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Radio Free Asia

At Central Asia Summit, Beijing seals trade and investment deals with 5 nations

But China's repression of Uyghurs is ignored, rights groups say.

By RFA Uyghur 2023.05.19 -- China wrapped up its first summit with leaders from five Central Asia nations on Friday with several agreements to boost trade, investment and security ties.

President Xi Jinping pledged an initial US$3.8 billion to the region in financing support and grants and said the government would encourage Chinese-funded businesses to set up shop in the five countries, creating jobs and development.

"The China-Central Asia relationship is steeped in history, driven by broad actual needs, and built on solid popular support,"' Xi said in his keynote speech. "Our relations are brimming with vigor and vitality in the new era."

In particular, China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which promised to support Beijing in maintaining security and stability in Xinjiang, where 11 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs live under increasingly oppressive Chinese control through detention in "re-educations" camps, torture and forced labor.

China and Kyrgyzstan agreed to jointly combat the "three forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism," including "East Turkistan terrorist forces," a reference to the Uyghurs' preferred name for their homeland.

Turning a blind eye

Human rights groups and Uyhgur advocates said leaders from the five Central Asian nations turned a blind eye to China's repression of the Uyghurs - as well as Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajiks - living in the northwest Xinjiang region, despite sharing similar religious and cultural values.

The World Uyghur Congress, or WUC, said it strongly condemned the prioritizing of economic and trade relations to serve Chinese expansionism and influence in Central Asia over curtailing the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

"Central Asian governments have followed suit on the brutal treatment and intimidation the Chinese government displays against Uyghurs and other Turkic people," WUC President Dolkun Isa said in a statement released Wednesday.

"These neighboring countries have failed to live up to their commitments and to save Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajiks from the ongoing genocide being committed against them," he said.

'Sanitizing China's image'

China is eager to expand its influence in the region through trade, investment and diplomatic engagement.

Central Asia has become so critical for China that Ma Xingrui, the Communist Party secretary for Xinjiang, met with top leaders from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in March.

The mostly Muslim Xinjiang region has ethnic, religious and business ties to Central Asia, making it ideal for Beijing's outreach to nations seen as necessary for increasing trade, ensuring energy security, and maintaining stability in Xinjiang.

Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, a political analyst based in the United States and vice chairman of WUC's executive committee, said China strengthening its relations with the Central Asian countries, to do its bidding in international fora with regard to the ongoing Uyghur genocide.

This includes "sanitizing China's image, providing diplomatic cover for the atrocities or promoting China's narrative that there is no genocide," he said.

Xinjiang "re-education" camp survivor Gulbahar Jelilova, a Uyghur businesswoman from Kazakhstan who had been involved in cross-border trade for 20 years until 2017, said that no Kazakh official or minister asked her about her ordeal or the reason for her detention.

"I was so disheartened by them that I left Kazakhstan and moved to Turkey," said Jelilova, who was detained on accusations of "aiding terrorism" while on a business trip to Xinjiang and put into three different camps over a period of 15 months beginning in May 2017.

Jelilova said she opposed a new visa regime which allows Chinese tourists a 30-day entry into Kazakhstan because many will go there but never leave after their visas expire, and will not allow Uyghurs from Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan to visit their homelands.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

The story was updated to include information about the outcome of the summit and China's comprehensive strategic partnership with Kyrgyzstan.

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