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Security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

PRAGUE -- Four years after Beijing launched a brutal crackdown that swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province, members of the Uyghur diaspora and activists are frustrated over a lack of international recognition for alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese government.

Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, and separating children from incarcerated parents.

These actions have drawn accusations of genocide from international rights groups and several Western governments that have resulted in sanctions on some top Chinese officials in Xinjiang.

Despite such moves and a growing body of evidence documenting such abuses, members of the Uyghur community and researchers focused on the issue say there has not been enough international political or legal action and called for greater global pressure at a November 11-14 meeting in Prague by the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of the ethnic group’s diaspora spread across 25 countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

“On the whole the international response has been abysmal and utterly shameful. It has been extremely inadequate given the scope of the atrocities,” Adrian Zenz, an expert on China’s ethnic policies who has published detailed evidence of Beijing’s alleged abuses against Uyghurs, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the event.

Though the focus of the meeting was to elect the organization’s leadership for a three-year term, the gathering also featured panels with legal experts, human rights groups, and survivors of China’s camp system -- all of whom expressed disappointment over what they described as a lagging international response given the scale and severity of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.

World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa (center) and top WUC leaders at a news conference following the announcement of his reelection in Prague on November 14.
World Uyghur Congress President Dolkun Isa (center) and top WUC leaders at a news conference following the announcement of his reelection in Prague on November 14.

“The Uyghurs are becoming hopeless because the world is letting them down,” said Zenz. “In 2019, they were more hopeful because there was a feeling that more evidence would lead to action, but nothing has changed. People and governments are not acting on the evidence that is out.”

'Unprecedented' Level Of Evidence

A German academic who works for the Victims of Communism, a U.S.-based research organization, Zenz has been at the forefront of the effort to gather and publish evidence about the mass detention and repression of Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups from Xinjiang that have also been caught up in the Chinese dragnet.

His investigations have helped reveal the scale of Beijing's security buildup in Xinjiang, showing billions of dollars spent toward building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks, as well as a large-scale recruitment drive for police officers and officials to run them. Other research by Zenz documented forced sterilizations among Uyghur women, which has led international rights groups to accuse the Chinese government of genocide in pointing to plunging birthrates and mass detentions.

Chinese officials have rejected the genocide and rights abuse allegations as groundless and characterized the camps as vocational training centers to teach the Chinese language, give job training, and help combat radicalism. China saw a wave of Xinjiang-related terror attacks through 2016.

Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang on April 22, 2021.
Foreign journalists take photos and video outside the location of a suspected internment facility for Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang on April 22, 2021.

But some of the strongest evidence showing the full scale of Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang, researchers say, have come from China itself. In 2019, The New York Times disclosed more than 400 leaked internal Chinese government documents that outlined detailed policies for how to repress Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities -- and placing Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the center of the decision to do so.

“We’ve never had this level of documentation for an atrocity in real time. It’s unprecedented,” Rian Thum, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and an expert on Xinjiang, told RFE/RL. “We continue to learn more as new information is revealed, but there isn’t any scarcity of evidence. In fact, most of what we do know comes from the Chinese government’s own documents.”

China has long struggled to integrate Uyghurs, a historically Muslim group of 13 million people with close linguistic, ethnic, and cultural ties to Turkey and Central Asia. Policy in Xinjiang has swung back and forth for decades, but took a harsher direction under Xi that culminated in the crackdown and camp system that took hold in 2017.

Beijing has also silenced Uyghurs living abroad, monitoring the diaspora and locking up and abusing relatives in China of members of the community who speak out.

The scale of this effort was documented in a series of reports released in 2021 by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, a Washington-based research organization, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

In addition to showing the scope of intimidation toward the global Uyghur community, the reports also showed how Beijing has co-opted governments in Central and South Asia -- such as Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan -- to help in its efforts to silence discussion over the camps and extradite Uyghurs from the region back to China.

Tajikistan is also the subject of a recent filing by Uyghur groups to the International Criminal Court alleging that the Central Asian government has allowed Chinese officials to operate on its territory in order to deport Uyghurs back to China and to coerce them into becoming informants.

The new evidence alleges that due to these efforts the Uyghur population in Tajikistan decreased by more than 85 percent and in Kyrgyzstan by 87 percent.

