When Yashar Yalkun answered a call from an unknown number the voice on the other end of line caused his heart to soar: it was his mother in Xinjiang, back in China.
He had not heard from her for three years and the 29-year-old Uighur rights advocate, who has been given asylum in Belgium, had had no idea whether she was alive or dead. Yet the call was a set up by the security services; minutes later the conversation ended with his mother sobbing down the phone after pleading with him to cease his work as an activist.
“She couldn’t stop crying,” he told The Times. “Whether through her fear of the Chinese authorities monitoring the call, or my words that were hurting her, I don’t know. She said that if I wanted my father, my mother and my sister to live well and stay alive then I had to stop what I am doing. I said I would never stop my activities and was no longer a relative of anyone who would ask me to do so. It was the only answer I could give her, though it hurt us both.”
Activists have mounted protests in Istanbul and other cities around the world
Mr Yalkun was unsurprised by the tactic behind the call, or the presence of a silent third party throughout the conversation. Since the start of Beijing’s renewed repression of the mostly Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang in 2017, activists among the diaspora in Europe and North America have found themselves the targets of an intensifying campaign by the Chinese authorities to stifle dissent, involving threatening phone calls, emotional blackmail, texts and the recruitment of spies from within Uighur communities living abroad.
The use of family members in China to call up activists in exile, in conversations controlled by the security agencies — a tactic human rights organisations refer to as “hostage diplomacy” — is now widespread and there is a growing sense among Uighurs that no corner of the world is free from state repression.
The campaign began in 2017, amid Beijing’s intensifying crackdown in Xinjiang, the Uighur heartland in western China. As many as 1.6 million Uighurs live abroad but few have been able to exchange phone calls, text messages or emails with relatives back home. More than a million Uighurs are detained in camps in Xinjiang; an injustice that has pushed Uighurs who had lived quietly in Europe for decades to speak out.
The activists became more numerous and better organised, running workshops and staging public meetings, backed by social-media campaigns to illuminate the plight of their people back home.
The Turkish diaspora has refused to remain quiet on the subject of repression back home
“The start of the detention camps in 2017 sent a message that staying silent was not an option, that our families would not be left in peace by our silence,” said Zumretay Arkin, a spokeswoman for the World Uighur Congress (WUC), a charity based in Munich that represents the Uighur community abroad. “Silence had gained nothing and so the diaspora began to speak out publicly.”
But Beijing was watching, and as the activists became more vocal in their criticism of China’s policies, drawing the attention of the international community, they began using more brazen tactics to silence them.
Activists say that this includes low-level harassment online using Twitter bots and Facebook trolls, ominous phone calls and forms of spying. Sweden’s state security service, the Säkerhetspolisen, has a term for China’s penetration of the Uighur and Tibetan diaspora in Europe: flyktingspionage, or refugee espionage.
The orchestrated call from Mr Yalkun’s mother was typical of the pattern. Like most Uighur activists living abroad he has deliberately broken all contact with his family at home, wary that any continuing relationship would be manipulated by the Chinese authorities.
“It was a total severance with my family back home in 2015,” he said. “Since then I had no idea whether my mother and father were even still alive.”
The lack of communication with his mother had been especially painful: his parents were divorced and she had raised him alone since he was five years old. The timing of the call, in June last year, was no coincidence: two months earlier Mr Yalkun had been appointed president of the Belgian Uighurs Association, raising his profile and his activist activity.
An ethnic Uighur girl prepares for the Corban festival, also known as the feast of the sacrifice
At first the conversation began normally enough. “But then my mother started saying that the police had shown her interviews I had given and things I had written online. Then she started saying ‘why are you doing this? You can’t go against China! We are living a fantastic life. You received an education in China so you cannot betray your country. We love the Chinese Communist Party. We love the Chinese government’. She asked me to stop. Then she started crying.”
In turn Mr Yalkun became confrontational and cold, knowing that any expression of empathy would only increase the power of state manipulation against him, protracting his family’s ordeal. “I knew who was behind it. I knew the reasons why she was calling me like this. I know how the Chinese authorities work, how they threaten people,” he said.
The conversation ended in weeping, and a cold farewell. Mr Yalkun said he had no choice. “I knew that otherwise, as a Uighur, if I continued the contact with my family at home, then the Chinese authorities would use me, step by step they would threaten me, or push me to work with them. The best thing in our experience is to cut the family relationship first time they try contact.”
The international focus on China’s mass internment of Uighurs in detention camps — Beijing says they are for “re-education”; human-rights groups describe them as concentration camps — comes amid widening confrontation between China and the US, EU and Britain over a broad range of issues including Hong Kong, security concerns over Huawei technology, trade, national security, industrial espionage and human rights abuses. The United Nations has confirmed that at least one million people are held in re-education facilities and detention camps; about one in six of the adult Muslim population of Xinjiang. They are forced to learn Mandarin and instructed in Communist Party propaganda.
