China holding families of exiled Uyghurs as hostages to turn Uyghurs into Spy

Illustration: BBC.

By Tsering Choephel  

DHARAMSALA, 31 July: China is coercing exiled Uyghurs abroad to spy on human rights activists, threatening their families back home with consequences for non-compliance, according to researchers as reported by BBC on Monday.

Six years after fleeing his intensely suppressed and surveilled hometown of East Turkistan, Alim (name changed for security reasons), a Uyghur refugee living in the UK had finally reconnected with his family, albeit under the scrutiny of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP). 

Alim and his mothers’ reunion through a video call, arranged by Chinese authorities, was only a few words and mostly minutes of tears of pain and fear.

However, he later received a call from a Chinese officer to coerce him to play the role of spy for the CCP, pressuring him to attend meetings of Uyghur human rights activists, gather information and pass it back to China, the report says. 

“Whenever there was an anti-China protest in London, they would call me and ask who would be attending,” says Alim adding that he had been offered money and even been suggested to set up a fake-proxy company to evade suspicions about his income source. 

According to Alim, plenty of such espionage tactics camouflaged under business entities had already been set up, the report added.

Taking a bold but painful decision Alim refused to comply with China’s offer and pressure. He said, “I realised that betraying others for the sake of my family would mean selling out my nation, and I couldn’t do that.”

‘Transnational Repression’ – a political repression conducted by an authoritarian state outside its borders – is a common experience of the exiled diaspora of Uyghur refugees in various free countries. 

Dr David Tobin found two-thirds of 48 Uyghurs he had surveyed in the UK had been contacted and pressured by Chinese police to spy and refrain from activism. 

In Turkey where 50,000 Uyghurs live, 80% of those 148 surveyed reported similar threats from Chinese authorities. 

Abdurehim, a Uyghur refugee living in Turkey fears that the effect of ‘Transnational Repression’ disturbs the unity and activism of the exiled Uyghurs. 

“Young people are distancing themselves from Uyghur protests and meetings. They are worried that people there might be spies,” he says.

The insecurity and audacity of CCP is highlighted by the case of Julie Millsap, a US-born activist working with the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington DC. 

Her Han Chinese husband’s family living in China were visited by local police in an attempt to stop her from engaging in activism for Uyghurs.

In response to China’s growing transnational repressive tactics, US senators in March introduced the Transnational Repression Policy Act in the US Congress. If the bill passes the floor tests of Congress, then concrete measures: a dedicated helpline for victims and sanctions against perpetrators will be in place.

In parallel circumstances, thousands of Tibetan families separated since the occupation bear the pain of silence and fear of communication.

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) has stated in its 2022 Annual Report on the human rights situation in Tibet that Human rights situation in Tibet in 2022 has been one of the worst in recent years as China continues to violate and completely disregard the fundamental human rights of Tibetans with impunity through China’s systematic and involuntary mass gathering of DNA samples across Tibet, transnational repression and forced cultural assimilation policy among others.

Calling out China for its transnational repression of the Tibetans, the report says, “Outside Tibet, exiled Tibetan activists and dissidents with relatives in Tibet are particularly vulnerable to the PRC’s multi-year campaign of transnational repression, which aims to silence criticism and expand the PRC’s control over emigrant and diaspora communities.”

Many Chinese dissidents living abroad face a similar threat as well.

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