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China In Eurasia

Sunday 4 April 2021

Qalida Akytkhan (center) takes part in a protest near the Chinese Consulate in Almaty in early March.

When 67-year-old pensioner Qalida Akytkhan decided to join a small protest outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, it was three years after three of her sons were detained at a so-called "reeducation camp" in China's northwestern Xinjiang region.

Akytkhan has since become a mainstay at the pickets that, despite police intimidation, have endured outside the consulate since early February. She has joined dozens of other protesters who say their relatives are missing, jailed, or trapped in China's ongoing crackdown.

United Nations human rights officials estimate that 1 million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities are detained at camps in a vast Chinese internment system.

Sometimes Akytkhan travels by bus to make the 50-kilometer journey from her home to Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city. Other times she commutes in a shared taxi to the Chinese Consulate, where a loudspeaker at the compound warns protesters they could face prosecution for violating COVID-19 restrictions.

Despite the long journey, constant surveillance by consulate guards, and a steady police presence, Akytkhan says she has no plans to stop joining the group of mostly women protesters. They gather there to demand safe passage home for their relatives -- many of whom are Chinese-born ethnic Kazakhs who've become naturalized Kazakh citizens or permanent residents of the Central Asian country.

"I will keep going until I get even a tiny piece of information about my children," Akytkhan tells RFE/RL. "I told these guards, 'When it is warmer, I will come here with a blanket and will lie down.'"

Qalida Akytkhan says she will keep up her protests until she gets an answer about her three sons.
Qalida Akytkhan says she will keep up her protests until she gets an answer about her three sons.

The plight of ethnic Kazakhs and other groups interned in Xinjiang has been a source of uproar within Kazakhstan. The testimonies of former detainees, and family members like Akytkhan, fueled a guerrilla advocacy campaign that focused international attention on the issue -- turning Kazakhstan into an unlikely window to document rights abuses in Xinjiang.

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Akytkhan's perseverance and the ongoing protests outside China's consulate showcase that activism continues in Kazakhstan over the Chinese camps. But the situation today is a far cry from the groundswell of activity around the issue in 2018 and 2019 that forced the Kazakh government to walk a tightrope between appeasing Beijing and quelling an exasperated segment of its own population.

Since then, the government has led a swift crackdown against activists working on Xinjiang issues in the country. It has shut down organizations, arrested activists, and intimidated high-profile figures into exile, leaving only a small but devoted segment for public protests.

"The Kazakh government has long been trying to balance between these two problems," says Temur Umarov, an expert on China in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Xinjiang is an incredibly sensitive issue for Beijing, and [the Kazakh government] knows it needs to keep ties with such an important economic, and increasingly political, partner strong," Umarov tells RFE/RL.

Shining A Spotlight

Akytkhan, an ethnic Uyghur who married an ethnic Kazakh man, moved from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan and became a Kazakh citizen. One of her sons also moved across the border to Kazakhstan. But her other three sons, daughters-in-law, and 14 grandchildren stayed in China. All were eventually taken to the detention camps.

Now a widow, Akytkhan continues to campaign for her family. She received word from a local official in Xinjiang that her sons were transferred from the camps and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for crimes that she is not aware of.

Her daughters-in-law have since been released from the camps to take care of the children. But they remain under house arrest.

Complicated family connections across the border, like Akytkhan's, are part of what made Kazakhstan a home for swelling activism about Xinjiang. It has been Kazakhs with relatives among Xinjiang's ethnic Kazakh minority who have taken up the mantle.

Serikzhan Bilash
Serikzhan Bilash

Perhaps the loudest critic on the issue was Serikzhan Bilash. His Almaty-based Atajurt Eriktileri group was on the front lines of documenting and raising awareness about the mass detentions.

The group's volunteers, with relatives detained or missing in Xinjiang, proved to be unusually effective in spreading information about China's rights abuses. They worked with international media and rights groups by hosting regular press conferences and posting video testimony of recently released detainees.

"Only a small percentage of the Kazakhs who have been in camps have actually shared their stories publicly," Bilash told RFE/RL. "It's important to keep collecting more and more firsthand facts about what is happening in Xinjiang."

But it didn't take long for Kazakh authorities to become nervous about Bilash and Atajurt's activities. The group's attempts to be officially registered with the government were repeatedly denied. That was followed by a series of fines that ultimately culminated in the dramatic March 2019 arrest of Bilash on extremism charges, a common allegation in Kazakhstan for jailing government critics.

Bilash and Atajurt helped attract international attention to the case of Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizen who crossed illegally from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan in 2018 after working at a camp. She was fleeing detention herself.

