A Uighur man at his home in Cairo. Photo: Moustafa Darwish for Asia Times

China’s campaign to target Uighurs abroad was dealt a blow this week, as an unlikely ally refused to capitulate to Beijing’s pressure. In an unexpected move on Tuesday, Qatar refused to bow down to requests from China by rejecting the deportation of Ablikim Yusuf, a Uighur man who had fled China.

Yusuf only days ago found himself stranded in Doha’s Hamad International Airport expecting the Qatari authorities to deport him back  to China. Yusuf, desperate to avoid being forcibly returned, filmed a video appealing to the international community to help him.

His video stirred outrage online, with activists launching a campaign to stop his deportation to China, where he would undoubtedly face persecution and detention in the country’s internment camps for ethnic and Muslim minorities.

In what can be seen as a rebuke to Beijing, Qatari authorities delayed his deportation, allowing the US government to grant him entry. The US State Department used its intervention in the case to condemn China’s repressive campaign targeting Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region and those abroad.

Long arm of Beijing

Chinese authorities in recent years have made it virtually impossible for Muslim minorities to flee, with the government recalling passports for Uighurs throughout the country.

Building on its campaign of repression, China’s targeting of Muslim minority groups has extended beyond Xinjiang, with the authorities using intimidation and pressure to forcibly return minorities back to China.

Media investigations have also revealed that Chinese authorities are harassing Uighurs abroad, threatening their families back home and coercing them to hand over personal information.

Uighurs interviewed by Asia Times say Chinese embassies and consulates abroad have declined to renew their passports, telling them they must return home.

China has also used its economic clout to pressure foreign governments to deport Uighurs back to its territory, where they risk being interned or disappeared upon return.

That may be changing.

Qatar joins a number of countries that have ignored pressure by Chinese authorities to deport Uighurs and other Muslim and ethnic minorities back to China.

Notably Malaysia, which previously forcibly returned groups of Uighurs, recently reversed its position, and under its new leadership has distanced itself from Beijing.

Even Turkey, whose president spoke in support of the Chinese government’s policy on Uighurs during a visit to Beijing in July, has refused to go so far as deporting the persecuted group.

Without overstating the significance of Qatar’s refusal to deport Yusuf, it does show there is political will – even in a country currently facing an economic boycott from some of its wealthiest neighbors – to curb China’s influence. It was only last month that Muslim-majority countries, including Qatar, in a letter publicly supported China’s “counterterrorism” efforts and congratulated the country on its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.”

For states in the Middle East driven by economic interests, challenging China in the name of “Muslim solidarity” has not been worth the fight. Dropping the issue so as not to disrupt Chinese trade and investment deals, on the other hand, was worth the dividends.

A new precedent?

Qatar’s recent move not to deport Yusuf back to China, one of its top trading partners, may not exactly herald the Gulf state’s readiness to pick up the “Muslim solidarity” mantle and aggressively condemn the treatment of the Uighurs. It does, however, show a minor shift in approach to asylum seekers. With growing backlash from Arab and Muslim opinion in the Middle East, coupled with international pressure, we may see more Muslim-majority states, even traditional trading partners of China, also ignore Beijing’s pressure and facilitate asylum requests for desperate Uighurs fleeing persecution.

With states like Malaysia and now Qatar refusing to deport persecuted minorities back to China, Beijing’s influence abroad may begin to be curtailed. By not capitulating to its pressure, states can send a stern message to Beijing that its threats abroad can only go so far, a message that would certainly be understood in a state that reveres national sovereignty.

This will not be enough to influence China’s domestic agenda, nor will we see such attempts from countries in the Middle East. It will, however, give other governments and host countries the courage to protect asylum-seeking Muslims minorities fleeing China. And with no foreseeable public condemnation and change in policy from Muslim-majority states on the Uighur issue, not forcibly returning those fleeing China is the least these alleged champions of Muslim rights can do.

Samah Hadid

Samah Hadid is a human rights campaigner and writer based in the Middle East and is the former Middle East director of campaigns for Amnesty International.

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