China is allowing more than 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to abandon their Chinese citizenship and leave the country, the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, in a sign that Beijing might be starting to feel a mounting backlash against its sweeping crackdown on Muslims in the far west region of Xinjiang.
The detention of Uighur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in internment camps has been a touchy issue in neighboring Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country of 18 million people. China is a major trading partner, and Kazakhstan’s state-restricted media had generally avoided reporting on it, but activists have said that pressure for action has slowly built, following international media coverage.
The ministry’s press office confirmed Kazakh media reports last month that China has agreed to let 2,000-plus ethnic Kazakhs leave. It did not say who could leave or why. They would be allowed to apply for Kazakh citizenship or permanent residency after their arrival in Kazakhstan, the statement said.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
Beijing’s detention campaign in Xinjiang has sent a chill over a tight-knit community of Chinese-born Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan.
Many had left China to pursue business opportunities in trade or educate their children in Kazakh schools as restrictions tightened in Xinjiang.
Hundreds lost contact with relatives in Xinjiang, and many began writing letters and attending news conferences, hoping that greater publicity would help bring their loved ones home.
Serikzhan Bilash, head of the advocacy group Atajurt, senses a subtle shift in the Kazakh government’s position.
He said he was warned by officials to halt his activities four times this summer, but that the warnings have stopped.
Last month, he said he was invited onto a popular Kazakh talk show for an hour, indicating growing tolerance of his work publicizing the plight of detained Kazakhs.
“I said that Chinese officials are dangerous for Central Asia, for Kazakhstan,” Bilash said. “They’re starting to accept my opinion now.”
Although they have avoided criticizing China, Kazakh diplomats have worked to secure the release of their own citizens in Xinjiang.
Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials in November said that China had detained 29 Kazakh citizens, but that 15 had since been released and allowed to return to Kazakhstan.
Gene Bunin, an activist who has collected about 2,000 testimonies from relatives of detainees in Xinjiang, estimates that about 20 people, possibly more, were allowed to return to Kazakhstan last year.
Bunin has tracked about 70 who have been released from camps, but confined to their home villages and prevented from leaving the country.
“They’ve been getting released since September,” said Bunin, who lived in Xinjiang until last year. “I suspect it’s sort of an appeasement thing going on, where they’re trying to satisfy the relatives, to defuse tensions.”
Those allowed to return so far have been largely Kazakh citizens, or those with spouses or children born in Kazakhstan.
One 23-year-old Kazakh citizen, who asked to be identified by the nickname Guli to protect her family from retribution, was able to return from Xinjiang in July last year after being separated from her husband and two children for more than two years.
She said she broke down in tears after a Kazakh official called to say that she might be able to return.
“I thought I’d never be able to go back to Kazakhstan again, that I wouldn’t able to see my kids again,” she said. “I had lost all hope.”
Chinese-born Kazakhs in Kazakhstan have in the past few months started to hear that their relatives in Xinjiang were being released from the camps. Their joy has turned to anxiety as most of the relatives remain in Xinjiang under unclear circumstances, unable to leave for Kazakhstan.
“I want to find a way to bring my entire family over to Kazakhstan,” said Adilgazy Yergazy, who heard that one of his younger brothers had been released on Dec. 24, but has not been able to leave China. “They’re all very scared.”
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