China is hunting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities through an expanding global dragnet that is increasingly relying on cooperation with governments in the Middle East and South and Central Asia.
Using a complex tool kit of intimidation, harassment, surveillance, detentions, and extraditions, Beijing's transnational campaign has grown to unprecedented depths across the world and is documented in detail in a new report, Great Wall Of Steel, by the Wilson Center's Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
The new research shows how China's global rise -- exemplified by its outsized economic influence through projects like the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) -- has granted Beijing newfound leverage over governments and allowed it to co-opt them as partners in a spreading repression campaign.
The study's dataset has documented 5,532 cases of Uyghurs facing intimidation, 1,150 cases of Uyghurs detained in a host country, and 424 cases of Uyghurs deported or extradited to China, from 1997 to January 2022.
As the study notes, of the 10 countries where Uyghurs as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other 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 launched a brutal crackdown that has swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities into detention camps and prisons in its western Xinjiang Province under the pretext of fighting Islamist extremism. But those efforts have led to allegations of imposing forced labor, mass internment, forced birth control, erasing Uyghur cultural and religious identity, as well as accusations of genocide.
To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center and the author of the study, which was released 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 being used by Beijing?
Bradley Jardine: China's campaign against the Uyghurs has been evolving for quite some time. I track most of my data back to 1997, when we saw the first deportations from Pakistan. This was in response to incidents in a town called Barin in southern Xinjiang and this was really where China started to pay attention to the Uyghur diaspora community. Since then, the scale has accelerated dramatically.
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This is driven by two main things. The onset of the [U.S.] War on Terror [in 2001] provided China with new rhetorical tools for building alliances and coalitions for pursuing Uyghur dissidents and diaspora communities; and then, in 2017, with the mass incarceration program in Xinjiang, where China really began ramping up algorithmic surveillance [across the province].
This led to a [greater focus] from Chinese security services [on] pursuing Uyghurs. The scale of where things stand today is that I've tracked some 1,500 Uyghurs who have either been detained within countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or who have been rendered from places [like] Tajikistan, so the scale is quite large. And this is just the number for detentions and renditions. If we're taking into account cyberattacks, [which] is a growing tool that China is now wielding, or threats against family members, you would see this number [increase] to over 7,000 logged incidents.
Also, my data is derived primarily from reported media cases. So most of these Uyghurs [being targeted] are named or they've been part of reports where there have been investigations into the particular incidents. Seven thousand is a base figure [and is] just the tip of the iceberg for what the reality may be, with [many more] unreported cases.
RFE/RL: It's 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 formed closer bonds with Beijing. Now we are seeing Turkey, which was seen as one of the last spots for Uyghurs fleeing abroad, also change its policies about extradition. Where does that leave Uyghurs to go?
Jardine: Uyghurs have increasingly lost space. Of course, they've lost political space in Central and South Asia, Southeast Asia, and increasingly in traditional safe havens, such as the Middle East and Turkey, where Turkish President [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] signed an extradition treaty with his Chinese counterpart during a Belt and Road summit forum [that was later ratified in December 2020]. Ever since, there's been a sense of fear among Turkey's Uyghur diaspora community [and] many of them have actually been leaving for Europe or for North America, [with] Japan also [becoming] a major refuge for Uyghurs.
Turkey is still the largest destination, although there is a small exodus of particularly prominent figures, such as Kazakh activist Serikzhan Bilash, who relocated [to] the United States. So there is no real space for them at the moment unless there's more political will in the West to increase its [refugee] quotas. This is where they would be safest.
Of course, they're not entirely safe, as my research points out that within democracies, a lot of Uyghurs are facing 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. So WeChat has become a tool for both collecting information on Uyghurs, but also for the security services in Xinjiang to reach out to them and curtail their activism.
RFE/RL: Your report focuses on a web of institutions and frameworks that help China enact this repression abroad. Looking specifically at Eurasia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has played a major role. What tools does Beijing really have at its disposal through this bloc?
Jardine: Central Asia is a very unique case because it was one of the earliest [regions] to develop extensive cooperation with China in terms of transnational repression and monitoring Uyghur diaspora communities.
This diaspora [in the region] was one that China paid particular attention to [and] saw as potentially threatening or destabilizing in the post-Soviet era. All that is to say that China has built and established a number of tools [in Central Asia] that we've not seen elsewhere.
One of these is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is a multilateral framework [where] China coordinates with its counterparts in Central Asia and with Russia. This largely emerged to deal with border delimitation issues [that] emerged from the [collapse] of the Soviet Union and then started 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] pursuing dissidents and labeling them as 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 asked between member states. There are also some frameworks for counterterrorist cooperation, [such as] intelligence sharing of anyone who's been flagged as a terrorist, [often] with minimal evidence in most cases. This [type of cooperation] has really accelerated [and] made the region very dangerous and hostile [for Uyghurs]. For diaspora communities, many of them fled to what [looked like] safer jurisdictions at the time, particularly Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey.
This still remains the case today: [Central Asia] is one of the most dangerous places for Uyghur activists due to these extradition treaties.