Kazakhstan’s Ambiguous Position towards the Uyghur Cultural Genocide in China

There is a cultural genocide ongoing in the Uyghur region of China. As I detail in a recently published book, large swaths of the Uyghur population has been incarcerated or put in mass internment camps, the local population outside these institutions are subjected to omni-present surveillance, and they have no choice but to acquiesce to forced assimilation measures as signs of their culture are being erased from the landscape of their homeland.1 This is a humanitarian issue that should appeal to our senses of social justice and humanity, but unfortunately, it has also become a geopolitical issue that is pitting states around the world against each other.

Predictably, this is most vivid at the United Nations.  Twice, two separate groups of states in the UN faced off against each other on the issue of whether this cultural genocide was occurring or not. In July 2019, 22 states signed a letter calling on the UN to take a stance on ending the mass incarceration and internment of Uyghurs2, but 35 other countries responded with a letter supporting China’s actions against its Uyghur citizens on counterterrorism grounds3, a group that China was shortly thereafter able to expand to 50.4 Those criticizing China were largely democratic states, and those defending China were mostly autocratic states, which remained heavily dependent upon China economically. This showdown was recently repeated in October 2020, and the balance had shifted slightly, but remaining in China’s favor. Now, 39 countries sought to condemn China’s actions while only 45 still agreed to support them.5 While these symbolic showdowns at the UN suggest a growing geopolitical rift in which the cultural genocide in the Uyghur region has become a pawn, it is also important to highlight a group of nations who chose to abstain from taking a stance in either of them. Among these non-committal states, Kazakhstan is particularly conspicuous.

In many ways, Kazakhstan is the state outside China that is most impacted by what is happening in the Uyghur region today.  It has the largest Uyghur diaspora outside China, and ethnic Kazakhs are the largest group after Uyghurs to be subjected to the genocidal policies implemented by the Chinese state in the Uyghur region. In fact, there have been several instances where citizens of Kazakhstan have ended up in mass internment camps when visiting relatives in China. However, Kazakhstan has also pursued a foreign policy course over the last two decades that has made it increasingly dependent on China economically and, by extension, politically. This situation has put the state of Kazakhstan in a difficult position with regards to what is happening in the Uyghur region of China on which it borders. It is an issue that the state desperately wants to ignore, but also one it realistically cannot. While the state may be able to manage this situation by embracing ambiguity, it is also possible that events in the Uyghur region of China will further harden the long-held Sinophobia that has characterized Kazakh nationalism, which is a volatile political force in the country capable of eventually forcing the state’s hand on the issue.

Collateral Damage to Kazakhstan’s Citizenry from China’s Cultural Genocide in the Uyghur Region

Kazakhstan is home to the largest Uyghur diaspora outside of China, numbering over 200,000. It is also important to understand that this population is not merely a diaspora, but one that has developed in the porous borderlands between Kazakhstan and China’s Uyghur region in the Ili River Valley.  Since the nineteenth century, Uyghurs have gone back and forth across this border seeking refuge from political turmoil and repression on one side or the other. As a result, this community has maintained significant cross-border connections, including familial ties. It is likely that many of the thousands of Uyghurs in Kazakhstan have relatives and close acquaintances across the border who are suffering through the present cultural genocide, but this community also has been mostly silenced by Kazakhstan’s authorities. While the Soviet Union had empowered this community politically during the 1970s and 1980s as a propaganda weapon against China, policies that continued to be used less overtly during the 1990s by independent Kazakhstan, this dramatically changed during the 2000s as Kazakhstan solidified economic ties with China. Since 2000, Uyghur activism in Kazakhstan has disappeared from public view, being actively suppressed by the state. Furthermore, while some ethnic Kazakhs may empathize with the plight of their Uyghur neighbors from a fellow Turkic nation, any existent pan-Turkic solidarity in Kazakhstan is far too weak to mobilize citizens politically, especially given the state’s lack of democratic political institutions.

