In Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and largest city, a group of mostly old women have continued to protest Chinese policies in Xinjiang.
“China incarcerated one of my sons, Kazakhstan jailed another,” Zauatkhan Tursyn, per a recent RFE/RL report, chanted while picketing the Chinese Consulate in Almaty on February 10.
The previous day Tursyn’s son, Baibolat Kunbolatuly, had been arrested while protesting with a small group outside the consulate. According to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known as Azattyq, he was found guilty of violating the country’s law on mass gatherings on February 10 and jailed for 10 days.
“I demand from Chinese authorities to release my son Baimurat, and I demand Kazakh authorities release my son Baibolat,” Tursyn said, joining the protest on its third day in a row.
The protesters are mostly older women, holding pictures of husbands and sons they say have been incarcerated in China’s Xinjiang. In recent years, an estimated 2 million people, predominatly Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups such as ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, have been detained in Xinjiang. After initially denying the establishment of re-education camps and internment of Muslims, Chinese authorities called the camps it had established “vocational centers” designed to salvage Uyghurs and others from extremism. In December 2019, Chinese authorities said everyone had “graduated” from the centers. Meanwhile, relatives of people who disappeared in Xinjiang have continued to wonder where their loved ones are.
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Almost exactly a year ago, in late January 2020, Kunbolatuly was outside the Chinese Consulate protesting. At the time, security officers outside the consulate told the protesters to submit their requests in writing. On February 8, 2021, consulate security officials told the three women protesting — Farida Qabylbek, Gulnur Qosdauletqyzy, and Nurzat Ermekba — that consular officials would not meet them because of the pandemic. On February 9, RFE/RL counted eight protesters, mostly women, outside the consulate. On February 10, the same women returned to protest, with Tursyn in her son’s place joining them.
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According to RFE/RL’s February 8 report, a city administration official told the initial three protesters that their demonstration was illegal. Nevertheless, while police reportedly watched the scene, they have not intervened beyond Kunbolatuly’s detention.
Beyond that arrest, Kazakh authorities have mostly stood back, in tune with the country’s general effort to not get involved. Of course, by virtue of proximity, past policies, ethnicity, and religion, Kazakhstan is involved. For much of the world, early reporting in 2018 about Xinjiang came largely via voices based in Kazakhstan. In March 2019, I dubbed it the “Kazakh window” — and it was largely built and held open by Serikzhan Bilash and his organization Ata Jurt. But soon after, Bilash was arrested for his activism and his organization’s name was co-opted; he was subsequently released and eventually relocated to Turkey, given that he was unable to continue his activism in Kazakhstan.
In dueling sets of letters in 2019 and 2020 addressed to the U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights about Xinjiang (one set condemning Chinese policies and the other set defending China), Kazakhstan remained conspicuously absent. In other statements, Kazakh authorities have characterized the Xinjiang matter as an internal Chinese domestic issue and thus not for outside commentary. But silence, in this case, is itself a statement.
The Kazakh government has billions of reasons to stay in China’s good graces (China is Kazakhstan’s second largest trade partner in both exports and imports), and its autocratic political setup ensures that public sentiment critical of China does not translate into changed policies. The recent protests outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty have been small in relative terms, but their persistence is illustrative.