BEIJING — Five years ago, Bekzat Maxutkanuly was a small-scale clothing merchant in Kazakhstan, indifferent to politics but worried about rumors of a brewing crackdown across the border in China’s Xinjiang region, his native land.
This week, as soldiers sang hymns welcoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping on a visit to Kazakhstan, Maxutkanuly is preparing to drive from village to village through his country’s vast hinterland to register people for a party. policy that will challenge Beijing, not welcome it.
“I never intended to get involved in politics,” said the 46-year-old Kazakh of Chinese origin. “But then I started to realize that the situation in Xinjiang was a huge problem, which wouldn’t collapse in a year or two.”
The story of his political awakening illustrates how China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang has alienated many people in Central Asia, even as Beijing dominates its governments.
When the arrests in Xinjiang began, thousands of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and others of Central Asian descent were abducted by authorities along with the Uyghurs and taken to a vast network of camps and prisons.
Behind closed doors, the Kazakh government has pleaded with Beijing to release the Kazakh victims of the crackdown. But in public, they said nothing and abstained in UN votes on whether to condemn or support China’s policy in Xinjiang.
China is a major investor in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industries and lends billions of dollars to build railways and highways. This week, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met Xi on the airport tarmac upon his arrival and treated him to a lavish state banquet.
Maxutkanuly calls the visit “humiliating”, given Xi’s treatment of ethnic Kazakhs.
“It’s really not the time for him to visit us,” he said.
Born to farmers in a small, heavily Kazakh village on China’s western border, he lived modestly but tested well, earning him a place at university in the capital of Xinjiang.
There, he says, he was bullied relentlessly for his hesitant Mandarin. Teachers, officials and classmates criticized him, making him feel like an outsider. In the late 1990s, her family moved to Kazakhstan, leaving behind a country they say never really welcomed them.
For decades he worked as a teacher, then a translator, then a trader. His political awakening began five years ago, when friends and relatives in Xinjiang stopped calling and texting. He sensed something was wrong.
He spotted online speeches by Serikzhan Bilash, a Kazakh Chinese-born activist who spoke out against growing reports of brutality and mass detentions in the region.
Maxutkanuly joined the movement of Bilash, an unregistered organization called Atajurt. He organized petitions and press conferences, attracting the attention of the world – and soon that of the government as well.
Plainclothes police followed their meetings. Key figures have been summoned for questioning. In 2019, police attacked Bilash in a hotel bathroom and took him to jail. Later that year, Bilash fled the country and appointed Maxutkanuly the new leader of Atajurt.
Now, after beatings, protests and dozens of clashes with police, Maxutkanuly wants Atajurt to bring about fundamental change: a democratic Kazakhstan, where ethnic Chinese Kazakhs and others will be free from express their concerns.
He said years of struggle under state repression have taught him and others in his group that real power is necessary to achieve results. This is why a formal political party is needed, not just a grassroots group, he said.
“The Kazakh government helps the Chinese government. They are trying to block us,” Maxutkanuly said. “To achieve our goals, we must first change the political situation in Kazakhstan.”
The chances of success are slim. For nearly three decades, Kazakhstan was ruled by a Soviet-era strongman. His successor, a former Soviet diplomat in Beijing, seems no less pro-democracy. Political opponents are monitored, harassed and sometimes driven out of the country.
Still, Kazakhstan maintains good relations with the West to balance the power of its neighbors Russia and China. In a part of the world populated by brutal rulers, Kazakhstan’s rulers are more inspired by technocratic Singapore, leaving space for organization and civil society.
The plan, Maxutkanuly said, is to register 50,000 people, 10 times more than the legal minimum required to register a political party.
It will be tough, forcing him to go door to door to register elderly people in the countryside, some of whom are illiterate or do not have mobile phones.
The ethnic Chinese Kazakh community is riven by divisions, fueled by suspicions of espionage and fear of the state. Some are skeptical of Maxutkanuly, wondering what his motives are and how far he can go to challenge the state.
Still, he has supporters. Nurlan Kokteubai, a former schoolteacher who spent seven months in a camp in Xinjiang, joined the party. He will do everything, he said, to draw more attention to the plight of ethnic Chinese Kazakhs.
“The Kazakh government does not support us. Tokayev listens to Xi,” Kokteubai said, referring to current Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. “If you don’t have a party, what kind of power do you have?” It’s better that way. »
Kazakhstan is going through a crisis. The January protests turned violent after thugs arrived, smashing cars and setting fire to buildings. The Kazakh government invited Russian troops to crush the uprising and hundreds were killed.
Maxutkanuly was among those who demonstrated in January during a march in Kazakhstan’s capital. He said his nose was beaten by the police and he spent the night in jail.
Still, he is determined to keep going.
“If I am arrested, so be it. If I say nothing, who will help the Kazakhs in Xinjiang? ” he said. “Someone has to talk.”