'They can find out anything': Leaked documents show China's surveillance of Uighurs worldwide

A trove of secret documents has revealed China’s efforts to track members of its Uighur population living around the world, as well as the government’s attempts to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship upon their return to China, including Canadians.

The documents are part of the China Cables, an investigation spearheaded by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and were obtained from a confidential source within China. 

The files have been verified by intelligence experts, translated and given to CBC News and other international media partners by the ICIJ in an effort to raise awareness of China’s treatment of Uighurs.

The highly classified internal government documents obtained by ICIJ are from 2017 and show that Chinese officials were actively monitoring 1,535 Uighurs who had obtained “foreign nationality” and applied for Chinese visas at consulates worldwide. 

Uighurs are a Muslim minority group of Turkic origin who are native to the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, near the Kazakhstan border. The China Cables show a concerted effort to exert control over Uighurs across the globe, including in Canada. 

“I think most of the Uighur people who study here or are living here feel the pressure from the Chinese government,” one Uighur student living in Canada told CBC News.

 “[China is] afraid that Uighurs living abroad will tell the facts about what is happening in Xinjiang to the foreign media or foreign peoples.”

The student agreed to speak with CBC on condition that his identity remained confidential and will be referred to as Abraham for the purpose of this story.

This student, who wanted CBC to refer to him as Abraham, said the Chinese government has threatened his parents in Xianjiang and used them as leverage in order to monitor his activity in Canada. (Anand Ram/CBC)

The student said the government has threatened his parents and used them as leverage in order to monitor his activity in Canada.

“They control everything in China,” he said. “They can find out anything.”

Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, said the documents “make it clear that what is underway is a sinister program of incarceration on a massive scale that the world has hardly seen anywhere in decades.”

What the documents reveal 

Uighurs have long been monitored by the Chinese state because of their religious beliefs and ethnicity. But recent investigations by journalists and human rights organizations suggest a new level of persecution.

Reports have revealed the detainment of close to one million Uighurs and other minority Muslim groups in internment camps in Xinjiang. 

During a United Nations summit this summer, a Chinese foreign minister characterized the camps as “education and training centres” that “help the people free themselves from terrorism and extremism and acquire useful skills.”

Workers walk past the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

One of the newly obtained documents, entitled “Autonomous Regional Party Committee Command for Cracking Down and Assaulting on the Front Lines” and dated June 16, 2017, showed that China was closely monitoring 75 of the Uighurs who had obtained foreign citizenship and were believed to be in China at the time.

“It cannot be ruled out that they are still active in the country,” the document said. “Personal identification verification should be inspected one by one.” 

The document also broke them down by citizenship: “26 are Turkish, 23 are Australian, three are American, five are Swedish, two from New Zealand, one from the Netherlands, three from Uzbekistan, two from the United Kingdom, five are Canadian, three are Finnish, one is French and one is from Kyrgyzstan.”

Amnesty International’s Neve said the newly acquired documents “refute the picture that has been put forward by the Chinese government, of [the internment camps] being the benign educational vocational experience for the Uighur population.”

The documents also instruct officials to deport Uighurs from China who had obtained citizenship in another country and given up their Chinese citizenship. Those who hadn’t and for whom “suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out,” the documents suggest, should “be placed into concentrated education and training.”

Residents at the Kashgar city vocational educational training centre attend a Chinese lesson during a government-organized visit in Xinjiang, China, in January 2019. (Ben Blanchard/Reuters)

Similar language shows up in another section, which reveals that China’s embassies and consulates were tracking 4,341 people from Xinjiang who had spent time abroad and had applied for visas and directed officials to “analyze” them — “especially the 1,707 people who have not yet left the country.”

“For those still outside the country for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out … ensure that they are arrested the moment they cross the border,” the document stated. “For those who have entered the country and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should first be placed into concentrated education and training for examination.”

The ICIJ sent a physical and electronic copy of the China Cables to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and sought comment from the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing. ICIJ did not receive a response in either case.

