Study: Uyghurs in America Face ‘Daily’ Chinese Harassment

Salih Hudayar, founder of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, leads a rally outside the White House to urge the United States to end trade deals with China and take action to stop the oppression of the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples August 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. The ETNAM …
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A study published Wednesday by the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs found that the Chinese Communist Party was engaging in “daily” harassment and threats against members of the Uyghur-American community living in the United States.

The report confirmed what years of research and protests from Uyghurs around the world have shown during the entirety of Xi Jinping’s run as dictator of China: Uyghurs all around the world, not just those in occupied East Turkestan, enduring threats, espionage, and harassment at China’s hand regardless of how free the government they actually live under is on paper.

In East Turkestan, a region China calls its Xinjiang province, the Communist Party has built thousands of concentration camps since 2017, housing millions of people. Most of them are members of the Uyghur ethnic group, though other Muslim-majority groups, primarily Kazakhs and Kyrgyz people, have also found themselves trapped in the camps. Survivors of the camps say they endured gang rape, extreme torture, slavery, and forced sterilization, among other human rights atrocities.

Many of the Uyghur people the UHRP interviewed for its report said that Chinese agents had threatened their family in vague terms – aware of Uyghurs knowing that mass detentions were occurring at home – if they did not comply with whatever demands the agents made, whether it be for them to cease political activism or, if they were not politically active, to engage in espionage on their own community. Others said the Communist Party was likely the culprit behind a wide array of digital attacks intended to spy on their communications, while some noted Chinese agents openly demanded they spy on other Uyghurs.

This photo taken on May 31, 2019 shows a Uighur woman (C) going through an entrance to a bazaar in Hotan, in China's northwest Xinjiang region. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

This photo taken on May 31, 2019, shows a Uighur woman (C) going through an entrance to a bazaar in Hotan, in China’s northwest Xinjiang region. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

The UHRP estimated that 500,000 Uyghur people live abroad. In a survey of Uyghurs around the world, it found that, alarmingly, nearly 96 percent of Uyghurs “reported feeling threatened” by China. These individuals all lived in free states in Europe, the Pacific, and North America – not repressive nations with close ties to China.

Of those surveyed, 73.5 percent said they “had experienced digital risks, threats, or other forms of online harassment.” Only one in five Uyghurs said they believed the government they actually lived under would “fix these issues,” and less than half said their government took the threats seriously.

The study noted that the majority of American Uyghurs live in the greater Washington, DC, area. “Many D.C.-area Uyghurs say that they undergo harassment and intimidation daily including receiving threats by text, chat apps including WeChat, voicemail, calls, email, or third-party messages,” the study noted.

WeChat is a Chinese government-controlled messaging app.

“During some of these interactions, Chinese officials have reportedly requested passport information and other details and information on future protests and organizing activity from Uyghurs living in the United States,” the study continued. “Many Uyghur community members in and around D.C. often wear masks and sunglasses to obscure their faces and hide their identities from people taking photos when they attend protests in the United States.”

Uyghurs of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) listen to their national anthem as they hold a rally to protest the 71st anniversary of the People's Republic of China in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Uyghurs of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM), many of them with their faces covered, listen to their national anthem as they hold a rally to protest the 71st anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 1, 2020. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Outside of D.C., the study found China regularly uses its American consulates to threaten and harass Uyghurs. One woman, an American citizen, testified that the Houston Chinese consulate attempted one of the most common tricks to lure Uyghurs into their custody – claiming the government had an “important” document or package for them to pick up, then resorted to calling her directly from an alleged Chinese mail company:

In 2018, Gulruy Asqar began to receive calls from the Chinese consulate in Houston. These phone calls started with a recorded message concerning a vital document she supposedly needed to submit to the consulate. A Chinese person would then answer and ask for her details. Asqar refused each time until finally, she told embassy staff that she was a U.S. citizen and “did not care about their document.” The calls stopped. Then calls from a Chinese mail delivery company began—another attempt, she suspects, to collect her personal information.

“Altogether, our data suggest that 7,078 cases of transnational repression of Uyghurs have occurred worldwide,” including many in the United States, the UHRP reported. “As Uyghurs become more frequent targets for state-backed intimidation, a two-tier model of citizenship is emerging in which a hostile foreign power is undermining the constitutional and political rights of Uyghur citizens in democratic countries.”

Notably, many of the victims of this harassment are not members of groups like the UHRP, the World Uyghur Congress, or other political organizations advocating against the genocide of their people at the hands of the Communist Party. Many victims are apolitical ethnic Uyghurs and many suffered intimidation for engaging in non-political activity.

“Kuzzat Altay, the President of the Uyghur American Association, started an entrepreneurship network in 2018 for the Uyghur diaspora community in Fairfax, Virginia,” the report detailed. “However, most of the 25 members left the network after they received calls from their family members in the Uyghur Region urging them to leave the group.”

Many of the victims of Communist Party threats were also identified as “teenagers” and some were minors. The report noted the presence of children as young as five years old in a leaked Shanghai police database titled “Uyghur Terrorist.”


Supporters of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement rally in front of the British Embassy on April 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The report is among the most detailed looks at China’s harassment abroad of people who belong to an ethnic group it is committing genocide actively against, but the allegations have spanned years. The founder of the UHRP, Nury Turkel, testified in Congress in 2019 to that effect, noting that even appearing before Congress would endanger his family.

“Uyghurs outside of China are also subject to extraterritorial surveillance and coercion,” he told lawmakers. “Our latest report on this issue documents these ongoing and flagrant violations of federal law on U.S. soil. They are telling us, ‘We are watching you. Wherever you go, still you are a Chinese.’”

“Even though you are outside of China, [that] doesn’t mean that they can’t do something to you because they have your friends, children, parents, and relatives,” he continued. “Agents of [a] foreign power are surveilling and terrorizing our own fellow American citizens with threats to send their remaining family members to the camps if they speak out about what is happening in their homeland.”

Multiple high-profile instances of Uyghur harassment abroad occurred in October. In Saudi Arabia, police arrested Setiwaldi Abdukadir – father of Prime Minister Salih Hudayar of the East Turkistan Government in Exile – for wearing a t-shirt reading “Pray for the end of China’s genocide & occupation in East Turkistan.” Police released him after hours in detention after finding out he is an American citizen. Suspected Uyghurs and other Asian ethnic minority people in Greece did not have that privilege. Greek police arrested several Tibetan activists for protesting against the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Some Tibetans reported being arrested despite not engaging in any political activity at all; some said they say other Asian minority people in jail who said they had done absolutely nothing, including expressing any opinion about the Olympics and did not know why they were in police custody.

The Chinese Communist Party denies all allegations of human rights abuses and claims any Uyghur person denouncing human rights abuses is a terrorist and/or an actor.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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