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China In Eurasia

Wednesday 7 April 2021

A giant outdoor screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping attending the closing session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 11.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, a monthly RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following this month:

Welcome To The New Era

China owned the global stage in March. The month kicked off with the annual National People’s Congress, with Beijing charting its future course, and culminated in a series of diplomatic wins and setbacks that point to China’s steady, but uneven, rise in the world.

Finding Perspective: Beijing is eager to project that it is a true global power. That was the message of the National People’s Congress, as I reported here.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials touted China’s ascent at the political gathering, setting up declared victories at home over the coronavirus and extreme poverty as a blueprint for future engagement around the world.

Across Eurasia, Chinese diplomats have already taken to promoting these narratives and Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy” continued to make inroads, especially in developing nations. But China’s rise is also not without its growing pains.

The pandemic is forcing Beijing to adapt its flagship Belt and Road Initiative and the country found itself in a tough diplomatic dispute after tit-for-tat sanctions with the European Union and other Western nations over China’s rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Why It Matters: China is still learning how to be a world leader, but it is becoming increasingly confident in its moves.

This means that Beijing’s rivalry with the West, particularly the United States, is set to intensify, as highlighted by the fiery exchange between high-ranking U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska.

As I discussed in an article in late March, Eurasia won’t be the focal point of superpower tensions, but it will be far from immune.

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  • RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported that Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe visited Budapest on March 25 as the first stop on a tour of southeastern Europe that took place shortly after the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials.
  • Few details about Fenghe’s visits have been made public, as my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported, looking at the lack of transparency during stops in Serbia and North Macedonia.
  • Simultaneous Western pressure on Beijing and Moscow is pushing the two countries closer together, as evidenced by a March 23 press conference where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi jointly bashed the United States.​

Expert Corner: Just How Close Are Beijing And Moscow?

Readers asked: "Relations between China and Russia are about to enter a new phase, but where exactly is this relationship going?"

  • “Beijing and Moscow increasingly need each other, but Russia needs China more than the other way around -- so in the future, China can use its growing leverage to get concessions from Russia on commercial deals or some policy issues that don’t cross the Kremlin’s red lines.” -- Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center
  • “There are real fissures between Russia and China, but the persistence of the factors driving their partnership mean they will challenge the United States and Europe for the foreseeable future. Their alignment increases the risks that both countries pose. Together, they are a more potent force that can oppose both the United States and Europe.” -- Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former senior U.S. intelligence analyst
  • “A full alliance between China and Russia is not coming, but both Beijing and Moscow feel united in their confrontation with the United States. Despite potential areas of limited confrontation in Central Asia or growing competition in the arms trade, the reasons to work closer and minimize tensions so far outweigh concerns for future disagreements.” -- Anton Barbashin, editorial director at Riddle Russia

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. What’s In A Deal?

Beijing inked a long-rumored 25-year strategic pact with Iran on March 27 that could greatly expand its influence in the Middle East and set China up to reap a diplomatic boost if the nuclear deal with Tehran and Washington can be revived.

Digging Deeper: China has its sights on the future. Part of the motivation of the agreement is to reassure Iran as the Biden administration looks to rekindle nuclear talks with Tehran.

The 25-year pact itself outlines broad economic, military, and political cooperation, but there is plenty of reason to be skeptical about it, as I explored here in my article.

There have been reports of the deal being worth $400 billion, but no figure has been confirmed. A draft seen by RFE/RL doesn’t mention any amount. Future investment likely won’t be possible unless Tehran returns to the nuclear deal and sanctions placed on Iran by the Trump administration are lifted.

The View From Home: China also has a spotty track record of not following through on its deals with Iran. Moreover, the Iranian public remains highly suspicious of the agreement.

My colleague Golnaz Esfandiari looked at Tehran’s efforts to reassure the public after it signed the pact with Beijing.

2. Buyer’s Remorse

Dritan Abazovic, Montenegro’s deputy prime minister, made headlines on March 26 when he said that the EU should help the small Balkan country repay a $1.18 billion loan to the Export-Import Bank of China for the construction of a highway.

The Tightrope: Abazovic has since tried to walk back his remarks, my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Balkan Service told me, after the comments attracted international attention to the massive debt Montenegro owes to China.

The first tranche of repayment for the 2014 loan is reportedly due this year and the road is still under construction.

3. Broken But Not Dead

Government pressure in Kazakhstan has nearly silenced the guerrilla activism that turned the country into an unlikely window on China’s human rights abuses, Aigerim Toleukhanova from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service and I reported in an article in early April.

Demonstrations against the internment of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in neighboring Xinjiang are ongoing, with a small but persistent picket outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty.

The protests, however, are a far cry from the activism in the country over the issue in 2018 and 2019, which has been effectively quelled by a Kazakh government eager to preserve ties with Beijing.

The Human Toll: Perhaps the individual toll of the camps is best exemplified by Qalida Akytkhan, a 67-year-old grandmother whose three sons are interned in camps in Xinjiang.

“At night, I take a photo of my three sons and hold it to my chest,” she said during an interview. “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.”

Across The Supercontinent

Shifting Course: Ukraine plans to nationalize Motor Sich, an aerospace manufacturer that is majority-owned by Chinese companies, due to its strategic importance to national defense. My colleague Ievgen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service has a good breakdown of the saga (in Ukrainian.)

Cooled Off: Despite warm public rhetoric of close ties, Beijing is keeping its distance from the embattled regime of Belarus’s Alyaksandr Lukashenka, as I focus on here in my article.

On The List: Ilhan Kyuchyuk, an ethnic Turkish Bulgarian deputy at the European Parliament, was among those targeted by Beijing in response to sanctions brought by Brussels over Xinjiang. Kyuchyuk told RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service that he believes he was included because he helped an imprisoned ethnic Uyghur economist receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Diplomatic Booster: Budapest approved emergency use of China's CanSino Biologics coronavirus vaccine on March 22, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported.

It is the first EU country to do so. Hungary was already an outlier, granting use to Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm, despite neither being approved by Brussels.

One Thing To Watch This Month

The United Nations has begun negotiations with China for a visit “without restrictions” to Xinjiang to see how Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are being treated in the region, according to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Negotiations will likely be slow. In the meantime, expect more efforts from Beijing to try and change the global narrative around the internment camps.

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box the first Wednesday of each month.

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."

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