Kazakhstan—situated on the overland route from China to Europe—has long played an important role in global trading. Some Kazakhs think the New Silk Road will benefit their country’s economy. Others worry about China’s growing influence in the region, and its detention of Muslims in neighboring Xinjiang province. As a former Soviet republic that shares borders with both Russia and China, Kazakhstan looks to safeguard its independence as it negotiates a new relationship with China.

Episode Transcript

(Sound of Almaty market)

It’s the color from the fruit stands that hits you first when you walk into Almaty’s Green Bazaar – from oranges, lemons, limes and red apples. 

The next thing that hits you are the gregarious vendors – they hold out samples of dried apricots, figs, pistachios, sultanas and almonds, and sweet local pastries, hoping they’ll entice you to buy in bulk.

A selection of fruit and nuts at Almaty’s Green Bazaar. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Kazakh vendor: Speaks in Kazakh. 

MKM: Can I try one of these? 

I’m here with a young Kazakh journalist, Dulat Yesnazar. He’s showing me around, in this vintage indoor market with a soaring ceiling. We walk past the displays of honey and herbal tonics, past the bouquets of flowers, to the meat market, where a cleaver lies on a blood-stained wooden block.

Kazakh journalist, Dulat Yesnazar. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Dulat: Horse meat.

MKM: There’s horse meat? 

Dulat: Yeah, sure.

MKM: Do you eat horse meat? 

Dulat: Yes.

MKM: Does it taste like – beef? 

Dulat: It’s better than beef and lamb. 

Horses have long been part of life among nomads in this region – and among traders on the ancient Silk Road. Kazakhstan was part of that trade – and for good reason. Where we are now, in the former capital, Almaty, is more or less the mid-point between Beijing in China, and Istanbul in Turkey. If you go south a thousand miles, you hit India’s capital, New Delhi. And a bit further southwest is Tehran – capital of Iran – Persia of old. All of these were important players on the ancient Silk Road.

A neighborhood in Almaty. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Now, China’s paving the old Silk Road, with highways and railways, pipelines and dry ports. This is part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative, building a belt of land routes, and a Maritime Silk Road of sea routes, a new architecture of global trade, with China at the center.

(Sound of music under)

Kazakhstan as China’s next-door neighbour, is kind of the buckle in that belt, and it’s looking to prosper.

You’re on China’s New Silk Road. I’m Mary Kay Magistad, a former correspondent in China for 15 years, looking here, with the Global Reporting Centre, at how China’s global ambition is seen around the world, and at the impact China’s New Silk Road investments are having on the ground. 

(Music fades under)

Getting across Kazakhstan takes some doing. It’s four times the size of Texas. And it has only two-thirds as many people. But what it does have, like Texas, is oil. It also has natural gas, and minerals for export. In fact, an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China is counted as a Belt & Road project, even though it started being built long before China’s leader Xi Jinping came to Kazakhstan’s capital city in September 2013 – to announce the launch of his signature initiative: 

Xi Jinping: “To forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation, and expand development in the Euro-Asia region, we should take an innovative approach, and jointly build an economic belt along the Silk Road. This will be a great undertaking, benefitting the people of all countries along the route 

President Xi talked about countries all around the world achieving “new glories” together – a “win-win,” based on trust and cooperation. He promised that China “does not seek to dominate, but to remake the ancient Silk Road,” with China giving loans, and providing construction teams to build roads, ports, dams, oil pipelines, railways and more. 

Dulat tells me he was a student then, at the very university where Xi Jinping gave his speech – Nazerbayev University, named after Kazakhstan’s then-president. 

Dulat: And there was a very important and big conference, which I didn’t attend, because I just didn’t like all these boring meetings. Actually, I think I even didn’t pay attention to that.

MKM: It just didn’t register? Didn’t seem like a big deal? 

Dulat: Because at that time, throughout the history of modern Kazakhstan, you hear a lot of programs being initiated. And they give big speeches. And I thought it was just another of those programs, where you just talk much and do nothing, or do little. And, yeah. That was my impression at that time. But now, I see that it’s not Kazakhstan who initiated this. But basically, I see that, having done my Bachelor’s in international relations, and having background in this, I think that, yeah, it’s just part of China’s ambitions, big ambitions, of being hegemon. 

