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

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.

Many Uyghur religious sites have been destroyed in recent years under the pretext of not being 'safe'. The concept of 'security' became, in the case of the Turkish-speaking and Muslim Uyghur community, a purely social and political construct, a process through which an object is socially constructed as a 'threat' [2], and for which 'urgent', 'exceptional' or 'repressive' measures are justified[3]. Fasting during Ramadan, having many children, eating halal meat, naming children with Islamic names, are all considered 'extremist' and 'unsafe' behaviours in Xinjiang, whose repression becomes necessary for the very survival of the Chinese state.

Figura 1 - Campo di Rieducazione nello Xinjiang. Fonte: BBC

2.2. The Uyghur Issue and the Belt and Road Initiative

The Uyghur issue became more pronounced with the launch of the New Silk Road in 2013: China's grand development plan to connect China to Europe through the construction of a series of infrastructure and economic corridors passing through Eurasia. Xinjiang represents an essential crossing point for many of the planned economic corridors. For this reason, the Uyghur issue in the region has become not only a cultural and identity issue, but also a political and economic one. Among the economic corridors, the New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELBEC), which connects China to Europe and Western Russia, passes through Xinjiang and the Khorgos economic zone in Kazakhstan. The second corridor, the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, runs from Xinjiang's capital Urumqi to Greece. The third, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, connects the city of Kashgar in southern Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea, also passing through the country. . The Xinjiang region is also home to some of the world's largest reserves of natural gas and coal, and thousands of Uyghurs are now forcibly employed as cheap labour in multiple factories of international brands operating in the region [4]. This makes it easy for Beijing to pass off the centres as "vocational training centres" rather than re-education camps aimed at suppressing Uyghur religious and cultural identity.

Figura 2 - Sei Corridoi Economici previsti dalla Via Della Seta

3. The Uyghurs in Kazakhstan

Chinese policies against the Uyghur community have a strong impact on Kazakhstan and, in particular, on Kazakh ethnic groups living on the border with Xinjiang, which are also subject to repression and control by Chinese authorities. Kazakh and Uyghur ethnic groups in Xinjiang have maintained and strengthened strong cross-border connections and intense family ties since the 19th century. About 250,000 Uyghurs now live in southeast Kazakhstan, representing the largest diaspora in the country.

Chinese repression of ethnic Kazakh groups involves about 1.6 million people, many of whom identify themselves as Oralmen, literally 'returnees'. The Oralmen are ethnic Kazakhs from several neighbouring countries, including Xinjiang, who decided to return to Kazakhstan after its independence in 1991, encouraged by the nation-building policy of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Given the strong ties between the Oralmen and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, cases of Kazakh citizens being arrested by Chinese authorities while visiting friends and family in Xinjiang have not been uncommon.

The Oralmen community from China is particularly active and committed to maintaining a voice for the Uyghur issue in the public debate. One of the most active organisations is undoubtedly Atajurt (Homeland) [5], which is the only one that manages to resonate in the Western media and maintain international attention on the Uyghur issue. The organisation has also created the largest database for victims of Beijing's repressive policies in Xinjiang.

3.1 Ethnicity and religion in Kazakhstan

Approximately 70% of Kazakhstan's population are Muslims, who account for between 52 and 65% of all believers in Kazakhstan. The religious worship practised is quite different from canonical Islam, being characterised more by the participation in life-cycle rituals and adherence to moral norms and values. In fact, when Islam spread to the region in the 7th century, it was mostly inhabited by nomadic people, more inclined to follow tribal traditions rather than those of the shari'a. For this reason, Muslim worship in the country acquired its own characteristics, combining with pre-Islamic religious traditions, and is now part of Kazakh national culture.

As explained in the article on Islam and Radicalisation in Central Asia, Islamic worship in the region was strongly discouraged during the Soviet occupation. Religious practices existing outside of state control were considered 'parallel' forms of Islam and deemed illegal. With independence in 1991, Islam regained some vigour, but the Soviet legacy labels of 'official' and 'unofficial' Islam remained. However, while within the USSR the categorisation of practices as 'unofficial' was used in reference to Islam in the Sufi tradition, today this term in Kazakhstan is applied in relation to so-called fundamentalist Islam.

The same process of 'securitisation' of Islam that developed in the case of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has also taken place in Kazakhstan. Religious extremism and fundamentalism are now considered main threats. This has given the green light to the application of more restrictive measures against freedom of worship, the tightening of repression against opposition groups and greater State control over religious and cultural activities in the country. [6]

4. Role of Kazakhstan in the Uyghur Issue

While in recent years, many states have begun to strongly criticise Beijing's policies, countries with a strong national interest in the Uyghur issue, including Turkey, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have maintained a neutral and ambiguous stance. The Kazakh government's response in recent years has been that of minimising domestic attention to the Uyghur issue, avoiding any criticism of Chinese policies, failing to recognise the humanitarian crisis taking place on its border.

Since the 2000s, Uyghur activism has been severely repressed by the Kazakh state and any form of Uyghur solidarity has been weakened. The Atajurt organisation itself has been a victim of this oppression: the Kazakh government tried to silence it, by arresting and then releasing its founder Serikzhan Bilan on the condition that he leaves the organisation's leadership and stops all opposition activities against Chinese policies for 7 years.

