Xinjiang Kazakh plans political party to counter China’s Xi
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.”
Diverse Republican presidential primary field sees an opening in 2024 with voters of color
CHICAGO (AP) — During Donald Trump’s first visit as president to Chicago, a frequent target in his attacks on urban violence, he disparaged the nation’s third largest city as a haven for criminals and a national embarrassment.
At a recent town hall, Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy sat alongside ex-convicts on the city’s South Side and promised to defend Trump’s “America First” agenda. In return, the little-known White House hopeful, a child of Indian immigrants, found a flicker of acceptance in a room full of Black and brown voters.
The audience nodded when Ramaswamy said that “anti-Black racism is on the rise,” even if they took issue with his promise to eliminate affirmative action and fight “woke” policies.
“America First applies to all Americans — not just the few that Republicans talk to,” he said.
Race has emerged as a central issue — and a delicate one — in the 2024 presidential contest as the GOP’s primary field so far features four candidates of color, making it among the most racially diverse ever.
South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the first Black senator in the South since Reconstruction, entered the contest earlier in the month. He joined Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador who is of Indian descent, and Larry Elder, an African American raised in Los Angeles’ South Central neighborhood who came to national attention as a candidate in the failed effort two years ago to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is of Cuban descent, says he may enter the race in the coming days.
Most of the candidates of color are considered underdogs in a field currently dominated by Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Yet the party’s increasingly diverse leadership, backed by evolving politics on issues such as immigration, suggest the GOP may have a real opportunity in 2024 to further weaken the Democrats’ grip on African Americans and Latinos. Those groups have been among the most loyal segments of the Democratic coalition since Republican leaders fought against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Republican presidential contenders of 2024 walk a fine line when addressing race with the GOP’s overwhelmingly white primary electorate.
In most cases, the diverse candidates in the Republican field play down the significance of their racial heritage. They all deny the existence of systemic racism in the United States even while discussing their own personal experience with racial discrimination. They oppose policies around policing, voting rights and educationthat are specifically designed to benefit disadvantaged communities and combat structural racism.
The NAACP recently issued a travel advisory for the state of Florida under DeSantis’ leadership, warning of open hostility “toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.” The notice calls out new policies enacted by the governor that include blocking public schools from teaching students about systemic racism and defunding programs aimed at diversity, equity and inclusion.
The Republican presidential candidates of color largely support DeSantis’ positions.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said the GOP’s policies are far more important than the racial and ethnic diversity of their presidential candidates. He noted there also were four Republican candidates of color in 2016, the year Trump won the White House after exploiting tensions over race and immigration.
“White nationalists, insurrectionists and white supremacists seem to find comfort in the (Republican) Party,” Morial said. “I think we’re beyond the politics of just the face of a person of color by itself appealing to people of color. What do you stand for?”
With few exceptions, the Republican candidates who have entered the presidential primary field have embraced the GOP’s “anti-woke” agenda, which is based on the notion that policies designed to address systemic inequities related to race, gender or sexuality are inherently unfair or even dangerous.
DeSantis this past week described such policies as “cultural Marxism.”
Still, the GOP’s diverse field is not ignoring race. Indeed, some candidates are making their race a central theme in their appeal to Republican primary voters even as they deny that people of color face systemic challenges.
Scott insisted that America is not a racist country in his recent announcement speech.
“We are not defined by the color of our skin. We are defined by the content of our character. And if anyone tells you anything different, they’re lying,” he said.
In her announcement video, Haley noted that she was raised in a small town in South Carolina as “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants — not black, not white, I was different.” Like Scott, she has defended the GOP against charges of racism.
“Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil,” Haley said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Elder is quick to criticize the Democrats’ “woke” agenda, Black Lives Matter and the notion of systemic racism.
Critics say such messages are actually designed to win over suburban white voters more than to attract voters of color. But on the South Side of Chicago on a recent Friday afternoon, there were signs that some Black voters were open to the GOP’s new messengers, given their frustration with both political parties.
