Beyond Xinjiang's camps, China threatens Uighurs globally

Beyond Xinjiang's camps, China threatens Uighurs globally
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It’s well known that China uses its vast surveillance network to monitor its ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and Uighurs. But leaked documents — the Karakax list — from the western region of Xinjiang show that across Europe, exiled Uighurs report surveillance by the Chinese state and threats of harm to their relatives in Xinjiang if they make noise about Chinese repression at home. The Chinese government disputes reports of the records, but it appears this has become part of the new normal for China, even as it continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The leaked documents from Xinjiang show the Chinese government’s reasons for detaining several hundred Uighurs. The Karakax list contains personal data on more than 300 individuals with relatives abroad. The Chinese government has flagged “people who leave the country and do not return” as a security risk in Xinjiang, because of their possible ties to exiled groups deemed as “separatists” by Beijing. Details about family members, social circles and religious beliefs, as well as perceived misdemeanors, are in the file.

This would appear to confirm China’s surveillance and imprisonment of hundreds of individuals from the Karakax region, where Turkic Uighur Muslims make up more than 90 percent of the population. Uighurs in Xinjiang are being punished because of the actions of family members abroad, suggesting that the Chinese state and intelligence agencies have created a surveillance network in the West. The documents also contradict Beijing’s claims that its “re-education” programs in Xinjiang are voluntary and target only violent extremists. Justifications for imprisonment of Muslims include their praying at home, keeping in touch with relatives overseas, and having more children than allowed by the state. 

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Rahima Mehmut, a British activist and singer in the London Uyghur Ensemble, was one of the first to discover classified reports of the existence of detention camps. Mehmut says she lost contact with her family three years ago when they stopped answering her calls, and that even in the U.K., there appears to be little support for Uighurs. According to Mehmut, one student at a British university warned her recently that “our university has already become red,” meaning a Chinese informant is on campus. The small community of Uighurs in the U.K. reportedly have stopped celebrations of their freedom from repression because of the fear that Chinese spies are everywhere.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which works to protect the diaspora’s rights, claims that China targets Uighurs living in the West and demands information on their community, promising safety for their relatives in Xinjiang in return. Kerim Zair, a Uighur who moved from Norway to London, says he received an anonymous call a few years ago: “They requested that I work for them. I rejected them. … I don’t know how they got my number.” 

Classified documents known as the China Cables, accessed last year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, throw light on how the Chinese government uses technology to control Uighurs worldwide.  

According to the China Cables, China uses sophisticated tools for population control and mass surveillance with a program called Integrated Joint Operations Platform, or IJOP. This platform aggregates data about individuals, often without their knowledge, and flags data it deems potentially threatening or “suspicious.” The Chinese government uses IJOP to compile databases of intimate information from a range of sources, including national identification documents, Xinjiang’s countless checkpoints, closed-circuit cameras with facial recognition, spyware that   police force Uighurs to install on their phones, Wi-Fi sniffers that collect identifying information on smartphones and computers, and package delivery. This technology tracks relatives of Uighurs who are based in the West and provides an opening to the Chinese state to infiltrate Uighur communities abroad.

Every two months, the WUC receives more than a hundred reports of Communist Party of China (CPC) officials allegedly harassing Uighurs living outside China to inform on their own people. This has a psychological impact on these exiles, who may break down because of the pressure. Families are being targeted in Xinjiang if their relatives abroad criticize the CPC. One report, based on interviews with 12 Uighurs in the U.K., found that most of them developed problems such as paranoia, PTSD, depression, anxiety and night terrors.

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A larger worry for Uighur rights activists is the health of those interned in Xinjiang. Activists say the cramped, unhygienic conditions in China’s concentration camps allow for the unrestricted spread of COVID-19. During a World Health Organization (WHO) fact-finding mission this year, Chinese government officials played down the risks of coronavirus in the Muslim-majority region, saying most of those in the camps had “graduated” and been released. Records show that by early 2019, most individuals on the Karakax list had been allowed to leave the camps. However, Uighur activists outside China say they still cannot contact relatives in the country. The United Nations estimates about 1 million people are being held in the camps, and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged China to grant a team of monitors unfettered access to Xinjiang later this year.

Those who have been released from the camps reportedly have been relocated to other parts of China to work as slave laborers in factories. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute alleges that authorities transferred thousands of Uighurs to work in factories producing goods for some of the world’s biggest brands, while keeping them under close watch. Authorities in Xinjiang, and the companies accused of benefiting from forced labor, say the Australian report was part of a smear campaign.

While China continues its war with the U.S. over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still concern over its treatment of Uighurs, both in Xinjiang and those living in exile. The China Cables and Karakax list appear to provide evidence of the extent to which the Chinese government uses technology to suppress and persecute Uighurs across the world, threatening their culture, way of life and very existence.

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China.

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.