Kazakhstan Detains Critic of Chinese Detention Camps
Serikzhan Bilah — a Kazakh activist critical of the Chinese government’s mass crackdown on Uighurs, among other Muslim minorities in China’s far western Xinjiang region, including Kazakhs — was arrested by Kazakh authorities on Mar. 10 before being confined to house arrest the following day. The program of systematic detention of Muslims in state-run camps, dubbed by the United Nations as “political camps for indoctrination,” has gained much international attention; however, many Muslim majority countries, including Kazakhstan, have not criticized the Chinese government on the issue.
In contrast to the rest of China, where the ethnic makeup heavily favors Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China’s far western Xinjiang region, officially the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, is the Uighur people, the vast majority of which are Muslim. Xinjiang’s location, bordering the former Soviet republics of Central Asia (including Kazakhstan), has also facilitated the presence of other ethnic minorities in the area, mainly hailing from these ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.
Activists and former detainees alleged in late 2017 that the Chinese government had established a program of widespread detainment camps in Xinjiang region. In the name of anti-terrorism efforts, Chinese officials were alleged to have set up checkpoints and security cameras to monitor residents, with locals caught practicing Islam being sent to detention centers, where they are taught to speak only Chinese, sing national anthem in Chinese, and are forced to denounce their faith as part of a “re-education” campaign on behalf of the Chinese state.
Originally from Xinjiang region, Bilah heads Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights in Kazakhstan, a grassroots organization which has been collecting testimonies of relatives of those who have been detained in China as part of a wider attempt to raise awareness about Chinese activities in Xinjiang. According to his lawyer, Bilah is currently under investigation for “inciting ethnic discord,” a charge that can potentially put him in prison for up to ten years. Kazakh prosecutors appear to focus on a video clip in which Bilah calls for “jihad” against the Chinese, although members of Atajurt say that the clip was taken out of the original context.
The Kazakh government has shown a mixed approach to the Chinese government’s “re-education camps.” While it has helped Kazakh citizens get out of China, it has actively avoided criticizing China’s policies on Uighurs and Kazakhs. According to some reports, the Kazakh government has intermittently cooperated with China to repatriate ethnic Kazakhs from China back to Kazakhstan.
Recent developments suggest that Kazakhstan may be experiencing growing anti-Chinese sentiment, although the notoriously opaque nature of the Kazakh government makes such definitive assessments near impossible. Like other Muslim-majority countries, especially in Central Asia, Kazakhstan faces the risk of alienating a major trading partner if it criticizes the Chinese government. Currently, Kazakhstan’s export-heavy trading profile exports the most to Russia, followed by China; on its smaller amount of imports, China again ranks second, in this case, the second-largest supplier of imports.
As such, the Kazakh government is navigating the difficult waters of popular anti-Chinese sentiment and continuing economic dependence on China. Last month, a group of Kazakh intellectuals signed an open letter claiming that Bilah’s Atajurt is harming the relations between Kazakhstan and China. Additionally, months before being arrested, Bilah openly worried about censorship by the Kazakh government on the activities of his group.
In contrast, the Turkish government has openly criticized the Chinese government’s policy on detaining the ethnically Turkic Uighurs, with the Turkish foreign ministry calling China’s treatment of Uighurs “a great cause of shame for humanity” in February. Additional statements from Ankara noted that “it is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks, who are exposed to arbitrary arrests, are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in concentration centers and prisons.” In response, the Chinese government issued a statement denying the “vile” accusations the following day before shuttering its consulate in Izmir at the start of March.
On the other hand, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman commented on Chinese state television that “China has the right to carry anti-terrorism and de-exremization work for its national security” during his late-February visit to sign multi-million dollar trade deals with Beijing.
As a sign that China may be feeling the effects of international backlash to its activities in Xinjiang, a report by top officials of Xinjiang to the ongoing session of the full National People’s Congress suggested that the detention camps at Xinjiang may “disappear” in the near future.