MKM: Not a win-win for Kazakhstan?

Dulat: Definitely not. You can improve your infrastructure. That’s it. But you’ll be influenced by Chinese politics. 

Kazakhstan’s leaders didn’t see it that way. They jumped in as a Belt & Road partner, right from the start. 

And now, at the border where Kazakhstan’s east meets China’s western region of Xinjiang – the same region where China’s put hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs in reeducation camps – there’s a new special economic zone. 

The railway that starts in China and goes to Europe, comes through here. And right on Kazakhstan’s border with China, there’s a new dry port, a logistics center, and a shopping area.

Dulat and I decide to rent a car, and take the three and a half-hour drive there to check it out.

(Sound of car traveling on paved highway)

MKM: We’re on a Chinese-built road. We’ve been going about, I don’t know, 70-80 miles an hour most of the way, and making good time. It’s a really well-built road. It’s like one of the many roads in China that have been built over the past couple of decades, where you just kind of marvel at how quickly it all came together, and what a difference it makes in people and goods being able to move quickly from one place to the next. 

But we also marvel at how few cars and trucks we see on this great new road, on a weekday. 

The miles and hours roll past, until we see, in the distance, snow-capped peaks against a bright blue sky, and a sign that says – in Kazakh, Russian and English, but not Chinese: “Special Economic Zone: Khorgos Eastern Gate. ” One of the only people in sight is a guy fixing a broken tractor, next to that sign.

Special Economic Zone: Khorgos Eastern Gate. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Sound of getting out of car)

MKM: It’s a lot quieter here than I expected.

Dulat: Yeah. I thought it would be very busy, you know? 

This Special Economic Zone has long been touted as a signature project on China’s New Silk Road. Back when Xi Jinping gave that speech in Kazakhstan in 2013, the projection was that by now, two-way trade between China and Kazakhstan would be worth $40 billion. It’s actually worth about a third that much.

And most of what Kazakhstan is sending China is extractive – oil and gas, copper, iron and steel. 

When some of these commodity prices plunged during the COVID-19 pandemic, China swooped in and bought more oil, metals, plastic and rubber, at bargain rates. That drove up Kazakhstan’s exports to China, but not in a sustainable way. 

Kazakhstan’s government wants to diversify the country’s economy, and draw in more foreign investors. In fact, this Special Economic Zone is meant to do just that. 

(Sound of train) 

Thousands of trains now come through here from China each year. 

They stop, so containers can be transferred from trains built for China’s narrow gauge tracks, to the wider gauge trains that carry goods west from here. Some off-load their goods in Central Asia. Some go on to Europe. 

Some Kazakhs complain that not enough of the profits from this trade are staying in Kazakhstan. But people working here hope that will change. 

(Sound of Sergali, and MKM and Dulat, saying hello)

Sergali Sultangazin is the manager of investor relations, at the Khorgos East Gate Special Economic Zone. 

Sergali: (Speaks in Russian) 

Dulat: (translating) The company’s name is Managing Company of Khorgos Special Economic Zone. This land is divided into three areas, like industrial, the dry port – and the third one is?

Sergali: (In English) Logistics zone, industrial zone, and dry port. 

As we stand in an empty parking lot, Sergali gestures to a small town in the distance, with white mountains rising behind it. It’s called Nurkent, and about 3,000 people live there. Most are workers in this set of projects. There are low-rise dormitories. There’s a pile of shipping containers near the road, and a cardboard cutout of a schoolboy near a curve, urging drivers to slow down. 

(Sound of truck passing)

Traffic is pretty sparse right now. But Sergali says – big things are coming to this area. That includes plans to expand this little town into a city of 120,000 people. 

Sergali: (Speaks in Russian) 

He says, there’ll be an airport, built with Malaysian and Kazakh investment. An Italian pasta factory is coming, and a Russian warehouse. Maybe Chinese manufacturers. He says at least eight projects are now underway, and he’s working to bring in more. Kazakhstan’s president has cajoled Kazakhs to move faster to make this all happen. 

