Malaysia has emerged as the latest battleground pitting Chinese efforts to export its security notions against principles of the rule of law.
The Malaysian Bar Association warned in a pithy statement last week that granting a Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uygurs from Malaysia would constitute a violation of international law.
If Malaysia’s past record is anything to go by, prospects for the Uygurs who face certain detention in China are not good.
“The Malaysian government’s record on respecting international law leaves much to be desired. Apart from the 11 Uygurs deported to China in August 2011, the Malaysian government also forcibly detained three Turkish nationals in May 2017 and returned them to Turkey at the request of the Turkish government,” the bar association said.
The government ignored a court decision in 2012 that barred deportation of Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, who was accused in the kingdom of insulting the Prophet Mohammed in a tweet, by handing him over to Saudi authorities.
The fate of the most recent group of Uygurs takes on added significance as China imposes one of the world’s most intrusive surveillance systems, particularly in Xinjiang, the northwestern region that is home to Uygurs, and takes military measures in Afghanistan and Tajikistan to prevent the return of Uygur fighters from Iraq and Syria.
The Uygurs’ fate also constitutes the latest Chinese effort to export elements of its security approach to countries such as Pakistan.
China has in recent years repeatedly persuaded governments to extradite Uygurs even though they had not been formally charged with any crime and faced certain persecution. The 11 were among 25 Uygurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November. They were part of a group of 200 Uygurs detained in Thailand in 2014, 100 of which were forcibly deported to China in July 2015, sparking international outrage.
Uygur militants were suspected of bombing Bangkok’s Erawan shrine a month later, killing 20 people in retaliation for the forced repatriation.
China, concerned about Uygur nationalism and the return of some of the foreign fighters who joined Islamic State, has in recent years brutally cracked down on Uygurs, a Muslim ethnic Turkic group. China, in an indication that it may be expanding the crackdown to the country’s other Muslim minority, the Hui, banned them this month from receiving religious education.
The crackdown has shifted the theatre of Uygur militancy from the Xinjiang to targets along its western border, particularly Pakistan, that are related to the “Belt and Road Initiative” that seeks to link China to Europe and Central Asia through infrastructure.
Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan to which China has committed more than US$50 billion for the creation of a China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that would serve as the initiative’s crown jewel.
The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists and/or Uygur militants that have aligned themselves with Islamic State. The terrorist group, alongside the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uygurs in Xinjiang.
To counter Uygur ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations dot roads every 500 metres in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.
The government, in what has the makings of a re-education programme, has opened boarding schools “for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends”, according to David Brophy, a China scholar at the University of Sydney. Adult Uygurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.
Nightly television programmes feature oath-swearing ceremonies, in which participants pledge to root out “two-faced people”, the term used for Uygur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.
The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high-speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.
Elements of the system are poised for export. Part of the CPEC envisions creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.
The system would deploy explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places … in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording”.
A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture”.
The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”
The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.
Chinese concern about Uygur militancy, particularly foreign fighters who have left Syria and Iraq following the territorial demise of Islamic State, has shifted to Afghanistan and Tajikistan, countries on the border of Xinjiang.
China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.
By appointing Liu Jinsong as its ambassador to Kabul, China signalled the importance it attributes to ensuring the return of foreign fighters and its willingness to use economic incentives to persuade countries such as Afghanistan to cooperate in implementing its concepts of security. Liu was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road Initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.
Similarly, China is likely to sweeten its demand for the return of the Uygurs from Malaysia with economic pledges as President Najib Razak gears up for an election in the coming months.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies