In pursuit of its security ideals, China aims to track down every single Uyghur throughout the world, a new study reveals.
Beijing has devised a transnational system of surveillance, extradition and detention that is “pervasive, tenacious and often illegal,” according to research published by the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.
The study by Kissinger Institute global fellow Bradley Jardine, titled “Great Wall of Steel: China’s Global Campaign to Suppress the Uyghurs,” reported 5,532 cases of intimidation of Uyghurs outside China, 1,150 cases of Uyghurs detained in their host country and 424 cases of Uyghurs deported or extradited to China. According to Jardine, who compiled his data from reported media cases, the over-7,000 cases is potentially “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Such cases date back to 1997, when Beijing began to engage in transnational repression in 44 countries, and run until January 2022.
Jardine noted that this period of repression can be divided into three stages.
The first stage, which took place between 1997 and 2007, saw security services in South and Central Asia deport or detain 84 Uyghurs across nine countries. The second stage (2008-2013) targeted 126 Uyghurs in 13 countries mainly in Southeast Asia. Lastly, the third stage (2014-January 2022) had 1,364 Uyghurs detained, extradited or rendered from 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
“China’s campaign against the Uyghurs has been evolving for quite some time,” Jardine told RFE/RL. “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.”
The crackdown received a new wave of criticism in 2017 after the Communist Party established “re-education centers” in Xinjiang, home to millions of Uyghurs, to purge “extremism.” Since then, countless allegations of abuse, torture and other crimes against humanity have been reported by foreign and independent bodies.
In its final days, the Trump administration declared that China committed genocide against the Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang. The Biden administration has upheld this determination in a recent human rights report.
Despite increases in global pressure — the latest being diplomatic boycotts against the Beijing Winter Olympics — the repression is only predicted to grow. This is attributed to the complex methods the Chinese government employs to execute its goal, including cyberattacks, asset freezes, passport control, coercion-by-proxy, consular surveillance, spying through informants, smear campaigns, use of partner security services, and abuse of Interpol and extradition treaties, according to the study.
Cyberattacks and other forms of online harassment are notably increasing at present. The research found that Uyghurs residing in democratic countries are especially targeted by such methods.
The study also noted other trends, including the decrease of refugee escape routes in Xinjiang, the evolution of less severe forms of repression to harsher methods, and the exploitation of foreign partnerships to actualize physical acts of repression such as detainment and extradition.
Saudi Arabia, which China deems “suspicious” for Uyghurs to travel to, has increasingly cooperated with Beijing. In the last four years, the country deported at least six Uyghurs, according to the study.
“This is complete callousness [on the part of Saudi Arabia] knowing what will happen to these Uyghurs when they get to China,” anthropologist Adrian Zenz, who studies Beijing’s systematic repression of Uyghurs — and whose work was cited in Jardine’s research — told NBC News. “The Chinese government wants to cleanse Uyghurs worldwide so that there are no pockets of Uyghurness outside of China’s borders that are not in line with Beijing’s narrative.”
Jardine offers several recommendations for the U.S. and other democratic countries to improve their actions amid the ongoing persecution. These include strengthening refugee resettlement programs, requiring reports on the repression from legislative bodies, establishing channels for Uyghurs to report intimidation and harassment and restricting the export of surveillance technologies.
“As China’s economy continues to grow, more countries will be locked into relations of dependence, increasing Beijing’s capacity to pursue dissidents within their borders,” Jardine wrote. “Unchecked, the CCP’s transnational repression is likely to expand in both scale and scope.”