Harassment and Sanctions Aimed at Uyghurs and Xinjiang Researchers

The Chinese government has tried a number of approaches to hide the ongoing human rights crackdown in Xinjiang from the Chinese public and the international community. Some have been “soft power” tactics, for example a “La La Land”-inspired musical portraying the territory as a paradise on earth, while others have been more brutal. As international pressure on Beijing over the situation in Xinjiang mounts, international researchers are now facing harassment. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo and Gerry Shih wrote about a smear campaign directed against Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, an Australia-based researcher who has published on forced Uyghur labor transfers:

The flood of attacks posted and re-posted by state-media outlets and nationalist bloggers followed similar themes. Xu, part of a team documenting abuses of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region last year, was a traitor, a pawn controlled by the West, or a “female demon.” Queries for her name turn up thousands of results, including videos claiming to reveal details of her dating life, calling her “promiscuous” and “drug infested.”

On Weibo, people have called for her family to be tracked down and ordered to apologize for raising such a daughter. Others said Xu should never be allowed back into China, issuing not-so-veiled threats. “Meet a traitor, kill a traitor,” one user wrote. Her family asked her to change her name for her own safety.

[…] “As someone who analyzes propaganda activities for a job I can see it’s clearly a coordinated attack,” she said. “At this point, the Chinese government has made it abundantly clear that if you want to keep talking about Xinjiang, the Chinese state would not treat you nicely.” [Source]

Xu was a co-author of the 2020 ASPI report “Uyghurs For Sale,” which documented likely forced Uyghur labor in factories providing exports for global brands. In a 2020 profile of Xu published in Australia’s ABC, Damien Cave of the New York Times said “Vicky comes under all kinds of really heated criticism and just cruel attacks, on how she looks and who she is… it is a barrage of hatred that comes at her almost daily.” William Yang interviewed Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao, famous for his political cartoons, on the motive behind the attacks on Xu:

He thinks that the Chinese government wants to affect Xu psychologically through the smear campaigns but he thinks that their tactics won’t work for western media or western audiences. “Beijing wants to first destroy her within China, so it becomes clear to others that if you are a Chinese, they shouldn’t do similar things like what Vicky did or they will be subjected to attacks or threats,” Badiucao said. [Source]

The Chinese government also placed sanctions on scholars at German think tank MERICS, and a number of individual Swedish, American, and British scholars. Over 1,000 scholars have signed an open letter asking “the Chinese government to revoke these unjustified sanctions and to accept that scholarship on China, like scholarship on any country, entails scrutiny of its policies, goals and actions.” The sanctions have been accompanied by increasingly harsh rhetoric. The Chinese Embassy in France published an essay calling French researcher Antoine Bondaz a “little thug” for tweeting about a French senator’s coming trip to Taiwan.

With many scholars openly critical of China’s Xinjiang policy, the government has seemingly taken to inventing approving admirers. State broadcaster CGTN published a French-language article titled “Xinjiang: Stop the Tyranny of Fake News” purportedly written by a French journalist named Laurène Beaumond. An investigation by leading French newspaper Le Monde found that there are no French journalists writing under that name. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying claimed that “Laurène Beaumond” is a pen name and that Le Monde’s article “reflects the unhealthy thinking of some countries and media, who believe that anything that does not conform to their imaginations as well as so-called values and ideologies must be false.” Hua declined to provide any information about the journalists real identity. French newspaper Le Figaro got in touch with “Beaumond” who claimed responsibility for writing the piece and proposing it to CGTN. Nationalistic state media Global Times published a demand for Le Monde to apologize for its report—again without producing any evidence that a “Laurène Beaumond” exists. The episode is a stark example of Beijing’s renewed efforts to shape international discourse about Xinjiang through aggressive propaganda.

Uyghurs living abroad face the greatest risks when speaking out against persecution. Some have reported threats on their life for participating in protests in the United States. At The New York Times, Ben Dooley and Hisako Ueno reported on Japan’s Uyghur population, noting the price some have paid for their activism:

The officer’s intent was clear — to discourage Mr. Rozi from doing anything that might hurt China’s reputation in Japan. The warning had the opposite effect. Mr. Rozi had invited Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, to surreptitiously record the second call, which was later broadcast to millions of viewers.

[…] The experience [of his family’s detention in 2018] convinced Mr. Rozi that he needed to speak out, and he soon began participating in protests calling for China to close the camps. Before long, he had become a prominent voice in Japan’s Uyghur community, making media appearances, meeting with politicians and running seminars on the situation in Xinjiang. When he received the surprise phone call from his brother, he knew that his activism had caught the attention of Chinese officials

Since Mr. Rozi’s appearance on the Japanese public broadcaster, the Chinese government has made no further attempts to contact him, he said. Phone calls to his family have gone unanswered. [Source]

Living abroad is also not a guarantee of safety. A number of countries, notably Turkey, already have or are considering signing extradition agreements with China, which means Uyghurs there face a threat of deportation. At The Atlantic, Melissa Chan reported on the hardships faced by Uyghurs abroad, particularly women, as they navigate splintered families and the looming threat of deportation:

Yet even when Uyghurs are free of China’s territory, they do not feel safe from its reach. Those who have left Xinjiang face imprisonment if they return home and persistent insecurity abroad. Some have been hounded and threatened with deportation by immigration officials of countries seeking to improve ties with Beijing.

Women—many of whom escape separately from their husbands—face particular difficulties when, as is often the case, their partners are caught fleeing. Even the most educated and highly skilled of these women, having grown up in a patriarchal society, are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar position, becoming lonely migrants in new countries and tasked with heading households they had assumed would include husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers. Muhammet, for example, had studied law in China and Arabic in Egypt. She had hoped to stay abroad for graduate school but, now a de facto single mother, has suspended those plans and instead tutors elementary-school students to pay the bills.

[…] Not having the correct paperwork prevents Uyghurs and other migrants from accessing crucial social services such as education and health care. And, if anything, prospects for Uyghurs in Turkey are getting worse. Ankara has offered asylum to Uyghurs from China, who speak a Turkic language and are of the same religion as many Turks, since the 1950s. In 2009, Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, excoriated China’s treatment of Uyghurs as “genocide.” Now, in light of a far more powerful China, he says little. His government is even working on an extradition treaty with Beijing that could mean the deportation of Uyghurs on expansive and specious grounds. (The Turkish government has not publicly commented on delays in its asylum-processing system.) [Source]


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