How do benefits from China push Arab states to help facilitate transnational repression of Uyghurs?

William Yang
8 min readApr 15, 2022

In recent years, there have been several cases of Uyghurs arrested by Muslim countries and facing the threat of deportation back to China. Uyghur Human Rights Project documented this trend in a report released in March. In it, Bradley Jardine, the report’s co-author, highlighted five methods that the Chinese government uses to target overseas Uyghurs.

DW: In the report, you highlighted five main ways that China has been trying to use to coerce and pressure overseas Uyghurs while making sure that the Muslim countries are collaborating with them to help deport Uyghurs in those countries. What would you say are the most effective methods that China was using?

Bradley Jardine: The most effective method has still been coercion by proxy. In most cases, not only in Arab states but also in other regions that we’ve been focusing on, it’s always the intimidation of family members who are in Xinjiang that is applying pressure to any activists who happen to be residing overseas. That’s the most commonly used method.

Additionally, the mass incarceration of Uyghurs has made a very unique situation where although other states adopt transnational repression, it’s simply not on the scale that China is able to exert because of its detention campaign.

DW: The outside world has been wondering about why the Muslim states are willing to stand on China’s side regarding the Uyghur issues even though a lot of Uyghurs are Muslims and many Muslim states are viewed by Uyghurs as safe haven when they try to flee China?

Bradley Jardine: It’s been surprising for a lot of people with the silence of the broader Muslim world, and of course, the interest of the Muslim world varies. Among the Arab states, there are three real incentives for cooperation with China. The first level you have is economic relations since China is a major economic and political player in the region, particularly after the launch of the Belt and Road initiative in 2013.

Within the Arab world, you really see Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia become key trading partners and oil providers to China. In the political dimension, with diplomatic support, China really promotes a sense of non-interference in internal affairs.

This is seen as something that provides a shield for domestic practices. Getting political support from China has been beneficial for regime stability. Correlate to that, it’s the security cooperation. Security agreements with China, provision of security equipment, training or security services, policing tactics and even the presence of Chinese military infrastructure in the region are increasing.

DW: Some of these Muslim countries are also the few countries around the world that have signed extradition agreements with China. Is that also one of the factors for them to help deport Uyghurs to China?

Bradley Jardine: That’s been a major factor. You can actually look at the case Yidiresi Aishan, which is very illustrative of this. He is the Uyghur activist who left Turkey and when he was flying into Morocco, he was detained.

Firstly, he was flagged because of the issue of an Interpol red notice. Interpol eventually decided to remove the red notice, and it went down to the local administrative court level, where the extradition treaty is cited as the main reason for his potential deportation.

DW: One of the methods highlighted in the report is using pilgrimage as a tool of control. This is the situation in the most recent case in Saudi Arabia. Why is China able to use the pilgrimage as a tool of control over Uyghurs?

Bradley Jardine: The Hajj pilgrimage has become an important mechanism for China. Of course, it has a massive impact on religious practice and with the majority of Uyghurs being Muslim, they undertake the Hajj at least once in their lifetime.

What’s been happening is that Uyghurs who have participated in the Hajj from third countries like Turkey, by co-opting Saudi Arabia’s support, China has been able to detain Uyghurs that they haven’t been able to detain directly.

There are other incidents of family members of Uyghur activists who are in safer jurisdictions, like Norway, would be taken on Hajj reportedly and security officers would force the family members to make calls to have their family members meet them in Saudi Arabia to take part in the Hajj. This has become a mechanism for indirectly detaining and rendering Uyghurs who would otherwise be difficult to detain.

DW: Another worrying trend is the Chinese government’s ability to weaponize passports. In the report, you point out that many overseas Uyghurs still hold Chinese documents when they are living in other countries. When their documents expire, they become vulnerable to being deported. How serious has this trend become more and more the Chinese government’s focus on forcing overseas Uyghurs to return to China?

Bradley Jardine: Alongside the coercion by proxy, the weaponization of passports is definitely the most widespread mechanism for transnational repression and it’s a huge issue. Statelessness impacts day-to-day living in the jurisdictions in which they reside, as they can’t work and travel or meet up with their families.

