China is targeting Uyghurs and critics abroad, pressuring other countries to detain and deport them, an investigation by Sky News has found, with high-ranking Chinese officials even conducting interrogations at “black sites” abroad.
Chinese agents and police routinely operate abroad, attempting to identify Uyghurs who have fled China. Some are coerced into spying for the Chinese government. Others, once detained in a third country, simply vanish.
China’s campaign of repression against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, with evidence of mass detention, forced labour, family separations and forced sterilisation, has provoked international condemnation.
It denies the allegations and says its policies in the region are to fight extremism.
Interviews with seven people suggest that China’s campaign of repression is not simply confined to Xinjiang, but fully international.
And one country in particular has become a happy hunting ground for Chinese security services: the United Arab Emirates.
Chinese agent tells man to spy on his ex-wife
Jesure Burunqi is a Uyghur man, originally from Urumqi in Xinjiang, where he worked for a local Chinese Communist Party committee. He left China in 2009 and settled in the Netherlands.
In August 2019, he got a message out of the blue – an old friend from Xinjiang who said he wanted to meet in Dubai to discuss something important.
What Jesure didn’t know was that his ex-wife, who also lived in the Netherlands, was a whistleblower, with important information on the repression in Xinjiang.
“Before departure, I went to my ex-wife’s home, to tell her that I’d go to Dubai,” he told Sky News.
“My ex-wife told me that she had a very important document and asked me why I must go now. She told me it’s too coincidental.
“In Kashgar (a city in Xinjiang), there was a camp,” he explained. “The document is about the list of over 800 people’s names, birth dates and home addresses who were kept in the camp.”
Despite his wife’s concerns, Jesure accepted the offer of a ticket to go to Dubai.
At the airport, he was met by his friend and some other men. They later said they worked for Chinese national security.
“He knew that I went to my ex-wife’s home to see my children,” Jesure said.
“In her computer, there was a document that we want, if you co-operate with us, it’s very easy, you wouldn’t work very hard in future, we could give you a very good commission.
“He told me later that he gave me a USB key and I just input it with my ex-wife’s computer so that they could catch the blower.
“When I left Dubai, I asked them any problem if I pass through the security check with the USB key. They said, no problems, they did it a lot.”
Jesure took the key back to the Netherlands – and handed it over to the Dutch security services.
The Chinese men kept calling but Jesure ignored them. One call was impossible to ignore though – a video of his mother, still in China. The man who worked for national security said “your mum is so not very healthy – if you co-operate with us, you could meet her very soon”.
He said: “My sister, my brother and my mom are all in their hands.”
Uyghur man detained at Dubai airport
Wang Jingyu was a teenager when he voiced his support for protestors in Hong Kong in 2019, before he criticised the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2020. In China it is a crime to criticise “martyrs”.
First, his parents were detained in his hometown of Chongqing, in China. Wang was living in Turkey at the time – but then they came for him, in April last year.
“I’m staying in a hotel in Istanbul,” Wang told Sky News.
“In the first hotel, while I was sleeping, a Chinese man made phone call to hotel reception and the hotel reception transferred the call to my room. And he told me, ‘you are criminal, I will kill you’. I changed hotel, but the same thing happened again.”
Wang was scared and made plans to go to the US. His flight transited through Dubai. On his way to the departure gate for the US leg, two officers pulled him aside and told him to go with them.
In the detention centre, he was allowed to make a call. He phoned his girlfriend, Wu Huan.
He said: “I asked her to come to Dubai to pay the lawyer, do something, help me.”
Wu arrived the next day – only to be detained herself. First at a Dubai police station, then a detention centre and then somewhere else entirely.
She said: “On May 30th, probably, two Chinese came. They took me to a questioning room.”
They handcuffed her, she told Sky News, and put her in a car.
“They took me to a normal-looking villa. But inside, it was separated into many small single rooms and the rooms were locked by iron doors, like a prison.”
And Wu said that she saws Uyghurs inside the same black site, which she said she thought was somewhere on the outskirts of the city.
“One day, when it was time to eat, I saw a girl shouting,” she told Sky News. “She said, ‘why have you locked me up? I want to return to Turkey’. That’s the first time I saw someone else besides me inside. The girl looked like she was from Xinjiang.”
Both Wang Jingyu and Wu Huan say there were questioned by Chinese officials on UAE soil.
“In my opinion, they came from China’s consulate, at least, most of them,” Wu Huan said. “At present, I know only one person, he was the consul general of the consulate. His name is Li Xuhang.”
Wang also identified the Chinese consul general.
“One time, I think on the third visit, the Consul General Li Xuhang, he told me, ‘If you sign this document, on the 1 May we will send you to Guangzhou.'”
Who are the Uyghur people and why do they face oppression by China?
The Uyghurs are a group of people – mostly Muslim – who live mainly in the Xinjiang area of China.
They have been living there for at least several hundred years.
