Already this week, however, we have seen a remarkable development in Kazakhstan: thousands of Uighurs were allowed to march in Almaty and protest Chinese policies in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan is home to several hundred thousand Uighurs, who have complained in the past of discrimination and ill treatment (such as the forcible return of refugees); this week’s protest marked the first time they were allowed to hold a mass demonstration.
This was probably a smart move on the part of the Kazakh regime. While national and inter-ethnic unity play a large part in Nazarbayev’s rhetoric and public campaigns, and there is a clear desire not to antagonise China (which is not only a powerful neighbour but a significant investor), the risk that the demonstration would inflame the Uighur population in Kazakhstan was probably outweighed by the possibility that not allowing any sort of public protest against China would further antagonise Kazakh Uighurs against their own government.
(UNHCR and Minority Rights Group offer a brief note on Kazakh Uighurs here.)
Another interesting development comes courtesy of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which released a statement threatening to attack Chinese workers in Africa (of which there are tens of thousands) in retaliation for Uighur deaths in Xinjiang. It is apparently the first time that any AQ outfit has explicitly threatened Chinese interests.
If such threats were to become a trend, and acted upon, China’s vulnerability could be significant given its extensive web of foreign economic activities. At the moment China operates relatively freely in areas that are difficult for the US and European states (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan) and it has exploited this strategic advantage to a great degree. It is doubtful that China would let its Xinjiang policies be dictated by the threat of terrorism abroad, but such developments could limit its freedom of operation in some countries and level the playing field a bit.
Meanwhile, leading Uighur groups have denounced the AQIM statement. Rebiya Kadeer, perhaps the most prominent Uighur exile activist, said ‘Global terrorists should not take advantage of the Uyghur people’s legitimate aspirations and the current tragedy in East Turkestan to commit acts of terrorism targeting Chinese diplomatic missions or civilians’. Terrorism analysts generally have not found serious links between AQ and Uighur separatist groups.