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China In Eurasia

A big screen outside a shopping mall in Beijing shows Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking during an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of China's Communist Party.

China was marking the 100-year anniversary of its ruling Communist Party on July 1 to herald its rise on the world stage, celebrating what it says is its growing influence abroad, along with an array of economic and political victories at home.

Standing at the Gate of Heavenly Peace above a portrait of Mao Zedong, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech to a massive crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing where he credited the party with lifting the country out of poverty and pledged to expand its military and political influence, saying that the era of China being bullied was “gone forever.”

“We will not accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us,” Xi said. “We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.”

“By the same token, we will never allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate [China]. Anyone who tries will find themselves on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people.”

The fiery rhetoric, which was met by thunderous applause, comes at a time of rising Chinese nationalism that has coincided with Beijing taking on a more assertive and prominent role in world affairs.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s international influence, appeal, and attraction have continually increased, placing it at the forefront of world politics,” Guo Yezhou, deputy head of the party’s external liaison department, told reporters on June 28.

China has seen huge improvements in living standards over the past 40 years, accompanied by rising international financial and political influence.

Shipments of Chinese vaccines arrive in Belgrade, Serbia.
Shipments of Chinese vaccines arrive in Belgrade, Serbia.

Yet, while many nations have benefited from China’s rise, analysts note, Beijing is also seen as eroding democracy and human rights in countries over which it holds economic influence.

They say the trend highlights an increasing contrast between the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation at home and how it is seen abroad.

“In Chinese diplomacy, domestic politics is always king, and a lot of the way that Beijing has behaved over the last few years is geared towards that domestic audience,” Peter Martin, the author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, told RFE/RL.

“Many governments are worried that China will attempt to spread its model across the world, so internationally there is more concern about Beijing under the [Communist Party] than there has been since at least the 1970s.”

Charting Pushback

As much of the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic that seemingly originated in central China, Beijing has been flexing its geopolitical muscles, leading to both increased heft and deteriorating relationships across some parts of the world.

A June 30 survey of 17 advanced economies in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific by the Pew Research Center found that most countries see China in an unfavorable light, with views of Xi “near historic lows.”

Over the last year, China has had a trade row with Australia, a military clash with India along their shared border, and effectively taken control of parts of the disputed South China Sea.

China’s policies in its western Xinjiang Province, where it is operating an internment-camp system that has detained 1 million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities, have also damaged its relations with many countries.

While Beijing’s standing with Central Asian governments remains strong, the internments next door have inflamed tensions and contributed to negative views of China among local populations and led to protests and pickets in Kazakhstan, for instance.

The United States government and several Western parliaments have meanwhile labeled China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide.

Tit-for-tat sanctions with the European Union over Xinjiang led to the bloc freezing a massive investment deal in May between Brussels and Beijing.

China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, which takes its name from a nationalistic Chinese film franchise and refers to the combative tone taken by the country’s diplomats online, has also ruffled feathers in many Western countries and led to diplomatic spats across Europe.

Allegations of “vaccine diplomacy,” wherein Beijing has donated and preferentially sold doses of COVID-19 vaccines, have also highlighted a potential path for expanding Chinese influence and trading doses for political favors.

Such charges surfaced on June 24 with Western diplomats alleging that Beijing pressured Ukraine into withdrawing its support for greater scrutiny into Xinjiang by threatening to withhold vaccine shipments. Chinese authorities denied the accusations.

“We won't be seeing a recalibration in Chinese diplomacy,” said Martin. “Beijing shows no signs of softening its approach on any issue, from environmental policies to Xinjiang.”

Following China's Rise

Despite China’s newfound international difficulties, Beijing is still successfully expanding influence across much of the world, said Nadege Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research and a former adviser on Chinese strategic issues to the French Defense Ministry.

“The developing and emerging world is a huge area where China is actually pushing harder and harder to expand its own influence and is showing results,” she told RFE/RL.

Beijing has expanded diplomatic ties across Africa, Eurasia, and Latin American in recent years, inking technology and infrastructure deals under the guise of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese companies have been selling surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia.
Chinese companies have been selling surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia.

“We are starting to witness a transition that is much more proactive where China is trying to shape the government systems of countries,” said Rolland. “Not everything is being implemented yet, but we are seeing the building blocks for the future put into place.”

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked up their growing partnership during a June 28 teleconference in which the two leaders extended the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation for another five years.

In Serbia, which is a crucial hub for Beijing’s growing presence in the Balkans, Chinese technologies have gained a foothold through surveillance cameras and a “smart city” project, which includes data gathering, storing, and management, under way in Belgrade and planned for Novi Sad.

Chinese companies have also begun to supply surveillance and facial-recognition technology in Central Asia, where the security services of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have each inked agreements in recent years.

The systems are officially sold as monitoring of traffic and citizens, but the use of the technology raises ethical and human rights concerns and has been already deployed widely across China, including as part of a vast surveillance system in Xinjiang to target Uyghurs.

Elsewhere, China has made forays into education. Three Serbian universities have signed a cooperation agreement with Jiao Tong University, opening the door to deeper long-term cultural ties.

A planned university project in Budapest with Shanghai’s Fudan University has come under fire in Hungary for its use of taxpayer funds, but the campus would mark an important milestone as the first Chinese university in the EU.

“This is the next step for a power like China, which has risen to a new level,” said Rolland. “[Beijing] wants other countries to become amenable to the principles and values within its own system.”

A Uyghur woman holds her baby in a night market in Hotan, in China's western Xinjiang region. (file photo)

In 1997, the government of Pakistan deported 14 Uyghurs accused by Beijing of being terrorists plotting to split Xinjiang, China's heavily Muslim western province, away from the rest of the country. Upon being driven across Pakistan's eastern border with China, they were summarily executed.