And yes, this is all being done as a partnership with China. But Sergali says Kazakhstan is majority owner of the Free Trade Zone infrastructure on Kazakhstan’s side of the border. Kazakhstan owns 51%, and China – 49%. On China’s side of the border, same partnership, but with China having the majority share. Sergali says there’s a reason why Kazakhstan wanted to do it this way: 

Sergali: (Speaks in Russian) 

Dulat (translating): We have done such investments to protect ourselves, in that each cargo that goes out or goes into China or out of China goes through these dry ports.

MKM: What do you mean by protect yourself? Protect yourself from what?

Sergali: (Speaks in Russian)

Dulat (translating): We just wanted to make sure that our cargo, our trains, our trucks, will go through the border without any delays. And that’s why these kinds of investments are justified.

In short, Kazakhstan wants to hedge its risks in dealing with China. That includes financial risks. Sergali says projects on Kazakhstan’s side of the border are financed by Kazakh banks, not by Chinese loans. 

Sergali: (Speaks in Russian)

Dulat (translating): This project is completely a Kazakhstani project. We are learning from Chinese people. Of course, they are the number one economy right now. And they manufacture almost everything. And we are learning from them. 

Learning – many things. Speed. Efficiency. How not to over leverage themselves, as China’s Silk Road partners Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan have done. How to take advantage of the funds China’s made available for New Silk Road projects, without being taken advantage of. 

China’s learning too. It had to halt an almost $2 billion light rail project in the capital, Nur-Sultan, because the Kazakh bank where it deposited the funds collapsed. 

Kazakh banks could be better. A culture of corruption doesn’t help. Nor has COVID-19, which has hit Kazakhstan hard, and slowed or stalled several Belt & Road projects. 

But some Kazakhs say they see signs that this partnership with China will be good for them, and for Kazakhstan in the long term.

Almas: This is absolutely a good thing. It’s one of the nice examples where you’re not only doing well, but you are doing good for the country. 

Almas Chukin is an entrepreneur in Almaty. He got Chinese Belt & Road investment for a wind energy project for Kazakhstan, he’d been trying to do for a decade. 

Almas: We traveled to US a few times, but in US, after the first question, ‘where is Kazakhstan?,’ you understand, they’re not going to give you money.

Europe wasn’t much better.

Almas: In some places they will say, oh, we know where Kazakhstan is. You know, our London office is dealing with this. Go to London. So we landed in London, during the time where the English or British banking system collapsed by itself. So there were not many institutions to talk with. So the last stop, Paris. Paris, traditionally, they are not very active in investing or providing loans to risky projects in developing countries. So, after all these avenues were exhausted, you’ve got China, and Turkey. But Turkey was more words than deeds. And with China, finally we got the project. 

And now, Almas says, three wind energy projects with Chinese partners are about to come online. They’re Kazakhstan’s first big renewable energy projects to date. 

The Kazakh government’s goal is to have renewable energy make up 20% of Kazakhstan’s total energy use within a decade. So say what you will about China’s air quality – Chinese investment is making the first set of wind energy projects in Kazakhstan possible. 

Almas says, his experience doing business with his Chinese partners has been one of mutual respect. I mean sure, he says, they’re tough negotiators, and you have to watch out for your own interests. But at least they’re willing to take a chance, when Western investors wouldn’t: 

Almas: We’re living in a very biased world now. So in the West, people don’t know what to do with the money, excessive amount of capital. Here, there’s strong opportunities and I would say space to invest money. So I think China made a very smart move. They’re not only traders, they’re investors. With this One Belt Initiative, combined with other things, China became the investor in the region. 

But on the New Silk Road, Chinese companies are not just investors. The Chinese government also wants them to work toward making China great again in the world. They want China to be the center and the leader of a new world order. 

Kazakhstan’s in an interesting position, in the midst of all this. It does more business with Europe than with China. And it’s had a much closer relationship with Russia than China over the past three centuries. This whole region in Central Asia used to be part of the Soviet Union. And Russian is still the language of business here. So, China’s New Silk Road ambitions here could create some tensions. Russia is a New Silk Road partner too. But it still feels proprietary over Central Asia. 

