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Energy executives abroad ensnared in China's Xinjiang crackdown

Asel Alymkulova holds a picture of her life partner, Doletkhan Shairbek, an energy executive from Kyrgyzstan who is being detained in a Chinese internment camp. @Simina Mistreanu/dpa

Executives and employees of Chinese energy companies in Central Asia are being sent to Chinese internment camps along with other ethnic minority elites, despite China’s efforts to expand its businesses in the region.

Urumqi, China/Almaty, Kazakhstan (dpa) - Doletkhan Shairbek, a manager at a Chinese energy company in Kyrgyzstan, thought his upcoming work trip to China would last about a week, as usual.

He packed for the mountainous city of Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region, and said goodbye to his life partner, Asel Alymkulova, and their 10-year-old son. It was November 2016, the last time Alymkulova would see him.

A few days later, Shairbek told her he was encountering problems at work. His company was running some checkups, and he was going to have to stay longer.

Shairbek, a Chinese citizen and ethnic Kazakh, was the managing director in charge of finances at Zhongyuan Energy and Mineral Resources in Bishkek, according to Alymkulova. She worked as an accountant at the company.

His visit to China lasted several months, during which the couple could speak on the phone daily. But in October 2017, Shairbek went quiet.

"He was saying he was stuck there and couldn’t get out," Alymkulova said. "And then he disappeared."

The company told Alymkulova that Shairbek had been detained in a Chinese "re-education" camp. Rights activists say more than 1 million members of Muslim ethnic minorities including Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tartars and Huis are being held in indoctrination camps in Xinjiang as part of the government’s plan to assimilate them.

Several calls from dpa to Zhongyuan went unanswered, and the one occasion someone picked up, he or she hung up immediately. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also not answered emailed questions about Shairbek’s whereabouts.

China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which includes a vast surveillance network and a clampdown on religion, is enveloping people from all social strata.

In recent months, Uighur activists have been compiling lists of cultural elites who have disappeared inside the camps, including professors, singers and poets.

But the crackdown is also targeting businesspeople, especially those with foreign ties, which contradicts the Chinese government’s aim of developing and expanding trade in the region.

dpa has interviewed the family members of four people working in the energy sector in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan who have reportedly disappeared in Xinjiang internment camps. Many others who were doing cross-border trade in China and Kazakhstan have been snatched by police and sent to the camps.

"International businesses have been basically foreclosed for Uighurs and Kazakhs," said Rian Thum, a history professor who focuses on Uighur history and religion at Loyola University New Orleans. "Going to a foreign country is enough to get people sent to the camp, and that precludes doing business."

Just as the Chinese government seems to be willing to have its international reputation damaged by its Xinjiang policies, it also appears to be putting these policies above the country’s economic interests, Thum said.

The Xinjiang government has so far poured billions of yuan into increasing security and building a growing network of internment camps. Local businesses are burdened by costs associated with the mandatory hiring of guards and purchasing of metal detectors.

"The crackdown focuses on anyone with foreign links, and international money transactions per se are treated as suspicious," said Maya Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch.

The crackdown on minorities, which the Chinese government says is necessary to prevent separatism and terrorism following deadly ethnic riots in Xinjiang in 2009, comes as China works to strengthen economic ties with Central Asia.

The Xinjiang region, which borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan among other countries, is central to President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, a trillion-dollar plan to build infrastructure and trade routes across Eurasia and Africa.

Beijing and Astana in particular have strong ties in the energy field. Since 2006, China and Kazakhstan have been operating an oil pipeline that carried 12.3 million tons of crude oil into China in 2017.

Mikhua Aip (right) holds a picture of her brother Qumash Aip, a long-time engineer at an oil company in Kazakhstan who was sent to a Chinese internment camp in June 2018. @Simina Mistreanu/dpa

Qumash Aip had worked as an engineer for a Chinese oil and gas company in Aktau, Kazakhstan for 20 years before his company requested he go to China in June 2018. As soon as he crossed the border, he was detained, according to his sister Mikhua Aip.

She said he learned from family members her brother was being held in an internment camp in Karamay, Xinjiang’s main oil town.

Kaken Bikamal’s husband, who also used to work for a Chinese oil and gas company in Kazakhstan, was detained in April 2017 in Karamay, she said.

"They said if he didn’t go to China, they would stop paying his salary," Bikamal said.

Now, she and the couple’s two young daughters support themselves with the help of relatives and local nonprofits.

So far, criticism of China’s mass internment policy has been mild, even in Muslim-majority countries, many of whom maintain strong economic ties with China. Turkey stood out this month by calling China’s treatment of Uighurs an "embarrassment for humanity."

But in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where hundreds of families have been separated due to China’s mass internment of ethnic minorities, the governments have been slow to criticize Beijing.

The Kazakh Foreign Ministry did not answer emailed questions about Aip and other ethnic Kazakhs detained in China.

Alymkulova sees talking to foreign media and petitioning institutions such as the United Nations as a last resort for drawing attention to Shairbek’s case. More than a year ago, when she learned he had been sent to an internment camp, she hoped his detainment would be brief.

Her hopes were shattered three months later, when the company appointed someone else to replace Sharbek: a manager from the Han Chinese majority.

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