Chinese leaders think they can imprison hundreds of thousands of Muslim citizens, attempt to eradicate their religion and culture, and maintain good relations with Central Asian countries and other Muslim-majority societies. The test of this breathtaking proposition is Kazakhstan.

In Kazakhstan, where there is always “a sinophobic mood in the society,” China is making itself even more unpopular. A recent trial of a Chinese citizen has highlighted the depth of that emotion, and the verdict is a signal Astana is moving away from China’s gravitational pull.

In early August, a Kazakh court convicted Sayragul Sauytbay, a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, of illegally entering Kazakhstan in April with forged travel documents. Although given a six-month sentence, she was overjoyed at the outcome. The court, despite predictions of observers, suspended the sentence and immediately released her to live in the country with her husband and two children, Kazakh citizens. In short, the judge refused to deport her to China. Beijing had demanded custody of Sauytbay, presumably to silence her.

Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh, had a lot to tell. Her trial featured the first open testimony of what the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China called “the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.”

In its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Beijing is holding perhaps a million—and some say two million—Uighurs and other Muslims in more than 21 facilities.

The Chinese deny allegations of internment. They call the locations “vocational training centers.”

The centers, however, meet the generally accepted definition of “concentration camps.” These facilities are not for those convicted of “crimes.” Those interned are being held simply because of their religion and ethnicity.

“In China, they call it a political camp,” said Sauytbay, who was forced to work in one of the locations after being reassigned from a state kindergarten, “but really it was a prison in the mountains.”

Some say, with justification, the mass internments constitute a “crime against humanity.”

Beijing says its Uighurs are “the happiest Muslims in the world.” Nonetheless, widespread internments began sometime around the spring of 2017 as a part of what Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang, termed “a people’s war.”

It’s more appropriate to call it a war on a people. China’s Communist Party is in the midst of a campaign to eradicate religion in general and Islam in particular. To that end, Chinese officials in Xinjiang have, among other things, destroyed mosques, banned religious instruction for the young, and shaved beards. Muslims have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Possession of a Koran is often treated as a crime.

The campaign has been so successful that the major mosques in Kashgar and Urumqi, both in Xinjiang, “now stand empty.” And because of the internment camps, neighborhoods are deserted too.

The campaign has been thorough, relentless, horrific. Josh Rogin of the Washington Post calls it “ethnic cleansing.” “Every single Uighur abroad has relatives waiting for a slow death in these camps,”  writes Mehmet Tohtifor, a Toronto-based Uighur activist, on The Diplomat site.

Ethnic Kazakhs—there are about 1.2 million in Xinjiang—have been interned in the camps, some of which are reserved for their ethnic group like the one where Sauytbay was forced to work. Yet Beijing is not content to imprison its own Kazakhs; it has been trying to force Kazakhs from Kazakhstan to come to China, likely for indefinite internment. Sauytbay said Chinese officials confiscated her Chinese passport and told her to pressure her husband and children to renounce Kazakh citizenship and leave Kazakhstan for China.

Not surprisingly, news about the internment camps has started “a new cycle of anti-Chinese sentiment” in Kazakhstan, and that cycle, fueled by Sauytbay’s plea to avoid deportation, has put Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in a tight spot. Her case has been described “as a test of Beijing’s strongest relationship in the region.”

In that test, a mighty Beijing came in second place. Nazarbayev has had to respond to popular pressure to protect ethnic Kazakhs like Sauytbay and Kazakh citizens, yet at the same time he does not want to anger next-door giant China.

Kazakh officials have been promoting Kazakhstan as Beijing’s partner and proudly calls their country the “buckle” in China’s Belt initiative. The “Silk Road Economic Belt,” the trade route to Europe through Central Asia, exits China from Xinjiang and enters Kazakhstan. Astana, appropriately, is where Chinese ruler Xi Jinping in September 2013 announced the Belt program, the land part of what is now commonly called “One Belt, One Road.”

Kazakhstan’s leaders believe they need China’s Belt investment. For instance, Aktau, the ailing Kazakh port on the Caspian Sea, would benefit greatly from enhanced trade flows to and from China, and logistics business would be in line with both Astana’s goal to lessen dependence on oil and gas production and its Nurly Zhol, or “Bright Path,” policy announced November 2014, a state stimulus program focusing on infrastructure.

