Along the Ili River

Nick Holdstock

The Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash was arrested in Almaty last month, and charged with extremism and inciting ‘inter-ethnic hatred’. The police later raided the office of his organisation, Atajurt, confiscated computers and documents, and sealed the premises. For the past two years Atajurt has been campaigning on behalf of the Kazakh citizens detained in the huge network of concentration camps across the Chinese border in Xinjiang.

Despite continuing efforts by the Chinese government to portray these facilities as benign institutions that offer Mandarin language lessons and vocational training, it’s now beyond doubt that approximately a million people are being forced to endure a programme of terror and indoctrination that aims to mould them into model Chinese citizens. The international response has been anything but robust.

Atajurt has provided financial assistance and media training for the relatives of detainees, and recorded their appeals to the Chinese and Kazakh authorities. Its press conferences follow a similar format: a detainee’s relative holds up documentation to prove their identity and a photo of the missing person, then describes the circumstances of their disappearance. Most of the videos are in Kazakh, but Atajurt also provides translations into English, Turkish, Chinese and other languages.

In 2018 Atajurt played a crucial role in publicising the stories of the very small number of Kazakhs who had been released from the camps and left China. Most of the international news reports that first revealed what was happening in the camps (as well as a report from Human Rights Watch) relied on their testimony. The majority of the people in the camps are Uyghur; Kazakhs account for only around 7 per cent of Xinjiang’s population. But the province is under such tight surveillance that it’s almost impossible for journalists to speak freely to people there. Even if someone is released from the camps, and manages to leave the country, their families can often still be used as leverage by the Chinese authorities.

Most of Xinjiang’s Kazakhs live in the northwest, in Yining, Tacheng and Altai (a region officially recognised as the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture; the ‘autonomous’ means little except that a Kazakh has to be head of the Communist Party). The Ili River Valley has long been a crossing point between the regions now known as Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. In the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fled to China to escape famine, religious persecution and forced collectivisation; the movement was repeated in reverse in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there was an exodus to escape the famine and persecution caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In the first five months of 1962, between 60,000 and 70,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs fled from Xinjiang into Central Asia. The Chinese closed the Sino-Soviet border in May 1962.

It didn’t reopen for trade until 1983; passenger traffic wasn’t restored until 1989. Families and communities were able to reconnect. Uyghurs in Xinjiang could also reconnect with the wider Central Asian cultural sphere, and express a non-Chinese identity, even through such small everyday acts as buying black tea and biscuits produced by former Soviet republics rather than goods from China.

In the early and mid-1990s, Kazakhstan was also a base from which Uyghur activists could campaign against Chinese policies in Xinjiang. This permissiveness came to an end in 1996 with the formation of the Shanghai Five, a security alliance of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan (it was renamed the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation when Uzbekistan joined in 2001). Uyghur organisations in Kazakhstan were explicitly warned not to engage in anti-Chinese activities; the prohibition has remained in place and frequently been enforced.

Atajurt, with its focus on the welfare of Kazakh citizens, has been the only group in the country able to raise the issue of the camps. It may have been tolerated for a while as a sop to public demand that Kazakhstan stand up to China’s growing influence. Rumours that the government planned to sell land to foreigners led to protests in 2016, and a glut of cheap Chinese imports has also caused mistrust. But Atajurt’s position was always going to be precarious as long as its activities threatened to damage Kazakhstan's economic relations with China.

Over the three decades since independence, Nursultan Nazarbayez’s authoritarian regime has promoted Kazakh ethno-nationalism while using Soviet methods of propaganda and repression. (Nazarbayev recently announced that he was resigning as president, but he’s still the leader of the Nur Otan party and chairman for life of the Security Council of Kazakhstan.) Bilash’s arrest is a sign that preserving good relations with China is more important for the government than protecting the welfare of Kazakhs in Xinjiang.