A new study argued that Beijing's persecution of Uyghurs overseas has spread to nearly 30 countries around the world, largely because the governments of these host countries fear Beijing's power and influence.
The report, titled No Space Left to Run, China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs, examined the methods China has used to silence Uyghur dissidents beyond its borders.
Compiled jointly by rights group Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the report argued that at least 28 countries across the world complicit in China’s harassment and intimidation of Uyghurs, with countries in the Middle East and North Africa as worst offenders.
Bradley Jardine, research director at Oxus Society and one of the authors of the report, told VOA that Beijing uses a number of methods to intimidate Uyghurs living in other countries, including everything from the use of spyware and hacking, to releasing red notices against targeted individuals through Interpol.
“Since 2017, the most common method for silencing overseas dissent is to threaten an individual's relatives residing within China's borders with detention, and in some cases, have a target's close family issue public statements as part of government smear campaigns designed to undermine an activist's credibility,” he told VOA via email.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to VOA's requests for comment on the report.
Worst offenders: Countries in the Muslim world
Jardine said in past decades, targets of Chinese counter-exile strategies tended to be politically active, but this has changed significantly with the onset of mass repression since 2017 and the rise of internment camps in Xinjiang.
Since then, China has begun targeting anyone on its list of "sensitive countries," the majority of which are located in the Muslim world.
“The largest offenders of transnational repression of the Uyghurs are Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” Jardine said, adding that some of these countries have no legal protections for vulnerable minorities and the rule of law tends to be weak or susceptible to political interference.
“This has made the Middle East fertile ground for China's campaign of global intimidation,” he continued.
The report indicated that the first such case happened in Pakistan in 1997, when the Pakistan government deported to Beijing 14 Uyghurs accused of being separatists. All 14 were executed upon arrival in China.
The report indicated that between 1997 and December 2016, China was involved in the detention or deportation back to China of more than 851 Uyghurs across 23 countries. Since 2017, Beijing’s actions have expanded dramatically, resulting in at least 695 Uyghurs detained or deported to China from 15 separate countries.
To Jardine, the starkest example was in Egypt in 2017. Upon Beijing’s request, Egyptian police detained scores of Chinese students of the Uyghur ethnic minority. Some had to flee to Turkey, others were sent back to Beijing.
This particularly is a warning sign, Jardine said, because “even politically inactive Uyghurs have become a target of the Chinese state” with the onset of China's People's War on Terror.
Dependent on China
The report indicated that often, these major offenders are economically dependent on China. They tend to use Uyghurs living overseas as bargaining chips when negotiating with Beijing.
“The main motivations tend to be opportunism. The major offenders in the report tend to have very strong economic or security ties with China, cracking down on Uyghur minorities in exchange for investments, concessions or military hardware,” Jardine told VOA.
He added that the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 has given China significant leverage around the world as countries deepen their economic interaction with China.
Edward Lemon, president of The Oxus Society and one of the authors of the report, said that while countries worldwide have limited capacity to shape what is happening in Xinjiang, they have a greater ability to prevent the Chinese government from using transnational repression.
“Governments can refuse to extradite Uyghurs given that they will most likely be subject to torture and mistreatment, governments can increase refugee and emigration quotas to create safe havens for those fleeing atrocities in Xinjiang,” he told VOA via email. “They can also restrict networks of enablers, including tech companies that are used to surveil and harass Uyghurs, and diaspora groups and organizations acting as fronts for the Chinese government.”
Research estimated that more than 1 million Uyghurs are currently held in Xinjiang internment camps. Rights organization and former detainees refer to them as concentration camps, while Chinese officials maintain them as “vocational education centers established in accordance with the law in the face of frequent violence and terrorism in the past.”
At the latest press conference on Xinjiang-related issues hosted by Beijing, Elijan Anayat, the spokesperson of the People's Government of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, said that “some countries and international organizations in the U.S.A. and the West have taken fictionalized "stories" as evidence to make statements or take sanctions on the Xinjiang-related issues.”