Kazakhstan and the Uyghur Issue: between ethnical linkages and political indifference

by Giusy Musarò

1. Introduction

The statement in which Mike Pompeo referred to the Uyghur issue as 'genocide' revived interest in the violations committed by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. The same accusation against Beijing was made by the Canadian government, which denounced Chinese policies in the Xinjiang region in a motion which passed 266 votes to 0 in February 2021. Although the use for the first time of the word 'genocide' to identify China's policy of repression against the Uyghurs is undoubtedly a major step forward, the Chinese government's long-standing human rights violations against the Uyghurs still go on unchallenged amid the general indifference of the neighbouring countries, such as Kazakhstan, and the inability of the international community to take effective actions. But what is the relationship between Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, and what role does the latter play in the Uyghur issue and why?

2. The Uyghur issue in Xinjiang

Since 2017, the Chinese government has imprisoned more than one million Uyghurs, mostly Muslims of Turkish-speaking ethnic origin in more than 380 're-education camps' set up by the Chinese government in Xinjiang Autonomous Province. These centres are continually expanding and upgrading towards high-level security facilities, closer to prisons than the existing re-education camps already look like, as a recent study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute shows. [1]

Beijing's oppression and control over about eleven million people goes far beyond arbitrary detentions and internments in re-education camps, extending into everyday life and affecting the public and private life of the Uyghur community. In addition to the constant danger of being deported to re-education camps, the population is under constant surveillance. Cities are divided into 'grids' of 500 inhabitants each, monitored incessantly by a police station using advanced technology, facial recognition and artificial intelligence. DNA and biometric data are also collected under the 'Physical for All Programme'. Sudden disappearances, restrictions on religious practices, sterilisation and forced labour are other well-known practices, right up to the so-called 'Pair Up and Become Family' campaign: Chinese men are sent to live with Uighur women whose husbands are detained in camps in order to promote what they call a greater 'ethnic unity'.

2.1. The role of religion in the Uyghur issue

The Uyghur issue arose with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the independent republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Xinjiang's geographic location has since then encouraged exchanges between members of the Uyghur ethnic group in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, reviving a 'Pan-Turkish' ideal and initiating separatist sentiments in the region. Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, the concept of terrorism has taken on a broader international scope, which now incorporates separatism and religious extremism into its definition. These - terrorism, separatism and religious extremism - are considered the 'three evils' of which the Uyghur minority is accused. Although the Chinese government recognises Islam as a religion, it fears that it will be used to trigger separatist movements and, for this reason, all its manifestations and expressions are harshly condemned and subject to control.