Almas Chukin has had his own close encounters with Russians. He’s half Kyrgyz, and half Kazakh, and in the last years of the Soviet Union, he headed Kyrgyzstan’s Department of Industry, in its Ministry of Economy and Finance. 

Almas: Of course it was very strange to be deputy director and then director of the department in the ministry when I was 29-30 years old. That was already during Gorbachev’s years, started with all these calls for change. 

Almas was one of the new people brought in to bring that change. Two years later, a big change did come.

Almas: Because I remember in December of 1991 we were discussing heavily the loss projections for the next five-year plan in the room and all of a sudden, somebody came in and said, guys, you can stop. We said, why? He said, Soviet Union is no longer here. There’ll be no five-year plan. 

MKM: How did you feel about that? 

Almas: You know, we were completely shocked in a certain way. But nobody really believed it. We just thought because we went through so many political transformations since Gorbachev started doing all his Perestroika, whatever, stuff. So we thought, it’s another trick. Yesterday, they dissolved the Soviet Union. Tomorrow, they will reconstitute it in some shape or form. Like in spring, March, April, all of a sudden it became clear that there was no way back. 

So Kyrgyzstan, like many former Soviet republics, was left to find its own footing, as an independent country, and economy. And at first, it didn’t go well. Its annual inflation was above 1000%for two years running, and its economy shrunk. 

Next door, Kazakhstan struggled, too. And then, it found its way forward. 

In fact, Kazakhstan’s GDP when it joined the New Silk Road in 2013 – had grown 13 times bigger in 13 years. Since then, it’s actually shrunk. That’s due, in part, to an overreliance on exporting commodities – and to plunging commodity prices, including in the wake of COVID-19. 

So that’s not really China’s fault. But the fact that Kazakhstan is still so dependent on commodity exports is also no great advertisement for the transformative effects of the New Silk Road – at least, not yet. 

Still, some Kazakhs see the New Silk Road glass as at least half-full. Almas Chukin says, there’s opportunity here. Keep your eyes open, sure, but dive in and prosper. And recognize that global power is shifting, and not in the way Americans have long thought it would: 

Almas: Well, of course I’m a great fan of America, because America brings to the world many great ideas, social principles of justice, freedom, and everything which is very good and very useful, and everybody would love to have. But the problem is getting older, and understanding that, not so soon, not everyone. So, we will not see China, Cambodia, whatever, turning into another copy of the US anytime soon. They will remain what they are. The way to the future is not to hope for the good things to happen, but to hope we will all peacefully develop in our own ways. 

And as each country develops in its own way, China wants to keep its Central Asian neighbors close. It’s been working to do that, for a couple of decades. This is both to increase trade, and to help China guard against what it calls the “three evils:” terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. In fact, dealing with cultural and religious differences poses a challenge to the New Silk Road project. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all are majority Muslim. And all share a border with China’s western region of Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs. 

(Sound of Uighur musician Abdurehim Heyit playing dutar) 

Uighurs, too, are Muslim, and one of the oldest Turkic-speaking groups in this whole region. They go back to the early days of the ancient Silk Road, almost 2,000 years ago. 

(Sound of dutar music comes up)

They long considered themselves separate from China. Just after World War II, they even declared themselves an independent nation, backed by the Soviet Union. That lasted just four years. Mao Zedong’s rule put an end to it. The People’s Liberation Army moved into Xinjiang, along with millions of Han Chinese settlers, the ethnic majority, out to ‘tame’ China’s Wild West. 

(Sound of dutar music up)

Uighurs are now a minority in Xinjiang. And in that, they have something in common with Kazakhs in Kazakhstan during Soviet rule. Kazakhstan was then majority Russian. Now, it’s two-thirds Kazakh. But Kazakhs remember how it feels to be outnumbered in your own land. Many sympathize with the plight of the Uighurs, especially since Chinese officials started forcing Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang into reeducation camps. 

