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16 May 2022

China’s repression of Uyghurs extends far beyond its own borders

Urgent action needs to be taken to combat Beijing’s transnational campaign against the ethnic minority.

By Bradley Jardine

In March, the US Department of Justice charged five individuals with “stalking, harassing, and spying on US residents” on behalf of China’s secret police. The suspects were alleged to have worked with China’s intelligence services to report on Uyghurs and other US-based activists critical of the Chinese government.

This was not an isolated incident. The following month, Chinese officials secured provisional agreement to deport a Uyghur woman named Buheliqiemu Abula and her 13-year-old daughter from Saudi Arabia to China, where they are at risk of detention in Xinjiang’s vast web of internment camps.

China’s transnational repression is on the rise, with Beijing employing a range of tactics to pursue its critics abroad. These include physical threats, cyberattacks and the denial of consular services, which has left thousands of Uyghurs stranded without passports.

China has co-opted international groups, including Interpol – the worldwide police cooperation organisation – in the service of this global dragnet. In July 2021, the Uyghur translator and activist Idris Hasan was detained in Morocco, where he had fled after Turkish authorities intimidated him for his activism among Istanbul’s Uyghur diaspora. China issued an Interpol red notice for his capture on the grounds that he was a member of Uyghur terrorist organisations – a common and often unfounded accusation that is made against Uyghur political activists. Interpol later suspended the red notice after finding the claim to be without evidence, noting bylaws forbidding persecution on political, religious or economic grounds.

The activist’s ordeals are far from over, however. China’s security ministries have a wide reach within the international community through commerce, travel and a network of individual contacts that grant them substantial leverage. In many developing countries, such as Morocco, China has strategic and economic partnerships with the government that often include extradition treaties. One such treaty, signed between Beijing and Rabat in 2016, is now being used to harass Hasan.

The global scale of this transnational repression is staggering. In a new study for the Wilson Center that draws on a groundbreaking data set, I analysed 1,574 publicly reported cases of detentions and forcible returns of Uyghurs to China from around the world over the past 25 years. Averaged out between 1997 and 2022, this amounts to 62 cases every year, or at least one case every week. While these figures themselves might seem high, they are only the cases that we know about. The true tally is likely far greater, as is the chilling effect of this repression on international activism. Every disappearance and each rendition frightens countless other activists into silence.

[See also: Historic Uyghur culture is under existential threat]

The Uyghurs’ predominantly Muslim faith leaves them especially vulnerable, with the Chinese authorities leveraging the US-led global war on terror that followed the 11 September attacks to pursue their global harassment campaign.

In 2003, Chinese intelligence agencies shared a list of Uyghur “terrorists” with international counterparts, including 11 individuals and four international organisations who they claimed represented violent threats. One of those was a Uyghur activist called Ismail Semed, who lived in Pakistan and was known for championing the rights of his community. He was deported to China from Pakistan that same year and executed in 2007 for “attempting to divide the motherland” and the possession of illegal weapons. The sentencing documents revealed deep flaws in the case and a lack of credible testimony.

China has also weaponised passports, forcing many overseas Uyghurs to return to Xinjiang to “renew” them, where they can be targeted by the authorities. In May 2017, for example, Uyghur students in Egypt began receiving calls from Chinese officials requesting that they return to Xinjiang or suffer the consequences. Some who “chose” to return, such as construction contractor Sami Bari, were given harsh prison sentences – in his case, life behind bars. Hundreds of those who remained overseas were arrested by Egyptian security services that July. Using the Oxus Society’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs data set, I estimate that at least 274 Uyghurs were deported to China from Egypt that summer, with 46 verified as having been subsequently detained in Xinjiang’s “re-education” camps.

[See also: Behind Xi Jinping’s Great Wall of Iron]

While mass deportations and renditions make international headlines, China’s more prosaic everyday practice of manipulating communications technologies to pursue their alleged enemies is often overlooked. At least 5,532 Uyghurs have reported experiencing intimidation from the Chinese authorities over the internet since 2002. Cyberattacks and threats against exiles’ relatives in China have been recorded in 44 countries.

In 2021, Facebook revealed that Chinese hackers from an organisation called Evil Eye had infiltrated Uyghur groups using fake accounts. Evil Eye spent months gaining trust within the Uyghur community before sharing links to corrupted sites hosting malware. This attack affected nearly 500 Uyghurs in countries such as the US, Australia, Canada, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Syria.

In May of that year, cybersecurity experts at the Israeli company Check Point Software Technologies uncovered a plot targeting Uyghurs in Pakistan in which hackers set up a fake website for a human rights foundation called the “Turkic Culture and Heritage Foundation”. It tricked users into installing a backdoor to Windows software on their computers that gave hackers access to their data. This same group also sent malicious documents to Uyghurs by email using the names and logos of the UN and UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

Of the 72 Uyghurs I surveyed in North America, Japan, Australia and Europe in October 2021, more than 96 per cent believed they faced threats online. Three quarters said they had experienced some form of cyberattack or had spyware used against them. Only a third of respondents said they knew who to turn to for security advice.

International government entities such as the UK and the US State Department accuse China of committing genocide against its Uyghur minority. But in reality, Beijing’s campaign against the Uyghurs has long been global too, and the scope and intensity of those efforts is increasing. China’s assault on the Uyghurs’ human rights now extends far beyond its borders and into our own. It is essential to recognise the extent of Chinese transnational repression and take urgent action to ensure that China’s Muslim diaspora is protected.

[See also: Suspicion and subjugation in Xinjiang]

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