So with Aktau and other Kazakh cities in mind, Nazarbayev has been quiet in public about Xinjiang’s internment camps and will undoubtedly attempt to continue sidestepping the explosive matter. “I believe Kazakhstan will try to finesse its relationship with China to appear as a defender of Kazakh sovereignty in such a way as not to arose Chinese ire,” Stephen Blank, an American Foreign Policy Council scholar, told Caravan.

Nazarbayev can continue that balancing act—what Blank calls the search for the “golden mean”—for only a limited time, however, for several reasons.

First, the issue will become more dangerous for Central Asian political figures as Beijing intensifies its campaign against Islam, as it undoubtedly will. Xi Jinping has made the eradication of religion a paramount goal, and determined occupiers—the Uighurs do not generally consider themselves “Chinese”—rarely let up.

At the same time, the Belt initiative has made Xinjiang, “a gate that opens to the west,” of even greater importance to Beijing, and China’s central planners understand their grand infrastructure plan cannot succeed, as Nargis Kassenova of KIMEP University in Almaty points out, “with Xinjiang in a constant state of emergency.”

As the situation in Xinjiang deteriorates, leaders of Muslim-majority nations will have a hard time continuing to duck the issue and thereby allow activists and Western political figures, many of them nonbelievers, to be seen as the defenders of China’s Muslims. The problem is particularly acute for Nazarbayev because Kazakhs are a principal target of Beijing’s internment campaign. Raising the issue only in private with Chinese counterparts—what Astana has done up to now—looks politically unsustainable.

Second, the Belt portion of Xi’s grand plan faces large—and growing—economic obstacles. Yes, the Belt is central to Beijing’s plans to dominate Central Asia, the “geographical pivot of history,” but that does not make hauling cargo by rail between China and Europe a viable proposition. There’s a reason the private sector had put almost no investment in linking the two destinations by rail until Xi announced the Belt. Rail is relatively slow when compared to air and relatively expensive when compared to ship.

And rail is bound to become even less viable as ice melts, chopping 5,000 miles and two weeks off existing shipping routes between China and Europe. In just a few years—shipping companies are already making trial runs on Arctic lanes hugging Russia’s northern coast—vessels plying the northern China-Europe route will be just about as fast and a lot less expensive than trains.

Beijing is not terribly concerned about everyday economics. It wants rail lines to dominate central Asian economies by flooding them with Chinese goods—something countries there will not desire as much—and to move military equipment throughout the region. Chinese tanks, for instance, were seen this summer on rail cars transiting Kazakhstan.

Ultimately, the issue is whether China will continue to underwrite the costs of the Belt. Given a bad case of what Yale’s Paul Kennedy termed “imperial overstretch,” it is doubtful Beijing can support its grand plan for long. As a result, Beijing’s powerful hold over the imaginations of Central Asian leaders like Nazarbayev does not look like it will last either.

Third, China will always be important to Kazakhstan because of geography, but there is a mood of assertion in Central Asian capitals, especially Astana, and that mood will diminish deference to the Chinese. Nazarbayev, trying to become the leader of his region, sponsored a summit of all the Central Asian states in March where he argued his country and its neighbors did not need foreign “mentors” to solve problems.

Astana, Blank pointed out in an article in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, “is also more openly expressing a version of Eurasianism—an emphasis on the centrality of Eurasia in world politics animated by Pan-Turkism, a call for the unity of Turkic peoples.” As Blank notes, this view fits in with Nazarbayev’s desire to promote the Kazakh language and culture.

The Kazakh president cannot promote his country if he is seen bowing to China, and so Beijing’s insistence on obtaining custody of Ms. Sauytbay was particularly ill-timed. The Sauytbay trial showed that when an increasingly arrogant Beijing forced Nazarbayev to choose between his own people and China, he of course chose his own people.

“Long live Kazakhstan,” Sauytbay told a cheering crowd moments after the court set her free. When it refused deportation to China, it looked like that Central Asian state declared independence from its large Muslim-repressing neighbor next door.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

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