The Pyramid of Peace, Astana (Image credits: Ninaras  – CC BY 4.0)

As many or most who served in a representative capacity for the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), I had an opportunity to visit Kazakhstan. It is a beautiful and ambitious country, very much active in the OSCE. I met the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been continuously in office since 1990. I attended meetings in the Pyramid of Peace and Accord in Astana, a building that is by itself a testament to Kazakhstan’s ambition to become a regional power and a leader in international inter-religious dialogue.

Now, all this is threatened by China. Recent news about Kazakhstan is dominated by the issue of ethnic Kazakhs who escaped from China, reached Kazakhstan, and found themselves at the center of a great political, diplomatic, and religious game. Some confusion exists, as there are three different kinds of ethnic Kazakhs who arrive in Kazakhstan from China. The first is Chinese citizens, who either escaped from the dreaded transformation through education camps or managed to flee before being arrested.

The second is Kazakh citizens, who visited relatives in China, were arrested as “extremists” together with them and escaped from the camps (although this is becoming increasingly difficult). The third are Kazakhs who have two passports, one Kazakh and one Chinese. When the repression of Muslims increased in China, thousands surrendered their Chinese passports to the authorities, believing naively that as Kazakh citizens they would now be left alone. The CCP answered that nobody is free to renounce Chinese citizenship without permission, and most ended up in the camps anyway.

Kazakhstan is now confronted with the influx of several thousand refugees from China, and with the disturbing fact that people it regards as its own citizens are detained in China for the only crime of being active Muslims. For foreign journalists in Kazakhstan, it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of the population is horrified by the fact that Kazakhs are detained in Chinese camps, and asks the government both to welcome the refugees and intervene with China on behalf of those detained. This places Nazarbayev’s government in a very difficult predicament. On the one hand, the country’s economic growth needs China, and the CCP is in fact in a position to blackmail Nazarbayev with economic threats. On the other hand, the old president understands that not supporting the Kazakhs detained in the camps or those escaping from China would dramatically alienate the population in Kazakhstan, with unpredictable consequences.

A skilled politician, Nazarbayev has decided that taking a middle road is in order. As Foreign Policy reports, in public declarations, Kazakh officers support China’s position that the West is greatly exaggerating the nature and scope of “transformation through education” camps, and downplay the arrest of Kazakhs claiming it is often the result of bureaucratic misunderstandings about passports. Kazakh refugees from China receive “suggestions” not to speak in public about the camps, and a human rightsorganization supporting the Kazakhs in jail in China, Atajurt, has been denied registration repeatedly and fined for operating without a registration. As if this was not enough, in January 2019 a group of pro-Chinese Kazakh personalities signed an open letter calling for Atajurt to be disbanded.

This, however, is only part of the story. While supporting China in public, the Kazakh government negotiates with the CCP in private. Of 33 Kazakh citizens, who never had a Chinese passport, arrested while visiting China, 20 have been quietly released. 2,500, who have a double passport, will be allowed to renounce their Chinese citizenship and move to Kazakhstan. Tricky issues remain with those Kazakh Chinese who do not have a Kazakh passport and arrive in Kazakhstan as refugees. Bitter Winter has reported repeatedly about the emblematic case of Sayragul Sauytbay: she was not sent back to China, as the CCP demanded, but neither has she been granted asylum, although she has now a high profile human rights female lawyer, Aiman Umarova, who will at least keep her case in the international spotlight.

Nothing is simple in this story. Sauytbay and others who denounce the tortures, suicides, and suspicious deaths in the “transformation through education” camps have been repeatedly intimidated and told they had better keep silent if they wanted to avoid repatriation to China. But some human rights activists believe that the opposite is true: those who do not make their cases known may be quietly sent back to China.

The story of the Kazakhs in China is in itself tragic. The first Kazakhs did not come to China on their own. They were invited by the Qing emperors to settle in the area once ruled by the Buddhist Dzungar Khanate after the Dzungars were conquered and exterminated by the Chinese in the so-called Dzungar Genocide of the 18th century. But the number increased dramatically with the colonial expansion of Russia, as many Kazakhs preferred Chinese to Russian and later Soviet rule. Some escaped in the 19thcentury, others to avoid conscription in the Czarist Army in World War I, and more during the artificial famines the Soviets organized in 1919–22 and 1932–33 to break the Kazakh’s resistance to their rule, a lesser known version of what they did in Ukraine. During World War II, more than 300,000 Kazakhs lived in Xinjiang, and the number was continuously growing.

But their problems were growing as well. When the Uyghurs, with Soviet support, created the ephemeral independent East Turkestan Republics in Xinjiang, the first in 1933–34 and the second in 1944–49, the Kazakhs were regarded with suspicion as pro-Chinese. The anti-Kazakh sentiment was fueled by the Soviets, who were afraid that Kazakhs in East Turkestan will support the pro-independence movement in Soviet Kazakhstan. Tension escalated to tragedy when East Turkestan, on the Soviets’ suggestion, expelled some 30,000 “suspicious” Kazakhs to the Chinese province of Qinghai in 1936. Qinghai was theoretically part of Republican China but was, in fact, controlled by a local warlord, Ma Bufang (1903–1975). Ma was a Hui Muslim. Traditional enmities of the Hui against Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, who practice a different form of the same Sunni Islam, and false information spread by Soviets, both played a role in Ma’s decision to exterminate the Kazakhs. Only 135 survived out of 30,000.

Later, to escape the Second East Turkestan Republic and then the CCP, several thousand Kazakhs decided to flee to Tibet. But the Tibetan Buddhists, who had problems of their own with China, were afraid of a massive influx of Muslims, and most Kazakhs were killed. An unexpected casualty of this confrontation was Douglas Mackiernan (1913–1950), who entered history as the first CIA agent to be killed in the line of duty. He had carefully prepared his 1950 mission to enter Tibet and spy on the Chinese. He made only one mistake, he tried to enter Tibet disguised as a Kazakh refugee and was shot dead by Tibetan border guards.

Kazakh Muslims are a prolific people. Life was never easy under CCP rule, but according to official statistics, their population grew to 1,2 million in Xinjiang, with other tens of thousand outside the autonomous region. With the recent crackdown on religion, at least 10,000 Kazakh  Muslims, according to Atajurt, ended up in the “transformation through education” camps. The same human rights organization reports several cases of torture, and of children sent to the indoctrination camps known as “Loving Heart” schools. Kazakhs in China with a Kazakh passport may hope to be helped in some way by Nazarbayev’s diplomacy, although this is by no means certain. Those without a Kazakh passport may only ask the free world to speak out for them.

Massimo Introvigne is a well-known sociologist of religion and the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies of New Religions) in Turin, Italy. He is also the editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, an online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China.  The above article is republished with permission from Bitter Winter.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...