The cost of speaking up against China
Qelbinur Sedik was making breakfast when the video call came, and the sight of her sister’s name made her nervous. Many months had passed since the two had spoken. In fact, many months had passed since Sedik had spoken to any of her family in China.
Sedik was in the kitchen of her temporary home in the Netherlands, where she shared a room with several other refugees, mostly from Africa. Two weeks earlier, she and three other women had spoken to the BBC for a story about alleged rape and torture in China’s secretive detention camps in the Xinjiang region, where Sedik worked as a camp teacher.
Now her sister was calling.
She hit answer, but when the picture appeared it wasn’t her sister on the screen, it was a policeman from her hometown in Xinjiang.
“What are you up to Qelbinur?” he said, smiling. “Who are you with?”
This was not the first time the officer had called from her sister’s phone. This time, Sedik took a screenshot. When he heard the sound it made, the officer removed his numbered police jacket, Sedik said. She took another screenshot.
‘You must think very carefully’
In conversations with the BBC over the past few weeks, 22 people who have left Xinjiang to live abroad described a pattern of threats, harassment, and public character attacks they said were designed to deter them from speaking out about alleged human rights abuses back home.
According to UN estimates, China has detained more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslims in camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese state has been accused of an array of abuses there including forced labour, sterilisation, torture, rape, and genocide. China denies those charges, saying its camps are “re-education” facilities for combatting terrorism.
Among the few who have fled Xinjiang and spoken publicly, many have received a call like the one to Sedik that morning – from a police officer or government official at their family home, or from a relative summoned to a police station. Sometimes the calls contain vague advice to consider the welfare of their family in Xinjiang, sometimes direct threats to detain and punish relatives.
Others have been publicly smeared in press conferences or state media videos; or been subjected to barrages of messages or hacking attempts directed at their phones. (Last week, Facebook said that it had discovered “an extremely targeted operation” emanating from China to hack Uyghur activists abroad.)
Some of those who spoke to the BBC – from the US, UK, Australia, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, and Turkey – provided screenshots of threatening WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook messages; others described in detail what had been said in phone and video calls. Everyone described some form of detention or harassment of their family members in Xinjiang by local police or state security officials.
When Qelbinur Sedik recounted the call from the policeman that morning, via her sister’s phone, she buried her head in her hands and wept.
“He said, ‘You must bear in mind that all your family and relatives are with us. You must think very carefully about that fact.’
“He stressed that several times, then he said, ‘You have been living abroad for some time now, you must have a lot of friends. Can you give us their names?’
When she refused, the officer put Sedik’s sister on the call, she said, and her sister shouted at her, ‘Shut up! You should shut up from now on!’, followed by a string of insults.
“At that point I couldn’t control my emotions,” Sedik said. “My tears flowed.”
Before the officer hung up, Sedik said, he told her several times to go to the Chinese embassy so the staff there could arrange her safe passage back to China – a common instruction in these kinds of calls.
“This country opens its arms to you,” he said.
‘Misogyny as a communication style’
Reports of this type of intimidation are not new, but Uyghur activists say China has become more aggressive in response to growing outrage over alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has gone on the attack in public in recent weeks, directing a slew of misogynistic abuse specifically at women who have spoken up about alleged sexual abuse.
At recent press conferences, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin and Xinjiang official Xu Guixiang held up pictures of women who gave first-hand accounts of sexual assault in detention camps and called them “liars”; said one was “morally depraved” and of “inferior character”; and accused another of adultery. One woman was branded a “bitch of bad moral quality” by a former husband in what appeared to be a staged video put out by state media; another was called a “scumbag” and “child abuser” by a Chinese official.
Wang, the foreign ministry spokesman, revealed what he said were private medical records, claiming that they disproved one woman’s account of having an IUD forcibly fitted. Officials have also claimed that sexually transmitted diseases were responsible for fertility problems suffered by former camp detainees, rather than violent physical abuse, and put out a range of propaganda material calling the women “actresses”.
Tursunay Ziawudun, a former camp detainee who is now in the US, was one of the women attacked at a press conference. When she watched it, she was relieved Wang had not mentioned her family, she said, but “deeply sad” about the rest. Ziawudun has previously recounted being raped and tortured during her detention in Xinjiang in 2018.
“After all the horrors they inflicted on me, how can they be so cruel and shameless as to attack me publicly?” she said in a phone interview after the press conference.
The attacks on Ziawudun and others showed that China was “adopting misogyny as a style of public communication,” said James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University.
“We have these various women coming forward and telling very credible stories about how they’ve been abused,” he said. “And the response shows a complete tone deafness and misunderstanding of how sexual assault and sexual trauma is now being understood and treated now. Besides being horrifying, it’s also completely counterproductive for the Chinese state.”
The Chinese embassy in London told the BBC that China stood by its assertions that the women’s accounts of rape and sexual abuse were lies, and said it was reasonable to publicise private medical records as evidence.
