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International

Xinjiang Kazakh plans political party to counter China’s Xi

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8 minute read

By Dake Kang in Beijing

BEIJING (AP) — Five years ago, Bekzat Maxutkanuly was a small-time clothes merchant in Kazakhstan, uninterested in politics but worried over rumblings of a brewing crackdown across the border in China’s Xinjiang region, the land of his birth.

Now this week, as soldiers goose-stepped to anthems welcoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping on a visit to Kazakhstan, Maxutkanuly is preparing to drive from village to village across his country’s vast hinterlands to sign people up for a political party that will challenge Beijing, not welcome it.

“I never had plans to engage in politics,” said the 46-year-old Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh. “But then I started to realize the situation in Xinjiang was a huge problem, one that wouldn’t blow over in a year or two.”

The story of his political awakening illustrates how China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang has alienated many people in Central Asia, even as Beijing holds sway among its governments.

When the arrests in Xinjiang began, thousands of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and others of Central Asian ethnicity were abducted by authorities along with Uyghurs and swept into a vast network of camps and prisons.

Behind closed doors, Kazakhstan’s government pleaded with Beijing to release Kazakhs swept up in the crackdown. But in public, they said nothing and abstained from U.N. votes on whether to condemn or support China’s policies in Xinjiang.

China is a major investor in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industries and loans billions of dollars to build railroads and highways. This week, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met Xi on the airport tarmac when he arrived and treated him to a lavish state banquet.

Maxutkanuly calls the visit “humiliating,” given Xi’s treatment of ethnic Kazakhs.

“Now’s really not the time for him to visit,” he said.

Born to farmers in a small, heavily Kazakh village on China’s western frontier, he lived modestly but tested well, landing him a spot in college in Xinjiang’s capital.

There, he said, he was bullied relentlessly for his halting Mandarin. Professors, officials and classmates criticized him, making him feel an outsider. In the late 1990s, his family moved to Kazakhstan, leaving behind a country they felt never truly welcomed them.

For decades, he worked as a teacher, then translator, then trader. His political awakening began five years ago, when friends and relatives back in Xinjiang stopped calling and texting. He felt something was amiss.

He spotted speeches online by Serikzhan Bilash, a Chinese-born Kazakh activist who spoke out about growing accounts of brutality and mass detentions in the region.

Maxutkanuly joined Bilash’s movement, an unregistered organization called Atajurt. He organized petitions and news conferences, drawing the world’s attention — and soon the government’s attention as well.

Undercover police shadowed their meetings. Key figures were called in for questioning. In 2019, officers tackled Bilash in a hotel bathroom and took him to jail. Later that year, Bilash fled the country and named Maxutkanuly the new leader of Atajurt.

Now, after beatings, protests, and dozens of police run-ins, Maxutkanuly wants Atajurt to bring fundamental change: A democratic Kazakhstan, where Chinese-born Kazakhs and others will be free to air their concerns.

He said years of struggle under state repression has taught him and other members of his group that actual power is necessary to get results. That’s why a formal political party is necessary, not just a grassroots group, he said.

“The Kazakh government is helping the Chinese government. They’re trying to block us,” Maxutkanuly said. “To achieve our goals, we need to change the political situation in Kazakhstan first.”

The odds of success are slim. For nearly three decades, Kazakhstan was ruled by a Soviet-era strongman. His successor, a former Soviet diplomat in Beijing, looks no less inclined toward democracy. Political opponents are monitored, harassed, and at times hounded out of the country.

Still, Kazakhstan cultivates good relations with the West to balance the power of its neighbors, Russia and China. In a part of the world populated with brutal rulers, Kazakhstan’s leaders model themselves after technocratic Singapore instead — leaving some space for organizing and civil society.

The plan, Maxutkanuly said, is to sign up 50,000 people, 10 times more than the legally mandated minimum necessary to register a political party.

It will be tough, requiring him to go door-to-door to register elderly people deep in the countryside, some of whom are illiterate or don’t have cellphones.

The Chinese-born Kazakh community is riven with divisions, fueled by suspicions of spies and fear of the state. Some are skeptical of Maxutkanuly, wondering what his motives are and how far he can go in challenging the state.

Still, he has supporters. Nurlan Kokteubai, a former schoolteacher who spent seven months in a camp in Xinjiang, joined the party. He will do anything, he said, to draw more attention to the plight of Chinese-born Kazakhs.

“The Kazakh government doesn’t support us. Tokayev listens to Xi,” Kokteubai said, referring to the current Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. “If you don’t have a party, what kind of power do you have? It’s better this way.”

Kazakhstan is going through turmoil. Protests in January turned violent after thuggish men swept in, smashing cars and setting buildings ablaze. The Kazakh government invited Russian troops to quash the uprising, and hundreds were killed.

Maxutkanuly was among those protesting in January at a march in Kazakhstan’s capital. He said his nose was beaten bloody by police and he spent the night in jail.

Still, he is determined to press on.

“If I get arrested, so be it. If I don’t say anything, who’s going to help the Kazakhs in Xinjiang?” he said. “Someone needs to speak up.”

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Disaster

Survivors scream as desperate rescuers work in Turkey, Syria

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By Mehmet Guzel And Zeynep Bilginsoy in Adana

ADANA, Turkey (AP) — Rescuers called out, “Slowly, slowly,” as they lifted a man inch by inch from between slabs of collapsed concrete Monday in the Turkish province that was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake.

