Kazakh population in China: an apple of discord or a bridge of friendship?

Kazakh population in China:  an apple of discord or a bridge of friendship?

The Sayragul Sauytbay case re-surfaced some questions on the status of Kazakh population in Western China and evaluated the growing China-Kazakhstan economic partnership in light of the recent developments. Aidar Amrebayev, a political expert from Kazakhstan, shares his opinion in this regard with Rusif Huseynov.


Huseynov: China and Kazakhstan have strong and dynamic economic relations. Kazakhstan is one of the center points of the Belt and Road Initiative. Taking into account the importance of the country for the New Silk Road, how should Kazakhstan act on this extradition? 

Amrebayev: Indeed, the economic relations of the two countries are characterized by dynamism and high efficiency. Kazakhstan is a key partner for China in its westward movement along the continental corridor of the Silk Road. This September will mark the fifth anniversary of the historic proclamation on the initiative, now called the Belt and Road by Xi Jingping in Astana, Kazakhstan.

This initiative has different meanings: global, regional and national dimensions for China and its partners. In the first sense, the Belt and Road is the manifestation of the Chinese model of globalization, the establishment of the Celestial Empire as the locomotive of the world economy, the creation of the so-called "community of the unified destiny of mankind". Regionally, the Belt and Road is a plan for regional infrastructure modernization in Asia, the renewal and construction of new transport corridors, the connection of old and potential new markets. From the national perspective, the project means the modernization of China`s western territories, the improvement of the domestic economic situation and the closer integration of the underdeveloped regions of western China with the main part.

For Kazakhstan, China is now almost the main economic partner, the engine of modernization and development, especially in light of Western sanctions and the depressed state of the Russian economy. There are impressive and specific investment, industrial and trade plans and cooperation programs.

In this regard, I think that the problems that arose around the Kazakh community in China upon the arrival of Chen Quanguo (former head of Community Party in Tibet, also known as Iron Chen due to his repressive methods in respect of national minorities) as Xinjiang`s new party leader in 2016 cannot impede the development of dynamic economic relations between countries.

Nevertheless, the humanitarian aspect of the relations is experiencing a serious test, if not a crisis. On the eve of the Communist Party`s 19th Congress in Xinjiang, unprecedented security measures were taken, especially with regard to the Uighur and, in general, the Muslim population of the region. The previous precedents of the Uighurs' violent resistance to the authorities, terror acts forced local authorities to question the loyalty of this segment of the region's population to the central government. At the initiative of the leadership of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, special camps for political re-education were established, which hosted people suspected of being disloyal to the authorities. These measures also affected the Kazakhs of Xinjiang. Moreover, incidents did happen when some people found themselves in a situation of dual citizenship. Several hundred ethnic Kazakhs from China received Kazakhstan citizenship, but they did not properly give up their Chinese one. This became the basis for filing suit versus them and refusing the remaining members of their families to travel abroad.

The case of the citizen of the People's Republic of China, Sayragul Sauytbay, is from this series. In order to reunite with her family that possesses the Kazakh citizenship, Sayragul illegally crossed the border and fled to Kazakhstan, where she was sentenced by the authorities for 6 months. Meanwhile the Chinese side insisted on the extradition of Sayragul Sauytbay as a Chinese citizen from Kazakhstan. The Sauytbay case and related developments in China (arresting her relatives and expelling them to political re-education camps) generated a new wave of Sinophobia in Kazakhstan. The "soft verdict" of the Kazakh court against Sayragul Sauytbay was viewed by the Kazakh population as a victory in upholding the rights of the Kazakh population of Xinjiang.

However, the decision of the Kazakh court is only part of the problem. Now it is the turn of the Chinese side. It can indict Sayragul Sauytbay of illegally crossing the PRC border, as well as divulging state secrets, which the Chinese side has already spoken about, and demand her extradition on the basis of relevant international agreements.