Two other women who spoke to the BBC have been the targets of what appear to be highly staged videos, published by Chinese state media, in which their family and friends insult them and accuse them of stealing money and telling lies. According to a report published last month by the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, China has produced at least 22 videos in which individuals are allegedly forced to make scripted statements, often denouncing their family members as liars or thieves.
Aziz Isa Elkun, a Uyghur exile in the UK, had not been able to contact his elderly mother and sister for years when he saw them in a Chinese state media video calling him a liar and a shame on the family. Elkun’s crime had been to draw attention to the destruction of Uyghur cemeteries in Xinjiang, including his father’s tomb.
“You could tell what they were saying was scripted, but it was still extremely painful to see my elderly mother in a Chinese propaganda film,” Elkun said.
Qelbinur Sedik is worried a similar video of her husband could be released any day, she said. He told her on the phone late last year that Chinese officials had visited him at home in Xinjiang and forced him to recite lines calling her a liar. He said he struggled so much to say the lines correctly that it took four hours to film the short clip.
‘Maybe we can co-operate’
Another common form of harassment described by those who spoke to the BBC was pressure to spy on fellow Uyghurs and organisations that scrutinise China, often in return for contact with family, guarantees of relatives’ safety, or access to visas or passports.
A Uyghur British citizen who did not want to be named said he was harassed repeatedly by intelligence officials during and after a visit to Xinjiang and told to spy on Uyghur groups and on Amnesty International, by joining the charity as a volunteer. When he refused, he received repeated calls from his brother pleading with him to do it, he said.
Jevlan Shirmemmet, who left Xinjiang to study in Turkey, gave the BBC a recording of a call he received a few weeks after posting on social media about his family’s mass arrest in Xinjiang. The caller, who said he was from the Chinese embassy in Ankara, told Shirmemmet to “write down everyone you’ve been in contact with since you left Xinjiang,” and send an email “describing your activities,” so that “the mainland might reconsider your family’s situation”. Another Uyghur in exile in Turkey described a similar call from the same embassy.
Mustafa Aksu, a 34-year-old activist in the US whose parents are detained in Xinjiang, showed the BBC text and voice messages from an old school friend, now a Chinese police officer, who Aksu said was pressuring him to provide information about Uyghur activists.
“He says, ‘Maybe we can co-operate. I’m sure you must miss your parents.'”
Not everyone feels that they can refuse these requests. “When I say no, they get my younger brother and sister to call and tell me to do it,” said a Uyghur student in Turkey, who provided screenshots of the messages from police. “They could send my brother and sister to a concentration camp. What choice do I have?” she said.
Some have sought to protect themselves by gradually cutting off means of contact. “You can throw away the phone and cancel the number,” said Abdulweli Ayup, a Uyghur linguist in Norway, “but you cancel your number and they contact you on Facebook; you delete Facebook and they contact you by email.”
Others have tried beyond hope to stay in touch. A Uyghur exile in the Netherlands said she still sends pictures and emojis to her young son and parents, four years after her number was blocked. “Maybe one day they will see,” she said.
The BBC was not able to independently verify the identities of the people behind the calls and messages provided by various interviewees, but Uyghur rights activists say efforts to coerce Uyghurs to spy for the Chinese government are common.
“It comes as an offer first – ‘You won’t have any more visa problems’, or ‘We can help your family’ – that kind of thing,” said Rahima Mahmut, a prominent UK-based Uyghur activist. “Later it comes as a threat,” she said.
The UK Foreign Office told the BBC it was “closely monitoring reports that members of the Uyghur diaspora in the UK have been harassed by the Chinese authorities”, and that it had “raised our concerns directly with the Chinese embassy in London”.
The Chinese embassy in London told the BBC that the allegations in this story were “completely untrue” and it was “baffling that the BBC so readily believes whatever is said by a few ‘East Turkestan’ elements outside China” – using another term for the Xinjiang region.
Despite the growing public outrage over alleged abuses in Xinjiang, the number of people who have spoken publicly remains vanishingly small compared with the estimated number detained. China has been tremendously successful at silencing people through fear, said Nury Turkel, a commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Millions of people have disappeared into the camps, and yet we have only a handful of Uyghurs speaking out against the detention of their loved ones,” Turkel said. “Why? Because they are afraid.”
Some Uyghurs who have criticised China have managed to maintain limited contact with loved ones. Ferkat Jawdat, a prominent activist in the US, speaks to his mother regularly now, after campaigning publicly for her release from detention. She is under house arrest, and her calls are monitored, but she is there on the other end of the line.
It can be hard to make sense of why some Uyghurs are harassed and others are not; some allowed contact with loved ones and others not. Some have speculated that China is “A/B testing” – trying to work out whether fear or kindness is more efficient. For the thousands who are cut off, it can feel ruthless and arbitrary.
Jawdat knows that the likelihood of seeing his mother again before she dies is diminishing, so when they speak on the phone they speak carefully. He did tell her once that Chinese state media had put out a video of her saying she was ashamed of him. She said she knew, they had come to film it a few days earlier. “How did I look?” she joked. Then, taking a risk, she told him she had only ever been proud of him.
“It was the unscripted version,” he said.