One attendee at Ramaswamy’s town hall waved a flyer for a “Biden boycott” because the Democratic president has not signaled whether he supports reparations for the descendants of slaves, although Biden did back a congressional effort to study the issue. None of the GOP’s presidential candidates supports reparations, either.
Others condemned Democrats, in Chicago and in Washington, for working harder to help immigrants who are in the country illegally than struggling African American citizens.
Federal officials were preparing to relocate hundreds of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to the South Side, even as many local residents struggled with violence and difficult economic conditions.
“It is certainly true that there are multiple shades of melanin in this Republican race,” Ramaswamy said in an interview before the event. “I think that in some ways dispels the myth that much of the left will perpetuate that this is somehow you know, a racist party or whatever drivel.”
He added: “But personally, I could care less what someone’s skin color is. I think what matters is, what are they going to accomplish? What’s their vision?”
As of now, the GOP does not have any Hispanic candidates in the 2024 contest. But Suarez, the Miami mayor, said he may change that in the coming days.
“I think it’s important the field does have candidates that can connect with and motivate Hispanics to continue a trend that’s already happening,” he said in an interview, noting that he’s “very strongly” considering a White House bid. “Democrats have failed miserably to connect with Hispanics.”
A majority of Latino voters supported Biden in the 2020 presidential contest, according to AP VoteCast, an extensive national survey of the electorate. But Trump cut into that support in some competitive states, including Florida and Nevada, revealing important shifts among Latinos from many different cultural backgrounds.
In last fall’s midterm elections, support grew for Republican candidates among Black voters, although they remained overwhelmingly supportive of Democrats, AP Votecast found. Overall, Republican candidates were backed by 14% of Black voters, compared with 8% in the midterm elections four years earlier.
While the shifts may be relatively small, strategists in both parties acknowledge that any shift is significant given how close some elections may be in 2024.
In Chicago, Tyrone Muhammad, who leads Ex-Cons for Social Change, lashed out at Republicans for being “losers” for not seizing a very real opportunity to win over more African Americans. While sitting next to Ramaswamy on stage, he also declared that the Republican Party is racist.
Later, he said he actually voted for Trump in 2020 because Trump enacted a criminal justice bill that aimed to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and address racial inequalities in the justice system. While the GOP has since embraced tough-on-crime rhetoric, Muhammed noted that Biden as a senator helped pass the 1994 crime bill that led to the mass incarceration of Black people.
Muhammad said he might vote Republican again in 2024, despite the party’s shortcomings. He pointed to the GOP’s fight against illegal immigration as a core reason for support.
“I may not like you as an individual, but I like your issues, I like your policies,” he said.
Fields reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
US cities hope crime strategies keep homicide numbers dropping and prevent summer surge
Chicago is among the U.S. cities under scrutiny following a mayoral race that focused on public safety in response to demands for change. Violence often surges during summer months, so this holiday weekend will undoubtedly ramp up pressure on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new administration to deliver short-term improvement along with the long-term strategies that the former union organizer advocated while campaigning to lead the nation’s third-largest city.
“It’s going to take all of us, not just the police, not just city government, to ensure that our communities can live and thrive in peace and safety,” Johnson said at a lakefront press conference promoting the city’s Memorial Day weekend strategy.
Most large U.S. cities are reporting fewer homicides this year, according to data collected by the Council on Criminal Justice, which created a Crime Trends Working Group this spring in hopes of providing more real-time information on crime.
The shift is a tentative reprieve following those spikes that began in 2020 and began to come down last year. The totals remain far higher than pre-pandemic reports and are “cause for serious concern but not for panic,” said Thomas Abt, founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland.
“Where cities are seeing success, they’re generally investing in a balanced approach that includes policing but … also supports community-based approaches,” Abt said. “They have recognized the need for enforcement but also emphasize prevention and intervention.”
Officials in Cleveland; Newark, New Jersey; and Philadelphia have announced summer plans to make officers more of a visible presence in locations where violent crimes have happened, while also promoting community efforts to prevent violence and provide alternative activities.
In Baltimore, city officials — not police officers — will enforce curfews on teenagers starting Friday and continuing through Labor Day weekend. The controversial policy has long been on the books but rarely enforced.
“We are going back to the old days,” Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said in announcing the summer enforcement, after two teens were wounded as hundreds gathered on a Sunday night in the city’s popular Inner Harbor district.
That shooting in April, which unfolded while officers were trying to break up a fight at the scene, added to a significant spike in youth violence, which has persisted even as overall shootings and homicides trend downward in Baltimore.
According to Scott’s plan, non-law enforcement staff will approach children and teens violating the curfew policy on weekend and holiday nights. First, they’ll encourage kids to go home, but if that doesn’t work, the children will be brought to a youth engagement center that provides a supervised environment where they can hang out.
In Detroit, federal prosecutors are expanding efforts to help local police this summer by taking armed carjacking cases and business robberies in high-crime areas, in addition to certain gun crimes. Federal convictions typically bring longer sentences.
“The most dangerous people will be prosecuted immediately in federal court,” U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison said Wednesday.
Following a half-dozen shootings — including one fatality — in the downtown Detroit area over one weekend in April, Police Chief James White instituted a crowd control strategy including increased police presence. Curfews for minors also will be enforced.
In Chicago, mayors face annual pressure to demonstrate a proactive approach to violent crime ahead of Memorial Day, the traditional kickoff to warm weather and summer events where crowds gather.
Johnson promised to move away from a policing-first strategy as he took office at the start of May, but he’s also distanced himself from calls to cut money for policing. He chose a retired department veteran as interim police chief.
Federal data shows that Chicago’s homicide rate remains lower than other Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Detroit, with 211 killings reported so far this year, lower than the same period in 2022 and 2021.
Johnson’s holiday weekend strategy includes making officers a visible presence, and even having them check bags at crowded beaches, parks and events. Police rushed to Chicago’s North Avenue Beach on Friday afternoon after a report of gunshots following a large fight. The department said one juvenile was in custody but didn’t provide more information. No injuries were reported.
Philanthropic and business groups have donated to anti-violence groups organizing events aimed at young people. And the state of Illinois has authorized a team of 30 “peacekeepers” — not police — who have training and experience in deescalating conflict, to roam Chicago aiming to prevent outbreaks of violence.
Community groups with similar strategies have operated for years across Chicago, focusing on specific neighborhoods or blocks with a history of violence. State officials said their team would be mobile and able to respond anywhere, including downtown, where large gatherings of teens during a warm April weekend ended with several shootings and other violence.
Norman Livingston Kerr led a Chicago anti-violence organization before he became assistant deputy mayor for public safety under Johnson’s predecessor, Lori Lightfoot. He now consults with cities and nonprofits to develop anti-violence strategies that rely on deescalation or intervention. He’s encouraged by signs that the city and state are committing long-term resources to efforts such as the peacekeepers program.
“This violence intervention work, it can take time for people to see it work and believe in it,” Kerr said. “I’m not going to dwell on the fact it took years to happen; I’m going to say this is a new day.”
Johnson has promised to give a variety of community organizations a larger role in his administration’s public safety strategy and devoted much of Thursday’s city presentation to promoting plans for basketball tournaments, neighborhood barbecues and karaoke contests.
Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, said her organization has worked to prevent crime around a South Side intersection for nearly 10 years using “positive loitering.” This weekend is no exception, with a neighborhood barbecue and other activities planned.
“We built a community center, our pop-up community center, in a vacant lot,” Manasseh said. “And since then we’ve seen crime drop astronomically. And we feel like that can happen anywhere.”
Associated Press writers Lea Skene in Baltimore and Corey Williams and Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.
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