It also makes them vulnerable to extradition. That vulnerability has been something that China has been exploiting particularly post-2017, with the onset of the mass-incarceration program. That’s really led to this escalation of this mechanism. It’s also the same for Saudi Arabia as there have been a number of Uyghurs whose passports have expired.

The Chinese state issues a one-way travel permit that allows them to return to China where they could renew their documents. As our report shows, we have identified a number of cases where the same individuals end up in detention centers.

DW: There are a lot of uncertainties for Uyghurs who are facing deportation back to China. What could be the fate that would be waiting for them in China?

Bradley Jardine: The dangers to the Uyghurs who are deported can’t be underestimated. For example, two students who were in Egypt voluntarily returned to Xinjiang in 2017 to have their passports renewed. They were later found dead in Chinese police custody. This was widely reported. That’s the more extreme case.

The more likely case is they will end up in the Xinjiang re-education centers, where many of them would have appeared in forced labor factories. Others have just appeared in the traditional prison system. These are real threats that they face. As recent cases have shown, this could include torture, and the widespread use of tiger chairs within the re-education centers.

As we know from the Integrated Joint operation system, Uyghurs who are detained for overseas connections, especially to the 26 Muslim majority countries, are perceived as particularly threatening to the Xinjiang police. This makes them particularly vulnerable to torture.

DW: With the trend of Uyghurs being arrested and possibly deported back to China in Muslim countries, are there effective ways to inform the Uyghur community about the increased level of risks that they might face in Muslim countries?

Bradley Jardine: I think the problem is a lack of support or lack of robust refugee quotas that will allow Uyghurs to relocate to democratic countries. From my conversation and interviews with the Uyghur diaspora, they are well aware of the risks which they are under.

I spoke to numerous people who have fled Dubai, citing fear of intimidation by security services. Most of them end up in Turkey, as there is a large diaspora community and it’s easier for them to integrate into society. Even there, there are large risks and many prominent activists have left Turkey. There is the fear of the incoming extradition treaty which hasn’t been ratified by the Turkish parliament but remains a looming threat for prominent activists.

DW: Are there any incentives for western countries to increase the refugee quota for Uyghur refugees or even set up a separate law for protecting Uyghur refugees?

Bradley Jardine: There is certainly an incentive for them to do so to put more pressure on China for its policies and human rights abuse in Xinjiang toward the Uyghurs. It will certainly provide a lot of help, to begin with. In addition to that, it would also help advance the cause of Uyghurs, especially by granting safe haven to activists who can come to the west and can be trained in leadership schemes or programs that could help them become voices.

Many of them in the United States already have become prominent voices advocating for policy change or for holding China to account for its humanitarian abuses. There are clear incentives for the promotion of rule of law and the promotion of human rights for providing safe haven to Uyghrus.

DW: Are there ways the international community can do better for the Arab states to understand the stake that the Uyghurs will face once they are deported back to China and try to stop them from continuing the cooperation with China?

Bradley Jardine: I think it’s definitely going to be difficult. China’s presence in the region is increasing, but the US remains the dominant actor in the region and has huge leverage across the Middle East. With the decline of Russia brought on by the invasion of Ukraine, that’s another major power that’s now slowly exiting the region.

That long-term trajectory is only going to strengthen the US in the short term and eventually China in the longer term. I don’t think western influence over the Arab states should be underestimated. At the same time, at the top level, the government security services, which are fixated on regime stability, are the ones who are cooperating with China. I think the wider society may be unaware of this cooperation or of this issue in general.

With top-down control of media, China really builds inroads with states that it can build relations with its government actors directly without having to build diplomacy in the early stage. Across the Middle East, a lot more work can be done to promote the Uyghur issue and to educate the wider society about what’s going on, particularly looking at Egypt, where there was mass detention of Uyghur students in 2017.

This is something very sensitive and it would get a lot of public backlashes if it had been more widely signaled. Based on a short analysis we conducted on Arabic media sources, we found very little coverage of the incident. I think much of wider society is less aware of this issue.

This interview was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.



William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.