However, it is not only the Uyghur community that is witnessing relatives and friends suffering under the current policies in China’s Uyghur region. There is also a substantial number of ethnic Kazakhs in the country with cross-border ties. Kazakhs have historically also found refuge by crossing the Kazakhstan-China border in both directions, and many Kazakh families remain divided by the border. However, this is most pronounced among those ethnic Kazakhs who have come from China to adopt Kazakhstan citizenship since the country’s independence. At that time, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev began a policy of encouraging ethnic Kazakhs to become citizens of Kazakhstan in an effort to establish an ethnic Kazakh majority in the country. This population, which includes nearly a million ethnic Kazakhs who have come from different neighboring countries since 1991, is known as ‘Oralman’ (‘returnees’) and includes a substantial number from China.6 The Oralman from China maintain particularly strong ties with the over 1 million ethnic Kazakhs who remain in China’s Uyghur region.

It has been Kazakhstan’s Oralman population from China, which has been particularly vocal about the cultural genocide taking place in the Uyghur region and especially about its impact on ethnic Kazakhs. This population has established a powerful advocacy organization, particularly by Kazakhstan’s standards, called Atajurt (‘Fatherland’)7, which has kept the cultural genocide occurring in China’s Uyghur region in public view. The organization has established international ties with journalists, scholars, and activists, has created the world’s largest database of victims of China’s mass internment system in the Uyghur region8, and remains vocal about the need for Kazakhstan to speak up. In many ways, this group has been at the forefront of maintaining international attention to what has been happening to the local population of China’s Uyghur region.    

This organization, and the Oralman from China it represents, pose a significant dilemma for the Kazakhstan government. While Kazakhstan’s authorities have been able to stifle the voices of its Uyghur diaspora, they cannot use the same heavy-handed tactics on ethnic Kazakh Oralman, given their prominent role in Kazakhstan’s nation-building project. The country’s first president and still the most powerful person in the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had famously invited this population to become citizens as a means of demonstrating his qualities as defender of the Kazakh nation to an important political constituency – nationalists in the country. To completely suppress these people’s voices now when they are defending ethnic Kazakhs globally would risk awakening a largely idle political opposition in the country that can rightfully claim that the government is selling off its nation in exchange for ties with China.

The Importance of China to Kazakhstan

Despite the obvious relevance of what is happening in China’s Uyghur region to citizens, the Kazakhstan government has sought to avoid recognizing the human rights crisis that is occurring across its border in China. The primary reason for this silence and feigned ignorance is that the People’s Republic of China has emerged as a critical partner to the Kazakhstan government both economically and politically. While it is tempting to view this relationship through an entirely economic lens, it is virtually impossible to view international economic and political relations separately. This is all the more the case in Kazakhstan, which has long fashioned its international trade relations as central to its approach to international relations more broadly.

As a landlocked country that is rich in natural resources, Kazakhstan from its independence has sought to balance its international relations by attracting multiple international trade and investment partners. Nazarbayev famously termed this approach to the outside world as ‘multi-vector foreign policy.’9 Originally, this was manifested in Kazakhstan seeking to balance its trade and investment, especially in oil, between Russia and the west (i.e. the US and EU). However, by the late 1990s, Kazakhstan was already beginning to see the benefits of expanding its ‘multi-vector’ approach to include China, which was far more powerful economically than Russia and much closer geographically than the US or the EU. While Kazakhstan has also applied its ‘multi-vector’ principals to its engagement with many other states, its engagements with Russia, the US, the EU, and China represent the economic ties that are be most politically powerful.

In many ways, Kazakhstan benefited from this approach to its foreign policy. By engaging all of these powerful states economically, it could deflect attempts by Russia to control its internal politics, deflect western scrutiny of its human rights record and autocratic political system, and prevent all countries involved from establishing a monopoly on its trade and investment. As a result, the country also benefited economically, creating a healthy competition for its natural resources.  

