Both the Taliban and the former government of Afghanistan have aided in China’s transnational repression efforts to silence Uyghur dissidents, a joint report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs revealed this month.
“At the behest of the Chinese authorities, Islamabad [Pakistan] and Kabul are engaged in the harassment, detention, and deportation of vulnerable Uyghurs,” UHRP Executive Director Omer Kanat said. “Some of the targeted Uyghurs have been tortured and executed in China, while others have experienced the breakup of their families and heavy-handed surveillance of their communities. China’s economic largesse can buy all sorts of complicity in violence against Uyghurs.”
The UHRP report, published this month, documents efforts by neighboring nations to arrest and repatriate Uyghurs to China, where they face certain punishment. In some instances, China reportedly uses diplomatic and extradition treaties to coax other nations into arresting dissidents. Other methods, however, are less direct. The report lists digital surveillance, separating families at border checkpoints, funding “educational” operations for Uyghur expats to indoctrinate them, threatening relatives still in the country, and many other methods as part of China’s transnational repression campaign.
The human rights groups published the report before the Taliban declared that it had successfully ousted the Afghan government from Kabul on Sunday.
The UHRP/Oxus report emphasized that both the Taliban terrorist organization and the now-defunct American-led coalition in Afghanistan have aided in Beijing’s efforts to silence the Uyghurs. In 1998, Taliban leader Mullah Omar reportedly assured Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin that his group had no interest in meddling with internal Chinese affairs, but Afghanistan quickly moved from indifference to complicity, in 2000 handing over 13 Uyghurs who had sought political asylum in the country to China.
Under the legitimate Afghan government, many Uyghurs were branded as “Chinese migrants” on their visas and ID forms, a distinction that could potentially strand them in hostile territory. Such designations have remained on some Uyghur IDs even following their naturalization as Afghans and pose problems for them as they attempt to leave the country.
The Taliban takeover means the database of Uyghurs in the country will likely enter the hands of the terrorist group and potentially those of Beijing, which has been cultivating diplomatic relations with the Taliban. Should the Taliban allow China access to the database of forms and documents on “Chinese migrants,” as many Uyghurs expect them to, Beijing could potentially work with neighboring governments to deny visas to Uyghurs seeking to distance themselves geographically from its reach, repeating its success in preventing Pakistani Uyghurs from undergoing the Hajj.
The Taliban has remained conspicuously quiet about China’s suppression of its fellow Muslims across the border in the past year, instead entertaining China’s rhetoric about security threats from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [ETIM], an alleged Uyghur jihadist group. The U.S. de-listed the ETIM as an active terrorist group in 2020, asserting no evidence suggests that it exists. Taliban leaders have nonetheless nodded their heads at China’s claims and vowed not to help the Uighurs in China.
The insurgents’ willingness to play along with Beijing’s narrative coincides with its efforts to woo Chinese investors into jump-starting a Taliban-led Afghan economy. Taliban negotiator Suhail Shaheen indicated in July that his faction sought Chinese investment “as soon as possible.”
“We have been to China many times and we have good relations with them,” Shaheen added. “China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan.”
They have further sought to encourage foreign investment with the dubious promise that it would help them eliminate opium production, a vital source of income for the terrorists during the war.
Amid, the U.S. withdrawal from the country and its complete fall to the Taliban, China has sought a larger role in the Afghanistan peace process, hosting Taliban delegations and laying the groundwork for an economic stranglehold on its neighbor. The nation’s abundant mineral wealth and strategic location near Chinese ally Iran makes it a prime target for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a debt-trap diplomacy scheme to expand Beijing’s sphere of influence. The communist government aims to restore the ancient Silk Road trading routes between China and western Europe via massive infrastructure investment in the intermediary countries. Developing nations in the program receive high interest loans to finance infrastructure projects for which they must hire Chinese companies. When the country eventually defaults on the loan, China claims ownership of projects.
The Chinese Communist Party is currently orchestrating a genocide of the Uyghurs in northwestern Xinjiang, China’s largest province. Uyghurs refer to this region as East Turkestan and consider it colonized by east China’s Han ethnic group. Beijing has forced as many as 3 million Uyghurs, according to the U.S. government, into an extensive concentration camp system featuring over 1,200 facilities in the province. Other Muslim-majority ethnic groups such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz also rank among the victims.
Camp survivors have testified to forced labor, torture, systemic rape, forced abortions and sterilization, mandatory use of Mandarin, communist indoctrination, and many other abuses aimed at crushing the minority group altogether. Uyghurs, upon “graduation,” often endure compulsory relocation to Han Chinese-majority areas and slavery.
China adamantly denies conducting a genocide and insists the concentration camps are “vocational training” centers meant to help empower the Uyghurs to participate in the Chinese economy, lest they otherwise become targets for jihadist recruitment. Beijing has repeatedly denounced many Uyghur survivors as “actors” aiming to smear China and has endeavored to silence Uyghurs outside its borders aiming to draw attention to the genocide.
Neither the Mandarin language nor Han Chinese culture are indigenous to Xinjiang. Various Chinese dynasties, including the Han and Tang, exercised tenuous control over the region, but Xinjiang did not become a permanent fixture of Chinese polities until its incorporation into the Qing realm in the 18th Century. Notably, the Qing rulers were of Manchurian origin and not ethnic Han Chinese.
Since their effective victory, the Taliban has attempted to assuage worldwide concerns about the prospect for egregious human rights violations — largely arising due to the group’s historical penchant for such activity — by employing soft rhetoric about forming an “inclusive government” and protecting women’s rights, albeit in accordance with its interpretation of Islamic law which effectively mandates female enslavement. Such assurances, however, have drawn skepticism.