstan. The interment of ethnic Kyrgyz in camps in Xinjiang has become part of this wider issue.

In the last year, at least five waves of anti-Chinese protests have taken place in Kyrgyzstan.[12] While expressing support for the ethnic Kyrgyz persecuted in China, the main aim of the demonstrators has been to protest against the inflow of Chinese workers, the way Chinese companies operate and their increasing presence in the country. In response to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Kyrgyz president Sooronbai Jeenbekov has maintained a perceived neutrality that favours China, stating that Bishkek should not meddle in the internal affairs of their neighbour and that diplomacy would run its course on the Xinjiang camps. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan did not join Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in signing the letter officially backing Beijing’s policy in its western province.

The issue of the interment of Muslim minorities in China does not concern the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan besides some minor reputational setbacks in public relations. The numbers of those demanding a stricter response solely in regard to the fate of ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uyghurs are not significant. The issue for the authorities arises when this feeds into wider anti-Chinese protests and it becomes another tool in the arsenal of demonstrators and, especially in Kazakhstan’s case, of far-reaching movements that call for change and the democratisation of the institutions. 

The governments of the five Central Asian republics know where their economic present and future lies, and that is in China. There is no such thing as an ethnic or religious solidarity with those interned in Xinjiang. Pragmatism is the guiding principle of the authorities, who themselves have a poor track-record when it comes to human rights. The same applies to the majority of the citizens in those countries, who have few personal links to those detained and are suffering themselves from the lack of freedoms, namely in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It should come as no surprise that those three countries have been more vocal in the support of China. Only in the cases of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the nations with the most open civil societies in the region, have authorities had to be tactful due to the increasing Sinophobia, whose impact should not be exaggerated but that could sour relations with China, while at the same time controlling the discontent to avoid it spilling into other segments of society. In the meantime, the fate of more than a million people interned in camps fades into the background in the midst of realpolitik.



[1] Adrian Zenz, Brainwashing, Police Guards and Coercive Internment: Evidence from Chinese Government Documents about the Nature and Extent of Xinjiang’s ‘Vocational Training Internment Camps’, Journal of Political Risk, July 2019, http://www.jpolrisk.com/brainwashing-police-guards-and-coercive-internment-evidence-from-chinese-government-documents-about-the-nature-and-extent-of-xinjiangs-vocational-training-internment-camps/

[2] Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, The New York Times, November 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html?module=inline

[3] Charles Rollet, Xinjiang Backlash Is Hitting Chinese Firms Hard, Foreign Policy, October 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/18/xinjiang-sanctions-chinese-firms-surveillance/

[4] Sam Bhutia, Turkmenistan’s mainline to China, Eurasianet, October 2019, https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistans-mainline-to-china

[5] Farangis Najibullah, Silver Lining? Tajikistan Defends Controversial Decision To Give Mine To China, RFE/RL, October 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/silver-lining-tajikistan-defends-controversial-decision-to-give-mine-to-china/30199786.html

[6] Catherine Putz, China in Tajikistan: New Report Claims Chinese Troops Patrol Large Swaths of the Afghan-Tajik Border, The Diplomat, June 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/china-in-tajikistan-new-report-claims-chinese-troops-patrol-large-swaths-of-the-afghan-tajik-border/

[7] Eurasianet, Uzbekistan’s invisible Uighurs, July 2019, https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistans-invisible-uighurs

[8] Zhanna Shayakhmetova, Kazakhstan seeks high-tech, agricultural cooperation with China, Astana Times, September 2019, https://astanatimes.com/2019/09/kazakhstan-seeks-high-tech-agricultural-cooperation-with-china-says-tokayev-during-beijing-business-council-meeting/

[9] Bruce Pannier, China’s New Security Concern – The Kazakhs, RFE/RL, August 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-kazakhstan-china-deteriorating-relations-uyghurs/28665937.html

[10] Ryskeldi Satke, Uighurs in Kyrgyzstan hope for peace despite violence, Al Jazeera, January 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/09/uighurs-kyrgyzstan-hope-piece-violence-160915133619696.html

[11] Catherine Putz, Bitter Cold Hits Bishkek, Chinese-Repaired Power Plant Breaks Down, The Diplomat, January 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/bitter-cold-hits-bishkek-chinese-repaired-power-plant-breaks-down/

[12] Elzbieta Pron and Emilie Szwajnoch, Kazakh Anti-Chinese Protests and the Issue of Xinjiang Detention Camps, CACI, October 2019, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13593-kazakh-anti-chinese-protests-and-the-issue-of-xinjiang-detention-camps.html

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