(Sound of Abdurehim Heyit singing)

Among the Uighurs detained was this renowned Uighur musician, Abdurehim Heyit. He plays a stringed instrument called the dutar.

It’s not clear where he is now.

Some detainees in the Chinese camps come to Almaty when they get out. Dulat knows where to find some of them. 

(Sound of footsteps on the stairs. Sound of walking up the steps) 

MKM: So where are we going?

Dulat: Right now, we’re going to Atajurt, it’s a human rights organization that specializes in helping the victims detained in the Xinjiang detention camps. 

We walk down a long, drafty hall, above a row of shops in Almaty, and end up at the door of the human rights group Atajurt. 

It has since closed, after government harassment led to financial problems.

(Sound of people talking in Atajurt’s office) 

The place is filled with Kazakhs and Uighurs who have either been in the Chinese detention camps themselves, or have relatives who are still in them. While we’re there, a man comes in, and starts asking questions. He wants to know who I am, and what I’m doing.

In Almaty, relatives hold up photos of detainees in Xinjiang reeducation camps, across the border in China. (Mary Kay Magistad)

(Sound of man’s voice, asking questions. Atajurt worker explains in English: “He’s a security man. Every day, he comes here.”)

This kind of thing happens a lot in China, across the border, where I lived and reported for years. Usually, it’s the end of the interview. And not infrequently, the reporter and the people being interviewed are detained. In this case the man went away. And the people who are here to tell their stories, don’t seem spooked by him. 

Gulzira Auer Khan: (Speaks in Kazakh) 

Gulzira Auer Khan is an ethnic Kazakh from Yili. That’s an area in Xinjiang near the Kazakh border. I visited a couple of decades ago, when I was a correspondent in China, and Yili had just had a pro-independence riot that left at least nine people dead. 

Gulzira would have been a young woman back then. Later, she married a Kazakh citizen, and they left Xinjiang in 2014 to go and live in Kazakhstan. When she came back to visit her sick father, three years later, she didn’t exactly get a friendly reception from her country of birth. 

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh) 

Dulat listens closely, and translates. 

Dulat (translating): I was held by the police and I was interrogated for a couple of days. And then they told me that I will undergo 15 days of re-education. And they said that there are 26 countries in the list of suspicious countries, as China sees they’re suspicious. And one of the countries is Kazakhstan. And since I was in Kazakhstan, they see me suspicious. 

Suspicious – a middle-aged mother, an ethnic Kazakh, who was born a Chinese citizen. Actually, about a million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang. Like Uighurs, most are Muslim, and many ended up in the detention camps. 

Kazakhs coming from outside are seen as a particular threat because, Chinese officials think, they may have been exposed to radical Islamist ideas. They may try to stir things up. 

Gulzira says she later found that a local official from her hometown had turned her in. 

She was kept in detention – not for the 15 days police told her it would be – but for 15 months: 

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh) 

Gulzira says they cut her hair, and gave her prisoners’ clothes – black pants and a red shirt. At one point, they gave her a shot. She says they said it was a flu vaccination. But it made her sweat, and gave her headaches. She got headaches, too, when the guards hit her head with a stick. That happened if she spent more than two minutes in the bathroom. 

Dulat (translating): I have a concussion, heavy concussion. And also, I have a problem with my stomach. 

Gulzira says her days in the camps went like this:

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh)

Dulat (translating): Every day we spend 45 minutes learning Chinese and also writing good stuff about the Party, about Xi Jinping. We’ve been glorifying the Party and Xi Jinping. So besides these 45 minutes, we’ve been spending 14 hours a day just sitting.

MKM: Just sitting?

Dulat (translating): Yeah. Also they made us eat pork against our will. 

Because Muslims aren’t supposed to eat pork. This was apparently supposed to break them of the habit of adhering to Islam. 

Some people in the camps tried to write letters – but Gulzira says, the guards would find them, and destroy them. And late at night, she says…

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh)

Guards would come to take away the unmarried girls, Uighurs and Kazakhs. She says the girls would come back the next morning with bruises. They wouldn’t say where they’d been. 

