ALMATY, Kazakhstan—In early March, Serikzhan Bilash, a Kazakh activist documenting and advocating for Muslims caught up in an immense internment-camp system in China, was taken from his hotel room by security services and arrested. Late on August 16, after being under house arrest for five months, he was unexpectedly freed.
Kazakhstan, the Central Asian country of 18 million that shares a 1,100-mile border with China, has become an unlikely window into Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim minorities. In recent years, the Chinese government has built the world’s most advanced surveillance state in Xinjiang, the western region bordering Central Asia. Bolstered by public video surveillance, regular scans of digital devices, and coded ID cards used to track the movements of their holder, the Chinese Communist Party has erected a massive internment program targeting the Muslim population, especially Uighurs, but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities. According to the U.S. State Department, 800,000 to 2 million people, or roughly 15 percent of Xinjiang’s Muslim population, have been incarcerated in the sprawling camp network.
Atajurt Eriktileri, Bilash’s organization, grew from a small office in downtown Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, into a front-line force in raising awareness about the mass detentions and camp system. Bilash and other members of Atajurt posted regular video testimonies from people whose relatives had gone missing in Xinjiang, as well as from recently released camp detainees, cataloging their abuse and indoctrination and bringing international attention to the issue in the process. But Atajurt’s success and Bilash’s reputation as a critic of China’s policies put him in the crosshairs of the Kazakh authorities. Like others vying for favor with Beijing, the Kazakh government has used its location to position itself as a strategic notch in the billion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure program. Bilash was arrested on charges of interethnic incitement for critical remarks he had made about China’s policies in Xinjiang. The case, his supporters say, is an example of China exerting influence beyond its borders, pushing the Kazakh government to muzzle its own citizens.