Uyghurs living in democratic countries continue to face threats and intimidation from China
In a recent report published by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, the result of the survey shows that more than 90% of the Uyghurs living in democratic countries feel like they have been threatened. In interviews with two Uyghurs, they talk about how they learned to accumulate experiences to deal with the threat and surveillance imposed by the Chinese government.
Over the last few years, Nurgul Sawut, an Uyghur community leader living in Australia, has been trying to show the international community how the Chinese government has been cracking down on Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. But since 2019, she has also become the target of Beijing’s intimidation.
She still remembers when she found out that her phone began to overheat easily and the battery of her phone would also drain very fast. Sometimes when she turned on her phone, some “disgusting photos” would pop up from her phone.
“I got scared and wondered what was going on,” she said. “That’s what triggered the alarm in me and I reset and updated my phone and everything else. Even with that, the second time around, the main attack on my phone was through WhatsApp and Facebook.”
Since she was used to tracking the Facebook campaigns and posts through her phone, one day she suddenly realized that at least half of the friend requests that she had received were from suspicious accounts. “They ended up having access to my mobile phone and I could clearly see their IP addresses being fishy,” she said.
“People did help me identify some of them and by the time I noticed, there were already over 200 fishy cyber trolls on my list and having access to my phone. I had to delete them one by one and blacklist them,” she added.
Additionally, whenever she shared interviews that she’s done on Facebook or Twitter, she would immediately receive a large number of verbal attacks. “It’s almost like psychological torture,” she described.
“They deliberately referred to things about my mom or my sister, and my family life and my private life and my child. They even referred to things back in my university years in China. Whoever wrote those messages under my posts had done some decent research about me so I knew these are not average people,” she added.
She describes these attacks as a form of defamation against her. She said it was alarming when she realized how the Chinese government can launch attacks against her even when she is abroad. “Since I was dealing with a lot of issues at once, some of the issues I can kind of figure out right away but some of the issues actually take some time to become crystal clear for me to understand what’s going on,” she said.
After that, Sawut said her phone was targeted by malware again. According to her, the Samsung phone that she had was so overheated that “the surface literally peeled out.” Since she began using a new laptop and new router, Sawut says she feels much safer but she remains very careful about the digital security of her devices.
“I have to keep myself safe and also the community members safe. After experiencing all these things, my knowledge about cyber security actually improved. It works both ways,” she said.
Most Uyghurs living in democratic countries feel threatened
In fact, Sawut’s experience isn’t unique. According to a survey published by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs in November, more than 90% of the Uyghurs living in democratic countries feel like they have been threatened, and around 73.5% of the respondents said they had experienced digital risks, threats, or other forms of online harassment.
Additionally, many Uyghurs expressed interest in increasing their security knowledge. Despite the high level of interest, only 33.8% of the respondents thought that they knew who to contact when asking for advice from a security expert while 50% of them haven’t received enough training in digital security.
The survey results also show that 41.2% of the respondents didn’t know how to report a security incident, while 30.9% of them do not feel comfortable reporting security issues. The result also shows that only 44.1% of the respondents think their host government or police would take their case seriously, while 20.5% felt that the security problems they faced would be fixed.
The “love” and death threat from Facebook
After moving from Turkey to Norway in 2019, Uyghur activist Abduweli Ayup has been receiving different kinds of threats from the Chinese national security department. According to him, he received a call on Messenger in January 2020, and the caller warned him not to talk about or share any content related to the Karakax List, a leaked document from Xinjiang in early 2020.
In the same year, he received another call from a stranger on Messenger, and the caller asked him to provide his phone number and information about the Uyghur community in Norway. He declined.
In March 2021, a woman suddenly started sending messages to him in Uyghur and told him she loved him. She also asked about where does he live. This happened after he began to work with a human rights organization to solve asylum issues faced by Uyghurs in Thailand.
“I called her but she didn’t answer the phone,” he said. “She kept writing. These messages are in Uyghur but the Uyghur is not very correct. I blocked her. Then, another woman living in Sanya, Hainan Province in China called me on Messenger. She asked me the same questions and I blocked her too.”
In October 2021, another Uyghur suddenly contacted him and asked him if he wanted to get in touch with his family members in Xinjiang. The person also asked Ayup to provide his own phone number. After Ayup checked his Facebook profile, he found out that he went to Turkey in July 2021. However, given the strict border control in China and the strict control over Uyghurs in general, Ayup thinks it was unusual for an Uyghur to be traveling to Turkey around that time.
Soon after that, Ayup received a death threat from another Uyghur. According to him, the Uyghur man first left comments under his Facebook post, accusing him of being a smuggler who frauded people in Xinjiang and took money to Turkey. After Ayup checked his profile, he found out that the guy is in Kashgar.
He said more than 20 Uyghurs in Norway have received calls from the Chinese embassy in Norway in 2020. He thinks it’s unacceptable for the Chinese government to call Uyghurs in Norway. “I think Uyghurs are aware of the potential risks and their reactions are overwhelming,” he said.
“One day when I was walking on the street in Bergen and talking to some Uyghurs, a Chinese-looking person was just a few meters away from us. The Uyghur in front of me stopped and said there was a Chinese guy,” he said.
“I said Bergen is a very touristy city and it’s normal to have Chinese tourists. However, he thinks the guy could be a spy. This is the result of the Chinese government’s successful campaign. All of the Uyghurs in the diaspora feel like someone is trying to spy on them and share their information with the Chinese government,” he added.
Family members in Xinjiang become leverage to threaten overseas Uyghurs
Apart from dealing with all kinds of threats and surveillance imposed by the Chinese government, experts say family members in Xinjiang have also become the leverage to threaten overseas Uyghurs. Sawut said her mother, two sisters, and her nephew have been arrested by the local government in Xinjiang multiple times.
Additionally, her childhood friend who is now a state security officer in Xinjiang was even sent to her house to interrogate her family members. “They asked anyone who has a slight connection with me and let them publicly denounce me. It’s a really broad and targeted attack,” she said.
“My mom passed away this year on May 29. That’s also the outcome of a targeted attack. That afternoon, she was taken to the hospital in a police car and she had so-called ‘breathing issues.’ My mom was physically ok and healthy the day before, but she passed away in the car on her way to the hospital and by the time that she had reached the hospital, they clearly said she was gone,” she added.
Ayup’s family members in Xinjiang have also been arrested by police since 2017 and he has also lost contact with his family members since then. Sources said his brother and sister were sentenced to 14 years and 12 years in jail in June 2021. His niece also reportedly died in a detention center 10 months after she was arrested.
Bradley Jardine, the director of research at the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, says family members in Xinjiang are being used as leverage against Uyghurs residing overseas, and digital communication has expanded risks not only to Uyghurs residing in democracies but actually their family members back home.
“There have been cases of malware that has been planted on phones which can then be used to track the communication between Uyghurs overseas and Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” he said. “Then that could result in their arrest, detention, or interrogation.”
According to Jardine, democracy can really help and make it clearer in terms of how Uyghurs can report these forms of intimidation and how they can have officers who can deal with these specific issues. Additionally, he thinks governments in democratic countries can also help Uyghurs have better training programs in terms of digital awareness and adopting methods for keeping themselves secure.
Sawut points out that Uyghurs abroad have generally been experiencing ongoing mental stress, but she thinks Uyghurs need to be strong as they learn to accumulate experiences through traumatic events and keep going.
“I personally went to hell and came back but I’m still here talking to the media,” she said. “Every time one traumatic event happens it makes me even stronger and wiser. I learn from those events and that’s keeping me going and giving me more energy.”This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.