First-hand testimony from those who have been interned or forced to work at the camps have also played a central role in raising awareness over alleged atrocities in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan, which shares a lengthy border with Western China, became an unexpected flashpoint of activism on the issue due to family connections between Kazakhs and Xinjiang’s ethnic Kazakh minority, with several former detainees publishing testimonies after fleeing China for the Central Asian country.

“We are giving the world evidence, so why aren’t they believing us?” said Qelbinur Sidik, an Uyghur teacher who was forced to work at a camp and has since received asylum in the Netherlands.

Pushing For A Response

Calls for stronger international pushback against China over Xinjiang are likely to increase following U.S. President Joe Biden's virtual summit with Xi on November 15, the first time in Biden’s term that the two leaders have communicated face-to-face in a formal summit format.

So far, the U.S. government and parliaments in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada have declared that Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs amount to genocide and crimes against humanity. The United States has gone further, blocking imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang and companies linked to forced labor in the region. The European Union and the United Kingdom have also imposed sanctions on lower-ranking Chinese officials reportedly involved in organizing the camp system.

A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang uses an electric-powered scooter to fetch school children as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.
A Uyghur woman in Xinjiang uses an electric-powered scooter to fetch school children as they ride past a picture showing Chinese leader Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders.

Calls have also grown to boycott the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, with Human Rights Watch calling on major sponsors of the event to press China's government and the International Olympics Committee about the host nation's human rights violations.

It also remains unclear if the economic sanctions would compel Beijing or Chinese companies linked to forced labor in Xinjiang to change their ways.

China has retaliated against economic pressure by imposing sanctions of its own on Western individuals and institutions. It has also called for boycotts against leading retailers such as Nike and H&M after they expressed concerns in March about forced labor in Xinjiang.

Diplomatically, Beijing has also managed to weather pushback.

While more than 40 mainly Western countries criticized China at the UN in October -- a new high for the number of signatories expressing concern over abuses in Xinjiang -- 62 countries expressed support for Beijing.

The statement of support, which said that the matter was an internal affair, was put forward by Cuba and backed by a large group of countries across the developing world, many of whom benefit from Chinese investment and receive vitally needed aid from Beijing.

“The Chinese government is only going to react so much to pushback that is mostly coming from the West,” said Thum. “A global response would be different, but that’s difficult to imagine given the number of countries that depend on Chinese economic engagement right now.”

Kyrgyz truck drivers complain about the bottleneck at the Torugart border crossing with China.

For more than 18 months, pandemic-related restrictions introduced by China along its border with Kyrgyzstan have seen cross-border commerce dwindle and left the truckers and businesses who rely on the shuttle trade desperate for a financial lifeline.

Now, a new system proposed by the Kyrgyz government to kick-start trade between the two countries has truck drivers who make their living ferrying cargo across the border worried that prohibitive added costs could leave them squeezed even further.

"This scheme will harm [truck drivers], private entrepreneurs, and the state, too," Maksatbek Duisheev, the chairman of the Saparman Truckers Association, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "They say that this is a proposal needed to comply with the Chinese side, but we have not been shown an official document. The whole situation is not clear."

The proposed system has already sparked a backlash, with about 400 drivers gathering on November 8 in the Kochkor district of Kyrgyzstan's eastern Naryn region to protest the new measures and sending an open appeal to President Sadyr Japarov's office.

Trade with China makes up a crucial portion of the Kyrgyz economy, but since the start of the pandemic in 2020, imports from China to Kyrgyzstan have fallen by 57.5 percent, with the number of trucks crossing with cargo declining 10-fold.

Bishkek has been desperate to raise trade back to pre-pandemic levels, a goal that has been hampered by coronavirus concerns from Chinese authorities who require rigorous and time-consuming health procedures to cross the border.

Complicated border procedures now consist of a time-consuming disinfection process for trucks and goods arriving from Kyrgyzstan.
Complicated border procedures now consist of a time-consuming disinfection process for trucks and goods arriving from Kyrgyzstan.

In order to better comply with Chinese COVID regulations and increase the number of cargo trucks crossing the border, Kyrgyz officials plan to create a so-called "sanitary zone" near the border crossing by Torugart, where a designated number of trucks will ferry containers with goods from China across a neutral zone between the two countries and load them onto Kyrgyz freight trucks.

According to a proposal, this service will be provided by Silk Way, an industrial and logistics center built along the Kyrgyz-Chinese border that is largely funded by Chinese investors.

