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China and Kazakhstan: Bilateral Data Exchange Agreement


Author: Zarina Mukanova

27 May 2024

 

This blogpost seeks to explore the implications of a bilateral agreement between Kazakhstan and China regarding the exchange of data, particularly focusing on its potential impact on Kazakhstani citizens. The content presented herein will serve as an introduction to the agreement analyzing it as an element of strengthening China-Kazakhstan relationships and address concerns regarding the status of citizens of Kazakhstan born in China.


In May 2023, the China-Central Asia summit convened, during which Kazakhstan and China signed 22 documents, including agreements pertaining to the development of a Trans-Caspian transport corridor and the establishment of a visa-free regime. Notably, these documents were not made available to the Kazakhstani public for discussion.



The Prime Minister of the Government of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov meeting with the Ambassador of China to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao (source: www.kaz.people.cn).



Bilateral Data Exchange Concerns


The agreement on information exchange regarding citizens was signed on October 20, 2023, following ratification by the Senate of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and took effect on November 10, 2023. Apart from the benefits of the visa-free regime for shuttle traders from both countries, an increase in Chinese tourist arrivals to Kazakhstan is anticipated, drawn by the simplified visa process. Also, it has given Kazakhs with ties to the other side of the border the opportunity to visit their relatives more easily, something many have taken advantage of already. On the other hand, activists and refugees from China to Kazakhstan report that Chinese agents are now coming across more easily and intimidate them in Kazakhstan.


However, visa abolition represents only one aspect of the bilateral agreement. Alongside extending the visa-free stay for citizens of both countries and streamlining visa procedures, there exists a provision regarding the exchange of information concerning citizens who acquire or restore citizenship in the other country. Such citizenship acquisitions must comply with the respective laws of the involved states including the prohibition of double citizenship in both countries. Furthermore, the agreement mandates the sharing of information about citizens who changed their citizenship prior to the agreement's entry into force, with the aim of safeguarding the interests of citizens from both countries. Additionally, the parties are obligated to notify each other about citizens of the other country who violate entry, stay, or departure regulations. The shared information includes personal details such as name (in both Russian and Latin script), gender, date of birth, citizenship, document details (series, number, date of issue, issuing authority), nationality, and a photograph[1].


Notably, the agreement designates the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Republic of Kazakhstan, along with the Foreign Affairs and Migration Management of the People's Republic of China, as the competent authorities for its implementation. Thus, while this agreement represents a foreign policy matter for China, it is regarded as a domestic policy issue for Kazakhstan. This could be an illustration of the unequal footage of the bilateral agreement that shows the hierarchy between countries.


Despite assurances from the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Senate, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs that this law should not evoke any concerns, questions persist regarding its implications for citizens' privacy and rights.



November 2023: Alikhan Smailov meets with Li Qiang, Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, to discuss trade and economic cooperation and the visa-free regime (source: primeminister.kz/en).



Activists Raising Their Voices


The agreement on mutual visa exemption, which had been previously approved by the Mazhilis (the Lower House of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan) on September 20, 2023, came into effect on November 10, 2023. In October of last year, an activist from the Nagyz Atajurt Eriktileri organization (founded by the now exiled Serikjan Bilash), Erkinbek Nurahen, raised the alarm and penned an open letter to President Tokayev. In his missive, he expressed deep outrage over the agreement that was signed in May 2023 without any attempt to provide it to the public for discussion. Referring to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, he asserted that his rights to freedom and the protection of personal information are being violated[2].


Citing the 9th clause of the PRC citizenship law, which states that "in the event that a Chinese citizen willingly accepts foreign citizenship, they automatically lose their PRC citizenship," Nurahen raised concerns about known cases of ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang who acquired Kazakhstani citizenship and did not have their Chinese citizenship revoked by the Chinese authorities even after requesting this repeatedly at the Chinese consulate. This situation renders them inadvertently dual citizens, which is illegal according to the laws of both countries, thus subjecting them to potential legal consequences in both nations. Nurahen pointed out that since 2017, many individuals from China, despite acquiring Kazakhstani citizenship, have been unable to renounce their Chinese citizenship. Particularly, those who have openly spoken out about China’s campaign of mass incarceration and re-education of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang face significant challenges.


For instance, Rakhima Senbay, a Xinjiang native who obtained Kazakhstani citizenship in 2019, has been unsuccessful in revoking her Chinese citizenship. Despite making three attempts to request cancellation through the Chinese consulate in Almaty, she has received no response. Conversely, others who simultaneously submitted similar requests through the consulate received affirmative responses to renounce PRC citizenship. Senbay believes that she faces these obstacles because her husband and children provided testimony to the NGO Atajurt when she was called back to Xinjiang in October 2017 and forcibly taken to a re-education camp. She attributes her eventual rescue, albeit with significant health complications, to this testimony. She was subjected to a medical examination before being sent to the camp, where she was found to be pregnant. Following a forced abortion, she lost sensation in her lower extremities and endured lasting health issues. Even now, years later, she continues to suffer the consequences of this traumatic experience. Upon her return to Kazakhstan, Senbay publicly spoke about her ordeal in the camp, detailing the torture and horrors she endured. Nurahen also expresses concern that information about acquiring Kazakhstani citizenship and personal data of individuals will now be shared with the Chinese state. He worries that this may give the Chinese authorities the power to control and intimidate the very people who are fleeing their discrimination and persecution. He questions the necessity of such measures, as it implies that individuals who migrated to Kazakhstan from China between 2015 and 2019 could potentially be labelled as criminals due to China's campaign of re-education of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang during those years. He fears that China may use their mobility track as possible for future detainment, as he explains that we would never understand Chinese logic.



