Two Washington-based advocacy groups have documented what they say is a major expansion of Chinese surveillance, intimidation and harassment of members of the Uyghur Muslim minority living outside China in democratic societies.
In a joint report released Wednesday, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs said the Chinese government’s assault on the rights of Uyghurs living in the democratic world expanded dramatically in 2017 and has continued since.
UHRP says on its website it is dedicated to promoting the rights of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim peoples in China’s western Xinjiang region through research-based advocacy. The Oxus Society describes itself as dedicated to fostering academic exchange between Central Asia and the rest of the world.
According to the report “‘Your Family Will Suffer’: How China Is Hacking, Surveilling, and Intimidating Uyghurs in Liberal Democracies,” China’s authoritarianism extends far outside its borders while “the party-state co-opts other countries and their corporations into its campaign of violence and intimidation against Uyghurs.”
The report says China has been trying to coerce and control Uyghurs living abroad since 2002.
As a result, the report said, “members of the Uyghur diaspora have experienced the long reach of China’s authoritarian state in the form of relentless harassment, intimidation, and coercion.”
For example, according to the report, in a survey of 72 members of Uyghur diaspora communities in the United States, Australia, Europe and Japan, nearly 74% reported experiencing “digital risks, threats, or forms of surveillance.”
According to Politico, Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in a written response that the UHRP report allegations were “not worth refuting (and) completely groundless.”
Both the United States and the European Union accuse Beijing of human rights abuses against Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. More than 1 million people were being detained in internment camps in 2018, a United Nations human rights committee found.
Beijing has denied the accusations, saying that the rights of Uyghurs are protected under Chinese law and that those complexes are not internment camps but “vocational training schools” where Uyghurs learn new skills.
According to Bradley Jardine, director of research at The Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, the latest report on China’s reach abroad draws from an expansive dataset of 5,530 reported instances of transnational repression against members of the Uyghur diaspora residing in democratic countries.
“Unlike previous reports in this series, which focused on detentions and renditions in countries with close security ties to China, namely, Pakistan, the Central Asian republics and the countries of the Middle East,” Jardine told VOA, “(t)his report explores the ways in which China infiltrates liberal democracies to exert pressure on activists.”
According to the report, Beijing’s methods are growing in technological sophistication, with hacking groups creating fake Uyghur language news sites and apps to embed malware on computers.
“They have even been using Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants’ platforms to disseminate this malware,” Jardine said.
The report builds on the findings of 2017 and 2019 reports, highlighting the harassment of diaspora Uyghurs.
“The scale of China’s transnational repression of Uyghurs is breathtaking. From the rendition of individuals to the everyday online threats, there is no peace for Uyghurs living overseas,” said Omer Kanat, UHRP executive director, on the UHRP website.
UHRP and the Oxus Society urge the private sector, governments and intergovernmental groups to better protect Uyghurs overseas from China’s threat.
“Refugee resettlement agencies and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) can start to train Uyghurs on digital hygiene and security best practices,” Natalie Hall, an Oxus Society researcher, told VOA. “However, this leaves Uyghurs entirely responsible for their own protection, so there are more things that other actors can do.”
Hall said tech companies have a responsibility to monitor content on their digital platforms.
“This report, which examines Uyghur cybersecurity in aggregate across platforms over the last 19 years, helps make it clear what gaps still remain in their security measures and what they can be doing better and doing differently to help protect vulnerable communities from attack,” Hall told VOA.
Hall suggested the U.S. should start to engage its partners on these issues.
“Biden has already started to speak about transnational repression more often — an important first step — but further engagement on the subject, including digital rights as well as democratic digital governance, is needed,” she said.