After Fleeing China, An Ethnic Kazakh Works To Expose Xinjiang 'Reeducation Camps'
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Sauytbay's legal status in Kazakhstan was drawn out, as the government appeared to use her unresolved asylum request as a means to prevent her from speaking about her experiences as a camp worker in Xinjiang. She eventually left Kazakhstan in 2019 for Sweden, where she was granted asylum.

"The Kazakh government is more and more tied to Beijing, and now the Kazakh government has lost its independence," Bilash said. "They sold their independence to China."

Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims

Radio Free Radio/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.

Bilash eventually accepted a plea bargain that required him to end his activism and keep a distance from Atajurt.

Shortly after, a splinter group made up of some of Bliash's disaffected former associates was officially registered as Atajurt Eriktileri. But it has not continued the tactics of the previous group to raise awareness of Chinese rights abuses -- choosing instead a far less vocal approach.

Yerbol Dauletbek, head of the officially registered group, told RFE/RL the organization will continue to help those affected by the crackdown in Xinjiang. But he said many people affected are now too scared to come forward and share their ordeal.

Dauletbek said he believes ethnic Kazakhs in the camps and those calling for their release have been "quietly abandoned" by Kazakhstan's government. The episode highlights the government's evolving strategy to impede Xinjiang activism in the country.

"Now the government is succeeding in intimidating and scaring people from coming forward," Bilash says. "It is a signal and a warning to scare people from their activism and make them stay silent."

Bilash eventually left Kazakhstan for Turkey before moving on to the United States. He says he plans to continue his activism there and register a U.S.-based organization focused on Xinjiang.

The Global Stage

China's internment-camp system has received increased scrutiny and political pressure in recent years. The U.S. State Department recently accused China of committing "genocide and crimes against humanity" against Uyghurs. The Canadian and Dutch parliaments have both declared that the situation in Xinjiang is genocide.

The Chinese state has also been accused of an array of abuses in the region under the guise of the internment system, including forced labor, sterilization, torture, and rape.

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in September 2018.
A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in September 2018.

But Beijing has also become more forceful in its pushback. Not only does China deny the genocide allegations, it says the camps are "reeducation" facilities for combating terrorism. And it has gone about intimidating and targeting those who speak out publicly about what they've witnessed in the camps.

Women who made allegations of rape and sexual abuse in February to the BBC were singled out by Beijing. In a series of press conference in March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin and Xinjiang regional official Xu Guixiang held up photographs of women who gave firsthand testimony of sexual assault in camps. They insulted the women, calling them liars of "inferior character" and accusing them of adultery.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin holds up pictures of the two women during a news conference in Beijing on February 23.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin holds up pictures of the two women during a news conference in Beijing on February 23.

The Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, Zhang Xiao, has been outspoken in pushing back against accusations that Beijing is mistreating Kazakhs. The embassy's Instagram page has taken to posting content meant to discredit Sauytbay, accusing her of fabricating the stories about her experiences in Xinjiang.

"[China] is trying its best to change this narrative about what is going on in Xinjiang," the Carnegie Center's Umarov says. "But it hasn't changed much in Central Asia. I don't think that Beijing has a well-thought-out strategy of how to cope with this problem."

Kazakhstan's Tightrope

The Kazakh government has avoided criticizing China and has publicly toed Beijing's line about the camps -- eager not to anger its main investor and strategic partner in the Belt and Road Initiative.

The authorities have elected a new approach to keep Xinjiang activism at bay. Following the high-profile case of Sauytbay, the government elected to avoid drawing international attention to another case. Instead, in October 2020, it granted temporary asylum to four ethnic Kazakhs who had illegally crossed the border from Xinjiang into Kazakhstan.

Two of those Xinjiang-born asylum seekers who received temporary asylum, Qaisha Aqan and Murager Alimuly, were attacked the same day in January. Aqan was returning home from grocery shopping near Almaty when she was attacked. Alimuly was stabbed in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

In both instances, nothing was stolen. The perpetrators have never been apprehended.

Aqan says she believes the attacks were a politically motivated warning against becoming outspoken about Xinjiang, although she is not sure who was behind the attacks.

"It was not random. In one day, [Alimuly] was stabbed and I was attacked," she told RFE/RL. "The light [on the street] was switched off for two hours. All the [security] cameras stopped working [during my attack]. What a coincidence, right?"

Bekzat Maksutkhan, an associate of Bilash's, runs a successor group to their original organization called Naghyz Atajurt, or "Real" Atajurt. But it remains unregistered and currently does not have an office.