Erkinbek Nurahen: "I am against the Kazakh-Chinese visa-free regime" (source: YouTube).



Interactions between President Tokayev and Xi Jinping Over the Past Years


The above-described closer legal cooperation is part of a pattern of ever more cozy diplomatic relations between the two countries as evidenced by regular visits and signs of mutual support.

In September 2019, President Tokayev delivered a lecture in the Kazakh language at the Academy of Public Sciences (CASS) in Beijing. He noted the presence of attendees who understood Kazakh without the need for translation, as they were ethnic Kazakhs and Chinese citizens simultaneously. He emphasized that Kazakhstan refrains from intervening in China's internal affairs due to this unique demographic dynamic. In December of the same year, Tokayev, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, expressed scepticism about the existence of China’s campaign of re-education of Turkic Muslims despite widespread reporting on the topic.

On December 30, 2021, just before the January unrest in Kazakhstan, Tokayev met with Li Hui, the special representative for Eurasian affairs of the PRC government. At the conclusion of the meeting, Tokayev awarded Li Hui the Order of "Dostyk" of the 2nd degree for his contributions to strengthening Kazakh-Chinese cooperation and the 30-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. He also extended an invitation to Xi Jinping to visit Kazakhstan. It is important to mention that the January 2022 unrests in Kazakhstan were based on a reaction to the rising gas prices in western Kazakhstan that later spread to whole Kazakhstan. President Tokayev blamed 20,000 so called “international terrorists» for the protests in order to legitimize requesting military help from CSTO.[3]


In February 2022, President Tokayev attended the opening ceremony of the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, where Li Hui was also present. Western activists demanded of their own leaders to boycott the Winter Games of 2022 due to China’s human rights violations. Nevertheless, this marked Tokayev's first visit to China following the January unrest and he was one of the few international politicians present during the XXIV Winter Olympics – a clear message of support and loyalty. Similarly, China officially supported Tokayev's narrative of the January 2022 unrests as a coup attempt involving international terrorists. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) proposed expanding its involvement in the region.


In September 2022, President Tokayev held negotiations with Xi Jinping, who visited Kazakhstan on an official visit. Following the talks, the two leaders signed a joint statement commemorating the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the PRC and Kazakhstan, reaffirming their commitment to a shared future characterized by longstanding friendship, mutual complementarity, and solidarity. Various ministries and departments from both countries also signed cooperation agreements in trade, economics, connectivity, finance, water management, and media. Additionally, plans were made for the opening of Consulate Generals in Xi'an and Aktobe.


Conclusion


Free media coverage or civil society debate regarding the bilateral agreement between China and Kazakhstan were not facilitated. Nevertheless, Kazakh-speaking human rights activist Erkinbek Nurahen raised this issue by writing an open letter to President Tokayev, highlighting the violation of his human rights, after which his Facebook social media account was banned. His concerns are understandable. Upon arriving in Kazakhstan, which he sees as his “historical homeland”, from China in 2005 with his family and obtaining Kazakhstani citizenship in 2006, he, like Rakhima Senbay, was nonetheless unable to revoke his Chinese citizenship. In contrast, after obtaining Kazakhstani citizenship, his wife's Chinese passport was annulled without any difficulty. Despite applying for annulment of his Chinese citizenship several times, Nurahen received no positive response.


Nurahen also mentioned that since 2008, he and his relatives have been receiving messages from Chinese state officials asking for their well-being in Kazakhstan via WeChat. While he has ignored these messages, he believes that there are individuals who respond to them diligently, indicating that the Chinese state is already directly and indirectly collecting data about their former citizens who have emigrated to other nation-states. Nurahen's situation sheds light on the complexities and challenges faced by individuals navigating citizenship issues between countries. It underscores the importance of protecting human rights and ensuring fair treatment for all individuals, regardless of their nationality or background. The bilateral agreement between China and Kazakhstan ignores the constitutional rights of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. Kazakh-speaking human rights activist Erkinbek Nurahen's open letter to President Tokayev raised concerns about the bilateral agreement between China and Kazakhstan, highlighting his struggles with citizenship issues and the violation of his human rights, exemplifying the broader challenges faced by individuals navigating citizenship complexities between countries.



source: Facebook page of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare of the Republic of Kazakhstan




[3] Collective Security Treaty Organisation intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia consisting of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, formed in 2002.


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