The only official to respond to ICIJ partners about the documents was Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K., who called the reporting “pure fabrication.” 

Is Canada safe for Uighurs?

Abraham said Chinese authorities pressured him to send home his Canadian identification, address, school documents and even personal health information, but he doesn’t know why.

“I sent it to them because they said they require this information,” he said.

He said that if he doesn’t comply with Chinese authorities’ demands, his family in Xinjiang will be placed in the camps. 

Abraham said he knows other students in Canada who have relatives in the camps, and that many of these students are scared to speak out.

WATCH | ‘Then she disappeared’: Canadian Uighur Mehmet Tohti describes how his mother was taken from her home by what he suspects were Chinese security police:

Mehmet Tohti, founder of the Canadian Uighur Society, describes the last time he was able to talk to his mother in China. 1:44

Mehmet Tohti has been an outspoken activist for Uighur rights in Toronto for years and knows the Chinese government’s control tactics well. 

“It is intimidation. It is harassment. It is threatening,” he said, describing a strategy of “hijacking your father, mother, loved ones back home … and forcing you to be silent.” Tohti said Uighur activists feel pressure from the Chinese government here. 

Rukiye Turdush, another Uighur activist in the Toronto area, said she was targeted by Chinese students at McMaster University in Hamilton earlier this year for being critical of China’s treatment of Uighurs.

Turdush said she was filmed, shouted at and called a “separatist” at the event on campus. McMaster’s student union ultimately stripped a Chinese students club of its status over its alleged links to the Chinese government.

China using families as leverage

A Uighur refugee who sought asylum in Canada after living in exile in Turkey for two years said her family was pressured by the Chinese government to encourage her return to Xinjiang. 

The last time Dilnur — who asked CBC to withhold her last name — spoke with her family by phone was in April 2017. She fears they may have been forcibly taken to the camps. 

Rukiye Turdush, a Uighur activist in the Toronto area, said she was targeted by Chinese students at McMaster University in Hamilton for being critical of China’s treatment of Uighurs. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)

“My family members didn’t know I came to Canada,” she said. “They think I still live in Turkey.” 

Dilnur has two children living with relatives in Xinjiang and fears her husband and daughter in Turkey are living on borrowed time. Many Uighurs living there fear deportation to China

When asked why she felt the need to hide her identity in speaking with CBC, Dilnur paused, then translated a word on her phone from Uighur to English: “Danger.” 

She said she is “afraid” and believes her husband and children are in danger. Dilnur said that if Uighurs return to their home country, “Chinese government, I think, [will] kill us.”

‘Voluntary’ exile 

Neve said the Chinese government is keeping independent international human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the United Nations out of the internment camps. 

“These kinds of campaigns of intimidation and massive human rights violations always have many motivations on the government’s part, but one is to sow fear and intimidation and cast a chill so that people will be terrified of protesting, they will be unwilling to speak out,” Neve said.

Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, said the newly obtained documents show “a sinister program of incarceration on a massive scale that the world has hardly seen anywhere in decades.” (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The majority of people in China belong to the Han ethnic group. David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said the reason the state targets Uighurs is because of a desire to make the Xinjiang region more Chinese in culture, language and population. 

“The ultimate [aim] is to make sure that there are more Han Chinese in any particular region [of China] than there are members of any local ethnic group,” he said. 

Mulroney said he’s not surprised by the reports of Chinese government surveillance of Uighurs in Canada. 

“China has been doing that for some time,” he said. “It employs students. It employs people in the community to keep an eye out for people that the state considers troublemakers.”

Mulroney said some Uighurs in China are forced to “voluntarily” exile themselves from their relatives in Canada in an attempt to protect them. 

“There are some very brave Uighurs who continue to speak up and to tell their story, but a lot of others, I think, would be looking to the government of Canada for a degree of protection and support,” he said. 

“Until countries begin to show more backbone, and begin to push back, China will continue to do things like this.”

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