Two days after Abdujelil Emet sat in the public gallery of the German parliament during a hearing on human rights, he received a telephone call from his sister for the first time in three years, but the call from Xinjiang, China, was anything but a joyous family chat.
It was made at the direction of Chinese security officers, part of a campaign by Beijing to silence criticism of policies that have seen more than 1 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities detained in internment camps.
Emet’s sister began by praising the Chinese Communist Party and making claims of a much improved life under its guidance, before delivering a shock: his brother had died a year earlier.
Emet, 54, was suspicious from the start; he had never given his family his telephone number.
Amid the heartbreaking news and sloganeering, he could hear a flurry of whispers in the background and he demanded to speak to the unknown voice.
Moments later the telephone was handed to a Chinese official who refused to identify himself.
By the end of the conversation, the facade constructed by the Chinese security agent was broken and Emet’s sister wept as she begged him to stop his activism. Then the Chinese official took the telephone again with a final warning.
“You’re living overseas, but you need to think of your family while you’re running around doing your activism work in Germany,” he said. “You need to think of their safety.”
In interviews with more than two dozen Uighurs living across Europe and the US, tales of threats across the world are the rule, not the exception.
Uighurs living in Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and France have all complained of similar threats against family members back in Xinjiang, and some were asked to spy for China.
More than 1 million Uighurs and other minorities are being held in extrajudicial internment camps, according to the UN, with some estimates saying the number is “closer to 3 million.”
Emet, originally from Aksu, Xinjiang, has lived in Germany for more than two decades and is a naturalized citizen. He does volunteer work for the World Uyghur Congress and is a part-time imam in his community.
He has never told his family about his activism, hoping the omission would protect them.
“I will not keep my silence and the Chinese government should not use my family to threaten me,” Emet said. “I was clear with them on the phone: If they harm my family, I will speak out louder and become a bigger problem for the government.”
Most Uighurs remain silent and have had little help from European authorities, but German lawmaker Margarete Bause, who represents Munich, said Chinese interference was unacceptable and urged Uighurs to contact their lawmakers.
“We need to protect visitors to the Bundestag. Observing parliament is a fundamental right in any democracy,” Bause said. “It’s also important for the German public to know how China is trying to exert influence here. The Chinese government threatening people in Germany should never become normalized.”
Bause has been interested in Uighur issues for more than a decade, after she was admonished by Chinese diplomats in 2006 for attending an event hosted by the World Uyghur Congress.
In August she was denied a visa as part of a parliamentary visit to China and the trip was eventually canceled in response.
Beyond discouraging activism, Chinese officials have also tried to recruit Uighurs living abroad to spy on others in their community, asking for photographs of private gatherings, names, telephone numbers, addresses and license plate numbers.
Some are recruited when they go to Chinese diplomatic missions in Europe to request documents, while others are contacted by security agents over WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app.
Emet’s number is likely to have been leaked to Chinese security agents this way, he said, with his number well known in the Uighur community in Munich.
Chinese agents offer cash, the promise of visas to visit Xinjiang or better treatment for family members as a reward, but also dangle the threat of harsh consequences for those same family members if their offers are refused.
Uighurs described having crucial documents withheld by Chinese embassies and consulates unless they agreed.
One Uighur living in Germany, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said a Chinese agent asked for photographs of Eid al-Fitr and other celebrations, and specifically asked for information on Uighurs who had recently arrived in Europe.
The surge in activism among Uighurs overseas is mostly a direct response to the increasingly repressive policies in Xinjiang, and as more people speak out China has doubled its efforts to silence them and control the narrative over what it calls “re-education camps.”
There are some signs China’s campaign to silence Uighurs in Europe is working.
Gulhumar Haitiwaji became an outspoken critic of policies after her mother disappeared into one of the camps in Xinjiang, appearing on French television and starting a petition addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron that garnered nearly half a million signatures, but after threats from Chinese officials targeting her mother, Haitiwaji canceled a planned appearance in March at a human rights summit in Geneva, Switzerland, two sources familiar with her plans said.
Haitiwaji and the organizers of the meeting did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher who focuses on Xinjiang, said European governments needed to do more to protect their citizens from Chinese intimidation.
“The biggest mistake European Union countries make is that once they allow China to get away with something, that emboldens Beijing,” Zenz said. “China has systematic strategies in place and the threats to Uighurs in exile show that. Europe needs its own unified strategy to stand up to China and respond to these threats.”
The Chinese embassy in Berlin did not respond to requests for comment.
On Sept. 27, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (East Timor) joined the UN to become its 191st member. Since then, two other nations have joined, Montenegro on June 28, 2006, and South Sudan on July 14, 2011. The combined total of the populations of these three nations is just more than half that of Taiwan’s 23.7 million people. East Timor has 1.3 million, Montenegro has slightly more than half a million and South Sudan has 10.9 million. They all are members of the UN, yet much more populous Taiwan is denied membership. Of the three, East Timor, as a Southeast Asian
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
Taiwan has for decades singlehandedly borne the brunt of a revanchist, ultra-nationalist China — until now. Ever since Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had the temerity to call for a transparent, international investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has been turning the screws on Canberra. This has included unleashing aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomats to intimidate Australian policymakers, enacting punitive tariffs on its exports, and threatening an embargo on Chinese tourists and students to the nation. A tense situation became more serious on June 19 after Morrison revealed that a “sophisticated state-based actor” — read: China — had launched a
Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is to be Taiwan’s next representative to the US. Hsiao is well versed in international affairs and Taiwan-US relations. In her days as a student in the US, she was a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and served as chief executive of the Democratic Progressive Party’s US mission. She is familiar with a broad spectrum of Taiwanese affairs in the US. FAPA hopes that Hsiao, after taking up her new post, would continue to deepen and normalize relations between Taiwan and the US, and that she would try to get a free-trade agreement