Maksutkhan has followed the attacks on Alimuly and Aqan, as well as the protests outside the consulate. But he says it's difficult to keep the organization going given financial pressure and growing intimidation from Kazakh authorities.

"We've never interfered with the government. We don't have any economic interests, nor do we have any political interests. We just deal with human rights issues," Maksutkhan told RFE/RL. "But we still face a lot of pressure and police often question us."

With few grassroots organizations left to advocate and increased scrutiny from the authorities, protesters like Akytkhan feel that demonstrating outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty is their last resort. Despite her age and health concerns, which caused her to faint outside the consulate during one protest, Akytkhan says she won't stop until she gets answers about her sons.

"At night, I take a photo of my three sons and hold it to my chest," she says. "I can't sleep without it. I put it next to my head on my pillow. Sometimes I can't fall asleep until 5 a.m."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, after signing a cooperation agreement in the capital, Tehran, on March 27

Beijing has inked a sweeping 25-year investment deal with Iran that could see China's economic, political, and military influence there and across the Middle East expand.

China and Iran signed the expansive deal during a ceremony in Tehran on March 27 between their respective foreign ministers, Mohammad Javad Zarif and Wang Yi. The agreement, in which Iran offered a steady supply of oil in exchange for Chinese investment under a vast economic and security accord, capped off a two-day visit that reflects Beijing's growing desire to play a defining role in the region.

"China firmly supports Iran in safeguarding its state sovereignty and national dignity," Wang said during a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani before calling on the United States to drop its sanctions against Tehran and "remove its long arm of jurisdictional measures that have been aimed at China, among others."

China became a lifeline for Iran's economy and ties between Beijing and Iranian political leaders have warmed in recent years, as both have grappled with intensified diplomatic and economic confrontations with the West.

Warships in the Sea of Oman take part in joint Iranian-Chinese-Russian naval exercises in December 2019.
Warships in the Sea of Oman take part in joint Iranian-Chinese-Russian naval exercises in December 2019.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration pursued a policy of "maximum pressure" on Tehran over the latter's nuclear and missile programs after withdrawing unilaterally from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and six world powers, including China. His successor, President Joe Biden, has kept those tough policies in place while also signaling a readiness to revive the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

While the Chinese deal with Iran is about furthering Beijing's regional and global ambitions as a leading power, they also undercut Washington's efforts to keep Iran isolated and better position Beijing ahead of any future nuclear negotiations regarding Iran.

"China wants to show that it is indispensable in solving some of the world's thorniest problems," Daniel Markey, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of China's Western Horizon, told RFE/RL. "Beijing is looking to portray itself as an evenhanded broker, while painting the United States as the more problematic global player."

Decades And Hundreds Of Billions

Neither the Iranian nor the Chinese government gave specifics about the agreement during the signing, but a leaked draft obtained by Western newspapers in July pointed to large investments in Iranian infrastructure.

Subscribe To Our New China Newsletter

It has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

China In Eurasia is the new monthly newsletter by correspondent Reid Standish in which he builds on local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions. It's sent on the first Wednesday of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

According to The New York Times, the draft covered $400 billion worth of Chinese investments in exchange for a steady supply of discounted oil to fuel China's economy, although a draft seen by RFE/RL does not specify the amount of the deal.* Those investments would focus on energy and high-tech sectors as well as plans for other fields such as telecommunications, ports, railways, and health care, while also promoting Iran's role in Chinese leader Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative, over the next quarter century.

The leaked draft also reportedly called for deepening military cooperation, including joint training and exercises, as well as intelligence sharing.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly backed the deal, which was said to have been proposed by Xi during a January 2016 trip to Iran.

But the deal has been met with criticism inside Iran that officials are hiding details amid fears that Tehran may be giving too much and selling off the country's resources to Beijing.

After last year's leak of the draft agreement, Iranians were skeptical and lashed out on social media, with many urging the government not to sign the deal.

In August, RFE/RL's Radio Farda quoted many ordinary Iranians saying they were worried about the long-term implications of the ambiguous deal and that it would not benefit the country.

Critics have cited previous Chinese investment projects that have left countries in Africa and Asia indebted and ultimately beholden to Beijing and Chinese firms.

Beyond internal pushback, it is also not immediately clear how much of the agreement can be implemented with U.S. financial sanctions reimposed after the JCPOA withdrawal limiting how much business Chinese entities can conduct in Iran.

