Kazakhs staged a marathon-style protest outside the Chinese consulate to demand an answer of their missing family members in Xinjiang

Since early February, dozens of Kazakhs have been protesting outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty, demanding the Chinese government to explain the whereabouts of their missing family members in Xinjiang. Experts think that as the international community and Kazakhstan’s civil society begin to pay more attention to human rights violations in Xinjiang, the attention will make the Kazakh government’s position in the ongoing crisis become more difficult.

At a time when Beijing and some western countries are imposing sanctions on each other over the human rights violations in Xinjiang, dozens of Kazakhs have been staging a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Almaty since early February. They put up images of their missing family members in Xinjiang and chant slogans that demand Beijing to explain where their family members are.

Serikzhan Bilash, the founder of Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights, said these Kazakhs have been protesting outside the Chinese consulate since February 8, but the Kazakh government has tried to stop them from protesting in the name of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Police in Kazakhstan often intimidate these Kazakhs, and I think the Kazakh police will use pandemic prevention to stop them from continuing the protest,” said Bilash. “Additionally, the Kazakh government has been changing regulations related to public gathering over the last few months, and I think it is also a way to stop the ongoing protest outside the Chinese consulate.”

Bilash said the reason why the Kazakh government doesn’t want Kazakh citizens to keep protesting outside the Chinese consulate is that they are afraid of offending the Chinese government. However, the Kazakh society can’t tolerate the human rights violations that the Chinese government has carried out against Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

“Not only Kazakhs whose family members have been put into re-education camps were angry about the Chinese government’s policies, some Kazakhs in the country also have similar sentiments,” Bilash said. “They think Beijing not only put large numbers of Kazakhs in Xinjiang into the camps illegally, but their policies have also forcefully separated many Kazakh families. The Kazakh society is like a bomb, which could set off large-scale anti-China demonstrations over the human rights violations in Xinjiang.”

Kazakhs searching for their family members in Xinjiang

Several overseas Kazakhs said they have lost contact with many family members in Xinjiang since 2017, and they learned about the fact that their family members have been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison in 2018 and 2019.

Mailikai Mahemuti, a Kazakh who lives in Turkey, said his uncle and two aunts were taken away by local police in Xinjiang in March 2018. Officials didn’t offer any explanation for their detention. According to her, the arbitrary arrest and detention of Kazakhs in Xinjiang have created damages to Kazakh families.

Family members will not only lose jobs, but they will also be viewed as family members of criminals. “When my family members asked the police about my detained aunts and uncle, police would threaten to arrest them if they kept asking about them,” Mailikai said. “One of my aunt’s husband lost his job as a result of my aunt’s arrest.”

When they were finally allowed to visit Mailikai’s uncle and aunts, her aunts kept crying while her uncle looked a lot thinner. “My uncle’s wife told us that he wanted us to know that he was doing really well in detention,” she said. “We suspected that the Chinese police may have asked him to say that to us so we would stop worrying about him.”

Another Kazakh citizen said his younger brother and his sister-in-law were sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang in 2018. Even though they were released within a few months, his sister-in-law has since been put under house arrest at her parents’ house while his brother was imprisoned in December 2019 for reciting a poem.

“My younger brother is still in prison and before he was detained for the second time, he had problems with his lung and liver,” he said. “We know nothing about his current state and the government in Xinjiang has banned my family members there to contact me.”

Additionally, another Kazakh woman said her mother was sentenced to 12 years in prison for practicing prayers in December 2017, and another Kazakh woman’s husband was sent into re-education camp in September 2017 after he just completed a 13-year jail sentence under espionage charges.

“My husband wasn’t able to see our relatives before he was sent to the re-education camp,” she said. “He has lost his freedom over the last 17 years and the Xinjiang government still won’t release him.”

Mailikai said after her uncle and two aunts were detained, her family tried to get her grandmother, who is in her 80s, out of Xinjiang, but since the local government confiscated her Kazakh passport, she wasn’t able to leave Xinjiang.

Kazakh government’s dilemma

According to Radio Free Europe, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry told the media on March 12 that they have asked Beijing to help them resolve issues raised by ethnic Kazakhs in China, which is demanding the release of their family members in Xinjiang.

“We have asked the Chinese side to meet with those people and make certain decisions regarding their complaints so that [the protesters] stop gathering [in front of the Chinese consulate] every day,” said Mukhtar Karibai, the spokesperson of Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry.

The Kazakh foreign ministry confirmed that some Kazakh citizens and ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens have not been able to leave Xinjiang and go to Kazakhstan.

“We are sticking to the international norm, according to which, one country cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country…But because there is another norm which does not allow the separation of close relatives,” Karibai said. “We are trying to do what we can to resolve the issue.”

According to Sean Roberts, a foreign affairs professor at George Washington University and experts on Xinjiang and Central Asia, one of the reasons why the Kazakh government isn’t taking a clear stance on the issue of human rights violations in Xinjiang are because they don’t have a strong record for responding to demands from civil society.

Additionally, some Kazakh citizens also worry that the Kazakh government may become increasingly beholden to China, which is more likely to generate animosity in civil society that the government may not be able to handle by just ignoring the problem.

“Given the degree to which Kazakhstan’s economy is wrapped up with China, I think their government is going to try to not respond to this issue as long as possible,” Roberts said.

At a time when China and western countries have more differences over what’s happening in Xinjiang, Roberts thinks it will also put Kazakhstan in a very difficult position since Kazakhstan’s economic success comes from its ability to try to not take sides in geopolitical disputes.

And since many Kazakhs feel that they have a nation-state, their concerns are often more about activities in their own nation-state. “For a lot of Kazakh citizens, especially the elites, they are cognizant that much of their domestic development is intertwined with China, so they have a lot of ambiguous feelings about the human rights violations in Xinjiang,” Roberts said. “They may not be ready to speak out about it.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.