This report is a part of a larger online project which can be found on the Xinjiang Data Project website.
What’s the problem?
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has committed well-documented and large-scale human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other indigenous minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) that amount to crimes against humanity. Through its complex united front system, the CCP is actively monitoring members of the diaspora, including Uyghurs, creating databases of actionable intelligence, and mobilising community organisations in the diaspora to counter international criticism of its repressive policies in Xinjiang while promoting its own policies and interests abroad. These organisations are powerful resources in Beijing’s ongoing efforts to reshape the global narrative on Xinjiang, influence political elites abroad, and ultimately control the Chinese diaspora, but they’re also poorly understood.
These organisations purport to represent and speak on behalf of ‘Xinjiang’ and its indigenous peoples.
They subsume Uyghur and other minority cultures and identities under a nebulous yet hegemonic ‘Chineseness’, which is defined by and connected to the Han-dominated CCP. In reality, these organisations and their leaders play important roles in muting alternative and independent voices from the community while amplifying CCP messaging and spreading disinformation. They exploit the openness of democratic and multicultural countries while assisting the CCP and its proxies to surveil and even persecute members of the Xinjiang diaspora community or individuals who are critical of the CCP’s Xinjiang policies.
Like united front work more broadly, the activities of these groups and their links to the Chinese Government are often overlooked and can be difficult to parse. While human rights abuses in Xinjiang are being exposed internationally, the mechanisms and tactics developed by united front agencies to co-opt overseas Xinjiang-related community groups have gone largely unnoticed. Our research demonstrates how these groups can sow distrust and fear in the community, mislead politicians, journalists and the public, influence government policies, cloud our assessment of the situation in Xinjiang, and disguise the CCP’s interference in foreign countries.
What’s the solution?
Transparency is the best weapon at our disposal. The international community must expose and counter the CCP’s overseas influence and interference operations. In order to counteract Xinjiang-related united front work, we must shine a brighter light on community organisations that cooperate with the CCP to achieve its repressive political aims overseas; at the same time, we must safeguard the ability of citizens of all backgrounds to engage in public life free from outside interference.
Governments must first acknowledge the problem and then denounce the CCP’s interference operations publicly. They should work together to disrupt the CCP’s capacity to covertly intrude in sovereign countries and open societies, carry out transnational repression and cover up its human rights abuses in Xinjiang. They must strengthen countermeasures through intelligence work, law enforcement and legislative reform, and provide additional funding to analyse the CCP’s united front system while working closely with other countries to safeguard universal human rights in China and other parts of the world. Understanding the CCP’s united front system, tactics and methods is a crucial starting point.
Finally, we must increase the capacity of political figures and civil society organs to understand and resist interference by the CCP and other nefarious state and non-state actors and strengthen the ability of the policy sector, academia and the media to identify and call out foreign interference and misinformation. This is playing to the strengths of open societies in particular, but is also key to any state’s ability to exercise sovereignty in the face of corrosive CCP activities.
Under the pretext of combating instability and countering terrorism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is coercively altering the human and physical geography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region through the mass surveillance, detention and re-education of its indigenous Turkic-speaking population and the transmigration of Han Chinese settlers into the far-western corner of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These repressive policies have attracted global criticism but also strident denials from the party and its overseas supporters, allies and agents.1
China’s actions in Xinjiang and their impacts extend beyond its borders and directly affect the ‘Xinjiang diaspora’ of more than a million people. The diaspora is dominated by Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and other indigenous people who now reside in countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkey and Australia, but also includes a small group from the Han ethnic majority who formerly lived in or have links to Xinjiang.2 Collectively, these people are referred to as ‘overseas Chinese from Xinjiang’ (新疆籍华侨华人) by the Chinese Government, regardless of their distinct identities as the colonised and the colonisers, or their connections to the Uyghur homeland.
China ‘conducts the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world’, and one of its key targets is the Uyghur community abroad, according to a 2022 Freedom House report.3 Researchers and journalists have documented numerous examples of Uyghurs being threatened, harassed or even forcefully deported by PRC Government agencies or their proxies overseas.4 Some victims and witnesses have spoken out, but many others fear for their own safety or the safety of their relatives back in China. Amid this climate of intimidation, some overseas community groups, which purport to be independent civil society organs but have close ties to the CCP, claim to represent Xinjiang and speak on behalf of its community. They’re whitewashing the CCP’s human rights abuses in the Uyghur homeland and even openly praising the party’s policies. Their activities seek to mislead the public and could amount to foreign interference if properly exposed.
Not understanding the CCP links behind these activities makes public commentary—and understanding—of such events superficial and misleading.