"The agreement's success will depend on either de-escalation of tensions between Iran and the [United States] or further escalation of competition between China and the [United States]," Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group's Iran project director, told RFE/RL.

Delivering On The Deal

It also remains to be seen how many of the ambitious projects detailed in the agreement will come to fruition.

Should the nuclear agreement remain stalled or worse, Chinese firms could face secondary sanctions from Washington. Beijing also has a mixed track record in Iran when it comes to executing large projects.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the state-owned oil and gas company, signed a contract to develop Iran's South Azadegan oil field in 2009 after a Japanese firm pulled out. But Tehran ultimately ended the arrangement due to alleged underperformance and delays.

CNPC also inked multibillion-dollar contracts to develop a gas field, but the effort was abandoned after numerous delays.

A natural-gas refinery at the South Pars gas field on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, in Asaluyeh, Iran. China's state oil company pulled out of a $5 billion deal to develop a portion of Iran's massive offshore natural gas field in 2019. (file photo)
A natural-gas refinery at the South Pars gas field on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, in Asaluyeh, Iran. China's state oil company pulled out of a $5 billion deal to develop a portion of Iran's massive offshore natural gas field in 2019. (file photo)

"Signing an agreement is one thing; its materialization is quite another," said Vaez. "China's track record indicates that it often overpromises but underdelivers to Iran."

'A Friend for Hard Times'

Despite lingering concerns over the controversial deal signed with China, Beijing has offered Tehran a vital economic and political lifeline.

While Xi first proposed the strategic investment deal back in 2016, negotiations moved slowly.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) meets with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Tehran in January 2016.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) meets with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Tehran in January 2016.

Tehran signing the JCPOA nearly six years ago and reaching a deal with Washington to ease sanctions on its economy opened the door for European companies, who courted Iran with investments and plans to develop oil and gas fields.

But the Trump administration's withdrawal from the deal and ensuing sanctions forced European companies to leave, leading Tehran to look east to China once again.

After signing the deal with Wang, Zarif said that "China is a friend for hard times," referring to the economic and diplomatic support that Beijing has provided in recent years.

As the Biden administration looks to revive nuclear talks with Iran since taking over in January, Chinese support will be crucial for Tehran.

Foreign ministers/secretaries of state Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (U.K.), and John Kerry (United States) (left to right) at a meeting in Vienna that saw the conclusion of the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran on July 14, 2015
Foreign ministers/secretaries of state Wang Yi (China), Laurent Fabius (France), Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Germany), Federica Mogherini (EU), Mohammad Javad Zarif (Iran), Philip Hammond (U.K.), and John Kerry (United States) (left to right) at a meeting in Vienna that saw the conclusion of the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran on July 14, 2015

U.S. officials say that steps can be taken to bring Iran back into compliance with the terms of the agreement while the United States gradually lifts sanctions, but Tehran insists those penalties be lifted before any negotiations resume.

While calling for a return to the nuclear deal, China has so far backed Iran and demanded that the United States act first to return to the agreement by lifting sanctions that have strangled Iran's economy and its currency.

John Calabrese, an expert on China-Iran relations at The Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said he thinks Beijing is looking to preserve the JCPOA and prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. He warned that such a program could lead to further regional instability and jeopardize Beijing's diplomatic inroads in the Middle East, where "Chinese stakes in energy and other economic sectors have grown significantly."

Regional Ambitions

China continues to play a growing role in the Middle East.

Prior to his visit to Iran, Wang visited Saudi Arabia, Tehran's main rival, and was warmly received in Riyadh. The Chinese foreign minister also visited Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, with additional stops in Bahrain and Oman.

Beijing has long avoided taking sides in conflicts in the Middle East, and Wang has offered China's diplomatic capital to be a "peace broker" in the region. At a press conference at the annual National People's Congress on March 8, Wang talked up Beijing's deepening ties with the Arab world and said a host of agreements heralded "a new chapter" of Sino-Arab relations.

Calabrese, who is also an assistant professor at American University, said that given China's diverse ties in the region and ambitions for the Middle East, it will be treading cautiously following this month's deal not to alarm Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran's regional rivals.

Moving forward, he said, Beijing is positioning itself to play a more central role in reviving the Iran nuclear agreement and de-escalating tensions between powers in the Middle East, which could be a major diplomatic win for China.

"If that is the case and [it] bears fruit, then Beijing comes out stronger and [looks] stronger all around," Calabrese said.

*CLARIFICATION: This article was amended to clarify uncertainty over the reported $400 billion figure of the investment deal. A draft of the agreement seen by RFE/RL does not list an amount for the 25-year pact.

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