Video shot by drone has revealed the brutal conditions endured by many of the one million Uighurs in detention camps
The scale of the repression, which has included cases of forced sterilisation and abortion, has reverberated across the world on many levels, with allegations that the forced labour of Uighurs is connected to the supply chains of some of the world’s best-known fashion retailers. There are claims that one in five cotton garments on the world’s clothing market is tainted by Uighur forced labour.
The more attention has turned to the Uighurs’ plight, the greater the efforts to silence activists abroad. At the EU-China summit in Brussels on April 9, 2019, Chinese officials photographed the faces of Uighurs and Tibetan protesters. A Chinese consular car with blacked-out windows was seen trailing protesters at a demonstration in the Belgian capital in 2018.
Uighurs living in Germany, Sweden, Finland and Belgium have been asked by officials in Xinjiang to spy on their neighbours and friends in Europe or to reveal sensitive personal information such as their home addresses, employers or national ID numbers.
A bleak “re-education” camp in Artux, in China's western Xinjiang region
“It generates mistrust among Uighur communities, in which some people won’t dare to express political opinion even though they live far from China in democratic countries,” said Ms Arkin of the WUC. Her father was pressured to spy on his community in Canada during a visit to China 20 years after he had left. “It is China’s intent to generate this kind of mistrust and fear.”
Western academics whose research focuses on Xinjiang have also felt the pressure of the Chinese campaign. In February last year an academic panel discussion at Strasbourg University was disrupted when Chinese consular officials hijacked the Q&A session, preventing participants from asking questions, and discrediting the speakers, two of whom were Uighurs. A Chinese student had earlier threatened to report a university academic to the Chinese embassy for organising the discussion.
Vanessa Frangville, a French scholar at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) who was speaking at the event, said: “It was a traumatic incident, but not an isolated one. It was part of a wave.”
Belgium has repeatedly been a focus of Beijing’s efforts to counter the Uighur narrative, despite having a relatively small diaspora of 3,000. In November 2018 officials delivered a letter from the Chinese ambassador there to the ULB a fortnight after the university expressed its online support for Uighur academics. ‘The Embassy hopes that the University will be able to avoid being misled by false information,” the ambassador wrote, “and withdraw from its website the motion and other unfounded articles on Xinjiang, in the general interest of the Belgian-Chinese friendly co-operation.’
Yashar Yalkun is president of the Belgium Uighurs Association
Rights organisations say the Chinese campaign abroad is intensifying. “There’s a trend and it is increasing,” said Peter Irwin, senior advocacy and communications officer at the Uighur Human Rights Project. “It tracks the attention to the internment camps. The more the attention from the press and from governments, so the more the intimidation from the Chinese.
“The aim is to create a chilling effect on the speech of Uighurs abroad. What they are trying to do in some ways is replicate the system of control that exists in Xinjiang today on foreign soil. So it seems there’s no place that’s safe for Uighurs anymore.”
Activists face a delicate balance in trying to protect their families at home, while promoting the issue of Uighur rights abroad. Some are silenced, but many continue with their activities regardless.
“Of course it hurts,” said Mr Yalkun, who remains outspoken. “But when you think of a few million Uighur people as your own parents, as your own brothers and sisters, all of them affected by this too, then you feel better in continuing.”
On May 1, Gulzire Taschmemet, 33, an activist living in Munich, received a call on an unknown number from her younger sister Gulgine for the first time in more than two years. Gulgine had been released from a detention camp after being arrested in Ghulja, northwestern Xinjiang, in January 2018.
Gulzire Taschmemet holds a photo of her sister Gulgine, who was detained for two years in Xinjiang
Other family members, including a 29-year-old female cousin, are serving sentences of between 11 and 19 years for offences the family say relate to contact with the Uighur diaspora abroad — so when the surprise call came through, Gulzire did not know how to react.
“I was very scared and nervous, yet so glad to hear her voice after so long,” she said. “I didn’t ask any questions, I was just listening. My sister said: ‘We are all good here and I am working as a teacher – how is your life?’ It was unnatural, staged. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her the one question I really wanted: where have you been for the last two years?”
Towards the end of the call Gulzire’s mother joined the conversation and referred to the call “being facilitated”. There was no explicit warning to the activist to stop her work, yet it was there in the farewell. “My mum just told me to take care of myself,” she added, “and then she warned me not to get involved with ‘unnecessary trouble’.”
She has not heard from her family since, nor dared to call the mystery number back.