Kazakhstan offers more clues on plight of Kazakhs in China


The plight of ethnic Kazakhs swept up in the vast ongoing exercise in state repression in China’s Xinjiang province got a rare airing in parliament in Astana on March 4.

Berik Dyusembinov, a member of the Ak Zhol party, asked during a question and answer session with the foreign minister what measures Kazakhstan’s government is taking to assist inmates of Xinjiang's internment camps.

Foreign Minister Beibut Atamkulov said his department receives daily briefings about Kazakh citizens in China.

“We received more than a thousand requests [on behalf of] citizens who are detained in China’s reeducation camps. We are working on these issues case by case,” said Atamkulov.

The minister also acknowledged that the reeducation camps target Muslims.

“There are questions regarding people of Islamic faith. China has its own internal policy," Atamkulov said. "Our diplomats and independent observers visited these camps. Unfortunately, this pressure is directed not only toward Kazakhs. The number of Kazakhs in theses camps decreased by 80 percent.”

Getting a clear understanding about the exact situation with ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang is complicated by the fact that many of those who have been interned are not nationals of Kazakhstan, although many of them are closely related to people who are. Astana has exploited this ambiguity to repeatedly sidestep having to adopt a more forceful position on this issue.

In January, the Foreign Ministry announced that China was allowing more than 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to relinquish their Chinese citizenship and leave the country. It was unclear then — and remains so now — whether these people were former detainees of reeducation camps or if they are people who are just regular beneficiaries of Kazakhstan’s annual quota under the oralmanprogram designed to lure ethnic Kazakhs to their historic homeland. Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has been encouraging ethnic Kazakhs in countries like China, Uzbekistan, Iran and elsewhere to make the move and apply for Kazakh citizenship.

Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry believes there are 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living in China.

The people who stand to benefit most from direct consular assistance from Astana's diplomats are either outright Kazakh citizens or dual nationals. Last year, 33 people with dual Kazakh-Chinese citizenship were detained in China. Of those, 23 were returned to Kazakhstan, Atamkulov said.

But the dual citizenship issue is just another area of contention. This status is not permitted in either Kazakhstan or China. Dyusembinov, the parliamentarian who posed the question about the ongoing situation in Xinjiang, is himself a vocal critic of dual citizenship. In November, he advocated for stricter punishments for people breaching the prohibition.

Astana is cranking up the pressure on activists inside Kazakhstan trying to raise the alarm internationally about what is happening in Xinjiang. A group called Ata-Jurt, which is the only organization of its kind in Kazakhstan actively doing advocacy for Xinjiang Kazakhs, was fined in February for operating as an unregistered organization. The group claims that the Justice Ministry has repeatedly denied requests for registration since its formation in 2017.

Aliya Uteuova is an Astana-based journalist.