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China's hunters

and their merciless campaign to find and bring back Uyghur dissidents around the world

by Ruth Ingram

03 March, 2022

Beijing continues its tirade against Uyghur and Turkic peoples through its systematic campaign of genocide. Yet its tentacles have since extended abroad, where those who have successfully fled persecution now face extradition back to China.

Uyghur and Turkic exiles are increasingly in the crosshairs of Beijing's sordid underworld of espionage, assassination and kidnap, which energetically rounds them up for a return to the fold.

A new probe investigating CCP methods in hounding its most "wanted" citizens across 120 nations, makes chilling reading with accounts of the lengths the superpower will go to trawl "fugitives" homes and the efforts made to engage "friendly" nations in the endeavour.

Among them are growing numbers of Uyghurs whose activism and outspoken criticism of the genocide are now being meted out against their people, Beijing is determined to quell.

Quoting Shanghai police officer Li Gongjing, "A fugitive is like a kite. Even though he is abroad, the string is held in China. He can always be found through his family."

Safeguard Defenders' (SD) latest analysis Involuntary Returns scrutinises the murky web of spies, informers and sleeping agents scattered or dispatched around the world, ready to cooperate with Beijing in the forcible return of thousands, wanted on charges of corruption, but latterly, increasingly for their activism.

Safeguard Defenders' own report confirms Freedom House's conclusion last year that, “China conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world," but goes further.

Where previous reports on China’s forced rendition have focused on individual cases the SD probe has attempted to plumb the depths of PRC state machinery involving countless dedicated agencies within China established to rein in "miscreants" and activists.

Whereas Beijing's Operation Sky Net, set up initially as "Operation Fox Hunt" in 2014, was launched to hunt down economic and state criminals fleeing Xi Jinping's anti-graft drive, many of the cases identified by Safeguard Defenders are of a very different kind.

Targeting dissidents and human rights defenders, the state is increasingly zeroing in on "terrorists”, “splittists” and trouble makers bent on destabilising the superpower.

The network, frustrated by an international community reluctant to play ball over extradition treaties, continues to spread its wings to this day, specialising, alarmingly, according to SD in "irregular or unconventional methods".

Beijing trumpets its successes in recouping wayward Han, 10,000 at the last count, but they are silent on captured Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Project has investigated to date 395 cases of targeted Uyghurs, although their data likely scratches only the surface, claims the report.

Bespoke legislation devised to legitimise its methods and operate under legal radar, includes its own quasi-legal interpretation and justification of kidnapping and cuts across the judicial sovereignty of target countries.

"These are clear violations of international rules, and customary State-to-State behaviour," claims the report, which spotlights a variety of techniques used to "persuade" the hunted to return to face the music. Mired in vague and expansive definitions of the so-called "crimes", there are almost no limitations to the acts that can be considered endangering, or attempting to endanger national security. There is certainly no accountability or legal redress for the captured.

Face-to-face meetings with exiles by so-called "hunters" from the homeland sent overseas to "pursue their prey" are deemed most successful. Agents turn up on doorsteps unannounced, sometimes with an elderly relative in tow smuggled out of the homeland for the purpose of blackmailing, cajoling or to inveigle the fugitive to "do the right thing."

Other tried and tested methods intimidate families at home to convince them to return.

Relatives are mercilessly surveilled and pursued, their assets are frozen and their jobs are mysteriously terminated. Their children are rounded up and detained, kept hostage until the wanderer returns or are removed into state care.

Sudden appearances on their WeChat feed (China's social media platform) of "nice guy," "nasty guy" community police back home, often co-opting relatives, who might have been silent for years, are brought in to yell (heavily scripted) abuse and demand the distressed victim return to face the music.

Ailing parents might appear, distressed and plead with them to return to care for them in their old age. Uyghur academic Abduweli Ayup tells the tragic story of his niece who was tricked into returning from a promising career in Japan, only to face summary detention on her return and death within a year. Chinese Central Television (CCTV) goes to great lengths to humiliate and vilify Uyghurs who testify against the state and relatives are coached for hours on how to inflict maximum insult and fear in the listeners.

The SD deep dive into Beijing's hunt for dissidents and fugitives around the world has uncovered a merciless, intentional and relentless campaign to find them wherever they are and rein them back. Where legitimate methods using legal extradition flounder, the state machinery is detailed to do its worst.

