China’s Muslim Crackdown Extends to Those Living Abroad

Namtulla Najmidin, a Chinese Uighur living in Norway, sits in his Oslo neighborhood. .

By Eva Dou
Aug. 31, 2018 8:35 a.m. ET

BEIJING—China’s mass detention campaign against Muslims in its far west is targeting people who have moved overseas, with Chinese authorities investigating whether members of the Uighur ethnic group are involved in any antigovernment activities.

For more than a year, security officials have told Uighurs living abroad to provide documentation of their overseas activities and to spy and inform on other Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, according to interviews and chat records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Other expatriate Uighurs have had their passport renewals denied and instead were offered one-way travel documents to try to force them to return to China.

In many cases, these Uighurs said, authorities are leveraging the government’s detention program, threatening to throw family members still in Xinjiang into the centers, where the U.S. State Department estimates hundreds of thousands have been detained.

Mr. Najmidin looks at a photo of his parents before he left China. His father was detained last year after he refused to send identification documents back home to Chinese police. Photo: Andrea Gjestvang for The Wall Street Journal (2)

Namtulla Najmidin, a 35-year-old computer-engineering student in Norway, said his father called in May last year telling him to expect to hear from the local police. A man identified as a police officer soon followed up, asking for pictures of his passport and Norwegian identification documents.

“Those are my private things. I can’t give it to you,” Mr. Najmidin wrote back on May 18 last year, according to chat logs reviewed by the Journal.

“You’d better think carefully about it,” was the reply. In November, Mr. Najmidin said his father, a 59-year-old cotton farmer without any record of prior arrests or political involvement, was taken to a detention center.

Far from being an afterthought, Uighurs living overseas are a focus of one of China’s largest mass incarcerations in decades. Beijing is concerned that radical Islamic militants are driving a long-running, sporadically violent Uighur separatist movement in Xinjiang, China’s sprawling northwest region. The government sees Uighurs living overseas as potential agents of radicalization.

China’s Foreign Ministry referred questions about targeting Uighurs overseas to other ministries. China’s Ministry of Public Security and State Council Information Office didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the Ministry of State Security, the top intelligence agency, wasn’t reachable for comment. Xinjiang police referred questions to the Xinjiang government, which didn’t reply. Chinese officials have previously denied the existence of detention camps, saying they are vocational training centers, mainly for petty criminal offenders.

Abdurahman Memet, a Chinese Uighur in Istanbul, says the consulate denied a passport application for his son, instead providing a one-way travel document to China. Photo: Abdurahman Memet

Seventeen Uighurs living in the U.S., Britain, Germany, Australia as well as Norway and other countries told The Wall Street Journal they have been pressured by Chinese police and officials.

“Did you carry out illegal activities or not?” a state security agent asked Abdurahman Memet, a 30-year-old Chinese Uighur working as a tour guide in Istanbul, according to a voice message exchange through Chinese chat app WeChat in March last year. “How can I know, if you do not come back?”

Mr. Memet said the man didn’t explain why he needed to return. In one voice message, the agent said: “Your family members are in big trouble if you do not come back.”

A man who answered one phone number used last year to contact Mr. Memet said he was “just a community worker” and said not to call again.

Mr. Najmidin’s chat logs show that a man who contacted him identified himself as a police officer. A woman at a police station in Xinjiang’s Yuli County, where Mr. Najmidin’s father lives, confirmed there was an officer by that name and his work responsibilities include contacting overseas Uighurs. Reached on mobile phone, that police officer said he couldn’t answer questions, adding: “Our job is secret.”

Uighurs see Xinjiang as their homeland. In recent decades, many have gone abroad, mainly for better work prospects but also to escape the government’s tightening controls on religion and what they see as a flood of Chinese into the region.

Some have joined militant movements, with Uighurs turning up in jihadist groups from Afghanistan to Syria. An uptick in knifing and homemade bomb attacks, blamed on Uighur militants, happened in China in 2014. In February last year, a division of the Islamic State in Iraq released a video in which Chinese Uighur militants claimed they would return home to “shed blood like rivers.”

The response has been to swarm Xinjiang with security, swathing the region in a high-tech surveillance network and, in the past two years, building the detention centers that inmates say mix abuse with patriotic indoctrination.

While experts say the threat from a small number of extremists is real, Beijing’s reaction is drawing censure from abroad and warnings that the approach risks alienating many Uighurs generally supportive of the government.

Reyila Abulaiti says her Chinese Uighur mother, right, was taken to a detention center last summer after returning to China following a stay with her in the U.K. to help her take care of her son. Photo: Reyila Abulaiti

Reyila Abulaiti, a naturalized British citizen, said her 65-year-old mother was taken to a detention center last summer even though she had sent her mother the requested proof of her studies in early childhood development in the U.K. She said her mother, Xiamuxinuer Pida, was a retired engineer for a state-owned petrochemical company with no criminal record.

“Where she has been taken, I have no idea,” she said. “Everyone is scared to communicate with me.”

Wumaerjiang Jiamali, left, a Chinese Uighur living in Sweden, became an informant to secure his 18-year-old son’s release from detention. His son was freed but then redetained in July. Photo: Wumaerjiang Jiamali

Wumaerjiang Jiamali, a Uighur living in Sweden, said he was asked to become an informant in order to win his 18-year-old son’s release from a re-education camp. A man who identified himself as a state security agent contacted him this spring, demanding information about Uighurs in Sweden and Turkey, where Mr. Jiamali once lived, according to chat logs and voice recordings reviewed by the Journal.

“At the time I was really frantic,” Mr. Jiamali said. “I told them that as long as we could get my only son out, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do.”

Mr. Jiamali said that after his son’s release, he kept quiet to protect him. Then BuzzFeed recounted Mr. Jiamali’s experience using the pseudonym “O” in July, and his son was detained again. Mr. Jiamali is now willing to use his real name because he thinks authorities have identified him as “O” and keeping quiet will no longer protect his son.

Aynur Ashimajy, a naturalized Australian citizen and activist, said her 71-year-old mother, Saiyidi Ayixiguli, no longer has valid identification in Australia, after the Chinese consulate in Sydney rejected her passport renewal request in January. Ms. Ayixiguli was issued instead a one-time travel permit back to China to apply for a new passport there. Ms. Ashimajy said her mother decided not to return to Xinjiang, fearing she wouldn’t be allowed back overseas.

A staffer at the Chinese consulate in Sydney said Friday that Uighurs could renew passports as usual, but that based on “domestic requirements” or individual “problems,” some might be issued travel documents instead.

Mr. Memet, the tour guide in Turkey, said he met with the same situation at the Chinese consulate in Istanbul last year, when he tried to get a passport for his newborn second son, Fuad. In 2015, Mr. Memet had secured a passport at the consulate for his elder son without incident, he said. This time amid the detention campaign, his younger son was denied a passport but given a one-way travel document valid for three months.

That’s expired, and so Fuad has no legal existence in Turkey, Mr. Memet said. “He can’t even go to the hospital.”

The canceled Chinese passport of Saiyidi Ayixiguli, a 71-year-old Chinese Uighur who lives in Australia. Photo: Aynur Ashimajy