Tensions rose on Tuesday in a dispute over China's restrictions on free movement of Kazakhs across the shared border with neighboring Kazakhstan, as a number of leading academics from the Central Asian nation called on China to guarantee the rights of ethnic Kazakhs within China's borders.
A group of state scientists and other scholars hit out at the "persecution" of ethnic Kazakhs by Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, and called on Astana to put pressure on Beijing.
"We protest the atrocities committed against Kazakhs in China by the Chinese government," the scholars told a news conference on Tuesday.
"We call on the Kazakhstan foreign ministry to initiate contact with the Chinese government, to guarantee the freedoms of this country's permanent residents, so that Kazakhs in China are able to cross the border freely and visit with their families," they said.
The strongly worded protest comes after residents of Kazakhstan told RFA last week that they are being prevented from seeing their families after Chinese authorities began confiscating the passports and residence permits of ethnic minority Kazakhs whose family members live across the border, sources told RFA.
"The Kazakh foreign ministry and leaders at the ministry of civil affairs, politician, and the whole social elite are very concerned that Kazakhs in Xinjiang lead miserable lives," a Kazakh source who declined to be identified told RFA.
"The [news conference] listed a lot of examples, including the confiscation of passports and green cards," the source said.
A second Kazakh source in Xinjiang said young Kazakhs especially are being constantly threatened by local police, who prevent them from studying across the border in Kazakhstan.
"The families of young Kazakhs are living under every kind of terror and suppression from the authorities, who are trying to force them to return to China so they can't complete their degrees in Kazakhstan," the source said.
"There are also countless cases of them being treated very cruelly, and this news conference made them public."
Passports held, returned
Some 200,000 Kazakhs who hold Chinese passports and permanent residence cards for Kazakhstan were told to hand in their Kazakhstan-issued residency cards to Chinese police "for safekeeping," although sources said on Monday that officials in some parts of Xinjiang were rapidly backpedaling on the policy and working round the clock to send Kazakh green cards and passports back to their owners.
An anonymous source in Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture said authorities there had issued an urgent directive on Monday to return all confiscated passports to Kazakhs, but not to "other ethnic groups."
"The authorities have somewhat relaxed their policy, telling people to return Kazakh green cards, but some haven't had their passports back yet," the source said.
"And the strange thing is that, since yesterday, they have been getting their passports back accompanied by a travel ban, so they can't leave the country," the source said. "So their passports aren't worth the paper they are written on."
Meanwhile, an online video posted to the news platform Toutiao has prompted widespread anger among Kazakhs after it claimed that "the country continues to occupy Chinese territory which has yet to be recovered."
"One [country] has never made war on China, but has always occupied a large part of its territory," the video said, blaming an unequal treaty made between Russia and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the 19th century.
It said the independent country of Kazakhstan, formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, now "occupies" some 44 million square kilometers of land claimed by Beijing.
Ambition to expand
Kazakh sources said many in the country are concerned that the video may herald a bid to extend Chinese territory beyond the existing border.
"The video was initially published on a Chinese website, where Kazakhs found it, and many of them now see it as a signal of China's ambition to expand its territory into Kazakhstan," a Kazakh historian who asked to remain anonymous told RFA on Tuesday.
"This website also gives the impression to Chinese people that Barkash Lake on the Kazakh side of the border should be in China," he said.
A second Kazakh commentator who requested anonymity said the Chinese government is trying to influence young people through such videos.
"There is strong condemnation coming from the Kazakh community, because Kazakhs are very sensitive on the issue of territory ... having fought countless wars with the Chinese over territory in their recent history," he said.
"In the last 300 years, we were gradually taken over by the Russians, and much of our territory was ceded away by the Russians."
"And now, Toutiao in China puts out a video like this."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.