However, in the last twenty years, Kazakhstan has found it increasingly difficult to establish a true balance between these international powers, especially economically. As American and European economic interests in the country increasingly have waned, China has completely outpowered Russia in the provision of investment and trade. While Russia remains seriously engaged in Kazakhstan politically and economically, particularly through the Eurasian Economic Union, and continues to exert the most cultural soft power in the country through Russian media, the importance of China to the country is now undeniable. China already long ago became the country’s largest trading partner, and Xi Jinping announced his signature foreign policy Belt and Road initiative in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, reflecting the extent of Chinese interest in the country. China has invested significantly in Kazakhstan’s energy sector10, with Chinese companies owning significant stakes in the country’s oil extraction and uranium processing, it has invested in railways and highways, and it has begun to exert significant soft power through educational and cultural exchanges.11

In many ways, Kazakhstan has become almost inextricably linked to China in the last two decades in the ways that its ‘multi-vector foreign policy’ had sought to resist. In the present climate where China has become embolden to economically punish its critics, particularly on such sensitive issues as its policies in the Uyghur region, Kazakhstan would likely suffer substantially if it took an official position condemning the cultural genocide taking place there. Furthermore, at a time when such a position could be construed as taking the position of the US in an emerging geopolitical conflict with China, it could also raise the ire of authorities in Russia.

Can Kazakhstan’s Position Remain Ambiguous?

For the government of Kazakhstan, supporting China’s policies in the Uyghur region could quickly aggravate domestic politics and anger numerous constituencies, but criticizing these policies would aggravate international political and economic ties. In this context, the state has sought to walk a thin tightrope to avoid aggravating any of these existing fault-lines and remain resolutely ambiguous about its position on the cultural genocide taking place in the Uyghur region. Since independence, the country has proven itself to be especially adept at pursuing such ambiguous positions, which were a hallmark of Nazarbayev’s leadership style. However, with Nazarbayev no longer officially president and rapidly aging, it is questionable whether the country’s present leadership can evade addressing this particular elephant in the room for much longer.

To date, the government’s response has been to try to minimize domestic attention to what is happening across its border in China to both Uyghurs and Kazakhs while avoiding any direct criticism of China’s policies. This approach is predictable given Kazakhstan’s successful track record of controlling its domestic political space, especially during Nazarbayev’s eighteen years as President.

In many ways, the government’s most immediate challenge is the organization Atajurt, which it has sought to control without destroying entirely. On the one hand, Atajurt continues to exist and continues to compile documentation of the human rights abuses happening on a daily basis to the local population in China’s Uyghur region. On the other hand, the government has sought to silence the organization’s most vocal activists, having arrested12 and later released its founder Serikzhan Bilash on the condition that he no longer lead the organization and speak out about Chinese policies.13 Additionally, the state, employing a tactic that it had used in the past against opposition political parties. It registered a second, less vocal, group using the Atajurt name as an official civic organization.14

These maneuvers have contained domestic outrage about events inside China for the time being, but this is unlikely to hold for the long-term, especially as the state’s silence on the issue becomes increasingly viewed as reflective of it being beholden to China. It is noteworthy that just under the surface of Kazakhstan’s recent engagement with China lies a deep-seated Sinophobia that has developed over decades if not much longer. An adversarial view of China was particularly cultivated in the later decades of Soviet power in Kazakhstan as Soviet propaganda portrayed the Chinese threat as being imminent and overwhelming in terms of its fanaticism and demographics. While Chinese soft power has helped to tame this Sinophobia, it is still present in the country, particularly among nationalists and Kazakh speakers who are suspicious of China’s ultimate intentions in their country. It is not coincidental, for example, that there have been numerous anti-Chinese protests in the last several years in Kazakhstan15, where protests of any kind are conspicuously rare. While these protests have been more focused on the impact of Chinese investment in the country than on what is happening in the Uyghur region, concerns over the latter have the potential to further fuel discontents over the former.

