Beyond Silence: Collaboration Between Arab States and China in the Transnational Repression of Uyghurs

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This report, which was produced in collaboration with the Uyghur Human Rights Project, assesses China’s efforts to target Uyghurs in a region they once considered safe: the Arab world. China’s transnational repression of Uyghurs in this region has been growing in scale and scope as the country’s relations with Arab states have strengthened. According to our dataset, an upper estimate of 292 Uyghurs has been detained or deported from Arab states at China’s behest since 2001. In a stunning example from July 2017, Egyptian police broke into apartments, scoured airports, and raided restaurants and mosques. They were not looking for Egyptian political dissidents but were hunting for Uyghurs on behalf of China’s Party-state. More than 200 Uyghurs, mostly students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, were rounded up. At least 45 of them were rendered or deported to China; some of the 45 have not been heard from again. Interview data suggests that Chinese police were present in Egypt during interrogations, showing Beijing’s increasing willingness to intervene in the internal affairs of partner countries.

We have arrived at our upper estimate of 292 Uyghurs detained or deported from Arab states since 2001 in part through data from the China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs Dataset, a joint initiative by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project. We have gathered and analyzed cases of China’s transnational repression of Uyghurs in Arab states using original interviews with Uyghurs who have fled the region, reports by experts and witnesses, and public sources in English and Arabic, including government documents, human rights reports, and reporting by credible news agencies. What follows is a comprehensive analysis of how China’s repression of Uyghurs has taken hold in Arab states and developed over the past twenty years. At least six Arab states—Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—have participated in a campaign of transnational repression spearheaded by China that has reached 28 countries worldwide.

China’s Party-state uses five primary mechanisms of transnational repression to target Uyghurs in Arab states: 1) transnational digital surveillance, which enables them to track and closely monitor Uyghurs living outside their homeland; 2) Global War on Terror narratives, which serve as justification for the detention or rendering of Uyghurs to China; 3) institutions of Islamic education where Uyghur students enroll, which the Party-state targets for crackdowns; 4) the Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia, which they use to surveil or detain Uyghur pilgrims (a trend accelerating with the increasing involvement of Chinese tech companies in Hajj digital services); and 5) denial of travel documents to Uyghurs in Arab states, rendering them stateless and vulnerable to deportation to the PRC.

To counteract China’s repression of Uyghurs in Arab states, we make a number of targeted policy recommendations to national, multilateral, and grassroots actors, including the following:

  • The United States must tie security assistance to Arab states with noncompliance in Chinese transnational
    repression. Clandestine cooperation between Chinese and Arab-state security services in human rights violations is contrary to U.S. security interests in the region.
  • The international community must make new safe havens and resettle Uyghur refugees as traditional refuges for Uyghurs become scarce.
  • Arab governments must utilize international support through Islamic organizations and multilateral organizations to approach the issue as a coalition and halt Chinese transnational repression in the region.
  • University officials must intervene by using influence with their governments to find missing Uyghur students and graduates, and protect remaining Uyghur students from undue interference in their safety and education.