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Remote Ethnographic Glances Across the Chinese Border: PART 1

Insights on Post-pandemic Interactions between XUAR and Central Asia from a Field Trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in August – November 2023

Author: Rune Steenberg

25 March 2024




This is the short rendering of some of the most important insights I gained on my field trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in fall 2023. The trip was conducted as a part of the project Remote Ethnography of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Thus, my main aim was to gather information related to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and people from that region. This text has been written upon the request of human rights groups operating in the region but is also meant to benefit of my colleagues in academia and the media. It was written in late November 2023 and has since been lightly edited for form and content. I have also redacted some of the names to protect individuals, families and communities.

In the Visa Free Trade Zone of Khorgos, bottles with the picture of Mao stand next to such with the picture of Stalin (photo: Rune Steenberg)

This fieldwork report includes:

  1. An introduction with a description of my travels and the methods used;

  2. Insights on the current situation of XUAR diaspora in Kazakhstan (direct observations)

  3. Insights on the current situation of XUAR diaspora in Kyrgyzstan (direct observations)

  4. Insights on the current situation in XUAR (indirect knowledge)

Part 1 covers section 1. and 2., while Part 2 will be focusing on sections 3. and 4.

I give no conclusions or recommendations. This text is written merely to share observations and I encourage readers to follow up on these both with me and in the field. This text can be considered material in remote ethnographic practice. It is a way to share and make accessible some of my insights with the intention of contributing to long-term debate and sharing of material on the region. This is meant to enable, facilitate and normalize triangulation across various types of sources as well as to expand what is seen as relevant sources and material in the remote study of XUAR, aka East Turkistan and the Uyghur Homelands.

The orthodox Ascension Cathedral is one of the landmarks of Almaty city (photo: Rune Steenberg)

I went to Kazakhstan from Turkey on the 7th of September 2023. I stayed a month in Almaty conducting a trip to Khorgos trade zone in-between before I moved to Bishkek on October 3rd. I stayed in Bishkek for another month with two shorter trips to Almaty during this time. I left Bishkek for Istanbul on November 1st 2023.

In Kazakhstan, I spoke with camp survivors and other Kazakhs from XUAR about their experiences in XUAR and their hardship in Kazakhstan. Among these were also recent arrivals from after 2020, including arrivals from 2023. I was able to speak to a few Kazakhs still living in XUAR who were on short trips to Kazakhstan visiting their relatives as well as such living in Kazakhstan who had recently visited their relatives in XUAR. I also spoke to activists and NGO workers working with and in support of these groups. Especially important were my interactions with several NGOs supporting camp survivors and other XUAR Kazakhs (also known as Oralman or Kandas), particularly Atajurt and Talpyn Jastar, both based in Almaty as well as my cooperation with an unnamed collective of local (Kazakh and Uyghur) artists and activists in Almaty. I was furthermore in touch with the local Uyghur community and one XUAR Uyghur (the local Uyghurs arrived before 1962 and have grown up in the Soviet Union or Kazakhstan; the XUAR Uyghurs are those who moved here as adults after 1991).

In Kyrgyzstan I spoke with XUAR Kyrgyz including recent arrivals from XUAR, local Uyghurs and XUAR Uyghurs, especially traders and service workers. I was in touch with the local Uyghur organisation Ittipaq and saw the aftermath of the arrest of its leader Tursuntay Salimov. I visited the central Uyghur bazaar, Madina Bazaar, owned by the same Tursuntay Salimov, and spoke to the XUAR Uyghur traders there. I also spoke to two Uyghur men who have been kept in Bishkek’s infamous SIZO 1 detention center for more than 20 years and visited this infamous prison shortly before its recent closure.

The Kazakh-side entrance to Khorgos Visa-Free Trade Zone (photo: Rune Steenberg)


In Kazakhstan three issues stood out as particularly difficult and sensitive. Firstly, the number of former camp detainees from XUAR is substantial and many of them live under precarious circumstances and in fear of further violence against them and their relatives. Secondly, several of the refugees from XUAR in Kazakhstan in practice have no basic rights or access to due process. Thirdly, the relations between Kazakhstan and China are growing closer which puts further pressure on groups targeted by China, often with the help of the Kazakh authorities.

