ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In the days leading up to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s arrival in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, activists have been arrested and intimidated for protesting their relatives’ imprisonment in China's Xinjiang Province and its vast internment camp system.
Bakhyt Zharykbasova’s husband, Baibolat Kunbolat, was one of those arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail. For more than a year and half, Kunbolat has been organizing demonstrations outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, the country's biggest city, demanding the release of his brother along with other Kazakhs whose relatives are missing, jailed, or trapped in the neighboring region.
But in the lead-up to Xi’s high-profile September 14 visit -- his first trip abroad in more than two years -- protesters say they have been met with a wave of arrests, police summonses, and warnings not to travel to Nur-Sultan in an attempt to prevent dissent during the Chinese leader’s state visit.
“The authorities warned him and I warned him, [too], but he decided that this is what he is going to do and [that] he will keep doing it,” Zharykbasova, whose husband was arrested on September 10, told RFE/RL. “Baibolat says he is fine [in detention], but I know they will not let him out as long as the Chinese president is here.”
China’s crackdown in Xinjiang has seen more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities put into mass detention camps. Since Beijing’s dragnet accelerated in 2017, the plight of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China has been an unexpected source of dissent, with the testimonies of former detainees and family members fueling a guerrilla advocacy campaign that brought outsized international attention to the issue.
This left the Kazakh government walking a tightrope between appeasing Beijing -- which denies the long list of abuses that have been documented in its camp system -- and dealing with an exasperated segment of its population lobbying for family members in China.
“There is only one goal here [with these arrests and threats] -- to please the Chinese leader,” Yerbol Dauletbek, the leader of the officially registered chapter of Atajurt Eriktileri, a group lobbying for ethnic Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang and their relatives, told RFE/RL. “This is how [the government] helps to hide the crimes of China.”
Silencing Xinjiang Protests
Demonstrators were facing growing pressure from the authorities even before Xi’s meeting with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev was announced.
In recent years, the government has led a swift crackdown against activists working on Xinjiang issues in the country: shutting down organizations, arresting activists, and intimidating leading figures into exile, leaving only a small but devoted segment -- such as Kunbolat and his peers -- for public protests.
On September 12, Gulfiya Kazybek, Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva, and Qalida Akytkhan -- who were all part of ongoing protests outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty and embassy in Nur-Sultan since February 2020 -- said police officers removed them from a bus that they were on while traveling to a wedding in the southwestern city of Shymkent.
“The police demanded that we get off the bus and then they took us to the police station,” Kazybek told RFE/RL.
Once at the police station, the three women were told that an administrative case had been opened over the violation of “the procedure for holding peaceful assemblies” and they were handed summonses.
Kurmanaliyeva and Kazybek went to their local police station in Almaty on September 13 but were told by officers that no materials on their case had been received yet and they were asked to wait for a phone call for more information which had not been provided by the time this article was published.
Kurmanaliyeva told RFE/RL that she believes security operatives had been tailing her and other protesters since September 10, saying that she and others had documented instances of being followed at the market and outside their homes.
“We'll keep protesting until our relatives are out,” she said. “I am against Xi Jinping's visit. He is making genocide against Kazakhs and Muslims in Xinjiang and he comes here like nothing has happened. He should answer for what he is doing.”
Following the release of a damning UN report earlier this month that said China has committed “serious human rights violations” in mass detention camps in Xinjiang that may be crimes against humanity, activists urged Toqaev to raise the issue of the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs during his talks with Xi.
Kurmanaliyeva says an official from Almaty's city administration had told her Toqaev would raise the plight of their relatives when he meets with Xi, although she doubts it will happen.
“They just didn't want us to go to [the capital],” Kurmanaliyeva said. “They told us: ‘You'll create a bother.’”
Other protesters who had been part of the regular pickets outside the Chinese Consulate and embassy also faced detention and harassment in the lead-up to Xi’s visit.
Akikat Kaliolla, a musician whose relatives are believed to be in Xinjiang’s camp system, was also sentenced to 15 days in jail for allegedly violating laws on public protests and was taken directly by police from his recording studio.
Nurzat Yermekbay, who has also regularly participated in demonstrations against the camps, said he was detained for four hours on September 10 in Almaty and warned by police “not to go to the capital.”
Bekzat Maksutkhan, the head of Naghyz Atajurt, an unregistered advocacy group that works with families who have relatives missing in Xinjiang, told RFE/RL that the Kazakh authorities have been effective in silencing dissent around the issue and that the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang is not receiving mainstream attention in the country.
The Chinese Embassy in Nur-Sultan has not responded publicly to the appeals of protesters and neither the embassy nor the consulate in Almaty responded to RFE/RL’s request for comment about the fate of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang and the protesters’ complaints.
The fact that Xi chose Kazakhstan and Central Asia as the location to first step outside of China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic brings prestige and geopolitical significance to the government in Nur-Sultan.
Expanding its already deep economic and political ties with China has been a priority for the Kazakh government and local authorities have treaded cautiously with Beijing over the issue of interned Kazakhs.
The issue is further complicated by the complex family connections across the lengthy 1,782-kilometer border between China and Kazakhstan.
Cross-border ties have been a mainstay for centuries but accelerated when the Kazakh government sought to attract ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang to move following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This led to many Chinese-born Kazakhs uprooting and resettling in neighboring Kazakhstan. They have become permanent residents and even Kazakh citizens while still maintaining close connections to family in China.
In instances where Kazakh citizens, many of whom were originally born in China, were detained in Xinjiang, the Kazakh government has negotiated behind-the-scenes with Beijing to secure their release. But it says it has no jurisdiction in other cases.
“Since the Kazakh diaspora living in Xinjiang are citizens of the People's Republic of China, all issues related to them relate to China's internal affairs,” a spokesperson for the Kazakh foreign ministry told RFE/RL. “Therefore, it’s necessary to consider ways to resolve this issue without prejudice to the comprehensive and eternal strategic partnership between Kazakhstan and China.”
Temur Umarov, an expert on China’s relations with Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL that the internment camps are a sensitive political topic for Beijing and, given Nur-Sultan’s track record, Toqaev is unlikely to raise the issue publicly and even less likely to criticize China’s detention system during meetings with Xi.
“There is an unspoken rule in relations between Kazakhstan and China: only successes are publicly raised and problems are never spoken about,” he said. “The countries of Central Asia cannot afford to criticize Beijing simply because they depend on [China]. Criticism can come back to haunt them with economic consequences.”