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China’s Transnational Repression Leaves Uyghurs No Space to Run

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China’s Transnational Repression Leaves Uyghurs No Space to Run

Beijing’s peaceful rise has been paralleled by the increasing repression of Uyghurs on China’s behalf around the world.

China’s Transnational Repression Leaves Uyghurs No Space to Run
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

Over the last quarter-century, as China’s “peaceful rise” carried the country to new economic and geopolitical heights, Beijing was engaged in an ever-expanding campaign of transnational repression. From neighboring Pakistan and the states of Central Asia, to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, China has seen through the detention and, at times, deportation of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities fleeing Beijing’s grasp.

A new report and dataset put together by researchers Bradley Jardine, Edward Lemon, and Natalie Hall under a joint initiative by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project is an effort to comprehensively analyze the patterns of China’s transnational repression. 

“Between 1997 and December 2016, China was involved in the detention or deportation back to China of over 851 Uyghurs across 23 countries,” the report, titled “No Space Left to Run: China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs,” states. From 1997 to March 2021, the researchers identified 28 countries around the world which have been “complicit in China’s harassment and intimidation of Uyghurs.”

The dataset contains 1,151 cases of Uyghurs being detained in countries outside China and 395 cases of deportation, extradition, or rendition back to China. The researchers note that the dataset is just the “tip of the iceberg,” as it relies on publicly reported cases of repression.

China’s efforts have evolved over time, with the report identifying three distinct phases: from 1991 to 2007, 2008 to 2013, and 2014 to March 2021. 

The early phase (1991-2007), coming in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, includes cases concentrated largely in neighboring Central and South Asia. Central Asia was home to a large Uyghur diaspora and the peoples of the region share ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties. In the 1990s, as communities in the newly independent states formed organizations dedicated to Uyghur culture and rights, Beijing grew increasingly concerned of possible cross-border influence and separatism. According to the report, as early as 1994, “China began using economic statecraft … Chinese officials toured the region to promote trade deals in exchange for cooperation in silencing the Uyghur diaspora.” 

In Afghanistan and Pakistan in this early period, China courted the Taliban for its assistance too. In 1998, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, eliciting assurances that the group had no interest in interfering in China’s “domestic issues and affairs.” Although the Taliban would later rebuff U.S. requests to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in 2000 the Taliban turned over 13 Uyghurs it had previously granted “political asylum” to China.

In 1997, as Pakistan grew closer to its “all-weather” ally China, Islamabad deported 14 Uyghurs who had been studying at Pakistani madrassas. After they were driven across the border, they were executed. According to the report’s dataset, this is the first instance of extradition of Uyghurs to China at Beijing’s request. 

In that early phase, the researchers identified at least 89 Uyghurs from nine countries detained or deported to China. In the second phase (2008-2013), Beijing’s efforts and reach expanded to 130 detained or returned from 15 countries. 

The 2009 violence in Urumqi and ensuing crackdown triggered an exodus of Uyghurs, many trying to reach Turkey — then perceived as a safe haven — via Pakistan and Southeast Asia. Many ended up stuck in Southeast Asia, with Chinese economic relations again a convenient tool for leverage in countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Thailand is actually the largest source identified in the report, given a group of 424 Uyghurs who were detained in 2014. Thai authorities sent around 170 women and children on to Turkey but extradited 109 men to China and continue to detain the remainder. “The fact that Thailand has been the largest source of China’s transnational repression in terms of numbers is as much a factor of Thailand’s poor record regarding refugees as it is of Chinese influence in the country,” the researchers noted.

The third phase, from 2014 to the March 2021, marked an even sharper rise: a total of 1,327 detained or deported to China from 20 countries. As Chinese pressure and repression in Xinjiang reached new heights, its global efforts to pursue Uyghurs intensified too, abetted by the introduction of algorithmic surveillance, which aided authorities in determining if an individual might be an extremist based on foreign ties and other “suspicious” features. This latest phase saw the participation of Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Ironically, ties with or travel to a country like Saudi Arabia is deemed by Beijing as “suspicious,” yet Saudi authorities have had few qualms about backing China’s Xinjiang policies and in the past four years have deported at least six Uyghurs to China who were visiting Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage or living there legally.

The researchers stress in the report’s conclusion that transnational repression is but a part of the wider patterns of “global authoritarianism” in which “autocratic regimes like China actively cooperate with one another and repurpose institutions to protect themselves from accountability for human rights abuses.” This, in part, explains the paradoxical support of Muslim-majority authoritarian states for the repression of Muslims in China. Economics also forms an important tether. Of the top 10 countries where China used transnational repression against the Uyghurs, the report notes that China is the largest creditor in four (Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia and Myanmar). The Belt and Road Initiative, in both its political and economic aspects, undergirds China’s increasing reach.