Uighurs living in Australia have accused Beijing of using surveillance tactics to silence their community and stop them speaking out about what is happening to their families back in China.
They may have fled the surveillance state, but Uighurs living in Australia say they are still under the watch of the Chinese government.
President of the East Turkestan Association Australia, Nurmuhammad Majid, said many community members are fearful and have told him they have received phone calls and Whatsapp messages from men claiming to be “Chinese security police”.
“The members of Uighurs in Australia are receiving different means of threats or pressure by the Chinese government,” he told SBS News this week.
“They’re receiving direct calls, they [are] being pressured with the harassment of family members back in our home country.”
One Melbourne-based Uighur, who wished to remain anonymous, said he began receiving a series of messages about a month ago, after Chinese government officials demanded his mother hand over his phone number.
“I gave my phone number to my mum and then after, the next day, I’ve been contacted by a security agent offshore by Whatsapp,” he said.
“They’re asking about my personal information, that guy asked about my CV, what is my status in this country, what I’m doing, which uni I am going, where I am living.”
Uighurs are a Muslim Turkic minority mostly based in the Xinjiang province in China’s far north-west, where they make up 45 per cent of the population.
ANU Associate Professor Michael Clarke is an expert on the history and politics of the region and backs the claims from within the Australian community, saying they’re consistent with reports from across the globe.
“There’s been quite a steady stream of evidence and reporting over the last 12 months, suggesting that the [communist] party is effectively monitoring in various forms Uighur diaspora populations around the world, particularly in the United States, Canada and also Europe and also in Australia,” he said.
Surveillance to silence critics
The UN has accused Beijing of detaining up to one million Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang province.
The Uighur man in Melbourne who SBS News spoke to believes his ex-wife and two-year-old son are among those imprisoned. He hasn’t heard from them since January.
“I really scared if he is in the re-education camps,” he said.
“I have no idea if his mother and his grandmother went to the re-education camps. I have no idea who is taking care of my son.”
“This is unprecedented in the current global context, where you have one to two million members of one specific ethnic group being interned in an extra legal situation, so most of the individuals held in these camps are charged with any crime and are held their indefinitely,” said Associate Professor Clarke.
He believes China is using surveillance tactics abroad to silence critics.
“What the party seems to be doing is using pressure on family members for instance, who might still be in Xinjiang … to pressure overseas Uighurs not to speak out and not to criticize the Chinese government’s approach in the region.”
The man says he is reluctant to speak out, fearing it could put his family’s lives in danger.
That’s the feeling among many Uighurs in Australia, who say as they become more vocal about the plight of their families in Xinjiang, they’re being increasingly targeted by Chinese state security.
Last week, following years of denial, China admitted the camps do exist but says Beijing says the students are there voluntarily and engage in classes designed to combat terrorism.
Authorities in Xinjiang released rare pictures showing smiling detainees in classrooms – images that fit with the new narrative.
“From barely a number of months ago, outright denying the existence of these camps and suggesting they were fabrications of hostile external forces like the media or NGOS, it’s come 180 degrees to suggest these are needed camps for vocational training, as they’ve termed, to reorient the region’s Uighur population away from extremist thought,” said Associate Professor Clarke.
Campaign of fear
Many who have fled the camps have detailed stories of torture and punishment and say Uighurs are forced to abandon Islamic beliefs.
“The goal of these camps is essentially a form of cultural cleansing, I would argue in the name of counter-terrorism,” said Associate Professor Clarke.
While it’s true that Xinjiang has experienced a series of terror attacks since the early 90s, Associate Professor Clarke says the threat is not proportionate to the mass detention that’s alleged to be taking place.
“The key question is whether the scale and scope of China’s re-education program matches the threat of terrorism, but I would argue the terrorism threat has been much exaggerated over the past decade.”
In March this year, Australia’s Uighur community staged a rally outside Parliament to draw attention to the issue.
“This has definitely taken much attention by the Chinese authorities. The number of calls community members have received since March 2018 have increased,” said Nurmahammed Majid.
The community is now calling on the Australian government take action and the Department of Foreign Affairs insists it’s on the case.
On Thursday, DFAT’s Graham Fletcher told a Senate Estimates Committee that he is aware of at least three Uighur Australian residents who were imprisoned.
“There are three individuals who have told us they were detained in Xinjiang in the course of last year,” he said.
He said the department had sought permission to visit Xinjiang, but the request was refused.
“We continue to express to the Chinese government our interest about the situation in Xinjiang, our concerns about the situation there and our interest in conducting a visit to Xinjiang,” he said.
He added that there is now a need to consider what action, if any, the Australian government is prepared to take, as a next step.
The Chinese embassy in Australia was contacted for comment.
By Abbie O’Brien