Measuring the Scale of Chinese Transnational Repression

A group of researchers recently compiled as much information as they could on Chinese efforts to render Uyghurs back to China — they’ve only exposed the tip of the iceberg.

Chinese repression in the last quarter-century has gone global. In a new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs — “No Space Left to Run: China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs” — Bradley Jardine, Edward Lemon, and Natalie Hall catalogue Beijing’s efforts to see Uyghurs detained abroad and deported back to Chinese custody. From 1997 to March 2021, they found 1,546 cases of the detention and deportation of Uyghurs across 28 countries at the behest of Chinese authorities.

Speaking with The Diplomat, one of the report’s authors, Natalie Hall, explained the extent of Chinese transnational repression and Beijing’s abuse of both domestic and international justice systems. Hall, a research assistant at the Oxus Society, also puts Chinese efforts into the context of “global authoritarianism.”

The data set covers 1,546 cases of detention and deportation between 1997 and March 2021, and the report characterizes this as “merely the tip of the iceberg of China’s transnational repression.” What are some of the reasons it is difficult to measure the full scale of this issue?

It is difficult to measure the full scale of Chinese transnational repression based on the fact that these cases often go under or unreported altogether. States often work to keep these detentions and renditions secret, which leads us, as researchers, to wonder how many cases have been successfully kept secret? How many individuals have disappeared without a trace?

We have been able to learn as much as we have because of the tireless work of local journalists and NGOs who have sought to bring these stories to light – tracking down names, biographical details, and in some cases outcomes of Uyghurs who have been rendered back to Xinjiang and imprisoned. But much work still needs to be done.

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In seeking to have Uyghurs returned to Chinese custody, Beijing often takes advantage of domestic and international legal systems. How could countries prevent this perversion of justice?

First, by treating China’s claims that Uyghurs are terrorists with skepticism, and officially recognizing that Uyghurs are at-risk. Official government recognition that Uyghurs are an at-risk group could influence the outcome of court rulings that would otherwise result in detention and deportation.

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Second, democratic states could create caucuses within international organizations and work together to protect their integrity from actors who would use them as tools of transnational repression.

Third, democratic states could seek to counterbalance China’s outsized economic influence in many of these countries. As long as China remains the dominant economic partner for many of the countries we see facilitating this transnational repression, it is more likely these governments will continue to detain, deport, and render Uyghurs.

How has technology influenced the growth of transnational repression?

Technology has facilitated the proliferation and reach of transnational repression worldwide. Technology and social media have allowed the Chinese government to harass, track, and intimidate Uyghurs living abroad, making it nearly impossible for Uyghurs who have otherwise escaped China’s orbit to be entirely free.

Bradley Jardine and I are working on a forthcoming report that focuses on stage 1 cases – or cases of intimidation and harassment abroad – and addresses the question of technology and transnational repression specifically and in greater detail.

China is not the first to engage in transnational repression, nor is it the only country to pursue individuals into third countries. Do you think other states are learning from Beijing’s efforts?

While it’s likely that other countries are learning from Beijing’s efforts, Beijing wasn’t the first country to engage in transnational repression. Authoritarian regimes worldwide have long sought to control their diaspora communities living abroad. However, other countries have already started to learn from and adopt China’s tool-kit for transnational repression, which couples unparalleled efforts to intimidate and harass diaspora communities abroad with detentions and in some cases renditions of members of those communities back to Xinjiang. China has honed this toolkit and as other states watch and participate in its transnational repression, they learn. We have seen an example of this in Egypt, where Chinese secret police worked closely alongside their Egyptian counterparts to locate and detain Uyghurs during the July 2017 arrests and deportations. Further, China’s security services and national guard groups are training their counterparts in regions such as Central Asia – regional governments are explicitly learning from Beijing’s efforts.

What is “global authoritarianism” and how does China’s transnational repression relate to that larger trend?

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“Global authoritarianism” is when autocratic regimes seek to cooperate with one another and appropriate or re-purpose international institutions to protect themselves from the consequences of their actions. This type of authoritarianism is meant to act as a counterweight to the Western-led, liberal, democratic values and institutions that were assumed to be commonplace in the post-Cold War world. Recently, more attention has been drawn to the transnational components of this authoritarianism, including transnational repression and corruption, which reach far beyond national borders and ideological spheres. China’s transnational repression is an example of this global authoritarianism as China seeks to bend countries, international laws and norms, and international institutions to its will in pursuit of Uyghurs living abroad that it seeks to persecute.

In conducting the research for this report, what surprised you the most?

I think the scale and scope of China’s transnational repression surprised me. I did not anticipate that our data would ultimately encompass 28 countries, and that we would find as many cases as we have. I have also been surprised at how brazen China’s transnational repression has encouraged other states to be, both in detaining and rendering Uyghurs. For example, Egypt detained more than 200 students over the course of a few days in 2017 – a sizable portion of the community living in Cairo. In another case, Uyghurs were detained in Turkey, given forged Tajik documents and forcibly rendered to Tajikistan, where they were then rendered back to Xinjiang. China has encouraged these actions both directly and indirectly, and I was surprised at how many of these governments responded to this Chinese pressure, and did so obviously, with very few qualms.