Former Camp Detainees

Kazakhstan is currently home to as many as 1000 former detainees of the XUAR reeducation camps, detention centres, prisons and house arrests from the mass incarceration campaigns starting in 2017. More are likely to enter the country in the months and years to come. They are mostly in bad health struggling both mentally and physically with the aftereffects of their experiences of incarceration and state violence. PTSD, insomnia, back pains, sexual and reproductive disorders, skin and liver diseases are among the most common problems. These are in part being addressed by NGOs in the region. Of the 1000, around 50 are currently speaking out about their experiences. The others stay silent out of fear, either for their own life and health or for that of their relatives in China. Because of their inability to perform heavy or strenuous labor, many of the former detainees are struggling to make ends meet and to provide for their families. Their inability to speak good Russian prevents them from doing more service-oriented jobs and being hired in higher paying positions. Their trauma and physical impairments make them little qualified for construction work, herding, cleaning, care work and similar more easily accessible jobs. Their status as “kandas”/“oralman” and the discrimination that this meets in Kazakhstan prevents them from being accepted in many factories and small businesses. On the positive side many have quite strong networks and social support groups within the “kandas” communities. But this is not the case for all and for many it helps only to a limited degree as many people in these communities are struggling and thus the total resources to be distributed and moved around are very limited. In some extreme cases, people have confided that they are thinking about returning to China where they speak the colonial language, have family and often have land, property or money on the bank. They are considering this even if it may lead to further incarceration for some time, because they feel so desperate in Kazakhstan.

Many of these former detainees and other XUAR Kazakhs struggling in Kazakhstan are trying to be accepted for possible migration to Canada on the 10,000 quota which Canadian government has promised for people from XUAR. As this only includes people with no other citizenship than the Chinese and most of the oralman/kandas have gained Kazakhstani citizenship, the prospects for this are very limited.

Atajurt members and former camp detainees at a gathering in Almaty in spring 2022 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

Rahime Senbai is one of the XUAR Kazakh camp survivors who has severe health issues and is struggling to take care of her four children in Almaty. She works in a nail parlour 1,5 hours away from her home, is alone with four children and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as kidney and back issues. She is one of the few brave survivors who has been willing to tell their story to journalists and is therefore threatened by both the Chinese and Kazakh authorities. She and her children need medical support, financial help and protection from threats at least in the form of being monitored and observed by international organisations. She is one of around 30-50 former camp detainees living under extremely precarious conditions of poverty, while another 300 former camp detainees live under to slightly less extreme but still serious poverty.

Rahime Senbai in her home in Almaty in Spring 2022 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

Baktiyar Mekesh is another XUAR Kazakh camp survivor. He used to be an imam in XUAR before being arrested. After his release in 2018 he was able to exit to Kazakhstan with his daughter but had to leave his wife and son behind. He has since been fighting to bring them to Kazakhstan but has been unsuccessful and is slowly losing hope and faith. He has spoken about this to several media outlets and in October 2023 provided another interview to a Japanese journalist upon which he was approached by the local Kazakh authorities. They knew that he had been speaking to this journalist and pressured him not to speak to journalists about his camp experience again. Baktiyar told them that if they had helped him bringing his wife to Kazakhstan he wouldn’t have to, but as they don’t, he intends to continue. Baktiyar, like other camp survivors, suffers from PTSD and a number of related health issues, he is unable to do heavy labor and lives in relative poverty with his daughter. He is in need of protection in the sense of observation and support for his health and livelihood.

Baktiyar Mekesh at an interview in spring 2022 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

Ulnur Bozhykhan is a XUAR Kazakh camp survivor. Her husband died while she was in camp and she became the victim of rape and other violence during her incarceration. After her release and exit to Kazakhstan, a trusted person shared her story in international media (Bitter Winter) against her will. She lives near Almaty with her daughter. In August 2023 she went to Khorgos and entered the border trading area in order to meet with her sister who entered the same area from the Chinese side. The two sisters hadn’t met in five years. According to her own story, in the trade zone she was approached by Chinese police officers who tried to arrest her. She escaped and managed to get on a bus taking her back to the Kazakh side and exit back to Kazakhstan. She is terrified and traumatised from this experience. It is her impression that the close relations and improved connectivity between the two countries put her at increased danger of being targeted by undercover Chinese police.

No Rights

In Kazakhstan I know of five XUAR Kazakhs (possibly more exist, but are not known to me) who fled from XUAR to Kazakhstan by crossing the border illegally. They were fleeing the heavy-handed pressure and mass incarceration drives in XUAR 2017-2020. All of them had attempted to leave the country legally and were in immanent danger under a system that detained and sentenced many hundreds of thousands of people without due process or legal measures that even come close to meeting international standards. They were detained by the Kazakh police and sentenced to one year prison sentences. Because of their sentences they have not been able to apply for Kazakh citizenship like other ethnic Kazakhs from XUAR and elsewhere. They are tolerated on a humanitarian asylum which they have to renew every three to six months. The asylum papers that they are handed on these occasions keeps them from being arrested if checked by police on the streets but is useful for little beyond this. Nobody hires them because of this status, they cannot purchase SIM cards, open a bank account, or officially rent an apartment, and they cannot legally marry. Three of the people such affected have written petitions to the Kazakh parliament in Astana several times to request either a legal status that allows them to live normal lives in Kazakhstan or travel documents that allow them to leave the country, but their requests have been denied. I am in touch with all five of them and hold their details, copies of their documents etc. Their full names and further details will be provided on request. Three of them have been attacked on open street and injured by unknown assailants.

