Book: Great Wall of Steel: China’s Global Campaign to Suppress the Uyghurs

Read the full monograph here.

The People’s Republic of China has engaged in transnational repression in 44 countries since 1997. From then until January 2022, there were 1,574 publicly reported cases of detentions and refoulments of Uyghurs to China, where they faced imprisonment and torture in police custody. 

While the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) account for the highest degree of repression at 689 registered incidents, South Asia has been catching up with 668 cases of transnational repression. 

The China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs Dataset developed in partnership with the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, contains 5,532 cases of Uyghurs facing intimidation, 1,150 cases of Uyghurs detained in their host country and 424 cases of Uyghurs deported, extradited, or rendered back to China. The 523 most detailed cases recorded in the full dataset, includes 108 deportations, 89 incidents of Uyghurs being coerced to return to the XUAR, 11 renditions, and 9 extraditions. Evidence indicates that the scale is likely much more extensive than is officially reported.

China’s campaign of transnational repression has evolved over three distinct stages. During the first stage (1997-2007), local security services in South and Central Asia either deported or detained 84 Uyghurs across nine countries; in the second phase (2008-2013), security services targeted 126 individuals across 13 countries, primarily in Southeast Asia; and in the ongoing third phase (2014-present), 1,364 Uyghurs have been detained, extradited, or rendered from 18 countries concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa. These phases abroad correlate with events within the XUAR and to growing international focus on the policies China pursues there.

In addition to physical repression, China’s transnational tactics include digital threats, phishing attacks, malware, and coercion via threats to relatives in the XUAR. Mr. Jardine has recorded 5,532 additional cases of China’s government targeting Uyghurs abroad using intimidation and harassment to monitor and silence them.

The study reveals the following trends: 

  • China’s transnational repression is a growing phenomenon. There is a uniformity to China’s repressive practices in multiple cultural contexts, with more incidents against Uyghurs living overseas than is typically understood. China’s government employs a broad range of techniques, including asset freezes; passport controls; cyberattacks and malware; intimidation and surveillance from its embassies and consulates; pressure on families and coercion-by-proxy; spying through informants; smear campaigns; abuse of Interpol; abuse of extradition treaties; and use of partner security services to detain Uyghurs wherever they reside. 

The web of institutions and frameworks used to enact these policies includes Interpol; bilateral extradition treaties; the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; the United Front Work Department; the Ministry of Public Security; the Ministry of State Security; the Political and Legal Affairs Commission; the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau; and China’s consulates and embassies overseas. 

  • Over time, refugee escape routes from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have become increasingly limited. In the wake of the Baren (1990) and Ghulja (1997) incidents, refugees escaped the Uyghur region through Central Asia. As the newly independent Central Asian republics became part of China’s SCO security bloc, Uyghurs began to look for new places to settle. By 2009, in the aftermath of unrest in Ürümchi, Uyghurs sought to flee via South Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan) and Southeast Asia, hoping to ultimately settle in Turkey. These states gradually became co-opted as well, forcing Uyghurs to seek ever more inventive ways to escape China’s Party-state. In 2017, the final route available for Uyghurs to flee to Turkey and further into the West began to close: Uyghurs in the MENA were no longer safe as China made economic agreements with regional governments that often included extradition clauses. 
  • Modern communications technology is rapidly increasing instances of China’s transnational repression against Uyghurs. Cyberattacks and other forms of online harassment are an increasingly common means of targeting and surveilling members of the Uyghur diaspora, particularly those residing in democratic countries. In addition, China’s tech companies are expanding their activities in strategic regions such as Central and South Asia and the MENA region, putting Uyghurs at risk of transnational surveillance. Under “smart cities” programs, companies engaged in racial profiling of Uyghurs in the XUAR are now integrating Eurasian capitals within China’s “Digital Silk Road” project. Planned surveillance programs include security systems in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
  • Less severe forms of transnational repression are often a precursor to harsher methods. Online harassment, threats to family, manipulation of passport systems, hajj restrictions, and the use of spyware grab fewer headlines than deportations or abuse of Interpol Red Notices. However, each of these practices works to marginalize Uyghurs in the societies where they reside, leaving them vulnerable to more coercive forms of repression. The international community needs to work to counteract not only the refoulement and extralegal detention of refugees, but the intimidation, threats, and enforced statelessness that pave the way to these practices. 
  • The majority of physical acts of transnational repression conducted by China are done through partnerships with foreign security services. The most common form of physical transnational repression involves exploiting domestic and international institutions to detain or deport Uyghurs unlawfully at China’s request. Transnational repression thus undermines the rule of law in countries that have Uyghur populations and, in some instances, sees China’s legal understanding of citizenship overriding that of these states. Moreover, China’s actions entail a degree of sovereignty erosion, with evidence of Chinese intelligence using Dubai as a base of operations, MSS officers present in Egyptian prison facilities and college campuses, and a growing security presence on Tajikistan’s territory.