The ethnic Kazakh dissident tells Bitter Winter she continues to be embroiled in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the authorities as she waits under virtual house arrest in Urumqi.
By Ruth Ingram
January 25, 2023
Zhanargul in happier times in her beloved Kazakh meadows (from Serikzhan Bilash’s Twitter account).
There have been some cautious developments since the China-born Kazakh woman Zhanargul Zhumatai was last interviewed by Bitter Winter on January 3rd, and the tentative good news is that she is still at liberty and courageously speaking out to us and other foreign media despite daily harassment from the authorities.
But the storm has not yet passed, and her future still hangs in the balance. When we first spoke with Zhanargul from her apartment, she had been threatened with imminent arrest unless she admitted herself voluntarily to a psychiatric hospital.
Her “crime” had been to raise Kazakh herders’ land rights and compensation with the authorities, and to complain to foreign media about her treatment following her release from a two-year internment ordeal in October 2019.
Nervous and fearing for her life if she were to leave her home, she spoke of threats uttered against her and her family if she continued to “consort with foreign terrorists and spies.”
International publicity over her case has moved the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing to offer her papers to enter Kazakhstan, with which, all being well, she can obtain a Chinese passport from the Xinjiang authorities. In any other country this might have been the good news she had been waiting for, but under the present regime countless innocent citizens have presented themselves at police stations only to disappear without a trace. The very act of leaving the safety of her apartment to start this process could be a trap.
Zhanargul making a statement to the world about the truth of her situation. From YouTube.
She and her sister have spent the last week fielding the multitudinous layers of bureaucracy and form filling to submit to the local police, only to find spelling mistakes in the invitation, leading her to feel that the Kazakh and Chinese authorities are in league to block her exit. Officials have repeatedly not been at their desks to sign her documents.
Afraid to go herself, she has been sending her sister who, having submitted the final tranche of documents, was told to return on January 30th, when the passport “might” be ready. Even at this stage, however, she was told that the ball would still be in their court regarding her exit. There would be no guarantee they would let her go. She told Bitter Winter this week that she has no choice but to believe in the Chinese legal system and that, however nerve wracking it might be, her rights will be respected in the end.
The tension has been unbearable for the family, particularly her mother who has become ill. Relatives continue to visit telling her to stop speaking out. Plain clothes masked police have been stationed around her home, patrol cars parked outside, their lights flashing 24/7, and her mind is filled with worst case scenarios were she to step outside. “They could attack me, cause me to be involved in an ‘accident,’ or run me over,” she told Bitter Winter.
Low level officials have tried to make her open the door telling her to stop her campaigning. She has received strange phone calls from unknown numbers telling her that she will never get her passport and never leave China. A man claiming to be Kazakh called her from Turkey and told her she would be there forever. “You say the world will protect you, but they are liars and can’t do anything,” he had told her. “The homeland security services will kill you,” he threatened.
Zhanargul’s plea to the world on YouTube for a normal life.
Shaken, she had put the phone down and realised the caller had been put up to it by the Chinese government to frighten her. She told Bitter Winter that the CCP antics had exhausted her, but she was not going to give up. “Whatever they do I’m not turning back,” she said defiantly, describing the half life she has been forced to live since her release from the camp in 2019. “I’m alive but I’m not seeing any life,” she said.
During a telephone interview with German anthropologist Rune Steenberg last week, passed on to share with Bitter Winter, she issued a statement for the world to hear if she didn’t make it out. She made a plea on behalf of herders who had a right for their legal case to be heard and judged according to the law of China. “We are herders, we are peaceful,” she said. “We call for the Central Supervision Committee to come to our place to see for themselves… and to react to the breaches of law and rules and thus make sure that the Kazakh herders can establish a just and peaceful life for themselves.”
About herself she said, “I am a human being, I have a soul. I want to live. I want to spend life like a normal person.” She called on the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s Office, international human rights protectors and the international community to “support and protect” her.
“I wish for the international media and news outlets to tell my story and to report on me,” she said, pleading for legal assistance from international lawyers who would respect her rights.
She knows she will not be out of the woods until her plane lands in Kazakhstan. Anything could happen between now and then. Her life still hangs in the balance.