Human rights have not been high on the U.S. diplomatic agenda in recent years. But amid growing tension with China, Washington seems willing to take Beijing to task over its treatment of Muslim minorities in western Xinjiang Province. The American initiative is facing headwinds, however, in part because some of China’s neighbors, including those directly affected by the Xinjiang crackdown, are unwilling to publicly criticize Chinese policies.
The evolving American stance on Xinjiang – where Chinese authorities have sent up to 1 million Muslim citizens, mainly ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, to internment/reeducation camps – was plainly evident during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. On the sidelines of the gathering, representatives of about 30 nations participated in a U.S.-organized event to call attention to, in the words of one American diplomat, “China’s horrific campaign of repression” in Xinjiang.
Although thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz have experienced forced assimilation pressure in Xinjiang, Kyrgyzstan is not among China’s critics. In a September 23 address at Columbia University, sponsored by the Harriman Institute, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Chingiz Aidarbekov said that “the religious sphere” was an internal matter for China, adding that he had not seen concrete evidence of rights abuses in Xinjiang. He said Chinese officials had been “very transparent” in discussions with their Kyrgyz counterparts on the treatment of Muslim minorities.
Kazakhstan, like Kyrgyzstan, has refrained from criticizing China’s actions in Xinjiang. Even Turkey, formerly a fierce critic of Beijing, has made a rhetorical U-turn and is now largely silent on the Uighur question.
The reason underlying the silence is economic. Beijing is poised to spend billions in Central Asia on vast infrastructure projects under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and regional officials seem wary of doing or saying anything that might give offense and potentially negatively impact investment prospects. Once comparatively thriving states, such as Kazakhstan and Turkey, have lately fallen upon hard times and could use an infusion of Chinese investment to help prop up their authoritarian-leaning leaderships.
Aidarbekov, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, characterized China as Kyrgyzstan’s “reliable partner.” He said a Chinese infrastructure project to expand Kyrgyzstan’s railroad network had the potential to give “a big boost” to Bishkek’s goal of exporting more “value-added products.”
Anti-Chinese sentiment seems to have risen among Kyrgyz citizens in recent years, fueled by scandals connected to Chinese investment. The most notorious scandal unfolded in early 2018, when a power-plant that had just been refurbished by a Chinese company broke down, leaving residents of the capital without heat in temperatures of minus-20 Celsius. In his Columbia address, Aidarbekov indicated the Chinese side was largely blameless for the heating system scandal, citing corruption among Kyrgyz officials as the major factor.
If the United States wants Kyrgyzstan to join the chorus of critics on Xinjiang, it may have to offer some economic incentives. Right now, the major U.S. economic initiative is to help Kyrgyzstan harness its water resources so that it can export electricity to South Asia. The potential benefits, however, pale in comparison to the possibilities associated with China’s BRI. So don’t expect Kyrgyzstan to have a “come-to-Jesus” moment any time soon.