Researchers believe that China is putting pressure on Uyghurs residing abroad to spy on human rights activists by threatening their family in their home country. Intimidating tactics, according to refugees and activists interviewed by the media, are driving communities further apart.
Alim (not his real name) said that the event left him speechless and overwhelmed him. Since he arrived in the UK as a refugee, the two of them hadn’t spoken to one another in the intervening six years until they reconnected during a video conversation.
However, there was a bittersweet aspect to it: another person was in charge of the call. Alim’s mother, along with all other members of the Uyghur minority, which is composed primarily of Muslims and is indigenous to northwestern China, is subject to stringent forms of governmental surveillance and control. They were never able to speak to one another over the phone.
Instead, a third party called Alim and his mother used two separate cell phones to conduct the conversation. He turned the displays of the phones so that they were facing each other so that the two of them could see shaky images of each other and hear muted sound coming from the speakers of the phones.
Alim reports that they hardly spoke at all and spent the majority of the call crying.
He is unsure whether the simple white wall that he could see behind his mother was in her house in Xinjiang or an internment camp, where the Chinese government is said to have jailed more than a million Uyghurs. He only saw the wall behind his mother once. China has always rejected allegations of this nature.
However, Alim claims that he was aware that this communication with his mother would come at a price because the individual who mediated the connection was a Chinese law enforcement official.
Alim was asked to attend gatherings of Uyghur human rights advocates, acquire intelligence from such events, and then report it back to the Chinese state when the officer phoned him a second time.
“Whenever there was an anti-China protest in London, they would call me and ask who would be attending,” says Alim, who shared recordings of the phone calls with the media in which he was asked to work as a spy. “They would call me and ask who would be attending,” Alim continues.
Alim was also offered money to try to cultivate relationships with the leaders of various activist groups, the majority of whom were nationals of the United Kingdom, by taking them out to restaurants and paying their bills.
In the event that questions were asked regarding his sudden fortune, the officer suggested that he establish a firm to use as a cover story. Alim was informed that a great number of companies had already been established on the behalf of others with the very same objective.
He is currently in an extremely difficult situation as a result of the implied threat that his family may be put in danger if he continues to refuse.
Alim is quoted as saying, “They are holding my family as hostages.” “I am going through a difficult time right now.”
Transnational repression refers to the methods that governments use to maintain control over its citizens who have emigrated outside of the country.
According to recent findings, the Chinese government routinely makes use of a technique that restricts a person’s contact with family members in their home country through the use of video conversations in exchange for compliance in foreign countries.
Dr. David Tobin and Dr. Nyrola Elima, both of whom are affiliated with the University of Sheffield, are responsible for some of the most exhaustive study that has been done to date on the subject. They have conducted in-depth interviews and surveys with over two hundred members of the Uyghur diaspora located in a variety of locations. According to him, all Uyghurs who currently reside in countries other than China are victims of transnational repression.
“Separation of the family is the primary strategy,” he explains. According to Dr Tobin, even in situations where making a phone call is theoretically feasible, relatives who are still residing in China will not pick up. According to him, there is a widespread presumption that callers will be listened to, and people are afraid that openly conversing with one another may put them in danger.
This severing of family relations enables the Chinese authorities to intervene and offer closely managed access, in the form of video conversations, as an incentive for the family to obey, with the prospect of repercussions for the family if they do not comply.
Dr. Tobin conducted a survey or interview with 48 Uyghurs in the United Kingdom out of a total population of approximately 400 persons. Two-thirds of those individuals stated that Chinese authorities had made direct contact with them and exerted pressure on them to spy, desist from advocacy activity, or cease speaking to the media.
And Uyghurs living in the UK are not even close to being the most negatively impacted group.
In Turkey, which has long been considered a safe haven for Uyghurs and is home to one of the largest groups of Uyghurs located outside of China, eighty per cent of the 148 respondents reported receiving similar threats from Chinese authorities.
After escaping China the previous year, Abdurehim Parac eventually made his way to Istanbul in 2014.
“Turkey was totally unique in comparison to anything else that we’d encountered. We were free to go wherever we pleased during our trip. “We weren’t bothered by the police at all,” he claims. “I had a hard time believing that such a life was even a possibility.”
The situation for Uyghurs in Turkey, however, has evolved significantly during the past few years. The community’s sense of solidarity has been shattered as rumours have circulated suggesting that Chinese authorities have coerced individuals to spy on one another. These rumours originated in China.
