An ethnic Kazakh journalist and cultural luminary from Xinjiang has been arrested by Chinese security forces, activists in close contact with her say. She had been seeking consular assistance to travel to Kazakhstan.
The February 10 detention of Zhanargul Zhumatai, a reeducation camp survivor, creates a fresh source of discomfort for Beijing’s ally, Kazakhstan, which says little publicly about the repression of ethnic kin next door.
According to Rune Steenberg, a Danish researcher who cited a phone call with Zhumatai’s siblings in Urumqi, Zhumatai was dragged out of her sister’s home by security officials on February 10.
Steenberg has been in direct contact with Zhumatai since pressure on the 47-year-old began to mount at the beginning of the year. He sent Eurasianet a transcript of a phone call that she had recorded in which an officer appeared to be checking on her location just hours before her arrest.
“I clearly tell you now, Officer Xu, I don’t want the local administrative committee to visit, and I even less want the party committee and other authorities to come visit!” Zhumatai says in the exchange.
“So, what do you want? Tell me. Let’s solve the issue,” the officer replies.
“I don’t want anything. I don’t want anything. I want to be left in peace,” Zhumatai says.
The very fact that Zhumatai was in contact with Steenberg as well as U.S.-based Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash makes her story unusual and allows for a detailed chronology of the build up to her arrest.
The communications of Xinjiang minority residents with family in other countries are closely monitored by Chinese authorities and have repeatedly been used as pretexts for arbitrary detentions, as was the case when Zhumatai was first detained in September 2017.
The crackdown that had begun unfolding earlier that year would see more than a million people detained, according to international experts.
Prior to that Zhumatai had made regular trips between China and Kazakhstan to promote cultural exchanges and had cultivated professional relationships in both countries.
In May 2017 her company displayed more than 200 artworks and handicrafts at the 13th edition of the prestigious Shenzhen Cultural Fair, helping the Urumqi pavilion win special recognition, Zhumatai told Bilash.
On a day-to-day basis, she produced popular Kazakh-language programming for Chinese state-controlled radio and television.
In Kazakhstan, where she had a residency permit, she had in the past worked with the state-backed broadcaster Qazaqstan.
Since being freed from the camp in 2019, Zhumatai remained under heavy surveillance and was unable to return to her former life. Last month, after authorities allegedly offered her a choice between jail and a period in a mental asylum, Zhumatai went public with her desire to leave for Kazakhstan.
"You have no idea how much torture I've endured. I beg the world to help me," she told Bilash, leader of the Xinjiang-focused Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights Organization, during a phone call that Bilash recorded and posted on YouTube.
According to Steenberg, Zhumatai had already been in contact with Kazakh diplomats and was trying to obtain documents with the help of relatives to enter Kazakhstan.
Bilash, a firebrand campaigner who is persona non grata in both China and Kazakhstan, is now accusing a Kazakh diplomat in Urumqi of helping facilitate Zhumatai’s arrest.
Having tentatively raised the issue of Xinjiang and the problems of ethnic Kazakhs with China in the first years of the crackdown, Kazakhstan’s government no longer passes public comment on the region.
That is a long-term source of frustration for Almaty-based relatives of ethnic Kazakh Chinese citizens swept up in the purges, whose picket outside Beijing’s consulate in Kazakhstan’s largest city is now two years old.
Last week, the husband of one of the picketers was allowed to return to Kazakhstan after five years separated from his family in China, at least two of which were spent in a camp. Sarsenbek Akbar, a former head of his village, had been visiting his homeland on family business when he was detained. Like many China-born Kazakhs that moved to Kazakhstan, he had not yet made the transition to full citizenship.
His wife Kosdaulet had campaigned for him on most days since the picket outside the consulate began. She confirmed his safe return in an interview with RFE/RL’s Kazakh service but gave few other details, citing concerns for her family’s safety.
Almahan Myrzan, another regular picketer at the consulate, told Eurasianet that it was too early to say whether Akbar’s release had any import for other detainees, a number of whom, like her brother, Bakytkhan Myrzan, are serving hard jail time.
“I cannot say this gave us hope. But I am happy that at least one of [our] loved ones has safely arrived in Kazakhstan,” said Myrzan, adding that China “might have allowed a few people to leave just for show.”
Most Xinjiang observers agree that arrests in the region have slowed and that the notorious re-education camps are no longer operating in the capacity they once were.
But the case of Zhumatai, whom Bilash credits with speaking out for Kazakh pastoralists dispossessed of their land in China, shows that the security forces are still raking the ground for perceived enemies.
In the meantime, eyebrow-raising plans for Xinjiang’s U.S.-sanctioned governor Erkin Tuniyaz to visit several European capitals in the near future have generated disgust among diaspora Uyghurs and Kazakhs.
Tuniyaz’s trip would be the first to the West by a top Chinese official from the region since the extent of the Chinese government’s incarceration drive and population controls targeting Turkic and Muslim minorities there first became known several years ago.
In the United Kingdom, where he was expected to meet officials but not ministers, news of the visit provoked an appeal from lawmakers to launch a private prosecution of the official.