However, while the Kazakh state has been able to suppress the voices of the Uyghur diaspora, it cannot do the same with those of the ethnic Kazakh community, as this would risk weakening its nation-building plan and thus strengthen opposition voices that accuse the government of 'selling' the nation to China in exchange for greater ties and economic relations with it. A certain 'Sinophobia' is, in fact, still present in the country, especially among the more nationalistic lines, as shown by the recent anti-Chinese protests in the country, which denounce both Beijing's growing economic influence and the mass incarcerations of Uyghur communities and Kazakh ethnic groups on the border.

The reasons for this ambiguity are both economic and political. In the first case, China has become a major economic partner for Kazakhstan, overtaking Russia. Beijing has invested around $27.6 billion in Kazakhstan's energy and oil sector, with Chinese companies owning significant stakes in oil extraction and uranium processing. Chinese investments have thus become an important driver for the country's economic development. Politically, Kazakhstan has since its independence pursued a 'multi-vector' foreign policy, based on the development of friendly and stable relations with major global players with interests in the region and in the country. [7] This has led, and still leads, the Kazakh government to be accommodating to the Chinese calls for the repression of Uyghur activities on its territory and the extradition of Uyghurs accused of terrorism to China.

Figura 3 - Relazioni commerciali tra Cina e Kazakistan

5. Conclusions

In July 2019, 22 states, including France, Germany, the UK, Japan, signed a joint statement addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, calling for concrete UN action with respect to the repeated human rights violations and arbitrary mass incarcerations of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. The Chinese government responded by submitting a letter signed by 50 states, including Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, North Korea, the Philippines, Egypt and Russia in support of Beijing's policies, continuing to claim that the re-education camps in which millions of Uyghurs are held are nothing more than training centres, aimed at combating terrorism and religious extremism through work.

The violations suffered by the Xinjiang Uyghurs may in some circumstances fall into the category of crimes against humanity as defined in Article 7 of the Rome Statute, in particular subparagraphs (e) and (h), which define crimes against humanity as "imprisonment or other serious deprivation of liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law" and "persecution against a group or community with its own identity, inspired by political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or sexual considerations [...], when committed in the context of a widespread or systematic attack (not intended as an armed attack) against civilian populations.

At the international level, the International Criminal Court would have, according to its powers under the Rome Statute, the power to investigate and prosecute a State for potential crimes against humanity if (i) violations are committed on the territory of a member state; (ii) if a non-member state requests the court to consider violations committed on its territory; or (iii) at the request of the Security Council of the United Nations. [8]

The occurrence of these options is almost impossible in the case of Xinjiang for several reasons: China is not a signatory state to the treaty; the autonomous region of Xinjiang is in effect a jurisdictional part of the People's Republic of China; and China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, would certainly veto any kind of action that goes against its policies in Xinjiang. An attempt to request the Court to intervene was made in 2020 with the complaint by the Government in Exile of East Turkistan and the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement. They requested that the Court open investigations against the Chinese authorities, with particular emphasis on crimes committed against Uighurs in Tajikistan and Cambodia (States Parties to the Rome Statute). In this case, the Court stated that it would not formally send investigations in the case of the Uighurs. Individual state actions, such as the application of economic sanctions and political pressure at the bilateral and multilateral level, remain weak, not only by Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics, but also by European and Western countries themselves.

While the US has blacklisted dozens of Chinese companies and agencies allegedly linked to abuses and crimes in Xinjiang, banning imports of cotton and tomatoes from the region, the UK has introduced sanctions for companies that fail to ensure their supply chains do not exploit the forced labour of Uyghurs. The European Union has condemned the situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang through joint motions for resolutions and has recently sanctioned four Chinese officials accused of abuses against the Uyghur population. However, there is still no prospect of concrete action being taken by the EU to end the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, where once again economic interests come before the respect for the human rights of millions of people.

(scarica l'analisi)

Kazakhstan and the Uyghur Issue_between ethnical linkages and political indifference_Giusy
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[1] Ruser, N. (2020), Documenting Xinjiang’s detentions system, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, [2] Huysmans, J. (2006), The Politics of Insecurity, Routledge [3] Buzan, B., Waever, O. (2003), regions and Powers. The structure of International Security’, Cambridge University [4] Per maggior approfondimenti su questione uigura e industria della moda: Mele, C. (2020), ‘Popolo Uiguro e lavoro forzato: le responsabilità dell’industria della moda’,à-dell-industria-della-moda [5] Per saperne di più: Volkan Kasikci, M. (2020), Documenting the Tragedy in Xinjiang: an insider’s view of Atajurt, The Diplomat, [6] Muslim communities and their practices are regulated by the Councils of Muftis and the Agency for Religious Affairs, which has operated under the Ministry of Culture since 2010. [7] Per approfondire: Vanderhill, R. et al. (2020), Between the bear and the dragon: multivectorism in Kazakhstan as a model strategy for secondary powers, International Affairs, vol.96, n.4, pp.975-993 [8]


Duan, Y. (2021), Bilateral trade between China and Kazakhstan: Challenges and opportunities in the context of Belt and Road Initiative, Advances in Economics, Business and Management Research, vol.166, pp.162-166

Maizland, L. (2021), China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Council on Foreign Relations

Omelicheva, M., Y (2011), Islam in Kazakhstan: a survey of contemporary trends and sources of securitisation’, Central Asian Survey, 20:2, p. 245

Roberts, S., R. (2020), Kazakhstan’s ambiguous position towards the Uyghur Cultural genocide in China, National Commentaries

Ruser, N. (2020), Documenting Xinjiang’s detentions system, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Sciorati, G. (2021), ‘La Questione Uigura nello Xinjiang’, ISPI

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