That case represents the first documented episode of Uyghurs being extradited at China's request, "marking a watershed in the evolution of Chinese transnational repression," according to the China's Transnational Repression of Uyghurs Dataset, a new database and report that was launched on June 24. It examines 1,546 cases of detention and deportation across 28 countries, from the 1997 incident until March 2021.

The data set, which is a joint initiative by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, shows how China's campaign against the Uyghurs has gone global, rapidly expanding from Central and South Asia to include Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

The report, which claims to be the most complete account of China's international campaign, documents how governments -- predominantly from Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and Asia -- have cooperated with Beijing to surveil, detain, and repatriate Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities from China who have fled Xinjiang.

Police officers patrol in the old city in Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Police officers patrol in the old city in Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

"There has been a lot of criticism against Muslim majority countries for their silence on Xinjiang and the repression of the Uyghurs," Bradley Jardine, the director of research at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the report's lead author, told RFE/RL. "But this database shows that it isn't just hypocrisy from the Islamic world, it's active collaboration with China."

United Nations human rights officials estimate that 1 million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities are detained at camps in a vast Chinese internment system. Many former detainees allege they were subjected to attempted indoctrination, physical abuse, and even sterilization.

The United States government and several Western parliaments have labeled China's actions in Xinjiang as genocide, but most governments of majority Muslim states -- who increasingly have close financial and political ties to Beijing through China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- have remained silent on the issue.

According to the report, efforts to target Uyghurs and force them back to China have intensified since 2017, when Beijing is believed to have begun its mass internment program in Xinjiang.

"Through these practices, the government of China is able to extend its repression and control over the Uyghur people across sovereign boundaries," the report says.

A Domestic Campaign Goes Global

China's government initially denied the Xinjiang camps' existence, but has since been on a diplomatic and public-relations campaign to counter the growing outcry against what Beijing has termed "vocational-education centers" by defending them as necessary to combat Islamic extremism.

Concerns over terrorism have been at the heart of official Chinese reasoning for targeting Uyghurs abroad that employs an evolving array of tactics, the report notes, from espionage and cyberattacks to issuing Red Notices via Interpol, an organization designed to coordinate global policing activities.

Ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese at a market in Urumqi in the Xinjiang region.
Ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese at a market in Urumqi in the Xinjiang region.

While Chinese authorities have long viewed the Uyghur community with suspicion, and radical Uyghur separatist groups have carried out attacks, the report argues that the 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, were a turning point for Beijing.

The riots claimed 200 lives, most of them ethnic Hans, and attacks by extremist Uyghur groups escalated the security situation in Xinjiang in the following years.

The unrest led to swift retaliation by Beijing in the name of fighting extremism, and according to Jardine, who is also a fellow at the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, this led to large outflows of Uyghurs from China who sought asylum and refugee status in countries around the world.

"This forced China to have a more global outlook, whereas before it was regionally focused on neighboring areas like Central Asia and Pakistan," he said.

The data set highlights three phases in China's evolving efforts against Uyghurs abroad.

The first phase was predominantly focused on neighboring areas with Uyghur diasporas in Central and South Asia, with 89 Uyghurs detained or sent to China from 1997 to 2007. The second phase, from 2008 to 2013, expanded to 15 countries and targeted 130 individuals. The third phase, from 2014 to March, saw a major escalation, with 1,327 people detained or extradited from 20 countries.

The data highlight a focus on Muslim-majority countries, with 647 of the cases in the report taking place in the Middle East and North Africa and 665 cases occurring in South Asia. Eleven hundred and fifty-one of the cases recorded involved Uyghurs being detained in their host country, while 395 were deportations or extraditions back to China.

"These numbers are just a drop in the bucket," Jardine said. "We are limited to people that have come forward, but there are far more unreported cases that we just don’t know about."

A Spotlight On The Muslim World

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently made headlines when he declined to acknowledge or condemn the Chinese government's alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang during a June 20 interview with the U.S. news outlet Axios.

Islamabad and Beijing maintain strong ties, and the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remains a flagship project within China's BRI.

But the database highlights how Pakistan's cooperation with China on Uyghurs is decades old and predates Beijing's increased investment and economic push across Eurasia.

Foreign journalists take photos and video outside a location in China's Xinjiang region that was identified in early 2020 as a reeducation facility but which the Chinese government asserts is currently home to a veterans' affairs bureau and other government offices.
Foreign journalists take photos and video outside a location in China's Xinjiang region that was identified in early 2020 as a reeducation facility but which the Chinese government asserts is currently home to a veterans' affairs bureau and other government offices.

"While there is no evidence of an official agreement to monitor Uyghur activities, Pakistan's activities in the late 1990s hint that an agreement had likely been reached, formally or otherwise," the report says.

Similarly, lawyers for Uyghur groups have submitted new evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC)'s Office of the Prosecutor showing the government in Tajikistan has been cooperating with Beijing to send Uyghurs back to China.

Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.

Their complaint also accuses Tajik authorities of helping to facilitate the extraordinary rendition of Uyghurs from Turkey back to China.

Turkey remains a crucial location for the broader Uyghur community. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has welcomed Uyghurs to Turkey for many years, with an estimated 40,000 Uyghurs living in that country of around 82 million.

Erdogan has been critical of China's heavy-handed policies in Xinjiang, but more recently has tempered his remarks as Ankara has become closer economically with China.

In December 2020, Beijing ratified a 2017 extradition treaty between the two countries. But the Turkish parliament has yet to follow suit, leaving Uyghurs fearful that the looming decision could see many of them sent back to China at Beijing's request.

"Turkey was once seen as a safe haven, but no more," Jardine said. "The West now needs to start looking at expanding its refugee quotas and facilitating Uyghur claims from Turkey and other countries that are complicit in China's transnational repression."

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In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

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