Given the sensitive nature of this situation and the destructive potential of growing Sinophobia in an important country for China, the Chinese side, like the Kazakh one, is interested in a prompt settlement of the situation. The unsettled issues of changing citizenship among the Kazakh population of the XUAR can seriously destabilize the already difficult situation in Xinjiang, which the Chinese leadership is not interested in while implementing the ambitious Belts and Road program.

Both parties now put all efforts to resolve the problems. The Foreign Ministries of the two countries are now engaged on this. A corresponding Commission has been set up, official delegations are being exchanged, experts attracted, compromise solutions for the problem sought. I believe that a mutually acceptable solution will be found, although not so easily...

A lot of news circulates on the state of minorities, particularly Uyghurs in China. There is also a remarkable community of the ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, approximately 1.5 million people. What do we know about their situation? Are there known systematic pressure and human rights violations against the Kazakhs just like those committed against the Uyghurs? 

As I said above, Xinjiang is quite a complex region, which requires a special algorithm of political decisions for harmonizing the relations between the different ethnic groups living there. Integration of national minorities into a single identity of the Chinese nation is a very difficult and painful process that needs careful consideration and respect for the identity and interests of ethnic minorities. According to individual facts, there are excesses and unjustified administrative pressures in this respect. Local officials resort to unpopular measures, often speculating about Islamic radicalism and Uyghur separatism... This causes discontent and covert resistance of Xinjiang`s local population, thus, generally destabilizing the situation in the region.

Taking a broader view, do you think that this case has revealed a deep-seated distrust towards China among the population and political elites? What is the overall image Kazakhs have of their eastern neighbor, compared to Russia and the West? 

Speaking of Sinophobia in Kazakhstan, we should say that it has some historical roots. After all, neighbors always have something to argue about... During the Soviet period, especially during the Sino-Soviet split, the myth of the Chinese threat was one of the dominant ideologies. Currently, in the context of intensified economic contacts between our countries, various economic disputes, disagreements and infrequent violations arise, especially those related to high corruption of business projects. There are stereotypes associated with an alarming number of the Chinese population and the lack of living space in China. In my opinion, this Sinophobia is partially heated by the competition of external forces, for instance, Russia's desire to prevent China's economic expansion in Central Asia.

Russophobia in Kazakhstan has a slightly different character. It is fueled by the fear of memories of the former metropolis and the colonial status of the country, its desire for full sovereignty. The ineffectiveness of Russia's integration and economic projects, the growth of great-power chauvinism there also intensify Russophobic sentiment in Kazakhstan.

With regard to the West, such sentiment is much lower. The West has always been associated among the local population as a legal, civilized and developed entity since early 1990s. Yet, there could recently be some anti-Americanism related to inadequate and aggressive behavior of the U.S. in different regions of the world. The political elites may face fear of importing color revolutions, which are backed by the United States, in their opinion...

Referring back to the Sauytbay case, China demands her deportation, while Kazakhstan looks for international help, to get her a political refugee status. What far-reaching outcomes can this contradiction produce? 

In this context, it is extremely important for Kazakhstan`s leadership to maintain stability in its own country and support the President`s image among the population. The topic of relations with China is very sensitive in the mass consciousness, which could become a basis of social destabilization. It was displayed by the recent so-called land rallies against leasing and transferring land to foreigners. In this connection, I think that the decision of the Kazakh court in the Sautbay case about continuing this case on the territory of Kazakhstan and denial of extradition is quite adequate to the emerging political reality in the country, despite the requests of the Chinese side.

As for granting Mrs. Sautbay a refugee status and then Kazakh citizenship, the future will show which way the process develops…

The position of the Chinese authorities, not only regarding this case, but also on the overall state of the Kazakh diaspora in the PRC will become important for the prospects of bilateral relations... Time will tell whether Xinjiang`s Kazakh population will become an apple of discord or a golden bridge of friendship (as stated before) between the countries!

Our countries are connected with many links, at the heart of which lie economic interests...