After years of persecution by Chinese police, Uighur businessman Mehmet fled his home in northern Xinjiang for neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, only to be harassed by Kyrgyz police and threatened with deportation.
On his sixth arrest in July last year, a Kyrgyz security officer brought Mehmet to the basement of a security facility and showed him about 70 Uighur men detained there.
“It was an intimidation tactic,” said Mehmet, who did not want his real name to be published. “The officer told me that I was one of the people on a list provided by a visiting delegation from China. He gave him the exact number of people on the list to be arrested and sent back: 123.” Mehmet was released after paying a $5,000 bribe.
In an attempt to control Uighur diaspora communities, Beijing is extending its security apparatus from the western region of Xinjiang to its Central Asian neighbours, which in turn must balance their economic and political priorities with China. Seven countries involved in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — the $900bn plan to build infrastructure in 78 nations — border Xinjiang.
Since the annexation of Xinjiang in 1950, Beijing has had a troubled relationship with the Uighurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group that has made several shortlived bids for independence in the past century.
As China strengthens its security in Xinjiang, its attention has turned to the Uighur diaspora, estimated at 1m-1.6m. “[China] sees the Uighur population outgrowth as a danger to itself . . . and the diaspora has always been a lot stronger in Central Asia,” said Abigail Grace, a research associate at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think-tank.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation — a multilateral body based in Beijing comprising Russia, India, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics — has been instrumental in the effort to control the Uighur population, according to Ms Grace. Since it was set up in 2001, the SCO has enforced counter-terrorism initiatives, “specifically China’s brand of counter-terrorism”.
“What undergirded the organisation’s relationship was a fixation on China seeking opportunities to ensure that Central Asia states were enlisted in its own goals in controlling Uighur activity,” she added.
The SCO’s first convention in 2001 closely mirrors China’s “three evils” security doctrine for Xinjiang: combating extremism, terrorism and separatism. Additions to the anti-terror convention passed by the SCO in 2009 allowed suspects to be transferred between SCO member states and for members to send their agents to other SCO states to conduct investigations.
“People believe Chinese police in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are arresting Uighur people because many disappeared suddenly and no one knows their whereabouts,” said Abdurahman Hasan, a businessman who left China for Saudi Arabia in 2013.
After being sent a photograph of his friend — a Uighur businessman who vanished from Bishkek’s Madina bazaar only to resurface at an internment centre — Mr Hasan is now afraid to go out alone in Turkey, where he now lives. “Because he is very rich and helps the poor, he had influence in Kyrgyzstan and [China] was afraid he would organise or help Uighur human rights activists in Central Asia,” said Mr Hasan, referring to his friend.
The Madina bazaar, the largest in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, once boasted thousands of Uighur businesses that imported cheap Chinese-made goods. “Over the last three years, many shops closed. Every time I went to the city bazaar, the conversation was about the many instances of arrests and deportations,” said Mehmet, the businessman.
The foreign ministry in Bishkek did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, those fleeing China have found there is a dwindling number of destinations out of Beijing’s reach. “Since the crackdown began intensifying, the relationship between Turkey and China is getting warmer. Uighurs here feel increasingly unsafe,” said Tursun, who fled to Turkey in 2016, and who declined to give his real name.
Chinese security officials managed to find Tursun’s personal phone number, calling him twice last year to persuade him to return to China.
“In veiled threats, [the officer] said we can monitor you 24 hours a day, so do not think that you can get away with illegal activities in Turkey,” he said. Rattled by the disappearance of a childhood friend in Bishkek last May and by the calls, he said he wanted to leave Turkey.
Such spying is not limited to Uighurs. In April, Sweden arrested a Chinese Tibetan man for allegedly spying on other Tibetans living in Sweden. But Uighurs said such spying was rampant in their circles given the mix of coercion and threats Chinese security officials used on family members who remained in China.
“These efforts to get you to spy for them is commonplace,” said Alip, a Uighur academic who once studied in Malaysia who declined to give his full name. In 2011, he was offered “a very tall stack” of renminbi after being detained for a week of questioning, in exchange for spying on fellow students in Malaysia. He refused. “State security officials usually try to be very polite, with gifts. But sometimes subtle threats are involved.”
Henry Foy contributed additional reporting from Moscow
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