Neighbourly re-education: the Kazakh minority in China

ZOiS Spotlight 29/2018 by Taissiya Sutormina (5 September 2018)

People waiting at the border crossing between Kazakhstan and China © Ana Flašker / Alamy Stock Foto

In early August, Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh and Chinese national, was given a suspended sentence after being arrested for illegally crossing the border as she fled China for Kazakhstan. During her trial in Kazakhstan, she testified about “re-education camps” in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, where thousands of ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslim detainees are subjected to political indoctrination. A year ago, the oppression of the Kazakh diaspora in China was debated by Kazakhstan’s parliament. However, Kazakhstan did not follow through with any practical steps in response to the “anti-terrorist and anti-separatist” measures adopted by its powerful neighbour.

Xinjiang means “new frontier” in Chinese – and the name did not come about by chance. This north-western region not only forms a demarcation line between China and Central Asia but is also felt to be a buffer between the Chinese population and the “others”. Inhabited mainly by Muslims of Turkic origin, Xinjiang – the country’s largest province – is seen as a problem for China. The predominant faith here is Islam and the majority of its more than 11 million inhabitants are Uyghurs, who have their own ethnoreligious identity.

Discriminatory rules have been introduced in this “problem region” to guard against any softening of the border between China and Central Asia and between the Communist Party and Islam. However, the impacts of these measures are felt not only by the Uyghur majority but also by the 1.5 million Muslim Kazakhs, who migrated to what was then East Turkestan during Soviet collectivisation in the 1930s and acquired Chinese citizenship after the founding of the People’s Republic.

Social re-engineering in Xinjiang

For the Communist Party, the ethnic and religious identity of Xinjiang’s inhabitants is directly linked to their supposed hostility towards the state, and the state’s security policy response is draconian. Following the appointment in August 2016 of a new provincial party chief, Chen Quanguo – who gained a reputation for an “iron hand” during his time as Party Secretary of Tibet – social management methods have continued and the situation has escalated. As part of this social management, a ranking system has now been imposed in Xinjiang, tracking people according to their ethnicity and individual prayer habits and assigning them to political risk groups. This social re-engineering in the region, aided by the use of big data, aims to consolidate socialist values and force ethnic assimilation in the region.

Many Kazakhs in Xinjiang have close links to family in Kazakhstan, speak Kazakh and are Muslim. However, the Chinese authorities frequently prevent them from leaving the country, making it increasingly difficult for them to maintain contact with Kazakhstan.

China’s authorities use Chinese biopolitics and the storage of large amounts of personal data to strictly monitor people travelling to Kazakhstan. According to various accounts by residents of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang, travellers have been required to provide DNA data, 3D photos and blood samples before being permitted to leave for Kazakhstan. Even their voices were recorded.

There have also been numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and interrogations of Chinese Kazakhs returning to Xinjiang from Kazakhstan. This has particularly affected Kazakh students who are Chinese nationals but have opted to study at universities in Kazakhstan, where they are taught in Kazakh and benefit from financial incentives from the state. Responding to an enquiry from RFE/RL's Radio Azattyq last year, Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Education and Science reported that 88 ethnic Kazakh students of Chinese nationality were denied permission to return to Kazakhstan to continue their studies after spending the summer in Xinjiang. This year, a further 80 students, fearing detention, failed to return to their families in China for the summer.

People with dual Chinese-Kazakh nationality and Chinese citizens who hold residence permits for Kazakhstan face particular difficulties. Almost 700 Kazakhs are currently unable to leave Xinjiang. It is claimed that these measures are necessary due to the potential for disclosure of Chinese state secrets.

The process of forced assimilation began with restrictions on religious freedom, which have escalated into anti-religious practices since 2016. The Chinese authorities say that these measures are essential to combat terrorism and extremism. However, the restrictions are not enshrined in law but take the form of party directives, disseminated through local party committees. There is no general ban on Islam in Xinjiang. The Hui people, who are Han Chinese, are also adherents of the Muslim faith and make up 40% of the region’s population. They are in a privileged position compared with other ethnic groups, not least as regards their freedom to practise their religion. The religious restrictions, in other words, are based purely on ethnicity.

As a consequence, due to their “inclination” towards Islam, ethnic “undesirables” are being sent to political re-education camps, allegedly for the purpose of safeguarding social stability. The small amount of information available about the re-education process is drawn solely from the reports of a handful of former detainees. They talk about being forced to demonstrate their alienation from Islam, with compulsory lessons in the Chinese language and party history and daily singing of patriotic songs. In this penal system, the duration of imprisonment is directly linked to the success of re-education. Violence and overcrowding in the camps are meant to speed up the process. However, there are signs that the Chinese government will soon have solved the problem of overcrowding: numerous calls for offers to build new re-education units were published in April 2017.

The mass arrests have been taking place continuously since mid 2016. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of detainees now exceeds one million.

Muted response from Kazakhstan

The oppression of ethnic Kazakhs in China was officially reported for the first time in April. Following a formal request by the President of Kazakhstan and then disclosure of the issue in the European Parliament in April 2018, the numerous complaints by detainees’ families were investigated. The fate of the Kazakh diaspora was also addressed in bilateral discussions between the Deputy Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan and the Chinese regional chief. Working visits to the region also took place and an action plan to support ethnic Kazakhs abroad was approved for 2018-2022 and includes the provision of scholarships and educational materials.

According to the Foreign Ministry, around 170 Kazakhs are still in detention in Xinjiang. The question is whether the measures to support ethnic Kazakhs in China go far enough.

The flow of migrants from China to Kazakhstan increased dramatically last year. For the first time in the history of independent Kazakhstan, more ethnic Kazakhs are migrating from China than from Uzbekistan, previously the main country of origin.

The response from the government of Kazakhstan is still muted, however. It continues to adhere to the principle of non-interference in its neighbour’s internal affairs: China’s policy, after all, is not aimed at Kazakhs in particular but is reported to be targeted against ethnic minorities as a whole. As the Chinese government denies the existence of the re-education camps and Kazakhstan is involved in China’s New Silk Road project (Belt and Road Initiative), now is probably not the right time to take action. Nevertheless, the decision not to deport Sayragul Sauytbay following her release – which probably saved her from the death penalty in China – can be seen as a signal of support, boosting hopes among those bold enough to attempt to flee China that they will find a welcome in their historical homeland.


Taissiya Sutormina is Research Assistant at ZOiS.