Every day except Sundays, when the protesters rest, the scene in Almaty is the same.
Police, often outnumbering the picketers, block off part of the street in Kazakhstan’s business capital where the Chinese consulate is located.
The picketers line up close to the cordon, holding placards bearing images of their relatives, all of whom are being held in China’s Xinjiang region.
They then take turns launching emotive appeals for the release of their loved ones followed by collective chants of “bostandyk” (freedom) while one of their number films the event for social media.
After a time, a policeman with a loudspeaker steps forward to inform the protesters that their gathering is unsanctioned and therefore illegal.
If they fail to disperse after this point, police will often detain them.
December 4 was the 300th day of the protest for the freedom of relatives living in Xinjiang, where the ethnic Kazakh population numbers around 1.5 million people and where over a million mostly Muslim Chinese citizens are believed to have endured some form of arbitrary detention over the last five years.
The protest group typically numbers between five and 15 people – almost all ethnic Kazakhs who have emigrated from China in recent years.
One ever-present picketer is Khalida Akitkhan, who woke on December 4 as usual at 6:30 in the morning and made the one-hour journey to Almaty by shared taxi from her village of Shamalgan.
Akitkhan’s family has been decimated by Beijing’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang.
Three of her four sons are serving lengthy jail sentences in the region.
Her three daughters-in-law were also detained, temporarily forcing at least four of her more than dozen grandchildren into state childcare.
The young women have since been released but remain under tight surveillance, and she has had no contact with her grandchildren in years.
Her husband in 2018 died of health problems that she attributes to stress over their sons’ arrests.
“I spend most of my small pension on the road to get here, so I lack money for medication,” Akitkhan told Eurasianet through tears. “I come here even when I am ill.”
When the informal rights organization Atajurt worked out of an office in downtown Almaty, members of the organization helped Akitkhan write letters to the Foreign Ministry raising the cases of her children. Those appeals received the terse response that her sons were citizens of China and that Kazakhstan could not interfere in its internal affairs.
Atajurt was known for its relentless video testimonies documenting the plight of Xinjiang victims – videos that undoubtedly contributed to a wave of releases in the second half of 2018 and the first half of the following year.
The organization came under major pressure after authorities targeted its leader, Serikzhan Bilash, in 2019 and has not been the same force since. Kazakhstan in September deported a Russian-American researcher that collaborated with the group to build the largest database on the Xinjiang repressions.
Some picketers complain that they are treated by Kazakhstan as political opponents.
When police held four picketers for several hours after a gathering in late November, the line of questioning focused on whether the picket had any links to outlawed opposition movements, one of the picketers told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity.
Gulfiya Kazybek, whose mother is serving jail time for religious crimes in Xinjiang, demanded better from the state she now calls home.
“Send my mother [to Kazakhstan] to live with her family and stop the genocide,” she cried during the 300-day event, using a term that is also used by some Western leaders. “Help us, government of Kazakhstan, instead of detaining us and taking us away in your cars!”
The request fell on deaf ears.
Just minutes after she finished speaking, Kazybek was manhandled into one of the waiting police cars by cops who moved in on the picket. She told Eurasianet that she felt faint hours later, after the picketers were released without charge.
Many have been detained 10 or more times.
Baibolat Kunbolat, who is campaigning for the release of his brother, has spent two stints in administrative detention – for 10 and 15 days respectively – since the protests began.
Charges and fines are rare but at 4 million tenge ($9,200) can be ruinous. Another picketer, Gaukhar Kurmanaliyeva, whose relative Askar Azatbek is a Kazakh citizen jailed by China over espionage allegations, told Eurasianet that the protesters pay the fines by borrowing and raising money from friends.
Appealing the court decisions is futile, she said. The picketers have pledged to go on hunger strike if they are fined again.
China has made its distaste for the protests clear.
After Kunbolat asked a Chinese embassy official, Gu Ming, for information on his brother’s case, Gu said that Beijing would “engage with the Kazakhstan government to have action taken against you” if Kunbolat continued to act “as a pawn of anti-China forces.”
Gu also told Kunbolat that his activism could cause problems for his aunt and uncle living in Xinjiang, Kunbolat claimed.
In March, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xiao discussed Xinjiang with Deputy Foreign Minister Sharkhat Nuryshev. Zhang informed Nuryshev that “the relatives of the petitioners are citizens of the PRC [China] and are serving sentences related to violations of the country's legislation,” according to a Kazakh foreign ministry readout.
Kazakhstan has not criticized China over Xinjiang, but unlike Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it has stopped short of signing joint statements at the United Nations in support of Beijing’s policies there.
Mandarin-fluent Sinophile President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has touched on the problem only once, when he said during a 2019 interview with Deutsche Welle that concerns surrounding the treatment of Kazakhs in Xinjiang were being “deliberately pumped up.”
“Kazakhstan should not become a territory for the global anti-Chinese front,” he told the outlet.
Daniyar Moldabekov and Nazerke Kurmangazinova are journalists based in Almaty.