His neck in a brace, the barefoot man was carried on a stretcher as he emerged. Rescuers in Pazarcik in the province of Kahramanmaras held him aloft and ran off with him.

It was among numerous rescue efforts that unfolded as darkness, rain and cold enveloped the region of Turkey and Syria that was rocked by a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude temblor struck more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. At least 3,400 people were killed, and civilians joined rescuers in desperate efforts across Turkey and Syria.

“Can anyone hear me?” rescuers shouted. In some places around southeast Turkey, survivors could be heard screaming from beneath collapsed buildings.

People crouched to look below a massive sheet of concrete propped at an angle by steel bars. They crawled in and out, trying to reach survivors. Excavating equipment dug through the rubble below.

Elsewhere in Kahramanmaras province, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble. One lay on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Rescuers quieted the throngs of people trying to help so they could hear survivors and find them.

Some emerged safely then waited to hear any word on relatives.

“My two grandchildren, my daughter-in-law, are all inside. They haven’t come out,” said Hasan Birbalta while waiting near a collapsed building in Pazarcik, adding the granddaughter is 2 and the grandson is 6.

Thousands of search-and-rescue personnel, firefighters and medics were working across 10 provinces, along with some 3,500 soldiers. Residents lifted rubble and unearthed people heard screaming from beneath buildings. Aftershocks made rescue efforts more dangerous.

In Adana, about 20 people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws atop the concrete mountain of a collapsed building to carve out space that would let any survivors climb out or be rescued. Later, excavators joined the efforts as bright spotlights illuminated the wreckage.

Turkish military ambulance planes were transporting the injured to Istanbul and Ankara hospitals, the defense ministry said. Rescuers from across Turkey tried to make it to the provinces amid heavy snow and rain.

At a news conference late Monday, four ministers said that because Hatay’s airport had been severely damaged, they had to fly into Adana nearly three hours away.

In Syria, a man held a dead girl in his arms beside a two-story collapsed concrete building as he walked away from the debris. He and a woman set the girl on the floor under covering to protect her from the rain, wrapping her in a large blanket and looking back to the building, overwhelmed.

An official with Turkey’s disaster management authority said 7,840 people had been rescued across 10 provinces. The official, Orhan Tatar, said 5,606 buildings had collapsed.

Tatar said the total area affected was large and places were hard to reach, but that as of late Monday, teams had been directed to all collapsed buildings.

___

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Chicago contributed.

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Banks

Britcoin? UK gets closer to launching a digital currency

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By Danica Kirka in London

LONDON (AP) — Britcoin is moving closer to reality.

U.K. authorities on Monday said British businesses and consumers are likely to need a digital version of the pound, formally asking for public comment on the idea of introducing a central bank digital currency.

Britain, home to the world’s second-biggest financial center, is trailing former colonies such as Nigeria, the Bahamas and Jamaica in rolling out a digital currency. More than 80% of the world’s central banks are considering launching digital currencies or have already done so, according to the consultant PwC.

“While cash is here to stay, a digital pound issued and backed by the Bank of England could be a new way to pay that’s trusted, accessible and easy to use,” Treasury chief Jeremy Hunt said in a statement. “That’s why we want to investigate what is possible first, whilst always making sure we protect financial stability.”

The call for public input comes almost two years after the Treasury and Bank of England said they were considering introducing a digital currency.

While Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested naming the initiative “Britcoin” when he was Treasury chief, the Bank of England has stressed that the potential currency shouldn’t be confused with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.

Backed by the central bank, the new currency would be “reliable and retain its value over time,” in contrast to cryptocurrencies that can fluctuate wildly and threaten the holdings of investors, the Bank of England says on its website.

That industry has been particularly unstable in recent months, escalating calls for greater regulation. Crypto crashes last yeartanked assets, while crypto exchange FTX’s multibillion-dollar collapse and bankruptcy in November triggered fraud chargesagainst founder Sam Bankman-Fried.

The proposed digital currency would be denominated in pounds, with 10 pounds of digital currency always equal to a 10-pound note, the bank said. Held in a digital wallet, the currency could be used to pay for goods and services electronically.

Supporters of central bank digital currencies say they make digital transactions easier and cheaper and expand access to the financial system because they can be used by people who don’t have bank accounts.

This is one of the reasons the Bahamas became the first country to introduce a digital currency in 2020. Nigeria and Jamaica have since followed suit, with China and more than 20 other countries running trial projects. The U.S. and European Union are considering introducing digital currencies.

But digital currencies also present risks, including cyberattacks, privacy concerns and the danger that they can be used by criminals.

Because money invested in central bank digital currencies is safer than a bank deposit, they also may draw savings away from commercial banks and weaken the financial system, critics argue.

A digital pound would have “risks but no obvious benefits,” former Bank of England Gov. Mervyn King, now a member of the House of Lords, said recently.

While such digital currencies may be useful in countries that don’t have effective banking systems, that’s not the case in the Britain, he said.

“The government has said that it wants the U.K. to be at the forefront of innovation, crypto-assets and fintech, but we need to be selective and not driven by a misplaced enthusiasm for all things crypto,” King said.

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