Chinese Muslim Dissidents Remain Protected In EU, But For How Long?

David Hutt
AUG 16, 2017 @ 12:13 AM

Dolkun Isa was on his way to speak at Italy’s Senate late last month when he was stopped by the police and detained for a number of hours. Isa is considered a terrorist by Beijing but in 2006 he was given German citizenship. Today, he is the General Secretary of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), an advocacy group that, it says, represents “the collective interest of the Uyghur people,” many of whom demand independence from China.

Isa’s detention led to heated speeches in the Italian parliament and suggestions by advocacy groups that China is now pressuring European Union nations to silence Uyghur activists, some of whom live in Europe in exile. “We have even seen in recent years, Uyghur asylum seekers forced back to China by European states against their will, which certainly does indicate that the Chinese government holds tremendous power [over European governments] in this respect,” said Peter Irwin, project manager of the WUC.

Not Separate Or Equal

Faruh Dilshat was deported to China by Sweden in November 2011. Two months later, Stockholm also returned Adile Omer. Muhtar Tiliwald was deported from Germany in 2006 and went missing in China shortly after arriving, WUC reports. Burhan Zunun took his own life to avoid such a fate. He was denied asylum by Germany and then Norway. In December 2005 he was detained by the Danish authorities and, fearing deportation, he committed suicide. This indicates “the fear that many have when they are returned against their will,” Irwin said.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who predominately practice Sunni Islam. More than 10 million are thought to live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a large autonomously run area of northwestern China. For decades many have clashed against the central government and a Uyghur independence movement has grown. But it is helplessly divided and groups clash over the role of religion and violence. The Turkistan Islamic Party calls for jihad and sent members to fight for ISIS; others, like the exiled WUC, promote non-violent, pro-democracy and pluralist methods.

Beijing’s Not-So-Hidden Hand

In April, Isa was also barred from attending a summit on indigenous issues at UN headquarters in New York, Human Rights Watch reported. He has also been prevented from entering Turkey and South Korea: the latter almost sent him back to China before the German foreign ministry intervened. Many nations – Cambodia, Thailand and, most recently Egypt, to name just some – have been criticized for deporting Uyghur dissidents back to China.

Interpol, the world police co-operation body, has also been blamed for bending the knee to Beijing. In November, Meng Hongwei, a Chinese politician and vice minister of public security, was elected the new president of Interpol. The New York Times reported at the time: “Authoritarian governments like Russia and China have been known to abuse Interpol’s ‘red notices,’ tantamount to international arrest warrants, to hunt down political enemies.” A “red notice” issued by China was thought to have led to Isa’s detention in Italy.

An EU Haven?

Dolkun Isa, Secretary General of the World Uyghur Congress speaks to reporters during an interview in Tokyo in 2008. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union, however, does not share the same problems as the UN or Interpol due to the simple fact that China is not a member of the body, though it is a major trading partner. Europe, in fact, has a long history of supporting Uyghur-rights. Munich played host to the 1999 meeting at which the East Turkestan National Congress was formed: it later morphed into the WUC in 2004, again after a meeting in Germany.

In October 2001 the European Parliament hosted a conference on the Uyghur issue. Gardner Bovingdon, in his book The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, writes that at the time, “Beijing complained mightily to Brussels and sought in vain to pressure the European Union to refuse space to the [speakers].” China’s foreign minister also warned that it would “damage Sino-European relations.” When Beijing’s efforts failed, Bovingdon wrote, it changed track and began trying to persuade the international community that the Uyghur were Islamic terrorists, a potent suggestion coming just after the September 11 attacks.

The EU, however, rebuffed Beijing’s suggestions and has continued hosting Uyghur-rights conferences. This makes his detention in Italy all the more worrying, activists say. “If individual [EU] states begin to fall to Chinese influence, the union of states will slowly disintegrate and the principles on which the EU is founded will be rendered meaningless,” Irwin told me.

Adrian Zenz, an expert on the Xinjiang region at the European School of Culture and Theology in Germany, however said the Italian case was quite different to the recent deportation of dozens of Uyghurs from Egypt. In Italy, China is assumed to have used an intermediary – Interpol – but in Egypt there is evidence of “direct government pressure,” he said. Still, Zenz added that some Central and Eastern European nations, especially those that are “increasingly looking to China,” like Hungary, might be more susceptible to Beijing’s demands over dissidents. Hungary and others in Eastern Europe are today key nations along China’s planned One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, also known as “the New Silk Road.” And, after all, the long term goal of OBOR is to “gain influence through offering incentives,” Zenz said.

Money Matters

OBOR might explain recent events in Xinjiang, too. Last year Chen Quanguo, who had been the Communist Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region, was made the Xinjiang’s new party chief. According to Zenz, he has now “exceeded” what he did to silence dissent in Tibet. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping “has brought in the man who has proven he can forcibly pacify a highly reactive region,” he added.

The need to hasten the demise of Uyghur dissent, Zenz suggested, is because OBOR will make Xinjiang China’s gateway to Eurasia and unrest could disrupt progress. The region encompasses China’s border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. The $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for example, aims to connect Xinjiang with trade routes to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, on the Arabian Sea.

“The tangible aspects of Uyghur culture and civilization are under process of destruction [because of] an unquestioned narrative of ‘development’,” reads a recent report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, another advocacy group. This may also explain why China is allegedly putting pressure on the international community to silence the Uyghur diaspora, analysts say.