China has more tools than ever to target Uyghurs abroad

China hunts Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities through an expanding global net that increasingly relies on cooperation with governments in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

Using a complex toolkit of intimidation, harassment, surveillance, detentions and extraditions, Beijing’s transnational campaign has grown to unprecedented scale across the world and is documented in detail in a new report, Great Wall of Steelby the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

The new research shows how China’s rise to global power – exemplified by its outsized economic influence through projects such as the multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – has granted Beijing new influence over countries. governments and allowed him to co-opt them as partners in an expanding campaign of repression.

The study’s dataset documented 5,532 cases of Uighurs facing intimidation, 1,150 cases of Uighurs detained in a host country, and 424 cases of Uighurs deported or extradited to China, from 1997 to January 2022.

As the study notes, of the 10 countries where Uyghurs along with Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic groups remain most vulnerable to detention or extradition, China is the largest financial creditor for five of them: Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Cambodia and Myanmar, leading to deals in which leaders “trade human rights for economic opportunity”, according to the report.

Beijing has launched a brutal crackdown that has forced more than a million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons in the western province of Xinjiang under the guise of fighting Islamist extremism. But those efforts have led to allegations of the imposition of forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasure of Uyghur cultural and religious identity, as well as accusations of genocide.

To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Bradley Jardine, researcher at the Wilson Center and author of the study, published on April 25.

RFE/RL: How has the scale of China’s transnational campaign against Uyghurs and other groups evolved over the years and what are the main tools used by Beijing?

Bradley Jardine: China’s campaign against the Uighurs has been evolving for some time. I trace most of my data back to 1997, when we saw the first deportations from Pakistan. It was in response to incidents in a town called Barin in southern Xinjiang and it’s really where China started paying attention to the Uyghur diaspora community. Since then, the scale has accelerated considerably.

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This is motivated by two main things. The start of the [U.S.] War on Terror [in 2001] provided China with new rhetorical tools to build alliances and coalitions to prosecute Uyghur dissidents and diaspora communities; then, in 2017, with the mass incarceration program in Xinjiang, where China really began to step up algorithmic surveillance [across the province].

This led to a [greater focus] Chinese security services [on] prosecute the Uyghurs. The magnitude of the current situation is that I have followed some 1,500 Uyghurs who have been detained in countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or who have been deported from places [like] Tajikistan, so the scale is quite large. And that’s just the number of detentions and renditions. If we take cyberattacks into account, [which] is a tool increasingly used by China, or threats against family members, you would see this number [increase] to more than 7,000 recorded incidents.

In addition, my data comes mainly from cases reported in the media. So most of these Uighurs [being targeted] are named or have been part of reports where particular incidents have been investigated. Seven thousand is a base number [and is] just the tip of the iceberg for what the reality may be, with [many more] unreported cases.

RFE/RL: It is becoming increasingly difficult for Uyghurs to escape persecution in Xinjiang and flee elsewhere. Central and South Asia were once areas of escape and refuge, but that has changed as governments in the region have forged closer ties with Beijing. We are now seeing Turkey, which was seen as one of the last places Uyghurs were fleeing abroad, also changing its extradition policy. Where does that leave Uyghurs to go?

Garden : The Uyghurs have lost more and more space. Of course, they have lost their political space in Central and South Asia, Southeast Asia and increasingly in traditional havens, such as the Middle East and Turkey, where the Turkish President [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] signed extradition treaty with Chinese counterpart at Belt and Road summit forum [that was later ratified in December 2020]. Since then, there has been a sense of fear among Turkey’s Uyghur diaspora community [and] many of them have indeed left for Europe or North America, [with] Japan too [becoming] a major haven for Uyghurs.

Turkey remains the biggest destination, although there is a small exodus of particularly high-profile figures, such as the Kazakh activist Serikjan Bilashwho moved [to] United States. So there is no real space for them right now, unless there is more political will in the West to increase its [refugee] quotas. That’s where they would be safest.

Of course, they are not entirely safe, as my research indicates that within democracies many Uyghurs face cyberattacks. [and] their families are still in danger [back in] Xinjiang. The diaspora particularly relies on WeChat and Chinese social media platforms to communicate with family members. WeChat has therefore become a tool both for collecting information on Uyghurs, but also for the Xinjiang security services to contact them and limit their activism.

RFE/RL: Your report focuses on a network of institutions and cadres that help China implement this repression abroad. With regard to Eurasia specifically, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has played a major role. What tools does Beijing actually have through this bloc?

Garden : Central Asia is quite unique because it was one of the first [regions] develop extensive cooperation with China on transnational repression and surveillance of Uyghur communities in the diaspora.

This diaspora [in the region] was one to which China paid particular attention [and] seen as potentially threatening or destabilizing in the post-Soviet era. All this to say that China has built and implemented a number of tools [in Central Asia] that we have not seen elsewhere.

One of them is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a multilateral [where] China is coordinating with its Central Asian counterparts and with Russia. This emerged largely to deal with boundary demarcation issues [that] emerged from the [collapse] of the Soviet Union, then began to [focus] on the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism. [This] became a rhetorical crutch that allowed China to [adopt] anti-extremist rhetoric in Central Asia – where secular regimes were [already] prosecute dissidents and label them religious extremists – [and] apply it to the Uyghur population at home and abroad.

Within the SCO, there are a number of treaties that allow for mutual extradition [with] no questions raised between Member States. There are also counter-terrorism cooperation frameworks, [such as] sharing information on anyone reported as a terrorist, [often] with little evidence in most cases. This [type of cooperation] really accelerated [and] made the area very dangerous and hostile [for Uyghurs]. For the diaspora communities, many of them have fled to this [looked like] safer jurisdictions at the time, particularly Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

This is still the case today: [Central Asia] is one of the most dangerous places for Uighur activists because of these extradition treaties.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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