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Remote Ethnographic Glances Across the Chinese Border: PART 2

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

2 April 2024



In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz refugees from XUAR seem to have less problems than in Kazakhstan, also here are more XUAR Uyghurs and the local Uyghurs’ organisations are more politically active. At the same time, the space for this is currently shrinking with a move towards heavier control by the state. The XUAR Uyghurs here are in a particularly vulnerable position.

Uyghur Traders

Unlike in Kazakhstan, in Kyrgyzstan still a significant number of XUAR Uyghurs are living and working. I estimate there to be 500-1000 XUAR Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan. Most of them are based in Bishkek or around Karasuu near Osh. A number of them work as traders, particularly of cloth that they import from China with the help of contacts there. Others work in the service industry around the bazaars, especially restaurants and bakeries, or in restaurants elsewhere in Bishkek and Osh. Since 2017, they have not been able to go back to XUAR to see their families, and a large number of them have not had any contact to their close relatives in XUAR since then. The middle men through whom many of them buy the cloth and other goods that they sell at the bazaars in Kyrgyzstan are often neighbors or friends in XUAR rather than relatives as the relatives are targeted by the Chinese authorities. Some of them are Han-Chinese as it is much easier for Han to trade and send both goods and money across the border because they do not draw the same suspicion from the government that Uyghurs do. While many of the traders make quite a good profit from selling cloth, especially as Kyrgyzstan is expanding as a hub for sewing and production of clothes, those working in smaller service jobs, such as baking or cooking, often live under precarious circumstances, barely edging out a living, and do not have much of a chance to save or put aside, especially as they have to pay several hundred dollars per year to extend their visas (more for traders, less for service workers). Some XUAR Uyghurs have married local Kyrgyz women in order to gain permanent residency or Kyrgyz citizenship. A few of those struggling most to make a living have spoken to me about the possibility to go back to China to be with their family and to have a better life, though they are painfully aware of the risk of being incarcerated upon return. The level of suspicion among the XUAR Uyghur traders is extremely high, several of them pointed to others among them whom they consider direct spies for the Chinese. One told me that one in ten is a Chinese spy, and another openly said: "We all work for the Chinese". Whether he meant merely by selling Chinese goods or by directly passing on information to the Chinese, he did not specify.

Uyghur cloth from XUAR on sale at the Madina Bazaar in Bishkek in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)


The local Uyghur population in Kyrgyzstan (those arrived by 1962 and their descendants) are fairly well integrated and have faced less hostility from the local population than their counterpart in Kazakhstan. They have also been allowed to be more directly politically active, not least through their main cultural organisation Ittipaq (Uyghur for “unity”) which has grown increasingly close to the Germany-based and to a large part US-funded World Uyghur Congress. Yet, similar to the local Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, the local Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan have also experienced growing surveillance and state control and see their situation in the country as increasingly insecure and uncertain. The arrest of Tursuntay Salimov, 2023 elected leader of Ittipaq, has caused great worry among local Uyghurs. He was detained over alleged ties to organised crime, while many local Uyghurs depict him as the victim of widespread racketeering. Before his arrest, the Kyrgyz security forces had warned both him and other Uyghurs engaged in Uyghur organisations against going to Japan to join a conference organised by World Uyghur Congress and its related organisations. The Kyrgyz Security Service has reportedly been infiltrating Ittipaq for a while, but direct interference seems to have been stepped up in 2023.

An Uyghur wedding in Bishkek in spring 2022 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

The number of XUAR Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan is difficult to assess. The camp survivors here seem to be much less than in Kazakhstan – likely in the dozen rather than hundreds or possibly even thousands as in Kazakhstan. Most of the XUAR Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan seem less stigmatised and better integrated than the XUAR Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. This is in part due to the fact that there are much less of them, but also that Kyrgyzstan is somewhat less Russified than Kazakhstan and Bishkek less so than Almaty, so their lack of Russian language skills does not become as big of a handicap as in Almaty. The XUAR Kyrgyz in Kyrgyzstan do face similar problems as their Kazakh counterparts though in having only scant and difficult communication with their relatives in XUAR.


