Although ethnocentric nationalism is on the rise and more than more than 200,000 ethnic returnees from China’s Xinjiang region now call Kazakhstan home, the Kazakh public generally remains silent about the plight of ethnic Kazakh detainees held in Xinjiang. One explanation can be found in Kazakh textbooks in which ethnic ties between Kazakhstan and Xinjiang are omitted and a positive portrayal of China is dominant. This contradicts the Kazakh government’s general approach to its co-ethnic community abroad, but highlights the inherent tension in Kazakhstan’s relationship with China.
This is not to say there has been no public agitation over the detentions in Xinjiang. For more than 600 days the Chinese Consulate in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, has seen family members of Kazakhs imprisoned in Xinjiang protesting over the whereabouts of their close family and relatives in China. Some relatives remain in so-called “re-education camps” and others are serving long-term prison sentences in Xinjiang. Last year, there were some anti-China protests at which family members and activists mobilized to express sympathy for the protestors.
Kazakh police detained some of the protesters, fining some of them $8,400 in local currency, equivalent to 12 months of the average local salary, for breaching public order rules. During visits by top-ranking Chinese officials to Kazakhstan, there have been additional arrests and greater financial penalties imposed. The Kazakh government seems willing to tolerate the protests up to a limited point, and does not seem to face much local censure in response to its crackdowns.
One explanation for this apathy can be found in the Kazakh education system. Official narratives in school textbooks teach Kazakh youth to embrace the repatriation of next-of-kin from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan. More than 1.6 million Kazakhs have lived in China since the 19th century. Those same narratives also endorse a positive image of China, which remains at the forefront in state-sponsored school history textbooks. This dichotomy partially explains the public indifference to, and ignorance of, the causes of the picketers in Almaty.
With respect to repatriations, currently-in-use state-sponsored and approved history textbooks emphasize a need to increase the number of ethnic Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. This is seen as an important contributing factor to greater social cohesion in the country. These textbooks view Kazakhstan becoming a mono-ethnic state as a significant asset for bolstering its national identity and consolidating the nation. These textbooks claim that native ethnic groups must constitute 75-80 percent of the population to guarantee inter-ethnic stability in a country where the ethnic minorities constitute about 30 percent of the population.
According to 11th grade history textbooks, ethnic returnees, including those from Xinjiang, tend to create large families, help close the labor shortage gap, raise the position of the Kazakh language, and restore historical injustices perpetuated by the Soviet state. It was during the 1931-1933 Soviet-induced famine that Kazakh nomads sought refuge from starvation in Xinjiang. The descendants of these people are amongst those who are getting caught up in the Xinjiang camp system and are now seeking to return to their historic homeland of Kazakhstan. The government has long sought to encourage this group to come home by providing opportunities for their immigration to Kazakhstan.
Official textbooks attempt to create a positive image of ethnic Kazakh returnees from Xinjiang by emphasizing their contribution to Kazakhstan’s culture, music, and sport. For example, the textbooks include stories of ethnic returnees from China, including Nabizhan Muhademzhanulu, who translated crucial ancient and medieval Chinese sources into the Kazakh language. They also refer to an opera singer from Xinjiang, Maira Muhamedkyzy, who performed at the internationally recognized La Scala and Grand Operas. These examples aim to enhance the integration of Kazakh returnees into society.
At the same time, similar textbooks highlight the profound cultural contributions made by China to world civilization; praising Chinese poets, historians, and scientific, military, and artistic discoveries made since ancient times. They highlight “the historical greatness of China.” When assessing Chairman Mao Zedong’s policies, a 10th grade textbook claims that despite the Great Leap Forward and despite a low per capita income, China became a nuclear and space power. But nothing is said about the Great Famine or the Cultural Revolution. The Great Wall of China and sculptures of the Terracotta Army are used to symbolize the military power of China in these textbooks.
It is when the textbooks delve more deeply into Kazakhstan’s historic ties with China that the reasons for the lack of interest in the Almaty picketers becomes more clear. Discussions of ethnic ties between Kazakhs and Xinjiang are largely absent. As a matter of history, these textbooks emphasize a delicate Sino-Kazakh diplomatic relationship.
Following the Chinese Qing Dynasty’s destruction of the Dzungar Khanate, which had its core around the modern territory of Xinjiang in the 18th century, Chinese and Kazakh governors continued to dispute the borderlands of current-day eastern Kazakhstan. The Dzungar people once occupied these lands. When describing Sino-Kazakh disputes over this land, the official Kazakh 8th grade history textbook emphasizes that thanks to diplomatic negotiations in 1767 by Kazakh Khan Ablylai, Kazakhs were granted use of pastoral lands in eastern Kazakhstan, and any Kazakhs using these lands paid rent to the Chinese for their usage.
As per this textbook, the diplomatic solution and relationship with China enabled Khan Abylai to stop the colonial expansionist policies of Tsarist Russia from entering Kazakh lands. Clearly, the textbooks eschew highlighting any contentions with China by building a historic narrative of Kazakhstan conducting a multi-vector foreign policy. By being a friendly neighbor to its two large partners, China and Russia, and using one against the other, their influence in Kazakhstan was contained. Similarly, any stories of 18th century interactions between Kazakhs and Xinjiang residents are largely absent; instead, political narratives favoring Sino-Kazakh friendships are dominant in the textbooks.
The studied textbooks present China as a mono-ethnic Han Chinese state and are mostly absent of content about the racial makeup of Xinjiang. School students are insufficiently taught about the multi-ethnic diversity of China, including its citizens living in Xinjiang. Although these history textbooks clearly explain the Turkic origins of modern-day Kazakhstan, the territory of modern Xinjiang is largely presented as a geographic concept that since the Silk Road period connected mainland China to Central Asia. The expansion of China into these territories is told as the seeking of new trade routes. These textbooks scarcely connect Uyghurs and Central Asians to the common Turkic-origin concept of East Turkestan. Indeed, when these textbooks use the phrase “East Turkestan” they mostly mean the vast territory of current Xinjiang without connecting it to the cultural and ethnic origins of the people which long inhabited the region. Describing only the geographic proximity of Xinjiang to Kazakhstan, without discussing the people-to-people interconnections, these textbooks make it convenient for Kazakh citizens to distance themselves from the fate of imprisoned next-of-kin in Xinjiang.
From their earliest schooling years, Kazakh youths have been encouraged to embrace the repatriation of their kin from overseas. This has manifested itself in protesters outside the Chinese Consulate seeking information about kin in neighboring Xinjiang. However, the plight of these protesters, and that of their kin, has not gained significant public sympathy. This can in part be attributed to the depiction in official school textbooks of the Xinjiang region, and its historical context within Kazakhstan’s overall history. With primary teaching resources omitting reference to the ethnic ties between the two areas, while emphasizing a Sinophile narrative and the geographic proximity of the two areas, this lack of overt concern becomes explicable.