Gulzira got a few bruises herself. She says guards beat her when she didn’t do everything right. Another common punishment was to be handcuffed to a table for hours. 

Gulzira just tried to make it through each day. Meanwhile, her husband in Kazakhstan launched a public campaign, calling for her release. 

Finally, after 15 months, she was released – from detention. But then, she was promptly sent to a factory, in Xinjiang, to make gloves for export to the United States and Germany. She was paid $25 a month – about one-tenth of the minimum wage in that part of China. In other words, this was forced labor. Gulzira didn’t want to be there. Her husband kept pushing, and eventually the authorities said – ok. We’ll let you go back to Kazakhstan. But first, you have to do one thing: 

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh)

Dulat (translating): They made me write a letter that I voluntarily get into this reeducation camps, that I won’t give any testimonies to international organizations. I won’t talk to the journalists and stuff. 

But why not talk to journalists, she says, when China’s trying to sell Kazakhstan, and the whole region, on China’s New Silk Road? 

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh.)

Dulat (translating): I don’t believe that Kazakhstan and China are friends. I think that this project is part of China’s expansion. And I think that they’re trying to take over other countries. 

MKM: The Chinese government says, we’re actually trying to help our neighbors become more prosperous. But to do that we need to crack down on terrorism and terrorist threats. And that’s why we’re putting people in camps in Xinjiang. What’s your response to that? 

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh)

Dulat (translating): I think it’s the hostile politics of Xi Jinping towards the Muslims in general. [These camps] I’ve heard that they will work until 2026. 

MKM: Why 2026?

Gulzira: (Speaks in Kazakh) 

Dulat (translating): I think that the fight against terrorism is a pretext to erase Islam, and also to erase our identity. They aim to get rid of Islam by this time.

That’s not how the Chinese government puts it. It says it had to clamp down on dangerous elements, to stop attacks before they happen. 

It was in the leadup to the first New Silk Road Summit in Beijing, that the Chinese government started detaining Uighurs in these camps. China’s leaders seem to want to make Xinjiang safe for the new roads, and railways and pipelines, and to get what they saw as rebellious Uighurs out of the way. At the same time they effectively told neighboring Muslim countries if they want to share in the bounty of the New Silk Road – pay no attention to these camps. There is nothing to see here. 

Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev seems to have gotten the message. Here’s what he said at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019 about the New Silk Road, using the direct translation from the Chinese – One Belt, One Road – a belt of land routes, and a maritime silk road of sea routes: 

President Tokayev: Being one of the largest transit and transport territories in Eurasia, Kazakhstan is set to play a pivotal role in promoting transcontinental trade, as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, and a reliable partner of One Belt, One Road.

China’s leaders like reliable partners. The Chinese government later praised Tokayev for saying the situation in Xinjiang was being sensationalized, and that he refused to be pulled into a global ganging up on China. 

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan and China have started what they call a “permanent comprehensive strategic partnership.” Reliable partners get rewarded.

China’s been known to lean on its economic partners to take China’s side politically. So, when a letter of protest was written by 22 mostly European countries in July 2019, about the Xinjiang, detention camps, calling on China’s leaders to close them, many Muslim countries reacted in a surprising way. Thirty-seven countries released a different letter. These included Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, both majority Muslim, both New Silk Road partners. Their letter praised China’s quote “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” It said, if the Chinese government wants to put Uighurs in vocational training centers – that’s what they called them – that’s their business. Interestingly, Kazakhstan’s government didn’t sign either letter. It’s pragmatic in how it approaches business with China, while protecting its own interests. But it seems to know which lines not to cross, if it wants to continue to draw in Chinese investment. 

Gene Bunin: China’s all about the win-win, well, at least on paper, when the foreigners play by their rules. But obviously, foreigners who go out and criticize what they’re doing, then of course, I don’t think they have any tolerance for those people.

Gene Bunin is a scholar of the Uighur language. He’s a lanky young Russian-American, who holds both passports. 

