China targets Muslim Uighurs studying abroad

China has launched a campaign to repatriate and interrogate Uighurs studying overseas, the latest draconian measure against the Muslim minority.

More than 100 have been detained in Egypt after failing to obey Chinese demands to return, according to activists and fellow Uighur students. While the campaign has mainly targeted Uighurs studying in Muslim-majority countries, China has also pressed at least one student in the US to return.

The repatriations appear to have been motivated by fears that Uighur students were being radicalised abroad, observers said.

Uighurs, who have cultural and linguistic ties to Turkey, have long faced curbs on their religious practices, employment, language and dress. Once dominant in the western province of Xinjiang, they are now a minority after years of Beijing-encouraged migration by Han Chinese.

Students and activists say Chinese officials have since May been sending notices to overseas Uighur students demanding their immediate return — often after detaining their parents in China. Several students who obeyed were held upon arrival in China, according to friends contacted by the Financial Times.

Rights groups say China has violated international law by orchestrating the forcible repatriation of Uighurs. More than 100 were deported from Thailand in 2015, while Malaysia has sent at least 28 back to China since 2013.

China was attempting to “suppress any type of Islam they don’t directly control”, said William Nee, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “Whether it’s Islam entering or Protestant Christianity or liberal democracy, all of these things are seen as threats ideologically that come from abroad.”

About 150 students at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University who ignored China’s summons were taken to prisons in the Egyptian capital from early July, according to activists and students who managed to leave the country.

“I heard from the officer in charge that it was related to very big matters and politics between Egypt and China,” said one Uighur student who reported being among dozens detained in Alexandria airport. “The officers told us you would be deported to China, and when you get there you will go to prison.”

He was allowed to depart for Turkey after four days. At least 22 of the detained have been deported to China, according to two people in contact with Uighur students. Others have fled the country.

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China and Egypt have acknowledged that Chinese nationals had been detained in Egypt but characterised the detentions as a response to violations of immigration law.

“We would like to reiterate that Chinese citizens in Egypt must abide by the laws and regulations of Egypt and avoid participating in activities that do not match their residence status,” said the Chinese foreign ministry.

Egypt and China have strengthened diplomatic ties in recent years. The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, is a key link in China's $900bn Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and China remains Egypt's top source of imported goods.

While the main focus of China’s repatriation efforts have been students in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt and Turkey, they have also reached western shores.

One Uighur studying in the US was pressed to return after his parents were detained, according to several people who know him. He, too, was detained on arrival but has since been released.

Activists from the Uighur community are also under pressure overseas — last week police in Rome detained Dolkun Isa, head of Munich-based exile group the World Uyghur Congress, as he prepared to give a speech on the restrictions faced by his ethnic group.

The WUC called for an investigation into whether the detention had been at China’s behest, voicing fears over “the infiltration of Chinese influence in the west”.

An Italian official confirmed Mr Isa had been briefly held for a “police check” but declined to specify the reason.

Xinjiang’s Uighur clampdown has escalated in recent months. In April members of the ethnic group were banned from giving newborns Muslim names, including Mohammed, while last year Uighurs were told to hand over their travel documents, helping authorities police their international movements.