kazakhs ofnb xinjiangBy Nikolay Tyan.

The  increasing flow of people across national boundaries has become a new characteristic of  the 21st century. Transmigration should be beneficial to both sending and receiving countries; improving bilateral relationships and people-to-people diplomatic ties. However, in practice migration presents many challenges for and between states. The case of Kazakh repatriates from China demonstrates these tensions. There is great potential for this group to contribute to the development of the relations between Kazakhstan and China, yet substantial concerns over their integration remain.

Kazakhstan and China are neighbouring countries, sharing a 1700-km-long border. The issue of Kazakh repatriates in China can be traced back to 100 years ago when large numbers of Kazakhs became Chinese citizens resulting from treaties between Chinese and Russian Empires signed in 1860, 1864 and 1881. The 20th century witnessed political turmoil and civil wars in both states, as well as conflicts between the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, leading to the end of cross-border flows of people in the 1960-70s. A fundamental change happened in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved, leading to the independent Republic of Kazakhstan. At that time around 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs were in China. Neither governments mentioned this ethnic group in official dialogues for establishing formal relationship.

However, in 1997 the government adopted a special program of the repatriation of ethnic Kazakhs living abroad (so-called Oralman). According to the Information-Analytical Center of Social-Political Studies in Post-Soviet States, over 65 thousand ethnic Kazakhs migrated from China to Kazakhstan from 1991 to 2009 following the official invitation. They are now the second largest group from a non-Soviet country in Kazakhstan, mainly settling along the Chinese border or around Almaty – the former Kazakh capital, biggest city and major business centre. It is reasonable to assume that  Kazakh repatriates can play a positive role in facilitating mutual understanding and enhancing business ties between Kazakhstan and China.

However, there are many challenges facing Kazakh repatriates. Many were engaged in small household farming in China and lack the occupational background to contribute to business links.  They also face barriers in integrating into Kazakhstani society. Although they are fluent in Kazakh language the written script differs in Kazakstan from China. Kazakh language outside the country is based on Latin or Arabic script whereas the modern Kazakh alphabet is Cyrillic. Furthermore, Oralmans are considered by local people as “strangers” because they come from another cultural environment and usually do not speak Russian, still the language of official communication in multi-ethnic Kazakhstan.

These problems stir the debate over who the “authentic Kazakh” is. Sectors of Kazak society argue that the repatriates are descendants of those who fled from the country. Hence, they did not contribute to the socio-economic rise of Kazakhstan. On the other hand, repatriates argue that they lived in this territory for centuries before their temporary migration to other states. They also see themselves as preservers of Kazakh culture and traditions, lost to Kazakhs due to the Russian/Soviet influence.

kazakhsAnother area of tension is financial support for Oralman. Some accuse them of excessive reliance on governmental aid, causing shortages in other areas.  While enjoying the benefits from Astana, many use the door provided by Kazakh legislation to retain their Chinese citizenship as “it is easier for their business and retirement payments”, according to the Chief of the Kazakhstan’s Migration Committee.

Kazakhs repatriates could be great facilitators in China – Kazakhstan relations, but so far large numbers lack a capacity to do so. The Kazakh government should take measures towards the better integration of repatriates to Kazakh society without losing their “Chinese roots”. Astana should not underestimate the potential of the returnees.

Nikolay Tyan is a former trainee at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan and a graduate researcher at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan).

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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