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China's Other New Security Concern -- Its Ethnic Kyrgyz

China's Kyrgyz minority has too much in common with Uyghurs, as Turkic Muslims, for Beijing's comfort.
China's Kyrgyz minority has too much in common with Uyghurs, as Turkic Muslims, for Beijing's comfort.

Earlier this month, Qishloq Ovozi looked at China's recent worries about its ethnic Kazakhs and now there is information China has similar concerns about its ethnic Kyrgyz citizens.

The Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz are Turkic peoples and the vast majority are Muslims, two distinctions from Han Chinese that are the reasons for Beijing's relatively newfound and increasing unease.

The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs -- in what today is China -- mainly inhabit the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area that has seen outbreaks of violence connected to another Turkic Muslim group in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs.

Some Uyghurs in China have been waging a campaign for independence for decades.

The appearance of small groups of Uyghurs in the ranks of Islamic extremist formations in the Middle East in the last few years has caused Beijing to reassess the more than 60-year-old Uyghur separatist efforts in Xinjiang as now deriving inspiration from Islam.

The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs are increasingly seen by the Chinese authorities as -- at the least -- potential confederates of the Uyghurs. "For example," says one ethnic Kyrgyz man from China who is now living in Kyrgyzstan, "[Chinese authorities] have detained dozens of young Kyrgyz men since June 2016."

The man was speaking to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, under condition of anonymity because he has relatives in China.

He says the young Kyrgyz men held in China did not appear to have broken any Chinese laws; they were taken away "for reasons such as having a Koran, growing a beard, going to prayers [at mosque], or having made the hajj."

According to this man and other ethnic Kyrgyz of China who spoke with Azattyk and Radio Free Asia (RFA), these "violations" are now sufficient grounds to imprison people, in some cases for up to 17 years.

RFA spoke with a Kyrgyz businessman from Xinjiang who is now living in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. He noted the "persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese government is by far the worst [in China]," but "the same kind of persecution is increasingly happening to the [ethnic] Kyrgyz people as well."

Like the "oralmans" of Kazakhstan, who were mentioned in that earlier Qishloq Ovozi report, ethnic Kyrgyz from China -- most of whom live in the Kyzylsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture that borders Kyrgyzstan -- are welcome to move to Kyrgyzstan and obtain citizenship. The Kyrgyz word for such people is "kairylman."

There are slightly more than 200,000 ethnic Kyrgyz in China, so the number of "repatriates" to Kyrgyzstan is far lower than the number moving from China to Kazakhstan. But the kairlymans have the same problem Kazakhstan's oralmans are having; they sometimes disappear when they cross back into China to see relatives.

It happened in April to 34-year-old Turdakun Abylet, who moved to Kyrgyzstan in 2015 and received citizenship on October 25.

His friend, Muslihiddin Salimov, lives in Bishkek. He tells Azattyk that Abylet went to China in April and was apparently detained at the border. Salimov says no one can tell him what happened to Abylet after that.

Salimov tried calling Abylet's relatives in Xinjiang but he says they were too frightened to answer any questions. "I couldn't find out if he arrived or not, or was detained or not. They wouldn't tell me anything," he said.

Salimov appealed to Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry and Interior Ministry for help in obtaining information about his friend. Eventually Salimov found out that Abylet had been detained for not properly rescinding his Chinese citizenship before he left for Kyrgyzstan.

Since Abylet is still technically a Chinese citizen, according to the Chinese authorities, there appears to be nothing Kyrgyzstan's government can do to have him freed and returned to Kyrgyzstan even though he is a Kyrgyz citizen.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Like other Central Asian leaders, he won't threaten key economic ties over ethnic brethren.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Like other Central Asian leaders, he won't threaten key economic ties over ethnic brethren.

And it's not only kairlymans. According to the businessman who spoke to RFA, "Nearly 100 Kyrgyz students from Kyzylsu [Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in China] who are studying in Kyrgyzstan were detained upon their return to China during the summer vacation."

Many -- perhaps most -- of these Kyrgyz detained in China are sent to the "political education" camps that are appearing throughout Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has enjoyed excellent ties with the governments of the neighboring Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- since the mid-1990s.

The economic situation in all three of those countries would be far worse without the huge investments and loans China has pumped into Central Asia since the late 1990s, as well as the jobs -- albeit many of them temporary -- that Chinese companies have provided for locals on road, railway, power line, pipeline, and other Chinese-funded projects.

But that has not endeared China to the people of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The people of these three countries see China as a giant that is hungry for their natural resources and their land, while at the same time sending ever more Chinese workers to Central Asia to join in building these road, rail, power line, and pipeline projects, as well as Chinese merchants who take up stalls in Central Asian bazaars.

And Beijing is clearly taking a new view regarding its ties with Central Asia.

Citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have joined the same Islamic extremist groups that some Uyghurs from Xinjiang have joined. And there is a greater opportunity to practice religion, specifically Islam, in Central Asia than there is in Xinjiang.

That perhaps explains, at least partially, why the Chinese government views Kazakhs and Kyrgyz who moved out of China with suspicion when they return for visits.

The economic ties that bind Central Asia and China are too important for all of those governments to allow relations to be affected by China's campaign against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

But interaction among Central Asians with Chinese appears to be on the wane and, inevitably, news of what's happening to the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China will reach the general populations in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, likely causing further damage to their impressions of China.

Azattyk Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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