And he lived in southern Xinjiang, in the old Silk Road town of Kashgar, while the detentions were going on. He saw surveillance cameras everywhere, and checkpoints every hundred yards or so, where Chinese police would stop Uighurs and demand to see ID. There were more ID and security checks to go into each store. Uighur friends told him they couldn’t talk to him anymore, and Gene could only guess what they were going through. 

Gene Bunin: I mean, it was very psychologically distressing. There were many days where I had to like gather up strength to leave my hostel and go on the streets and just go to have lunch for half an hour. Because when you walk down the street and you see some empty stores, you see people, but you know that they’re – even if they’re smiling, they’re just pretending to smile. And you can’t really talk to anybody about it. It’s kind of – you feel this ominous, some pressure that something isn’t right. But you can’t really openly talk about it. And every day you kind of see that, you feel it and you realize you can’t do anything about it. 

But Gene has done something about it. He lives in Almaty, now – in a small hotel room. And there, he runs the Xinjiang Victims Database. It’s available to anyone online at shahit.biz – s-h-a-h-i-t-dot-biz.

Gene Bunin: It’s basically a website, a sort of a repository for all the information regarding different victims of the current repressions in Xinjiang.

And it includes thousands of verified cases of Uighurs and Kazakhs who have been detained in the reeducation camps. Much of the detail comes from family members, and some from the few released detainees, like Gulzira, who are now free to talk about their experience. 

I ask Gene what patterns he’s seen in the reports he’s compiled about life in the Xinjiang camps. Forced labor, he says. Malnutrition. Lots of Communist Party, anti-Islam indoctrination. Beatings. And something I didn’t expect – that since late 2018, the detention camps per se, have been emptying out.

Gene Bunin: But the thing that we’re seeing that’s really worrisome is that a lot of people are being transferred, being given actual prison sentences. And some of these prison sentences are quite harsh. So it’s maybe 10 years, 15 years, 20 years for very kind of vague abstract offenses that aren’t even really crimes. And some of these people have allegedly been in camps before. Some are just held in the detention centers for sometimes months, even years, and then given sentences. This is hundreds of thousands of people, I think by China’s own statistics in fact, that are now being sentenced over the past one or two years. And so this is a trend now that’s quite important because it’s similar in nature. It’s a mass incarceration. The difference now is that this is legal, officially, by China’s standards and not extralegal, which is what the camps were like.

Gene says, if there’s one thing he’d like people outside the region to understand about what’s happening in Xinjiang, it’s this:

Gene Bunin: It’s just extremely destructive because they’re creating this horrible node for just decades to come, where you’re just going to have a lot of broken people who don’t know what to do with their frustrations. 

And that’s worth paying attention to, he says, at a time when China’s trying to become the world’s preeminent power:

Gene Bunin: It shows the kind of government that this is, the kind of government that’s trying to vie for being the number one superpower. And we see, Chinese influence abroad, and we see these ideas of censorship, of control, of surveillance starting to crawl out to other parts of the world. And people need to understand that if it doesn’t concern them now, if things continue like this, then it probably will concern them in five or 10 years. And at that point it will be too late because Chinese influence will be everywhere. 

All of this was on my mind when Dulat and I visited the Khorgos Free Trade Zone.

(Sound of walkie-talkie)

I had to give my passport to the Kazakh immigration officials, and get stamped out of Kazakhstan.

(Sound on bus to Khorgos Free Trade Zone)

MKM: So we went through Customs. We got a ticket to go out the door, and now we’re on a little bus that’s going to take us to the neutral zone, where the bazaar is.

Dulat: Do you see? There are lots of buildings from the Chinese side.

MKM: Yeah, taller buildings, like a city. So I was actually at this border crossing 20 years ago, when it was just this dusty little place, where people were coming across with motorcycles and bicycles. 

We arrive in the Chinese-built Free Trade Area, and the Kazakh shoppers pile out of our bus. 

(Sound of announcement in Chinese) 

Dulat: Being nostalgic of my time in China, a year ago.

Where I once saw a dusty village, are now high-rise buildings and shopping malls that look like they could have been lifted out of any fifth-tier Chinese city. 

