Uyghurs surveilled and harassed in 22 countries, new research reveals

Cybersecurity Cover

For immediate release
November 10, 2021 6:00 a.m. EDT
Uyghur Human Rights Project
Contact: Omer Kanat +1 (202) 790-1795, Peter Irwin +1 (646) 906-7722

The Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs have released a new report documenting the rights violations suffered by Uyghurs overseas from Chinese government threats or online harassment. 

The report, “Your Family Will Suffer”: How China is Hacking, Surveilling, and Intimidating Uyghurs in Liberal Democracies, expands on previous work collected in the China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs dataset, a partnership of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. 

The new research adds 5,530 instances of “stage 1” transnational repression spanning 19 years and 22 countries. Stage 1 transnational repression includes warnings and threats to individuals and family members, and arrest requests issued bilaterally or through international organizations such as Interpol. Cases of intimidation and harassment often go unreported, suggesting that the number of cases and number of Uyghurs facing this harassment may be much higher.  

“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 UHRP Executive Director, Omer Kanat. “This report builds on the findings of UHRP’s 2017 and 2019 UHRP reports highlighting the harassment of diaspora Uyghurs, and demonstrates the problem is only getting worse.” 

“While our previous research has noted the dangers of detention in host countries around the world and even deportation to China, our current findings show that even Uyghurs residing in liberal democracies are increasingly threatened. The scale, scope, and capabilities of China’s state-backed hackers and intelligence operatives have expanded dramatically, with thousands of attacks occurring across the Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America since the launch of the People’s War on Terror in 2014,” said Bradley Jardine, Director of Research at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. “If democracies do not act to ensure the civil liberties of vulnerable communities within their borders, a vital China policy constituency will be forced into silence–emboldening the CCP to continue challenging the fundamental human rights that impact us all.”

“Your Family Will Suffer”: How China is Hacking, Surveilling, and Intimidating Uyghurs in Liberal Democracies analyzes survey data with a primary focus on how Uyghurs living in the democratic world continue to have their rights—guaranteed to them by democratic governments—violated by the Chinese government, and how Uyghurs, and potentially many others, have their freedoms curtailed by state-aligned actors through data collection, surveillance, intimidation, and harassment. China’s authoritarianism extends well beyond its borders. The party-state co-opts other countries and their corporations into its campaign of violence and intimidation against Uyghurs; no state or other actor has yet taken responsibility for their protection. Further, our findings suggest that non-Uyghurs are increasingly targeted by this campaign, threatening their freedoms and individual rights.

UHRP and Oxus Society surveyed 72 Uyghurs living in diaspora communities in North America, the Asia Pacific, and Europe, 74 percent of whom noted that they have experienced digital risks, threats, or forms of online harassment. However, many respondents did not feel that their home governments will take action to address these violations of their rights—only 44 percent felt that their host governments take the intimidation they face seriously, and only 21 percent felt that the host governments would fix these issues. 

Mr. Kanat added: “The evidence is now before countries with Uyghur populations. China is violating your sovereignty, as well as targeting your citizens and legal permanent residents. Action must follow. You cannot say you didn’t know.”

The response to this global reach must also be global. UHRP and The Oxus Society urge swift action on 13 recommendations to civil society and the private sector, national governments, and inter-governmental bodies, including:

  • Governments should strengthen safe haven for Uyghurs by increasing refugee admissions, streamlining bureaucratic obstacles preventing Uyghurs from timely access to refugee resettlement programs and providing assistance in mitigating the impacts of digital harassment. 
  • The private sector should monitor digital threats on online platforms in all relevant languages, including Uyghur, Chinese, Turkish, and others, develop tools to identify state-actor harassment, and make secure communication platforms available in relevant languages.