China’s Campaign Against Uighur Diaspora Ramps Up

In its attempts to control Uighurs abroad, the Chinese government is holding families hostage.

People hold placards and flags during a demonstration of France's exiled Uyghur community on July 4, 2010 in Paris.
People hold placards and flags during a demonstration of France's exiled Uyghur community on July 4, 2010 in Paris.

Mahmut, a Uighur living in a Scandinavian country, describes 2017 as the “saddest” year for his family. Born to secular Muslim parents, Mahmut, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, says his family’s troubles began in late 2016 when the Chinese government pressured a cousin and his wife to return to China’s far western region of Xinjiang from Egypt.

Local authorities threatened to imprison his parents and confiscate their property if his cousin, who was studying theology, did not return. When Mahmut’s cousin arrived in Xinjiang, the authorities jailed him and his wife.

Then, in early summer 2017, Mahmut tried to call his mother, who was recovering from a recent hospitalization. No one picked up, and Mahmut feared for the worst.

Communication with his parents was already sporadic, and when his father finally picked up the phone, Mahmut could sense fear in his voice. “Your mother went to study,” he told Mahmut, saying that community service officials had instructed her to go.

As Beijing continues its clampdown on Xinjiang, the state is using overseas Uighurs’ families in China as a way to pressure them. And over the past year, the Chinese government has intensified its campaign to surveil and intimidate the diaspora, according to Uighurs and outside experts following the issue.

“This is clearly part of the determined push to silence overseas critics,” says Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. “Whether Uighurs, Tibetan, Han, Australian, or American, anyone who is outspokenly critical of the party-state’s increasingly ridiculous policies is going to eventually feel pressure.”

A Turkic-speaking minority, Uighurs in China and abroad have faced increasing repression from the state over the past few years in response to a low-level insurgency in Xinjiang, a reaction rights advocates argue is vastly disproportionate.

In Xinjiang, the government has established a sophisticated surveillance network that mixes informers, guards, and high-tech measures such as a DNA database, and thousands of Uighurs — potentially up to 10 percent of the ethno-national group — now languish in re-education camps.

With Xinjiang locked down, China is now looking to rein in the Uighur diaspora, often outspoken in its opposition to Beijing’s rule. Last year, China ordered some Uighurs studying abroad to return home or risk having their families punished. In Europe, Chinese police contacted Uighurs in France demanding personal information, and China also detained relatives of six U.S.-based reporters working for Radio Free Asia’s Uighur service.

Parhat, an American citizen — who also asked not to be identified by his real name — faced problems similar to Mahmut. In October 2016, police arrested Parhat’s niece under the pretext that her laptop contained copies of forbidden Islamic texts.

She was released after a month, only to be arrested again in June 2017.

Parhat decided to return, in part to arrange new care for his sister, who was ill and had been cared for by his niece. Landing at a major airport in eastern China, security personnel detained him for more than three hours with no explanation.

When he finally arrived at the small city in Xinjiang where most of his family lives, Parhat’s older brother told him that police officers had paid him a visit a few days before his arrival. The police had asked Parhat’s brother to “take him to us.”

Two days later, Parhat was detained by public security officials, who took him to a squalid hotel room, where they confiscated his phone and personal documents, including his passport. Holding a packet of what seemed like hundreds of names, the officials began reading them out loud and asking if he knew people who worked at the Uyghur American Association.

“The guy was telling me how big a crime I committed because I helped those people to escape and join ISIS,” Parhat says.

Parhat was released later that evening on the condition that he agree to continue talking to security officials. Instead, he fled Xinjiang, intending to book an earlier return flight to the United States from a city in eastern China. As Parhat waited to go through security at the airport, officials began to pull Uighurs out of the line. Terrified, Parhat pretended not to speak Chinese and showed his American passport.

After passing for a foreigner, Parhat got through the checkpoint.

Parhat’s brother-in-law was not so lucky. Following Parhat’s escape from Xinjiang, his brother-in-law was arrested. “Nobody knows where he is,” Parhat says.

Alongside the surveillance and detention system, the Chinese government applies another tactic that seeks to turn loved ones and trusted confidants against one another, says James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. “There are cases of Uighurs communicating, clearly under duress, and saying scripted things to deliver a message to relatives or friends abroad,” Millward says.

According to Ilshat Hassan, a prominent Uighur activist in the United States, this practice goes back many years.

In 2009, Hassan — who left Xinjiang in 2003 — received word from his now ex-wife that he would be offered a good job with a high salary, among other benefits, if he returned home.

Later, a former university classmate of Hassan’s, now working as a police officer, called him in 2012 and said he would be reunited with his wife and son if he behaved well.

The pressure campaign may not be entirely new, but technology has made it more powerful.

“It’s the technological element that was not there before,” Millward says. “So many people communicate via WeChat and phones and Skype, [and] because the internet is so controlled now, the Chinese state can know of all communications like that. They know and can visit a family within hours or minutes even of a contact from abroad. Many families have had to delete contact information from their phones.”

For those like Parhat, the consequences of the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang reverberate far beyond its borders. “The whole of Xinjiang was like a prison,” Parhat says. “Once you get in, it’s very hard to go out.

“Relatively few people who have made it through these [re-education camps] and made it out have felt it wise to share that information internationally,” says Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director. “Most of what we know about, from a small handful of sources, really, is people being obliged to sit for hours at a time and listen to lectures about the merits of Xi Jinping thought, for example.”

For those abroad, such as Mahmut, answers about what has become of their relatives sent to the camps are hard to come by.

Sending coded messages to a cousin outside of Xinjiang, Mahmut learned that his mother had been placed in a re-education camp.

Mahmut began to call relatives in Xinjiang, only to find they were too afraid to speak to him. “They don’t answer,” Mahmut says. “Or they hear my voice and don’t talk and cut the connection.”

The cousin also told Mahmut that the Chinese government had recently recalled a distant relative from Turkey, only for the relative to die under mysterious circumstances in a Xinjiang prison.

Then, in January, Mahmut lost contact with his father. Neighbors reported that he, too, was in re-education.

Martin de Bourmont is a journalist based in Washington. He was formerly an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MBourmont