Kaster Musakhan after sustaining injuries in an attack by unknown assailants in January 2024 (photo: anonymous)


One Uyghur man from XUAR living in Kazakhstan since the early 2000s has a similar problem as the XUAR illegal border crossers. While he entered Kazakhstan legally, he also did so under threats of arrest in XUAR which has barred him from going back since. Yet, even after 20 years, he has also been unable to gain any functional legal status in the country and currently renews his humanitarian asylum every six months. Similar to the others, with the documents he is provided, he is also unable to gain formal employment, officially rent an apartment, open a bank account, buy a SIM card, access health services or get married. He has not either been able to gain permission or documents to leave the country, despite trying via lawyers and human rights NGOs several times.

He is one of only a small number of XUAR Uyghurs left in Kazakhstan. They are probably in the dozens rather than in the hundreds. While Kazakhstan still boasts the largest number of Uyghurs in the world outside of China, virtually all of these are “local Uyghurs.” This means that they are descendants of Uyghurs who came to Kazakhstan by 1962. They have lived all or most of their lives in Kazakhstan. The more recently arrived Uyghurs from XUAR seem to have left the country either for other Central Asian countries, Turkey, the Middle East, Europe or returned to China. The local Uyghurs in Kazakhstan are not very politically active. They feel intimidated and threatened by the Kazakh state. They thus prefer to keep a low profile and concentrate on cultural work and language upkeep while keeping on good terms with the Kazakh government by not being openly critical of China. There are three functioning schools running from primary to high school in the region of Almaty that teach exclusively or predominately in Uyghur. The graduates of these schools speak excellent Uyghur as do those of older generations. Yet, besides those who went to Uyghurs schools, most younger generation Uyghurs in Kazakhstan do not speak Uyghur very fluently or with complex lexicality or grammar.

A scene form the play “Mahmud Kashgari” at the Uyghur Theater in Almaty in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

China-Kazakhstan Relations

An increasing number of agreements between the Kazakh and Chinese governments now guarantees China more and more influence in Kazakhstan and make XUAR Kazakhs here feel unsafe. A visa-free short time travel agreement between the two countries came into effect in spring 2023. This has given Han-Chinese and Kazakhs working for the Chinese state access to Kazakhstan in ways they didn’t have before and activists have been threatened and intimidated by people coming across the border in this way. Also, an extradition treaty is said to have been drafted between the two countries, though it is not yet in effect. Most recently, in October 2023, an agreement of information exchange came into effect. According to this, the Kazakh state is obliged to share information on Chinese citizens fleeing and requesting asylum or citizenship in Kazakhstan with China. This makes such requests more difficult and riskier for those who need state protection the most.

An issue of great concern to many XUAR Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan is the issue of dual citizenship and their inability to deregister in China. Several people have been sentenced for having dual citizenship in China. Dual citizenship is forbidden in both countries. When XUAR Kazakhs immigrate it is usually fairly easy for them to achieve Kazakh citizenship as they are considered ethnic Kazakhs. But giving up their Chinese citizenship has proven much more difficult, often this deregistration can only take place in person in China. The Chinese consulate in Almaty refuses to handle the issue and so these people stay double citizens under risk of being punished for this in both countries. This seems to be a mechanism with which the Chinese government is trying retain control and power.

All these seem to be measures by which China is expanding its control and influence over those who left its territory and more generally within Kazakhstan, quelling protest and political debate. Several local activists have reacted to these agreements and drafted open letters of protest to president Tokayev.

An activist in Almaty shows news of the agreement between China and Kazakhstan to exchange information on migrants in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

There is an increased pressure on activists in Kazakhstan addressing Chinese human rights abuses in XUAR. In May 2023 the head of the human rights organisation Atajurt, Bekzat Makhsutkhanuly, was arrested and held for two weeks during Xi Jinping’s visit to the country. He was later released and is now free, but both he and other activists are under threat of arrest and intimidation by the authorities. In early September the critical film festival Jana Cekara showcasing human rights abuses in XUAR was forced online by a venue cancellation effected by the Kazakh security services less than a week before it was scheduled. The venue had reportedly been visited by Chinese Embassy personnel two days prior to this. Other human rights activists have been intimidated and a group of elder Kazakh and Uyghur women protesting the ongoing detention of their loved ones in XUAR by demonstrating before the Chinese consulate in Almaty on a weekly basis is regularly being prevented from doing so or cut off after a short while with threats of arrest. Men no longer join the protests because they have been beaten and arrested while women are only threatened. Many scholars and activists have retreated from their engagement because of fear of state persecution.


Protesters in front of the Chinese consulate in Almaty in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

The human right lawyer Aina Shormanbaeva’s nephew was in November 2023 attacked by an unknown person on the streets of Almaty in what she and others consider an intimidation effort against her and her work, possibly by government related entities. In January 2024, one of the five illegal border crossers who has been speaking to NGOs and journalists about China abuses and their difficult situation in Kazakhstan was attacked and beaten by unknown men. Two other outspoken border crossers have previously been attacked with knives in Astana and Almaty respectively on the very same day.



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