In an extensive report published this week, Reuters has revealed how the Chinese communist state threatens and intimidates foreign citizens of ethnic Uighur extraction into spying on fellow Uighurs abroad.
Multiple Uighurs living abroad tell Reuters that their family members have been arrested and abused, and they themselves have been threatened with never seeing their family again if they do not feed China’s intelligence apparatus with information on politically active Uighur groups. While this tactic is not unheard of for the Chinese government with many other groups that pose a political challenge to communist hegemony, those affected say the Chinese have succeeded in controlling the global Uighur population at an astronomical rate.
“If the infiltration of the Tibetans is 80 percent, then the infiltration of the Uighurs is 100 percent… So far here in the U.K., I’ve had four Uighurs confess to me that they have been spying,” Enver Tohti, a Uighur refugee in the UK, tells Reuters.
The Uighur minority is native to the western regions of China and is particularly prominent in western Xinjiang province, where the government has imposed a series of laws many say are intended to oppress local culture and bring it into compliance with mainstream Han Chinese culture.
Uighurs are a majority Muslim population. The Chinese government has made several efforts to curb the practice of Islam in Xinjiang, including banning the public observance of Ramadan, banning burqas and Islamic beards in public, and forcing shops to sell alcohol and cigarettes, which are haram.
Canadian citizen Erkin Kurban, who has lived outside of Xinjiang for 13 years, says that repression extends outside of China’s borders. Visiting his family for the first time in 13 years, he found himself forced to undergo police interrogation once a week for the duration of his trip. During his first visit, Kurban “was grilled on his activities in Canada and the United States. His interrogators urged him to send reports on fellow Uighur exiles when he went back, leaving him with a stark choice: Spy for China or never come back to see his family again.”
Kurban notes that he was explicitly told his Canadian citizenship did not protect him, he told Reuters: “When you’re here, we can do whatever we want.”
In response to the Reuters report, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying, “There will always be some people with ulterior motives and forces who do not wish to see a stable and harmonious Xinjiang. Their plots are doomed to fail.”
The report comes on the heels of deteriorating diplomatic relations between China and France after the Chinese government expelled reporter Ursula Gauthier from the nation for reporting on the plight of the Uighur minority. In an editorial, state-run publication the Global Times condemned the nation of France for Gauthier’s reporting. “Chinese media always denounces terrorism. But the Western media prides itself on endorsing the freedom of speech and so-called objective reports,” the article states, “The ideological bias embedded in such values makes these media see China’s anti-terror efforts through a twisted lens.”
The Chinese government has, through its media, admitted to some discrimination, however. The Global Times published an article this week noting that “ethnic minorities sometimes face discrimination in security checks at railway stations, airports or ports outside ethnic autonomous regions in China,” citing a report by a Tibetan legislator.
The Chinese government has insisted that the Uighur population is riddled with terrorists, particularly Islamic extremists. Xinjiang is home to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group with ties to Al Qaeda, and has been specifically targeted in propaganda by the Islamic State. The Chinese government has claimed that up to 600 Chinese nationals of Uighur extraction have left China to join the Islamic State’s terrorist machinations in Syria and Iraq.
Uighurs have also been involved in recent jihadists plots. Most recently, the government of Indonesia arrested three suspected jihadists, one an ethnic Uighur, after collecting sufficient evidence that they were planning a suicide bombing in Jakarta.
There is evidence that the Islamic State has moved on from the Uighur minority, however. Earlier in December, the group released a Mandarin-language nashid, or fight song, used to entice Muslims to join the jihad. While Uighurs do not speak Mandarin, one Chinese Muslim ethnic minority does: the Hui, who are so trusted by the Chinese government that Beijing has paid for thousands to make the requisite hajj to Saudi Arabia as a gesture of good will towards Muslims.