China is allowing more than 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to abandon their Chinese citizenship and leave the country, the Kazakh foreign ministry has said.
The move is a sign that Beijing may be starting to feel a mounting backlash against its crackdown on Muslims in the far west region of Xinjiang.
The Kazakh foreign ministry said the incoming Kazakhs will be allowed to apply for citizenship or permanent residency after their arrival in Kazakhstan.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Massive detention, surveillance
Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have launched a massive surveillance and detention campaign that has swept as many as a million people into internment camps.
Former detainees have said they were forced to renounce their culture and faith and subjected to political indoctrination.
The detentions have sent a chill over a tight-knit community of Chinese-born Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan.
Many left China to pursue business opportunities or educate their children in Kazakh schools as restrictions tightened in Xinjiang.
Hundreds lost contact with relatives in Xinjiang, and many began writing letters and attending media conferences, hoping that greater publicity would help bring their loved ones home.
Serikzhan Bilash, the head of the Kazakh advocacy group Atajurt, said he was warned by officials to halt his activities four times this summer but the warnings later stopped.
In December, he was invited onto a popular Kazakh talk show for an hour, indicating growing tolerance of his work publicising the plight of Kazakhs held in Xinjiang.
“I said that Chinese officials are dangerous for central Asia, for Kazakhstan,” Bilash said. “They’re starting to accept my opinion now.”
Chinese officials announced last week that while they would not back down on what it sees as a highly successful deradicalisation programme, fewer people would be sent through.
Gene Bunin, an activist who has collected about 2,000 testimonies from relatives of those held in Xinjiang, estimated that about 20 people, possibly more, were allowed to return to Kazakhstan last year.
“They’ve been getting released since September,” said Bunin, who lived in Xinjiang until last year.
“I suspect it’s sort of an appeasement thing going on, where they’re trying to satisfy the relatives, to defuse tensions.”
Those allowed to return so far have been largely Kazakh citizens or those with spouses or children born in Kazakhstan.