MKM: So we’re inside the bazaar. We’re walking by baby strollers. Tinsel for Christmas trees – purple, red, blue. Suitcases. Fur-lined coats. More suitcases. Boots. Reminds me of many a Chinese shopping center I’ve been in, particularly in Southern China, in Dongguan, where they make goods for export.

Pretty much every shop owner here is Han Chinese. The shoppers are almost all Kazakh. This place has become a pull for Chinese shop owners like Li Xin. She’s from the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang – in what used to be Manchuria. 

Li Xin: (Speaks in Chinese.)

She tells me she came here because of the Belt and Road – the New Silk Road. She’d heard back in 2016 it would create a lot of opportunity here. 

 Li Xin: (Speaks in Chinese) 

Li Xin says, before she came here, she didn’t have much of an impression about this area, or for that matter about the Belt & Road. But now she’s glad she came. She says business, selling handbags and other women’s accessories, is pretty good, and getting better. She plans to stay for the long run. 

Li Xin: (Speaks in Chinese) 

She says she just hopes people on the two sides of this border can learn to communicate better. She calls Kazakhs “Mao.zi,” a somewhat derogatory term in Chinese for Russian. 

(Sound of packing tape ripping and sealing boxes)

Outside, Chinese vendors are sealing up boxes with energetic efficiency. And Kazakh shoppers are carrying big plastic bags full of goods back to the buses, to return home. One young Kazakh woman, Miri Dolkan, stops to chat. She just got off work as a sales clerk in a duty-free shop.

Kazakh shoppers taking a bus to the Chinese side of Khorgos Free Trade Zone. (Mary Kay Magistad)

Miri: (Speaks in Russian) 

Miri says, as far as she’s concerned, China’s cooperation with Kazakhstan is all good. The Free Trade Zone, the new road – lets her and other people in her hometown earn a living. Without it, she says, we’d just be sitting at home with nothing to do. That’s pretty much what happened when COVID caused the Khorgos Free Trade Area to close for months. 

Miri: (Speaks in Russian) 

But looking forward, Miri’s excited about the prospect of a new Kazakh border city, where that little town Nurkent is now. She lives 20 miles away from the border now, and moving there would cut down her commute.

(Sound of tape being ripped to seal boxes)

Before Dulat and I head back to Kazakhstan ourselves, we stop for a bowl of Xinjiang homemade pulled noodles. They’re served by a Uighur woman. She smiles graciously and offers some pleasantries in Chinese. Her booth is within earshot of one run by a Han Chinese couple, so I don’t try to talk with her about what’s been happening in Xinjiang, besides the New Silk Road. 

(Sound of Free Trade Zone)

Here on the edge where Xinjiang meets Kazakhstan, this place, transformed from dusty backwater to a small Chinese city, exudes a confidence that says to all comers – China’s succeeded. And if you do it our way, you can too. 

That’s an offer those all along the New Silk Road are now facing – authoritarian governments and democracies, prosperous countries and poor ones. And that offer comes with a choice each place has to make – how much to tie your future to China, for what and for whose benefit, and at what cost. 

(Sound of Abdurehim Heyit’s voice, singing)

Thanks to partner reporter Dulat Yesnazar in Kazakhstan. Our editor is Dave Rummel. Our sound designer is Tina Tobey. Christine Brandt is our executive producer.

On China’s New Silk Road is a production of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit organization that teaches, practices and promotes innovation in global journalism. Peter Klein is the GRC’s founder. Philippe LeBillon, a GRC partner and geography professor at the University of British Columbia, provided valuable input to this series. 

On China’s New Silk Road was made possible by generous funding from Humanity United, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 

You can find photos, transcripts and more at globalreportingcentre.org. While you’re there, check out other great journalism from the Global Reporting Centre.

Up next, – we head from Asia to Italy, part of the old Silk Road, the New Silk Road and a post-World War II US ally:

My father was a great boogie-woogie dancer. So I think that only for this (laughs). And there is a great debt that Italy – me, my father, my grandfather – they had with the United States. The problem is that if you tell me not to do something with the Chinese – ok, give me another option.

Italy next, on China’s New Silk Road.