The most infamous internment facility in Kyrgyzstan is the pre-trial detention center known as SIZO1 inside Bishkek city. I visited it to meet an Uyghur prisoner who has been under detention since 1998, much of his time spent in this prison. He is one of two XUAR Uyghurs in this facility, both of whom have been sentenced for terrorism and both of whom, according to Kyrgyz law, therefore should not be in a pre-trial detention facility, but rather in a regular prison. One of them showed me his scars from former beatings and tortures, though these had taken place many years ago and were no longer practice. Yet, the inmates are still regularly subjected to solitary confinement in small cells in the basement and their relatives are asked for bribes to be able to visit them, bring them food and other items and to communicate with them via illegal mobile phones smuggled in through a bribing system and regularly raided by the very same prison guards who provide them. Reportedly the phones are sold off after these raids and the relatives bring in new phones through new bribes. The two terror-sentenced XUAR Uyghurs in the facility have for years been trying to appeal their cases and have court hearings reopened, but lack the means to do so as according to one of them, this would require bribes of around 25.000 USD. One of them may be close to release as his life sentence in Kyrgyzstan equals 25 years and they have now passed. Also, he has spent a large amount of time in SIZO1 which is a pre-trial detention facility where each day, according to Kyrgyz law, is counted double in relation to the detainee’s sentence. According to Uyghur activists, the Kyrgyz authorities have threatened to extradite him to China in case he is released. This would most likely mean another life sentence or even death penalty. (Update: In early 2024, SIZO was closed and the detainees moved to a newly built facility north of Bishkek on the road to the Kazakh border.)

The entrance of the infamous SIZO 1 detention center in Bishkek in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)


At the core of Remote Ethnography lie data on a region gathered from without this region. In this sense, the following insights on XUAR are central to our project. Yet, without a thorough understanding of the sources of the information and the context around it, such data will always remain much less legible and thus less useful. Therefore, the last section of this text cannot be separated from those before without losing a lot of its strength. Since 2023, since the end of COVID restrictions in China, the borders to XUAR have opened up to some people. Since 9 January 2023, buses between Almaty and Ürümchi have been running regularly. Traders and relatives visiting have crossed in both directions, especially among Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Visa-free travel between XUAR and Kazakhstan has made short trips across the border even easier. Yet, not for all. The border crossing for Uyghurs has remained much more limited. And while more contact across the border is allowed, it is also heavily controlled and those coming across to Kazakhstan have often been warned not to speak of the conditions inside XUAR. In XUAR, the militarisation and police presence seem to have been scaled down, but administrative control has been strengthened, mobility is still very limited and assimilative pressures extremely high. The latter includes linguistic and cultural destruction and substitution as well as forced assimilation. It also includes the engineered severing of social ties in both communities and families to willfully interrupt the devolution of language, world view and customs to younger generations within the minoritised groups in XUAR. Lastly, while many have been released from camps and even some from prison, new arrests and re-arrests in 2023 are reported by relatives outside China.

The road to the China-Kyrgyz border in winter 2022 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

Across the Border

Of the many XUAR Kazakhs I spoke to in Kazakhstan, a large number still does not have contact to their relatives in China. Those who do only speak to them very shortly and without exchanging much information in order to not endanger them. It is generally understood that all communication is surveilled and can be potentially incriminating. The idea that those in China are in any meaningful way protected by the law while present before 2017 has now clearly vanished entirely, giving in to new disillusioned, pragmatic narratives. People seek to minimise the risk of their relatives in China being persecuted by the state by limiting contact and staying silent. Those who have no contact at all are less than they were a few years ago. But for many, contact is so limited that it does not mean that they know with any clarity about the fate of loved ones who have been incarcerated. They do not dare ask, nor do their relatives in China dare inform them. This lack of information is even evident among those who are able to receive visits from relatives in XUAR. The visitors mostly keep silent and relay only very limited information even when visiting in person. Those who have relatives in inner China/mainland China (not in XUAR) or who travel there are able to speak to these somewhat more freely and with less fear.

Since 9 January 2023, the COVID restrictions in China have been lifted and the borders to Central Asia opened up. In March 2023, China and Kazakhstan have agreed on visa-free travel between the two countries for visits of up to two weeks. In November, this was extended to a month. This opening has seen a large number of XUAR Kazakhs being able to visit their families in Kazakhstan, mostly for short, sometimes longer stretches. It has also seen a smaller but still significant number of immigrations from XUAR to Kazakhstan. Both of these things hardly happened at all between 2018 and 2022. Though most of the people coming across are reluctant to speak, those few who do speak about their experience have become a source of much more information of what is going on in the region than we have been able to access since 2018 when a large number of Kazakh detainees were released from the reeducation camps in XUAR and allowed to exit to Kazakhstan. It is notable that while we have seen hundreds if not thousands of Kazakhs crossing the border into Kazakhstan from XUAR and a smaller number going in the other direction for visits, close to no Uyghur has been able to do so. I saw no examples of Uyghurs from Khulja being allowed to go across to Kazakhstan. I heard rumours of a few traders arriving and the number of Uyghurs being allowed to travel from XUAR to Turkey and Europe seems to have slightly increased. Some Uyghur traders have also been said to have come to Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhs not able to cross the border have begun to use the Khorgos Border Trading Zone which is accessible using ID cards from both Kazakhstan and China to meet relatives from the other side and spend some hours or days with them there.

