KHORGOS – “Sails and long forbidden beards” … In a free trade zone on the border of China and Kazakhstan, signs betray Beijing’s campaign against Islamism in Xinjiang, a region at the heart of its project New Silk Roads.
A sixth of the Chinese territory and a common border with Pakistan, Afghanistan and three former Soviet republics of Central Asia with a Muslim majority, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan … Xinjiang (“New Frontier” in Chinese) is for Beijing is the natural gateway to the Silk Roads, the unimaginable infrastructure project to link its territory with its traditional markets in Asia, Europe and Africa, and beyond.
“The New Silk Roads project is an important factor in explaining why the central government needs to bring order back to Xinjiang,” says German researcher Adrian Zenz, a specialist in the region.
Theater of attacks attributed to Uyghur separatists, the region populated to more than 50% of Muslims is being resumed by Beijing, accused of having interned no less than one million people in camps of political re-education – for sometimes futile reasons, such as a suspicious beard.
The communist regime denies this figure and says that it is vocational training centers, intended to strengthen the employability of the population and thus fight the risk of radicalization.
The crackdown in Xinjiang is jeopardizing the governments of neighboring countries, represented last week at the second summit of the Silk Roads in Beijing around President Xi Jinping.
Linked to Beijing by promises of massive Chinese investments, they are reluctant to criticize the policy in Xinjiang, at the risk of displeasing their people.
“Frankly speaking, I do not know much about it,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said in March on the situation in Xinjiang.
Pakistani traders married to Uyghurs say their women are in detention on the Chinese side of the border and denounce the silence of Islamabad.
In Kazakhstan, an activist is in detention after denouncing the situation of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang (about 6% of the population). And a Chinese woman who fled to Kazakhstan was denied asylum after describing her detention conditions in Xinjiang.
“The situation is not easy for these countries, because they are facing this economic partner whose power is only increasing,” says Raffaello Pantucci, from the British Institute Royal United Services.
“They have to manage this relationship while striving to represent their people as much as possible,” he says.
It is from the capital of Kazakhstan that Chinese President Xi Jinping launched in 2013 his initiative of the New Silk Roads, called “Belt and Road” by the Chinese, illustrating the importance of Central Asia in the eyes of Beijing .
For President Pantucci, Chinese leaders hope that the development of Central Asia benefits by boomerang effect in Xinjiang.
“From China’s point of view, the long-term answer to the problems of Xinjiang (…) is economic prosperity,” he said.
Witness the special economic zone of Khorgos, straddling the Sino-Kazakh border, which aims to boost trade between the two countries. Traders come there to exchange everyday consumer goods, such as clothes or kitchen utensils, without having to apply for a visa.
But political and religious tensions are not far away. During a press visit, a Kazakh journalist was warned that she could not enter a hijab in the Chinese part of the economic zone. She stayed on the Kazakh side.