According to the SD report, the current deputy director of the Research Centre for Government Integrity-Building at Beijing University, Zhuang Deshui has been reported as saying, “when a gate is not open, we can try the window, and if windows are not open, we can try digging holes," openly advocating returning exiles by "persuasion, illegal immigration and other judicial cooperation."

One such "hole digging" exercise has been exposed in Dubai which according to Sky News is in cahoots with Beijing to hold Uyghurs and other wanted exiles in a network of so-called "black sites" for rendition to the homeland.

Uyghurs are lured assuming protection from the Islamic Emirate but are immediately abducted and disappear. Cambodia and Tajikistan, vulnerable to China's pressure have also been part of the "hole digging" plots, and are complicit in third nation transfers.

The operating machinery is immense and costly involving special agents, and an impressive array of CCP organs, including China's State Bank, the Supreme Court, the State Procurator and other state and security apparatus. They have all signed up to the latest and the newly inaugurated, CCP-controlled National Supervision Commission, devised to ensure that the whole operation is conducted sub judicially. In an attempt to legitimise its activities, Interpol's Red Notice scheme has been roped into the web, but CCP's abuse of the system to bridle its enemies has long been suspected.

Germany-based Uyghur exile, Dolkun Isa, Chairman of the World Uyghur Congress, was the subject of a Red Notice in 1997 issued on the grounds of terrorism. Narrowly escaping deportation back to China where he faced torture and possible death, the order was rescinded only in 2018, eventually citing lack of evidence. Uyghur, Idris Hasan, fleeing to Morocco from Turkey recently, was arrested in Casablanca following a spurious Red Notice on the orders of China, and despite its nullification and an appeal, still awaits deportation.

For all Uyghurs and Turkic exiles whose daily reality involves constantly looking over their shoulders, waiting for the phone to ring, a knock on the door or even wondering whether their closest friends in the diaspora are spying on them, the enduring question is why Beijing goes to so much trouble to hound them?

According to the report, Xi Jinping's relentless pursuit and persecution of all perceived sources of the opposition have tarnished his image abroad. His tireless assaults on underground churches, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, Mongolians, Uyghurs, academia and the media, not to mention the sweeping crackdown in Hong Kong have been flagged up by advocates and governments increasingly suspicious of Xi's long term objectives.

As exiled activists raise the profile of those suffering at home, Safeguard defenders suspect that Beijing, sensitive to this change, is becoming more suspicious that the West will use members of the overseas community against them, and the rule of the Party will be undermined.

Since the rise of Xi Jinping within China, and increasingly in the global arena, the role and dominance of the Communist Party has reclaimed centre stage. The driving force behind this campaign is a life and death struggle for the Party, infers the report, citing a former Ministry of Social Security (MSS) agent who defected, stating that Xi's greatest consideration was the Party over the country. The authors quoted him as saying that the MSS’ most important mission is “to control the Chinese people to maintain the rule of the Communist Party”.

Xi Jinping, despite his growing impunity and disdain for Western democracy, seems to be toying with the ambition of not only being part of the global community but possibly one day calling the shots.

His ambivalence towards a Western-leaning rules-based legal, social and economic order indicates a growing power struggle in ideology between a historically dominant US-led and an ascendant China-lead world view, where "ideological prejudice" should no longer be a barrier to trade. Whereas the American worldview aspires to offer protection to the underdog on the basis of commonly understood definitions of human rights and the rule of law, Beijing enters with a new set of goalposts.

China expects help from the international community in repatriating criminals to face justice, but at the same time assumes it can continue to blatantly flout internationally accepted legal procedures.

Where rendition is concerned, its refusal to operate within legal boundaries to the extent that it will specifically cut across the sovereignty of nation-states to achieve its objectives breaches the trust required for entering into such cooperation, according to the report.

Authors consider China's pursuit of its so-called fugitives by illegal means, to be a " significant obstacle to legitimate judicial cooperation to counter cross-border crime."

State engagement of the non-judicial, CCP-controlled organ, the National Security Commission (NSC), "seriously undermines the ability to enter into judicial co-operation with China," it points out, flagging up not only its "irregular methods" but the use of entrapment to third countries and "outright kidnapping". These implicate the NSC in grave human rights violations, which further undermine the ability to cooperate with the body, it concluded.

Beijing's strong desire to cooperate legally with foreign governments should provide states with courage to stand up to China and sufficient leverage to protect Chinese nationals abroad, uphold rule of law, and defend judicial sovereignty, it said.

The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity

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