China spying on Uighur refugees in the US?

In recent weeks, China’s effort to impose ethnic cleansing on Uighurs in its northwest region has come to light, with perhaps millions relocated into “re-education camps.” Beijing’s interest in suppressing this Turkic-speaking minority extends far beyond its own borders, however. Chinese intelligence agencies have begun tracking and collecting data on Uighur ex-pats, the Daily Beast’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports, including those in the US — and are using family members as leverage for extortion:

A few months ago, Barna, who lives in a major U.S. city and requested that her real name not be revealed, received an odd message from her mother, who lives in China. Barna’s mother asked her to send her U.S. car license plate number, her phone number, her U.S. bank card number, and a photo of her ID card. Barna’s mother said that China is creating a new ID card system that includes all Chinese, even those who are abroad.

Since her mother was located in China and they were talking via WeChat, a Chinese chat app permitted by China’s internet regulator since it gives authorities access to messages and phone calls, Barna knew that their conversation was likely being monitored. So she told her mother that she did not have a car in the United States and that she only uses her Chinese bank card, though her mother knows this isn’t the case.

But Barna agreed to send the photo of her ID card. “From her unsettled voice, I can tell she has been pushed by the authorities,” said Barna. “For the sake of my mom’s safety, I said OK.”

In recent months, many other Uighurs living in the United States have received similar demands from Chinese authorities, relayed by family members back in China who were paid official visits from local public security bureau officials. One Uighur living on the east coast told The Daily Beast that Chinese police had demanded a copy of the individual’s employment contract with their university; another was told they had to provide a letter from their academic supervisor. If they don’t comply, these Uighurs know that their relatives may be detained.

The response from China on their attempts to suppress the Uighurs has been mixed. At the UN yesterday, the government declared that there was “no such thing” as detention camps in the Xinjiang region for Uighurs, and that they are only cracking down on specific crime and terror:

At a hearing in Geneva on Monday, a 49-strong Chinese delegation met questions from the committee with flat contradiction.

“There is no such thing as re-education centers,” said Hu Lianhe, a senior Chinese Communist Party official.

“There is no torture, persecution or disappearance of repatriated personnel,” he added in response to questions about the fate of hundreds of students who had returned to Xinjiang, some of whom were reported to have died in detention or to have disappeared.

China did not target any ethnic minority, Mr. Hu said; its ethnic minorities lived in peace and contentment enjoying freedom of religious belief.

The authorities have clamped down on violent terrorist activity and strengthened “security and social management,” he said, acknowledging only that minor criminals were provided with “assistance and education to assist them in their rehabilitation.”

However, as Deutsche Welle notes, an official Communist media outlet defended the practice of re-education and ethnic cleansing as part of Beijing’s efforts to avoid a Libya- or Syria-style crisis in Xinjiang:

China’s harsh security policy against ethnic Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang has saved the area from “massive turmoil,” an official Communist Party paper said Monday.

The editorial in Global Times was the first response from China to a worrying United Nations panel on Friday claiming hundreds of thousands of Uighurs have been detained in what “resembles a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

“Through the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China, the national strength of the country and the contribution of local officials, Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,'” the editorial said. …

“The turnaround in Xinjiang’s security situation has avoided a great tragedy and saved countless lives, thanks to powerful Chinese law and the strong ruling power of the Communist Party of China. What the West has been hyping has destroyed numerous countries and regions. When the same evil influence was spreading in Xinjiang, it was decisively curbed,” the Global Times commented.

The Uighurs (who refer to the area as East Turkestan) have been trying to get the UN’s attention to this repression for at least the last several months. They have been complaining that Beijing has made the area into a “surveillance state,” a point that the Daily Beast report corroborates. Their efforts include widespread installation of surveillance cameras, facial-recognition software, and DNA databases. That effort has included other parts of China as well, but the intent in Xinjiang has been more specific in terms of ethnic repression. In order to close the loop on that high-tech extortion system, they’re making sure that they can leverage anyone anywhere with any connections at all to the inmates of Xinjiang.

That’s not a new impulse, of course; totalitarians have been using it for a century or more, in Germany before and during World War II especially, but the Soviets before and after that too. Technology has made the threat more comprehensive, but espionage is still espionage and genocide is still genocide. We need to make clear that we will not tolerate Beijing extorting financial and other data from US residents regardless of their purpose.