China’s “re-education camps” in Xinjiang province have sparked criticism from international communities. Experts from the United Nations have estimated that two million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are held in these camps, with no trial, no release dates, and alleged mistreatments.
In August 2019, the Atlantic reported that Uighurs’ activism abroad were “more numerous, more organized, and more energized than ever before.” Activists shared their stories and their grief on social media, in workshops, and during public meetings in the U.S. and Europe. Despite living abroad, they still report intimidation and threats from China.
Murat Harri Uyghur, a Uighur Finnish activist, was one of the first to demand answers from China. His parents were detained in one of the Xinjiang camps since April 2017. Since then, Uyghur has used social media to campaign for his parents’ release and call for other Uighurs to do the same.
In 2018, he went on a two-week “Freedom Tour,” a series of demonstrations in major European capitals to demand action from China. Finally, he claimed that his parents were released and put under house arrest in December 2018, a few weeks before the Finnish president visited China.
Uighur activism on social media
Social media and other online public platforms are one of the prominent ways Uighur activists are speaking out. On Twitter, Uyghur started the hashtag #MeTooUyghur (#MenmuUyghur in Uighur) to collect testimonies from Uighurs living abroad and expand his list of potential detainees. He told the NY Times that the hashtag campaign’s purpose was to “put pressure on China and demand answers.”
In 2018, he posted a video on Facebook, in which he shaved off his hair and demanded his parents’ immediate release. The video soon garnered attention from Uighurs living abroad, and they started sharing their own accounts on social media using the hashtag.
However, the Uighur diaspora has only been outspoken after international communities became aware of the camps and started criticizing Beijing. Many fear that speaking out would cause China to retaliate against their families.
Activists and their families face intimidation
Gulchehra Hoja, a Radio Free Asia reporter who has lived in Washington DC for 17 years and has been outspoken against the Xinjiang camps, told DW in 2018 that around 20 of her relatives in China had been arrested by Chinese security forces. Her mother, father, brother, and other relatives were at risk of torture, according to Amnesty International.
After her mother went missing in a camp, Uighur activist Gulhumar Haitiwaji started a petition addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron, collecting nearly 500 000 signatures thus far. She also appeared on French television to speak about her experience. However, she later canceled a planned appearance at a human rights summit in Geneva in March 2019 after Chinese officials allegedly threatened her mother.
In March 2019, U.S.-based Uighur activist Tahir Imin alleged that his brother Adil had been imprisoned because of his activism in the U.S. Since relocating to the U.S. two years ago, Imin had been criticizing China’s policies in major news outlets and encouraging other Uighurs also to voice their concerns.
Imin said he learned through acquaintances and rumors that his brother had been sentenced to 10 years, while three of his cousins have also been imprisoned.
Uighurs abroad allege threats
During interviews that the Guardian conducted with more than two dozen Uighurs living in Europe and the United States, many mentioned that they had received threats against family members back in Xinjiang, and some were also asked to spy for China.
Some said they were recruited when visiting Chinese diplomatic missions in Europe to request documents, while others reported being contacted over WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. They alleged that they had been asked for photos of private gatherings, names, phone numbers, addresses, and license plate numbers, especially of Uighurs who had recently arrived in Europe.
In exchange, they were offered cash, visas to visit Xinjiang or better treatment for their family members. If these offers were refused, they were threatened with consequences for those family members. Some interviewees claimed that their documents were withheld by Chinese diplomatic missions until they agreed to comply.
Despite the threats from China, many activists choose to persevere. Although his parents have been released, Murat Harri Uyghur continued to advocate for the release of others in the Xinjiang camps. In 2018, he founded UyghurAid, a human rights group that compiles names and biographical details of people believed to be held in the camps. The Xinjiang Victims Database has collected 5 400 testimonies thus far.
“I will have to lend my voice to those whose families are still missing,” he said in a blog post.