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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”