A young Uyghur guy who appears to have been arrested and tortured by his friends delivers a difficult confession in a video that was released on Facebook. In the video, the young man admits to spying on behalf of Beijing. He appears to have been captured and assaulted by his peers. Even though the specifics of what led up to the incident are unknown, the video in question has been shared around the Uyghur community, and the individual in question has been roundly criticized on the internet.
According to Abdurehim, the accumulation of stories such as these is having an influence on the situation.
“Young people are distancing themselves from Uyghur meetings and protests,” the author writes. “He claims that they are concerned that some of the people present may be spies. “China’s strategy is bearing fruit.”
Dr Tobin believes that the authorities in Turkey are aware of what is taking place but that they have been hesitant to respond. “The more dependent a country is on investment from China, the more likely it is to cooperate with China or turn a blind eye,” he says. “It’s a chicken and egg situation.”
It is believed that Turkey has become more friendly with China over the past several years; consequently, concerns have been expressed over Turkey’s dedication to safeguarding its Uyghur population.
In response to a request for comment, the Turkish government did not provide a response.
Julie Millsap, an activist who was born in the United States and currently works in Washington, DC, for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, claims that China has attempted to exert pressure on her through her in-laws.
The two first met in China before relocating to the capital of the United States of America in the year 2020. Her husband is Han Chinese, which is the largest ethnic group in the country.
After Julie began advocating on behalf of Uyghurs, the local police in China began making surprise visits to her extended family, claiming they “wanted to be friends” with them.
The messages that were sent to her and her husband came from her sister-in-law’s phone, and they implied that Julie’s children may be left “as orphans” if the threats were not stopped. “They weren’t written in a language style that she used,” adds Julie, who believes that the police were telling her to send the messages because they were written in a different style.
The police occurred to stop by during a recent video call that was taking place between Julie’s husband, who lives in Washington, DC, and his sister, who lives in China. This gave Julie the opportunity to videotape the situation and immediately confront one of the policemen.
“He stuttered and asked us not to misinterpret his intentions,” she claims. “He asked us not to misinterpret his intentions.” In light of the “delicate” connection that exists between the United States and China, the officer told her that the police were making plans to visit all local families that have US relatives.
Julie is aware of the fact that a white American family and a Han Chinese family are provided with a level of safety that is not extended to Uyghurs. “But we’re still talking about police harassment, about threats, and about a daily reality that is anything but good,” she continues.
She finds it concerning that Chinese authorities do not feel uncomfortable targeting foreign nationals and attempting to control the work that they do.
Formal efforts to address the issue are being made by the United States government.
The Transnational Repression Policy Act was introduced by senators in the month of March. The act includes a long list of transgressions, one of which is “coercion by proxy,” which refers to threats made against family members living in other countries. If the bill were to become law, it would mandate the establishment of a special hotline for reporting threats and require Congress to take action against those responsible for violence whenever it was feasible to do so.
Abduweli Ayup, a rights activist for Uyghurs who is living in Norway, believes that the proposed legislation in the United States would be a step in the right direction but that Western nations should go further. According to him, every time a case is brought to the attention of the police, inquiries should be filed directly with the Chinese government in order to receive assurances that family members are secure.
“We are your residents. We are your neighbours. We are the people who pay your taxes. According to Mr. Ayup, our governments ought to shoulder part of the burden.
Dr. Tobin is aware of the many challenges that come with attempting to solve the problem. It is not a criminal offence to ask someone, “Would you like to speak to your family?” We are aware that it poses a risk. We are aware that it tears communities apart and causes issues with mental health as well as trauma, yet on British soil, it is not considered a crime,” he explains.
The United Kingdom’s Home Office has stated that attempts to intimidate critics living in other countries are “unacceptable,” that an internal study is currently being conducted into transnational repression, and that any and all cases of this nature should be reported to law enforcement.
The Chinese Embassy in London issued a statement in which it described as “totally groundless” the charges of transnational repression. According to the statement made by the Chinese government, “Uyghurs and their communication with overseas relatives are protected in accordance with the law.”
Alim made the decision not to report his situation to the authorities but instead confided in a group of Uyghur rights activists in London about his position.
The requests, according to one of the leaders of the organization, were quite prevalent, and they posed problems to the integrity of the community; yet, the leader insisted that the organization would continue its advocacy efforts. According to their previous encounters, the vast majority of advances made by Chinese police are declined.
Alim agonized over the situation for a while before he made his choice. “I came to the realization that selling out my nation in order to protect my family would entail betraying other people, and I was unable to do that.
“If that was the price I had to pay, then so be it.” Like everyone else, he turned down China’s offer.