After three long years, Abdujelil Emet, an Uighur activist living in Germany, received a call from his sister in China’s Xinjiang. The call was anything but joyous. It was made at the direction of Chinese security officers. Emet’s sister begged him to stop activism. The Chinese official then took the phone and said, “You’re living overseas, but you need to think of your family while you’re running around doing your activism work in Germany”.
China’s atrocities on Uighur Muslims, living in Xinjiang are known to the world. But now, reports have emerged which show that across Europe, exiled Uighurs report surveillance by Beijing and threats of harm to their relatives in the region if they make noise about Chinese repression.
In a similar incident, France-based outspoken critic of Chinese policies in Xinjiang Gulhumar Haitiwaji had to cancel a scheduled appearance at the human rights summit in Geneva after her mother disappeared into one of the camps in Xinjiang.
More than two dozen Uighur activists living in Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and France have all complained of similar threats against family members back in Xinjiang.
With an aim to discourage activism, Chinese officials have also tried to recruit Uighurs living abroad to spy on activists in their community, asking for photos of private gatherings, names, phone numbers, addresses etc. Some are recruited when they visit Chinese diplomatic missions in Europe to request documents and others are contacted by security agents over WeChat application.
Chinese agents offer cash, promise visas to visit Xinjiang or better treatment of family members as a reward. But on denial, they threaten of harsh consequences for their family members.
Uighurs have also complained of their crucial documents being held by authorities at the Chinese embassies and consulates unless they agreed to do what they said.
It seems Uighur Muslims, not only in Xinjiang, but also overseas have to fight for their voices to be heard amidst Chinese Communist Party’s harassment and a worldwide increase in Chinese state-sponsored disinformation.
Various Uighur organizations in different countries have stepped up their activities, ranging from collection of funds, launching of social media campaign to filing a law suit against the Chinese government.
Two Uighur diaspora activists Arslan Hidayet and Abdugheni Sabit launched a new social-media campaign with the hashtag #HearUyghurs on April 17, 2020. The campaign highlights the trauma experienced by the worldwide Uighur diaspora. Some diaspora members are also posting silent videos on social media that look like testimonials.
The recent surge in activism among Uighurs overseas is mostly a direct response to the increasingly repressive Chinese policies in Xinjiang. As more people speak out, China has doubled its efforts to silence them and control the narrative over what it calls “re-education camps”.
Xinjiang, located in China’s autonomous western region, has a population of about 10 million citizens, many of whom are Uighur or other ethnic minorities. Assistant Secretary of US Defense Randall Schriver said in May that “at least a million but likely closer to 3 million citizens” out of Xinjiang’s population have been held in detention centers, and satellite images have identified at least 465 facilities in Xinjiang.
Many international human rights organizations have also accused China of cracking down on the Uighurs by sending them to mass detention camps, and interfering in their religious activities.