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Kazakh Fighters Refuse To Come Out Swinging In China

The referee calls off the match.
The referee calls off the match.

When is a fight not a fight?

The answer, in a packed arena last week near Shanghai at least, is when two Kazakhs are a bout.

Kazakh national Aibek Nurseit and ethnic Kazakh Gabit Turganbek, who is from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang, were warned, then disqualified, by the referee after they sparred gingerly rather than inflict any punishment on each other in a caged mixed-martial-arts bout on March 5. The fight was scratched from the record by officials a few minutes later.

Speculation immediately focused on the two men's ethnicity, with some suggesting Nurseit and Turganbek objected to the idea of fighting in front of a crowd of mostly ethnic Chinese in a country where ethnic Kazakhs complain of routine discrimination.

A clip of the nonevent was posted to YouTube and sparked considerable discussion among Internet users in Kazakhstan and across Central Asia:

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service asked one of the fighters, Kazakh national Nurseit, about what prompted the apparent display of solidarity in a sport that is notorious -- and notoriously popular -- for its brutality. He confirmed that ethnicity played a part.

"Gabit and I, we both made it to the finals. I had beaten a French fighter and Gabit beat a Ukrainian guy," Nurseit said. "We never agreed beforehand that we wouldn't hit each other. [But] when I entered the ring and the fight started, I felt immediately like Gabit was avoiding hitting me. I understood that he didn't want to fight with me, and I couldn't raise my hand against another Kazakh either."

Nurseit said a large sum of money and a championship title were at stake, but he didn't want to win them by beating a fellow Kazakh.

"I met Gabit after the fight at the banquet. We shook hands and that was it," he said.

Kazakhs are one of the indigenous minorities of China's remote Xinjiang (or New Frontier, in Mandarin) region. There are currently thought to be at least 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs there.

Xinjiang also has indigenous populations of ethnic Uyghurs, which number around 10 million, and smaller communities of ethnic Kyrgyz and Tajiks who live mainly in districts bordering Central Asia's former Soviet republics.

Exiled Uyghur groups and human rights activists have criticized Beijing for its "assimilation policies in Xinjiang," which they say include strictures on Islam and indigenous cultures.

Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, also remember Soviet-era Russification policies that erased knowledge of the Kazakh language among Kazakhs in major cities.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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