Take, for example, the events of 28 January 2018 in the South Australian city of Adelaide. To celebrate Australia’s national day, hundreds of community groups were invited and endorsed by the Adelaide City Council to march through the city’s streets.5 One group marched behind the banner of the SA Xinjiang Association (南澳新疆联合会) wearing the traditional attire of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in the PRC (Figure 1),6 despite the strong objections of Adelaide’s 1,500-strong Uyghur community, who had relatives vanish inside China’s re-education system in their homeland.7
Figure 1: Members of the SA Xinjiang Association marching in the 2018 Australia Day Parade in Adelaide
‘Our culture, dress and music has been hijacked by the Han Chinese of the SA Xinjiang Association which we strongly believe is part of a soft propaganda publicity act from the communist Chinese government’s eradication of the Uighur Turkic people’, a group of Uyghurs later wrote in protest to the City Council.8 ‘You people have been stealing our uighur [sic] culture, stealing our clothes’, wrote a local Uyghur resident in response to event photos posted on the association’s Facebook page. ‘… Just because you were born in that region does not mean you can take the culture and traditions of the natives that once occupied that area’.9
The SA Xinjiang Association is a Han-dominated community organisation with the strong backing of the PRC’s diplomatic mission and, until recently, local Australian politicians.10 It claims the right to speak on behalf of the Xinjiang diaspora while neutralising the legitimate concerns of the Uyghur community about Beijing’s human rights abuses in the Uyghur homeland.11 At the time, the group’s theatrics were openly celebrated. It won the best costume award, and its members were photographed with the then Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, and other officials,12 providing the group with a positive and amplified public profile.
The SA Xinjiang Association, which is part of a large network of Xinjiang-linked overseas groups, might not be immediately recognisable as closely aligned with the CCP and its united front system, but our research demonstrates how the CCP actively cultivates community organisations, such as the SA Xinjiang Association, as conduits for advancing the party’s agenda abroad and obscuring—or even silencing—the voices of Uyghurs and other critics of its policies in Xinjiang.
All governments seek to assert their influence abroad. China is no exception. Yet the CCP is different in the deceptive and coercive nature of its influence operations, which can undermine the sovereignty and interests of other countries and negatively affect the lives and liberties of diasporic community members in those countries.13
This report explores community groups and individuals in the Xinjiang diaspora that are linked to the CCP’s united front system, as well as the methods and tactics used by that system to activate and guide them. We use open-source materials (chiefly Chinese-language media reports, government documents, and social media posts) to track groups and individuals who are promoting the party’s Xinjiang narrative and policies overseas, and place their activities within the wider context of the CCP’s overseas influence operations as previously analysed by James To, Gerry Groot, Alex Joske, Anne-Marie Brady and other scholars.
Our findings demonstrate the following:
- the CCP is systematically collecting information on members of the Xinjiang diaspora and creating databases that could strengthen the party’s overseas surveillance and interference work.
- community organisations in the Chinese diaspora and their elites are frequently used as conduits for promoting the party’s Xinjiang narrative and policies and are actively cultivated, and at times captured, by united front officials.
- some senior members of these organisations also hold prominent positions in China-based united front organs, which enables them to more effectively coordinate activities and promote the party’s agenda.
- the influence of CCP-linked community groups extends well beyond the Xinjiang diaspora, and some groups have secured the open or tacit endorsement of local politicians while influencing local public opinion.
- united front agencies leverage cultural events, language learning, business opportunities and political honours to entice and unify overseas Chinese behind the CCP’s hegemonic abstractions of ‘China’ and ‘Chineseness’ while marginalising, silencing and delegitimising CCP critics, and identities and cultures not approved by the party.
Our report begins with a brief overview of the united front system and its overseas influence operations targeting the Xinjiang diaspora. We then look at the specific tactics and mechanisms of influence adopted by united front operatives to seize control of the Xinjiang narrative and influence public opinion abroad, before we offer our conclusions and recommendations.
Along the way, we provide four detailed case studies in order to pull back the veil on the activities of Xinjiang-linked community organisations and their ties to the united front system in Canada, Central Asia, Australia and Turkey. The full extent of their activities requires additional research and public transparency, and any policy responses will need to respond dynamically to the specifics of each situation. However, the starting point must be a more nuanced understanding of the CCP’s united front system.
Download full report
Readers are warmly encouraged to download the full report, which contains;
- What’s the problem?
- What’s the solution?
- Executive summary
- 1. United front work: understanding the system
- 2. Whom to influence: remaking ‘Xinjiang’
- 3. Methods of influence: love, money and intimidation
- 4. Tactics of influence: information, culture and co-option
- 5. Conclusion and recommendations
- Appendix: Key united front organs involved in Xinjiang-related work
- Acronyms and abbreviations
06 Jul 2022