Buses from Almaty to Ürümchi in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)


State Control

According to oral reports from XUAR by people visiting or exiting the region in the last months, many of the more drastic control and surveillance measures, such as checkpoints, road blocks, grid policing and military presence have been scaled back. Facial recognition gates between some neighborhoods have been dismantled and many cameras and related systems seem out of function for the time being. The infrastructure does not seem to have been entirely removed though. In its stead, the controlling of Kazakh and Uyghur people through the state organs, especially the neighborhood committees (shequ in urban areas, dadi/shödi [dadui/xiaodui] in rural areas), seems to have become strongly systematised and pervasive. People’s mobility is severely limited, all travel must be approved by the authorities and this complicates attempts to conduct trade or seek work outside the closest living area. This contributes to a situation where Kazakhs and Uyghurs have few opportunities of making a living on their own account as they are heavily discriminated against in the job market and have often had their land taken away from them. Many young men and women therefore choose to sign up for state labor transfer programs. Some are pressured to do so by the state agents (often themselves Uyghur and Kazakh) while many others choose it out of lack of alternatives.

Uyghur language books in a Xinhua bookstore in Kashgar in winter

2024 (photo: anonymous)

According to Kazakhs in Kazakhstan who have received visits from relatives in XUAR, the assimilative linguistic and cultural pressures on those Kazakhs and Uyghurs living in XUAR are stronger than ever. In book stores, the few books left in local languages like Kazakh and Uyghur are reportedly propaganda material and translated foreign novels. Everything else is in Chinese. Religious customs have all but disappeared, such as praying, fasting and in some contexts even the “nikah” wedding ceremony. The same is true for some ethnic traditions, including the organisation of the house and the choice of furniture which has been “forcefully modernised”. Pictures of Xi Jinping are mandatory in every house. Some even choose to have one in each room in order to signal their patriotism and agreement with the party. Kazakhs in Kazakhstan were particularly shocked by the decline in Kazakh language ability in the younger generations. Whereas virtually all XUAR Kazakh children spoke good Kazakh before 2017, now many of the relatives’ younger children are no longer able to communicate in anything but Mandarin Chinese. According to their parents, this is because they have been to boarding schools away from home or are kept at school for very long hours into the evening, just as state employees are kept at work for similar long times. In these environments only Mandarin is spoken and the families do not get to spend many hours a week together. Even then, speaking Kazakh or Uyghur is discouraged by the authorities. This is conveyed at political education gatherings that still take place on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons in many communities. Flag ceremonies on Monday mornings are also still reported for some rural areas, but not universally as seemed to be the case in 2017-2020.

A Kazakh couple from XUAR testifies about their disappeared relatives in Almaty in fall 2023 (photo: Rune Steenberg)

New Arrests

Over the past months, several new arrests and re-arrests of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in XUAR have been reported by their relatives abroad. In Kazakhstan I met with a handful of people whose relatives had been recently arrested. They usually did not know many details or have very clear information about the circumstances as they were not in touch with those who knew or did not dare ask, but they had been passed this information via neighbors, friends and relatives. In most cases, the reason for arrest was not a recent transgression but rather related to travels abroad or religious activity in the past. In a few cases, trial dates had seemingly been fixed, but in no case did the relatives in Kazakhstan have any documentary evidence of the arrest or sentencing.

According to relatives in Almaty, Qusman Raqym, a XUAR Kazakh and resident of Jimsar in Changji, XUAR, was arrested by Chinese police. He was accused of having performed nikah for an underage couple when he was an imam back in 2016. He was due to go on trial for this on 12 October 2023. I recorded his brother’s testimony about the case. Another case mentioned by many XUAR Kazakhs in Almaty was that of Duman Gahefu (Chinese version of the name), language researcher at Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, where reportedly another handful of researchers from minority ethnicities have recently been arrested.


Kazakh scholar Duman Gahefu in an undated photo (photo: unknown)


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