While the new system could lead to cargo traffic recovering from its pandemic slump, Nabir Toktorov, chairman of the Association of Carriers of Kyrgyzstan, fears that truckers will be left bearing the costs, which could result in inflation and a decrease in the total amount of freight traffic.

Under the proposed new rules, drivers could be charged a fee ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 per truck for this service, which could cut into already thin profit margins. Adding to the anxiety and confusion, full details of the arrangement have not been presented to Kyrgyzstan's various truckers associations.

"They say that this money will go to the budget. But I don't understand this. If this money will not be used to pay taxes or repair roads, then on the basis of what law will they collect $1,000?" Toktorov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "This is a robbery!"

Kyrgyzstan's State Customs Service did not reply to requests for comment from RFE/RL.

Restarting Cross-Border Trade

China is one of the last countries in the world to continue with a strict "zero-COVID" policy, which sometimes entails locking down entire cities if a single case is detected.

These tough measures have corresponded with rigid border controls and restrictions on the types of people and goods that have been allowed to cross the Chinese border. In addition to Kyrgyzstan, cross-border trade with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan has also seen a precipitous drop over the course of the pandemic.

The Torugart checkpoint
The Torugart checkpoint

More so than its Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan's economy relies heavily on imports from China, especially for goods such as electronics, textiles, and construction materials.

The effects of the pandemic border rules by China were felt quickly in Kyrgyzstan. By the end of March 2020, shortages of Chinese imports began to appear in the country and Bishkek sent a note to the Chinese authorities to ease restrictions on cross-border cargo transportation.

"Our imports are 2 1/2 times higher than exports and most of the imports come from China," Askar Sydykov, the executive director of the Bishkek-based International Business Council, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Continuous work on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border is very important for the country's economy. Even raw materials for light industry come to us from China."

For drivers making the trip throughout the pandemic, health measures at the border have led to lengthy delays and cut into the bottom line of truckers and companies alike.

Complicated border procedures now consist of a time-consuming disinfection process for trucks and goods arriving from Kyrgyzstan -- as well as checks on the drivers themselves -- that has sent wait times soaring and limited the numbers of trucks able to cross on a given day.

Only after completion of this process, which drivers say can take more than 90 minutes, are trucks allowed to cross the border. Upon leaving Kyrgyzstan, the container on the truck is unhitched and replaced by a full container of Chinese goods and then drivers then begin the process of returning to the Kyrgyz side.

The proposed measures that drivers protested on November 8 are intended to speed up this process and eliminate the bottlenecks at the borders that have developed over the course of the pandemic, although drivers who spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service said the new system could create new opportunities for graft.

Several also raised concerns that Silk Way was selected for the proposal given that Adilet Kubanychbekov, who was appointed as the new head of the State Customs Service in October, previously served as the director of the industrial and logistics center.

Bishkek And Beijing

Kyrgyzstan is grappling with a contracting economy whose gross domestic product dropped 8.6 percent in 2020 and has remained sluggish throughout the pandemic.

Due to China's economic importance, smoothing relations with Beijing and boosting economic activity with its large neighbor have been a priority of Kyrgyzstan's current government.

Akylbek Japarov (no relation to the president), the chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Cabinet of Ministers, has taken up this issue since assuming his new role on October 12, addressing it in parliament and visiting the Torugart checkpoint along the border, where he vowed to increase the number of trucks allowed to cross and find new ways to boost the state budget.

The official once again pressed ahead on trying to improve trade with China and attract more investment from the country when he met with Chinese Ambassador Du Dewen on November 9. "We need to increase trade. The Cabinet of Ministers is ready to guarantee the safety of investors," he said during his meeting with Dewen, according to an official readout.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov (right) meets with Chinese Ambassador Du Dawen to discuss investment cooperation on November 9.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov (right) meets with Chinese Ambassador Du Dawen to discuss investment cooperation on November 9.

For the time being, drivers continue to be frustrated, both over the cost and ambiguity of government efforts to increase cargo traffic and due to many border crossings still not being fully operational.

According to Temirbek Shabdanalivev, the head of the Association of Freight Forwarders of Kyrgyzstan, this has led to many truckers and others involved in the transport sector being out of work or underemployed.

"Many drivers have been left without work and not just them, either. It's their assistants and the loaders and logistics people as well," Shabdanalivev told RFE/RL. "Our drivers call and ask what to do, whether to stage a protest or not. They say that there is nothing to feed their families."

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