In Zharkent, a Kazakh city of about 33,000 people that sits 22 miles from the Khorgos Gateway, this reality is on display.
The city was the site of the high-profile trial of Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national who worked in the camps and then fled to Kazakhstan because she feared internment herself. Sauytbay became a local celebrity for her firsthand testimony about China’s camps when she was tried for crossing the border illegally through the Khorgos free-trade zone. (She was granted asylum in Sweden in June.)
The internment camps also overlapped with the broader Khorgos project in December 2017, when Askar Azatbek, a former Xinjiang official who became a Kazakh citizen, was allegedly taken from the Kazakh side of the free-trade zone to China, where he has since been detained.
“China is trying to win hearts and minds,” Philippe Le Corre, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies China’s global rise in Europe and Eurasia, told me, “but it’s an almost impossible task when you look at what’s happening to the Muslims of China.”
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Markets and bazaars in Zharkent are full of Chinese goods, and rumors of Chinese encroachment are prolific in trading stalls and tea houses. But criticizing China publicly is still a sensitive topic in authoritarian Kazakhstan, and during a recent visit, many people were wary of speaking on the record.
Alexander, a resident of Zharkent who gave only his first name, told me that he makes his living shuttling Chinese goods, and that there has been a change of attitude in recent years when locals interact with Chinese merchants and officials. “They look down on us now,” he said. Another man, Bolat, told me he feels that grand projects like Khorgos bring “no benefit to the local community.”
Still, despite limited goodwill for China and various difficulties with its marquee Belt and Road projects, developments like Khorgos hold too much symbolic political value for China and Kazakhstan to be allowed to fail. Beijing has fuelled its global infrastructure push with subsidies and investments, but as China enters a new phase shaped by tighter budgets and oversight, Khorgos and other BRI projects may need to adapt.
“There are lots of local people that would like for Khorgos to be a success story,” Le Corre said. “But given everything else going on at the moment, it’s becoming more difficult for China to sell this new Silk Road.”
Original Source: Date-stamped: 2019 OCT 01 | Author: by Reid Standish | Article Title: The Khorgos Gateway was once touted as one of the most ambitious projects in the Belt and Road Initiative, but it has come to represent the limits of Beijing’s global push. | Article Link: theatlantic.com
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