Thursday, July 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Chinese Don’t Distinguish among Turkic Peoples in Xinjiang, Kazakh Traveler Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 16 – During the recent violence in Xinjiang, the Han Chinese population and authorities did not make any distinctions among the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, four Turkic and Islamic groups in the population of that region, according to a Kazakh visitor with business interests in that region.
And as a result, Il’yas Kasymov said in an interview published in Almaaty today, he “did not even think about going out of the house [where he was staying] onto the street,” lest he be attacked by roving bands of Han Chinese intent on visiting destruction on the Turkic and Muslim communities (
Kasymov, an entrepreneur who works in the chemical industry, has been a frequent visitor to China and was in Urumchi throughout the recent violence. He thus was in a position to provide a unique perspective on what took place, as an outsider in terms of citizenship but as an insider in terms of ethnicity.
His chronology and most of his comments reinforce the reporting of others, but three of his observations about what took place are worth noting. First, he says, the only reason the Chinese did not open fire on the 1500 Uyghurs who assembled to demand the release of their co-ethnics who had been arrested was the presence among them of a large number of children.
“If[ the Uyghurs had assembled] without them, then the Chinese certainly would have opened fire.”
Second, Kasymov continues, his business partners – all Han Chinese – who were nervous about what might happen were very eager to help him get out of the country, driving him 800 km to the Kazakhstan border and making sure he, unlike many others trying to cross to the other side, was able to get through with minimum delay.
And third, he notes, the restrictions that the Chinese government imposed during the violence had a very negative impact on Chinese businesses. Blocking the Internet and other communication links “forced the major Chinese export companies to send their representatives from Urumchi to Kazakhstan and Russia in order that contacts would not break down.”
As for himself, Kasymov concluded, the violence hit his business hard. And he added that he will go back to Urumchi only when everything has calmed down,” an indication that he and probably many other business types in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries do not believe that the situation has returned to normal.
Comments like Kasymov’s – and his are far from unique – are likely to force more discussions about the situation in Xinjiang and among the more than 230,000 Uyghurs in Kazakhstan itself despite Astana’s decision to refrain from comment about Urumchi and its crackdown on Uyghur activism in Kazakhstan.
In a discussion of the “Uyghur question” in that Central Asian country, Moscow State University expert Andrey Chebotaryov argues that this issue now consists of two parts. On the one hand, he writes, many in the Uyghur diaspora in Kazakhstan would like to see the establishment of an independent East Turkestan (
And on the other, he adds, they are concerned with their own status in Kazakhstan, with ensuring that the Kazakhstan authorities protect their rights and interests and allow them to maintain their national culture, something that some of them believe has been threatened by Astana’s moves against some of their organizations and media outlets.
These concerns, he suggests, came together at a memorial meeting in the outskirts of Almaaty last week in honor of those who died in Xinjiang, perhaps especially because the representatives of the officially registered Uyghur diaspora organizations did not participate, leaving the field to more radical groups.
Kasymov’s interview almost certainly will affect the future of Kazakhstan-Uyghur relations, although it is as yet unclear exactly how. On the one hand, his observations may prompt the authorities in Kazakhstan to become even more careful in their comments on China and even more repressive in their dealings with the Uyghurs inside the country.
But on the other, the businessman’s suggestion that the Chinese view all Turkic peoples alike, that they lump together the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs, could trigger greater popular and perhaps official sympathy for the Uyghurs and greater antipathy to the Chinese, shifts in attitude that could ultimately entail shifts in policy as well.

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