China has been accused of interning up to one million Uyghurs in “re-education” centres in Xinjiang and increasing the number of non-Uyghurs in the region, so the proportion of Uyghurs there is declining.
In April, MPs in the UK declared that Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in China’s Xinjiang region are being subjected to genocide.
China denies all allegations of human rights abuses.
After going public with their ordeal, and intervention from US activists, both were released.
“It’s so frightening,” Wu Huan told Sky News.
“But to make it public – I thought I get out of this, I need to make it public.
“I need to tear away their hypocritical faces and tell these things to the whole world. Let the whole world know their ugly faces.”
China and UAE have strong trading relationship
The United Arab Emirates is at the centre of all of the stories of the people who have spoken to us.
In recent years, China has been hugging the tiny Middle Eastern state tight.
In 2018, Xi Jinping himself visited – the first visit by a Chinese leader in three decades. His plane was even given an Emirati fighter escort as it landed.
The UAE has also signed up to China’s belt and road investment initiative, and China is now one of its largest trading partners.
And, crucially, the two countries have an extradition treaty.
The UAE and China are the strongest trade partners,” Radha Stirling, the founder of Detained in Dubai, which helps foreign victims of injustice in the UAE, told Sky News.
“China has more than 6,000 businesses operating in the UAE. And they are the strongest ally to the UAE in the financial sense.
“Not only that, they both are authoritarian states, they both engage in censorship and they are sharing security.
“Of course, when China says we want to partner with you in these certain unlawful activities, the UAE knows that the United States and other allies are not going to do much to stop that, which is a huge concern for the advancement of Chinese interests in the Middle East and Northern Africa.”
Amannisa Abdula and Nigare Yusup are Uyghurs, originally from Xinjiang.
Both moved to Turkey as China’s campaign of repression intensified. But even there, their families were not safe.
It was in Istanbul that Nigare met her husband, Hussein.
“They talk about love at first sight,” she told Sky News. “That is exactly what happened.”
After they were married, Hussein was detained by Turkish authorities, who said he did not have the right to reside in the country. He was sent to a repatriation centre in the east of the country.
A month later, he called his wife, saying that that two Chinese police officers had visited him.
They “offered him to either be sent back to China or work for them to spy on the Uyghur community in Turkey,” Nigare told Sky News.
“‘You are going to be our eyes and ears and tell us what the Uyghurs are doing.'”
Mother doesn’t know whether husband is dead or alive
Hussein asked Turkey to deport him to the UAE instead, with a plan to go to from there to Europe.
Nigare would go and meet him in Dubai.
She said: “I last heard my husband’s voice on October 12th 2017.
“He called me, not via WhatsApp because calling on that platform is forbidden in Dubai, he can only send voice messages.
“He told me, ‘the Chinese police is looking for me. Maybe I will be caught. I do not know what my fate is.
“‘I entrust my children with you. I am ashamed of the situation and for leaving you unprotected.’
“You can mourn someone when they die, the pain passes but a man, husband father of two disappears all of a sudden. Did he die, is he alive? Where is he? I know nothing.”
A year later, Amannisa, her husband Ahmad and their son also travelled to Dubai, shopping for clothes for the baby they were expecting.
Ahmad was quickly detained in a police station, then moved.
“My husband called me,” Amannisa told Sky News. “His voice, he was crying, he said ‘they took me to another place, another station. They took urine and DNA. Bring my passport they want to deport me to China’.”
A lawyer helped Amannisa, telling her that her husband was being detained by Interpol in Abu Dhabi.
She went to their offices.
She said: “I explain these are the court papers. They did not even look at it and they said your husband has to go we will deport him. Because China wants him.”
Her last contact from her husband was in February 2018, a phone call.
“He asked to talk to Musa, my son, and told him ‘take care of your mom. She is pregnant. You are my son, you have to stay strong until I come back’. Then the phone was cut and I was never able to talk to him again.”
Sky News asked Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Interpol for comment but received no response.
Xu Guixiang, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang government, told Sky News: “China always respects always other countries’ sovereignty. It’s impossible for China to set up black sites overseas. It’s not true, as some Western media report, that China set up black sites in Dubai. It’s a total lie and smear.
“Regarding the issue that people were menaced and their relatives were forced to return to China – please trust us, China is a socialist country ruled by law. All levels of government act in accordance with relevant laws and regulations.”
He also questioned Wu Huan’s reliability as a witness, alleging she had made more than 30 calls to the police in China with false claims.
Wu denied this, telling Sky News that the complaints she made were about police harassment.
Mr Xu offered no information on Nigare’s and Amannisa’s husbands.
They have disappeared, into a world of shadows.
This is where China will continue to operate. And as its power and economic might develop, its reach will only grow longer.
“Their ambitions go further,” Wu Huan said.
“Their henchmen have spread out further and further.”
At least six states of the Arab world – Egypt, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – have participated in China’s transnational repression campaign that has reached 28 countries worldwide.
According to the dataset, an upper estimate of 292 Uyghurs have been detained or deported from Arab world countries at China’s behest since 2001.