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Central Asia leaders overlook plight of Uyghurs to woo China


FILE - Women sit holding pictures of victims and posters with messages of protest during a demonstration against China's brutal crackdown on Uyghurs, in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 30, 2022.
FILE - Women sit holding pictures of victims and posters with messages of protest during a demonstration against China's brutal crackdown on Uyghurs, in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Nov. 30, 2022.

Any resentment among Central Asian leaders over China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority was swept aside during recent tours of the region by the chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Chinese minister of public security.

The warm welcome given the Chinese officials reflects the region’s growing economic ties with Beijing and its uneasiness with Russia — the region’s longtime guarantor against domestic rebellion — as that country struggles on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Fears that Moscow’s territorial ambitions may extend to other former Soviet republics have been reinforced by a backlash against Central Asians in Russia following the March 22 attack on a Moscow music venue, which killed at least 140 people and injured nearly 100.

Russian media have reported a spike in hate crimes and violence against migrants from Central Asia since the attack, which prompted Russian authorities to detain more than a dozen suspects, the majority of whom have links to the region.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Islamic State-Khorasan Province, a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group that is active in South-Central Asia, primarily Afghanistan, and includes Central Asian members.

Central Asian economies have historically depended on remittances from migrant laborers in Russia. But according to Salih Hudayar of the Washington-based East Turkistan Government in Exile — a group that advocates for independence for China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — Central Asian leaders are deepening ties with China despite its well-documented human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

Hudayar, whose group refers to the Chinese province as East Turkistan, tells VOA that the willingness of some Central Asian regional governments to do business with Chinese officials, including those in Xinjiang, whose majority Muslim ethnic Uyghurs have deep ties across Central Asia, is driven by the lack of international action over rights abuses on the ground.

"The tepid responses from powers like the U.S. and the EU have not only failed the people of East Turkistan [Xinjiang] but have also encouraged Central Asian countries to deepen their ties with China," said Hudayar, adding that economic gains from doing business with China outweigh any ethical considerations.

The U.S. and European Union have officially labeled China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang as genocide, while the U.N. Human Rights Office has stated that China’s actions in Xinjiang could constitute crimes against humanity, including arbitrary detention, forced labor, forced sterilization, and widespread surveillance targeting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

China denies these accusations, dismissing them as lies concocted by U.S.-led anti-China forces seeking to contain China’s development.

Chinese official Erkin Tuniyaz, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, led the first delegation in meetings with Kyrgyz President Sadir Japarov in Bishkek on April 1, following discussions with Uzbek and Kazakh leaders the previous week.

An ethnic Uyghur who has himself been sanctioned by the U.S. government for his alleged role in human rights abuses, Tuniyaz led discussions on cooperation in trade, mining, cultural exchanges and humanitarian aid.

Chinese Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong held security talks with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev that same day.

According to Temur Umarov, an expert on China and Central Asia at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, Central Asian leaders' readiness to overlook human rights abuses to enhance economic and security ties with China stems from their own styles of governance.

“It's important to keep in mind that all Central Asian countries are authoritarian, and the same concerns that the U.S. has toward the situation in China also apply to the regimes in Central Asian countries,” Umarov told VOA. “So, in this regard, I don’t see why Central Asian countries would even consider such allegations from the U.S. toward China as a factor affecting their relationship with China.

"They're pragmatic in their foreign policy,” he added. “They clearly understand that without China, the development of their own economies and political stability is impossible to imagine."

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said during his meeting with Tuniyaz that he had recently been in the Xinjiang capital of Ürümqi, where his delegation “had very good negotiations regarding the prospects for Kazakhstan’s cooperation with China as a whole and, of course, with Xinjiang province.”

According to Umarov, Xinjiang's crucial role in Central Asian countries' economic cooperation with China underscores its current and future importance to them, as China's assistance in diversifying their global economic connections increases.

“All of the logistic hubs and energy exports from Central Asia to China go through Xinjiang,” Umarov said. “All of the businesses that have branches in Central Asia and all the investment projects, the majority of them originate from Xinjiang.

“So, in fact, what we call the China-Central Asia relationship is, in most cases, the Xinjiang-Central Asia relationship,” he said. “So, I think that’s also important to keep in mind.”

Official statistics show China has become the primary trade partner for all five Central Asian states. According to Kazakh media, bilateral trade reached $31.5 billion last year, with Xinjiang contributing over 64%, or $20.3 billion.

“China is one of the region’s main trading partners and a key investor into Central Asia,” said Genevieve Donnellon-May, a research associate at Asia Society Policy Institute told VOA. “At the same time, there may be interest from Central Asian leaders’ in reducing reliance on Russia.”