This is particularly true in the context of Kazakhstan’s present tenuous economic and political situation. After almost two decades of continual economic growth, the economy is plateauing at the same time that it has been hard hit by plummeting oil prices and the pressures of the pandemic. Simultaneously, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is finding it difficult to establish the same control of domestic politics as Nazarbayev did, especially as his predecessor remains behind the scenes asserting his own power when he sees fit. As a result, Kazakhstan’s stability in less certain now than it has been for the last two decades, creating more domestic fault lines that could further fuel anti-Chinese sentiments and a reaction to events in China’s Uyghur region.

None of these developments are likely to lead to Kazakhstan taking a stance condemning the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the Chinese state across the border any time soon. However, when and if it does take such a stance, it will be motivated neither by idealism, which Kazakhstan’s politics have always lacked, nor by international pressure. Rather, it will be a response to domestic discontent with a government that pursues macro-economic growth above either the defense of their nation’s identity or the well-being of its own citizens.

1. Sean R. Roberts, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

2. Ben Westcott and Jo Shelley, “22 countries sign letter calling on China to close Xinjiang Uyghur camps,” BBC, July 11, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/11/asia/xinjiang-uyghur-un-letter-intl-hnk/index.html.

3. Nick Cumming-Bruce, “More than 35 countries defend China over mass detention of Uighur Muslims in UN letter,” Independent, July 13, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-mass-detentions-uighur-muslims-un-letter-human-rights-a9003281.html.

4. Roie Yellinek and Elizabeth Chen, “The “22 vs. 50” Diplomatic Split Between the West and China Over Xinjiang and Human Rights,” The Jamestown Foundation, December 31, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/the-22-vs-50-diplomatic-split-between-the-west-and-china-over-xinjiang-and-human-rights/.

5. Catherine Putz, “2020 Edition: Which Countries Are For or Against China’s Xinjiang Policies?” The Diplomat, October 9, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/10/2020-edition-which-countries-are-for-or-against-chinas-xinjiang-policies/.

6. “Nearly 1 Million Kazakhs Have Resettled In Kazakhstan Since 1991,” Radio Free Europe, January 16, 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-ethnic-kazakhs-oralman-return-uzbekistan-turkmenistan-china/26796879.html.

7. Mehmet Volkan Kaşıkçı, “Documenting the Tragedy in Xinjiang: An Insider’s View of Atajurt,” The Diplomat, January 16, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/documenting-the-tragedy-in-xinjiang-an-insiders-view-of-atajurt/.

8. Xinjiang Victims Database, https://www.shahit.biz/eng/.

9. Michael Clark, “Kazakhstan’s Multi-vector Foreign Policy: Diminishing Returns in an Era of Great Power “Pivots”?” The Asan Forum, April 9, 2015, http://www.theasanforum.org/kazakhstans-multi-vector-foreign-policy-diminishing-returns-in-an-era-of-great-power-pivots/.

10. Philippe Le Corre, “Kazakhs Wary of Chinese Embrace as BRI Gathers Steam,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 28, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/02/28/kazakhs-wary-of-chinese-embrace-as-bri-gathers-steam-pub-78545.

11. Ahmad Bux Jamali, “China’s Silk Road diplomacy in Kazakhstan,” Asia Times, June 5, 2020, https://asiatimes.com/2020/06/chinas-silk-road-diplomacy-in-kazakhstan/.

12. “Serikzhan Bilash,” Freedom Now, http://www.freedom-now.org/campaign/serikzhan-bilash/.

13. “Xinjiang activist freed in Kazakh court after agreeing to stop campaigning,” The Guardian, August 16, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/17/xinjiang-activist-freed-in-kazakh-court-after-agreeing-to-stop-campaigning.

14. Bruce Pannier, “Analysis: Official Trickery? Pro-Government Atajurt Gets Registered In Kazakhstan,” Radio Free Europe, October 12, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-kazakhstan-atajurtregistered-pro-government/30213406.html.

15. Bradley Jardine, “Why are there anti-China protests in Central Asia?” The Washington Post, October 16, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/16/why-are-there-anti-china-protests-central-asia/.