Uighurs fled persecution in China. Now Beijing's harassment has followed them to Australia.
By RICK NOACK | The Washington Post | Published: February 7, 2019
ADELAIDE, Australia — Alfiraa Dilshat and Rashida Abdughufur were picnicking in the small seaside town of Victor Harbor in late December when Abdughufur got a video call from her mother.
With Abdughufur living in Adelaide, a city in southern Australia, and her mother in the Xinjiang region of China, it was a rare chance for the two to connect. At first, Abdughufur said, she was excited because she hadn't talked to her mother in a long time.
Then came "disaster."
Abdughufur's mother appeared on the screen in handcuffs, sitting next to a police officer. "They started interrogating me," Abdughufur said. Fearing for her safety, she complied, sharing sensitive details and documents the police demanded from her, including her Australian driver's license.
When Abdughufur finished the call, "her face was pale," her friend Dilshat remembered. Shortly thereafter, an audio message from Abdughufur's mother arrived. "These people will look for you," it said. The WeChat account used to contact Abdughufur was disconnected soon after. Abdughufur hasn't heard from her mother since.
This was the kind of danger that she and other Uighurs had hoped to escape. In the past few years, China has conducted a sweeping campaign to suppress Uighur identity and restrict the practice of Islam. As many as 1 million Uighurs and members of other minority groups - mostly Muslim ones - are being held without charges in brutal internment camps, according to the United Nations. It is just the latest episode in a decades-long history of tension between Uighurs and the staunchly secular, Han Chinese-dominated government in Beijing.
Abdughufur herself fled Xinjiang in 2017, when China intensified its crackdown. Shortly after moving to Australia, her younger brother and father were sent to internment camps.
After months of denying the camps existed, China switched last year to justifying them. Beijing insists it is merely providing job training and "de-extremism education" in a region that is poor and steeped in fundamentalism. "As a result of the vocational education and training, the social environment of Xinjiang has seen notable changes, with a healthy atmosphere on the rise and improper practices declining," said Shohrat Zakir, the de facto No. 2 official in Xinjiang, to The Washington Post in October.
Neither the Chinese embassy in Australia nor Australia's Department of Home Affairs responded to requests for comment.
Uighurs in Adelaide said efforts to infiltrate their community go back more than a decade. One man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still has family in China, said that during a visit to China in 2005, he was offered what was then an average wage in Australia if he agreed to spy on his community. Another woman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her family, said she was approached with a similar request as recently as 2011.
Open intimidation on Australian soil is a much more recent concern. It has taken the form of WeChat messages or phone calls, often from individuals claiming to be Chinese officials. They may ask for a call back regarding passport or visa matters, or claim a package has arrived at the embassy for the person they are calling; many of them demand sensitive personal information that Uighurs believe Chinese authorities would already have due to prior visa requests.
That pattern, said Michael Clarke, who researches the treatment of Uighurs at Australia's National Security College, is "consistent, not just with incidents in Australia, but also in other places around the world."
Some researchers caution that there is no statistical evidence of such tactics, but Uighur community leaders say complaints about calls, messages and video chats have proliferated as Adelaide's Uighurs have become more politically active over the last two years. Uighurs say the calls began in March, just hours after the community staged its largest-ever protest in Canberra, Australia's capital, to highlight the plight of China's Uighurs.
"After the protest in Canberra, even young kids who were born here got the phone calls," said 37-year old Adam Turan, who said his 80-year-old father died weeks after being released from an internment camp in Xinjiang in the fall.
The calls and messages have taken a heavy toll. The tightknit Adelaide Uighur community of about 170 families has watched helplessly as an increasing number of their relatives in China have been taken to the internment camps. Many think their activism has led to such imprisonments - and, in some cases, deaths. The community's growth has also trickled to a standstill as leaving China has become harder and harder for Uighurs.
"Because we live here, they suffer," Turan said. As he sat in a Uighur restaurant in central Adelaide and recalled his own father's death, he was interrupted by the restaurant's owner, who approached the table to share details about his own family's disappearance.
All of the Uighurs interviewed for this piece said they had experienced depression or anxiety following the detention of their relatives and continuing harassment. "Sometimes I want to kill myself," said Almas Nizamidin, 28, a construction worker who says his wife is being detained in a Chinese internment camp and who has lobbied Australian lawmakers unsuccessfully to raise the issue with Chinese officials.
"We all have psychological issues here," Turan agreed. "At work, I try not to cry."
For him, the questions he used to fear most began early in the morning, at the breakfast table with his children. "Do you have parents?," his 5-year-old son repeatedly asked. "Why are they not here?"
"Even the children go through this trauma," Turan said. "That's the hardest part."
China is Australia's biggest export market, putting Canberra in an awkward position. Australia's government is a vocal critic of the treatment of Uighurs; it joined the United States as recently as November in calling on China to close its camps. But Nurmuhammad Said Majid, the president of the East Turkistan Australian Association (East Turkistan is the term used by Uighurs to describe Xinjiang), believes that Australia's increasing dependence on China has made it made it more difficult for his community to have their complaints heard.
"We're paying a heavy price for what we do here," Majid said.
While sitting for an interview at Southern Australia's State Library in Adelaide, Majid noticed red lanterns outside the library, announcing a new exhibition on ancient China. Such exhibitions and other intercultural exchanges have become more frequent in recent years, despite Australia's criticisms of China's human rights record.
"When I see those lanterns," Majid said, pointing to them, "I see the blood of our families."