Protesters rally outside the embassy in Nur-Sultan on June 8.
NUR-SULTAN –- Several protesters have gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, demanding the release of relatives they say are being illegally held in China's northwestern Xinjiang Province, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits the Central Asian country.
"We have been demanding our relatives' release since 2016. Today, when the two nations' foreign ministers are meeting, we want to let them know that we want them to contribute to the release of our loved ones," one of the protesters, Baibolat Kunbolatuly, told RFE/RL .
The protesters held posters with pictures of their relatives held in Xinjiang and written demands to release them in Kazakh, Chinese, and English. No one from the Chinese Embassy came out to meet the protesters, though one person appeared at the door of the building to film the protesters and take their pictures. Similar demonstrations have been held in front the Chinese Consulate in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, for years. The June 8 rally was held as Wang and his Kazakh counterpart, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, held talks in the capital. The day before, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev met with Wang. Demonstrators have demanded Kazakh authorities do more to protect ethnic Kazakhs who have been caught up in the Chinese sweep in Xinjiang.
Kazakhstan’s government, however, has been wary of angering Beijing, which is a major investor in Kazakhstan and throughout Central Asia.
As many as 2 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and members of Xinjiang's other indigenous, Muslim, mostly Turkic-speaking ethnic groups have been taken to detention centers in the western Chinese region, according to the U.S. State Department. China denies that the facilities are internment camps but people who have fled the province say that thousands are undergoing "political indoctrination" at a network of facilities known officially as reeducation camps.
After Kazakhstan gained independence following the Soviet collapse in 1991, many ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang and elsewhere resettled in Kazakhstan, as part of a state program. Many obtained permanent residence or citizenship but continue to visit Xinjiang either to see relatives or for bureaucratic reasons. Some have reported facing pressure from Chinese authorities or even arrests and imprisonment. Kazakhs are the second-largest Turkic-speaking indigenous community in Xinjiang after Uyghurs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans. China's largest ethnicity, Han, is the second-largest ethnic group in Xinjiang.