How China is targeting its Uyghur ethnic minority abroad
In a broad campaign to increase pressure on Uyghurs overseas, including those in Canada, Chinese authorities are using coercive measures on family members, recruiting people to spy and sending threats to get many from the ethnic minority group to return to China, Nathan VanderKlippe reports
For days before she fled, Aynur hid. "We couldn't go anywhere public because if police recognized us, they would immediately arrest us," she said.
Then, on the day she had picked to board a flight from Cairo to Istanbul, she left home just after 2 a.m., hoping the cover of night would shield her identity – and that the early hour would mean fewer police on patrol.
On paper, Aynur had no reason to be afraid. Her papers were in order, allowing her to pursue a lengthy course of Islamic studies. She had attended university in Egypt since 2013.
But Aynur is Uyghur, a member of an ethnic minority in China's western Xinjiang region that has been blamed for fostering radicalism and perpetrating acts of terror. This summer, in response to what students believe was Chinese influence, Egyptian authorities began to detain Uyghurs.
Many men vanished, and months later some have yet to reappear. At the airport, Aynur – whose real name is not being used because she fears reprisals – witnessed several being taken away. She and other women were left alone, and she was able to escape to Turkey.
But what happened in Egypt this summer was just one part of a broad campaign to increase pressure on Uyghurs overseas that has touched numerous countries, including Canada. Chinese authorities have demanded that many Uyghurs return to China and have used coercive measures on family members in Xinjiang to achieve that goal. In some cases, Beijing has even pushed women living overseas to shed their veils and abide by Chinese restrictions on Muslim dress. Meanwhile, people in countries such as Turkey have been recruited to spy on Uyghurs. And an activist in London has received threats that have him questioning whether he is safe in Britain.
China has denied mistreating Uyghurs. This year, Xinjiang deputy foreign publicity director Ailiti Saliyev has called them the happiest Muslims in the world, accusing those who suggest otherwise of collaborating "with hostile Western forces to wantonly spread rumours, misrepresent, vilify and besmirch Xinjiang in the overseas media."
In Xinjiang, however, Chinese authorities have exerted heavy pressure on Uyghurs, restricting travel, inspecting cellphones and installing an increasingly capable surveillance regime that employs facial recognition to track people. This year, authorities have also taken away numerous Uyghurs for re-education – in a bid to rid them of religious and political beliefs deemed unhelpful or dangerous.
The overseas pressure has stemmed from the same effort, students and activists believe. Those who return home often vanish, raising suspicions that they, too, have been sent for re-education.
China wants Uyghurs "closer to home, where they can be more carefully monitored," said James Leibold, a specialist in Chinese ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Australia. The acuteness of the pressure this year appears to be related to a desire for stability ahead of the Communist Party congress that just ended in Beijing.
"The key question everyone is asking is: Will anything change after the congress is over? Will things lighten up a bit?" Prof. Leibold said.
But what's happening with Uyghurs fits with a broader Chinese effort.
Even as he augmented his power during the recent party congress, President Xi Jinping said in a speech that "overseas students are an important part of our personnel and a new focus of united front work," a reference to long-standing Chinese attempts to exert influence abroad.
"There's a general trend to try to pull anybody in the Chinese community – and this would include Uyghurs as part of the Chinese nation – to completely fall in line," Prof. Leibold said. Authorities in Xinjiang appear to have been given additional resources, he said, "to either forcefully bring people back to China or to try to silence them or ensure that they parrot the party line."
Aynur's two brothers were sent to re-education centres, and her father was arrested. Her father's crime, she was told, was failing to ensure she returned to China.
She has refused to go back and lives in Turkey with little money or hope.
"I am struggling," she said, adding that she wants to go to Canada. "I want to live in a free country."
But Chinese pressure has reached there, too.
"Why does China want Uyghur students to return home? They are afraid of a Western mind," said Rukiye Turdush, a Uyghur advocate who lives in Canada. "China thinks these girls were already infected with democracy."
Ms. Turdush has spoken in recent weeks with Uyghur students in Canada and the United States whose families have been ordered to bring them home. Most were too frightened to speak with a journalist. One student also refused Ms. Turdush's entreaties to bring her situation to the attention of Canadian authorities.
"She firmly believes that disclosing this issue will be very harmful for her parents," Ms. Turdush said. "She is scared as hell."
The Globe and Mail spoke with one Uyghur student who studies in Canada. The student's family was told this year to bring their child home, although authorities relented when the student provided documentation showing a valid study-abroad visa and enrolment in a program unrelated to religion.
But the student's spouse and children have been unable to come to Canada because authorities seized their passports last year.
Now the student must decide whether to remain in Canada, away from family, or return home to almost certain detention.
Fly to Xinjiang and "it's definite I'm going to re-education camp," said the student, who knows others who were taken away after spending time abroad. "I'm so scared because re-education camp – you don't know how long you will stay there."
Though these students live in North America, to them it feels "like they are living in China," Ms. Turdush said.
In Australia, some women have even stopped wearing Muslim dress because their families in China fear reprisals if authorities see pictures of their children overseas in clothing that has been banned in Xinjiang.
"A few of the ladies took off their scarves and said, 'Even though we are living in a free country, Australia, we still have to obey China because our relatives and fathers are in trouble,'" said Sofia, a Uyghur social worker whose clients include Uyghur students at local universities. She asked that her surname not be used.
At least one Uyghur student has been completely cut off by her family because they are afraid of associating with a child abroad.
"A mother told her daughter, 'I don't know you any more,' " Sofia said.
Ruptured communications have also cut off flows of money to Uyghurs seeking refuge in places such as Turkey, where some have been forced to sleep in mosques and sift through garbage for food, Sofia added. "They are just living like homeless people."
Meanwhile, China appears to be seeking new ways to monitor Uyghurs in Turkey, where activist Can Uludag received Facebook and e-mail entreaties this summer from a person identified as "Alan Leung."
"I will buy information from you about uyghur," said one message shared with The Globe and Mail. "all information about Uyghurs," another message said.
Mr. Uludag was sent a separate Word document that resembles an offer of employment as a "correspondent/information collector."
"Good reports and articles are worth 200USD-500USD," the document promises. "Our other investigators in Turkey have very high salaries, so income completely is depended upon your efforts."
The document does not name the employer. When Mr. Uludag inquired, he was told not to ask too many questions. He believes Alan Leung comes from China. He eventually blocked the sender, whom he called "stupid" for thinking "I would sell innocent people for money."
And in the U.K., one Uyghur exile believes Beijing is behind a threatening recent conversation.
Early this fall, Enver Tohti was invited to a London coffee shop by a stranger. The man knew about Mr. Tohti's friends, recent travels, even his taste in literature.
Then the conversation turned.
"Campaigning for human rights is fine. But now somehow you crossed the red line," the man told Mr. Tohti, a surgeon who has been outspoken in accusing China of persecuting Uyghurs.
"I asked him: 'Is this red line drawn by the Chinese?' He was smiling," Mr. Tohti said. It was not clear what the red line was.
The man continued: "If you continue your work, we cannot guarantee your safety in this country."
Mr. Tohti took it as a threat. "The situation in China is very unpredictable now, so anything could happen," he said.
Nathan VanderKlippe is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Beijing.
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