As China seeks to pursue a policy of normalization in its Xinjiang province, where it has embarked on years of repression against the native Uyghur population and other mainly Muslim Turkic minorities, Kazakhstan is hoping to reap the economic dividends.
Astana appears to believe that doing so will require keeping a tight lid on the vocal protests of the relatives of ethnic Kazakhs imprisoned by the Chinese authorities. They have shown no hesitation in doing that.
When President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met in Astana with Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Ma Xingrui on March 27, police intensified security at Chinese diplomatic missions and adopted other preemptive measures designed to avoid the visitor’s blushes.
One notable example of that was the reported preventative detention by police in Almaty of activists and relatives of ethnic Kazakhs imprisoned in Xinjiang.
A group of relatives did manage to mount a small picket at the Chinese consulate in the city. One among them, a woman named Almakhan Myrzan, alleged in a live stream from the demonstration that her brother had been killed in a Xinjiang prison. Police at the mission prevented the picketers from getting close to the building.
A press release from the Tokayev administration about what was discussed at the meeting with Ma was sparse with its details and stated only that the exchange covered cooperation “in many areas, including industry, transport, logistics, agriculture and tourism.”
Ma said Kazakhstan was China's “highest priority for mutual cooperation” and stressed how this relationship runs mainly through Xinjiang. No allusion was made to the status of ethnic Kazakhs in the Chinese province.
Figures released by the government after Ma met with Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov told a more detailed story. Fully 40 percent of Kazakh-Chinese trade is accounted for by dealings with Xinjiang specifically. In 2022, trade between Kazakhstan and China grew by one-third year-on-year, setting a new record high of $24 billion. The balance is slightly in the favor of Kazakhstan, which exports the equivalent of $13 billion in goods to China.
Transit traffic of goods arriving from China doubled over that period.
Overall, China accounts for 18 percent of Kazakhstan’s foreign trade turnover. Investment figures are also notable. Over the past 15 years, incoming investment from China has totaled almost $23 billion. On the sidelines of Ma’s visit, entrepreneurs from the two countries signed off on commercial contracts worth $565 million.
Kazakhstan is eager to ease persistent bottlenecks in trade traffic. There were pronounced problems a couple of years ago, when congestion on border railway infrastructure prevented Kazakh grain exporters from delivering their products to Chinese customers. Smailov said that so-called “green corridors” have been instituted at two out the five customs points on the border for the accelerated movement of agricultural goods. He called for this to happen at the other remaining three crossings too. The Kazakh prime minister also urged his Chinese partners to expedite the issuance of visas to Kazakh cargo carriers.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.