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China's intimidation and endless pursuit of ideological compliance

China's intimidation and endless pursuit of ideological compliance
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From H&M to Nike, from global airlines to hotel chains, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long leveraged its burgeoning position in the global economy to pressure foreign companies into becoming messengers of its authoritarian ideology. Such corporate intimidation has forced international brands from various industries – beauty, travel, entertainment, sports and more – to forego their freedoms of opinion and expression and to remain complicit in mass human rights atrocities simply to stay in the CCP’s good graces and have unfettered access to the Chinese market.

There are many tactics of the Chinese Communist Party’s long-arm intimidation, all of which aim to advance the CCP’s agenda in its endless pursuit of ideological compliance. In addition to corporate intimidation, there is another form of intimidation that deserves more attention — and that is the intimidation of overseas activists by holding their family and loved ones hostage.

Widespread human rights violations, discrimination and marginalization of the Uighur people conducted by the CCP in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur region have been ongoing for decades. In recent years, the CCP’s abuses have severely escalated — turning the Uighur region into an open-air prison and a dystopian surveillance state where freedoms have become non-existent for the Uighur people. Between 1 to 3 million Uighurs in the region, along with Kazakhs, Tajiks and other ethnic minorities, have been separated from their families and arbitrarily detained in China’s mass network of internment camps. They are subject to mental and bodily torture, sterilizations, political indoctrination classes and forced labor. As the CCP continues its campaign of genocide in Xinjiang, Uighur activists abroad in the diaspora are taking matters into their own hands and speaking up about the relentless persecution of their people. According to Uighur activist Jewher Ilham, “Every Uyghur person in the diaspora has at least one of their family members locked up in a Chinese prison or sent to a ‘reeducation camp.’”

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As the Chinese regime uses its standing in the global economy to silence foreign companies, it is holding families and loved ones hostage to stifle and punish individuals living in democratic countries as a form of retaliation for their activism. On April 9, the CCP issued a press release with videos featuring relatives of diasporic Uighur activists. In the videos, relatives seemingly echoed CCP propaganda and testified against their loved ones overseas — accusing them of concocting rumors and engaging in criminal activity. Based on the CCP’s past track record on forced confessions and forced testimonials, these “interviews” were likely highly manipulated, staged and filmed under duress. In addition to these videos, the press release smeared Gulchehra Hoja, an American citizen and renowned Radio Free Asia journalist of Uighur descent, by falsely accusing her of “joining [a] terrorist organization.”

The CCP’s main message to overseas activists in these videos is clear: Your families in China are our hostages. If you don’t stop your activism, we can easily harm your family to punish you.

The Chinese regime’s intimidation of families and loved ones in order to silence dissent and demand ideological compliance is not new. It dates back to as early as the 1960’s during the Cultural Revolution, when the regime coerced and encouraged family members – even children – to spy on each other and speak up against their own blood relatives if they observed “anti-revolutionary” acts, ultimately sowing a deep distrust between communities and families. This tactic has evolved over time, becoming yet another instance of how the Chinese government is increasingly trying to control matters outside its own borders. 

Salient examples in recent years include intimidating Tibetans-in-exile to remain silent to secure the safety of their relatives, threatening the family of Chinese dissident artist Badiucao in order to shutter his 2018 exhibition in Hong Kong, releasing “proof-of-life” videos in which relatives are coerced to lie about their wellbeing in China, and secret sentencings on trumped-up charges, such as in the case of Gulshan Abbas, sister of Uighur activist Rushan Abbas.

Having paid attention to the CCP’s intimidation tactics for the past several decades, many Hong Kongers who have fled the city, such as pro-democracy activist-in-exile Nathan Law, have made the heartbreaking decision to cut all ties with their family and loved ones in order to best protect them as they continue their advocacy overseas.

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Such intimidation tactics are expected to intensify, especially as July 1, 2021 – the CCP’s centenary, a milestone for achieving President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” – and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approach. Through weaponizing their economic and political clout, the regime’s tight grip will only get tighter in order to continue its control of the party’s narrative and global image.

Despite these threats, Uighurs living abroad remain dedicated to advocating for the freedoms of Uighur people — from sharing their stories with global news platforms to testifying before the U.S. Congress and speaking at international conferences. The U.S. government – along with democracies around the world, civil society and international corporations – must stand in solidarity with these courageous dissidents and take strong action to hold the CCP accountable for their egregious abuses and intimidation tactics. After all, these activists are not doing anything wrong — they are simply exercising their fundamental freedoms.

Jenny Wang is a strategic adviser at the Human Rights Foundation (@hrf) and the co-author of HRF's new report on corporate intimidation and censorship in China at hrf.org.