Two weeks before a visit by the U.N. human rights chief, China’s state security police warned Uyghurs living in Xinjiang that they may suffer consequences if their relatives living abroad spoke out about internment camps in the region.
Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, is now on a six-day trip to China, including the coastal city of Guangzhou and Urumqi (in Chinese, Wulumuqi) and Kashgar (Kashi) in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). She began the tour on May 23.
On May 12, U.S.-based Kalbinur Gheni posted a tweet asking Bachelet to meet with her sister, who is incarcerated at a women’s prison in Sanji (Changji), a city next to Urumqi, capital of the XUAR.
Gheni said members of China’s state security police in Korla (Kuerle), the second-largest city in Xinjiang, visited her mother in Cherchen county the next day and pressed her to convince Gheni not to tweet more about her sister’s detention.
“‘Your daughter in the United States is speaking out against the government. If you don't talk to this girl and ask her to agree to delete everything on Twitter, you will be convicted of being a two-faced person yourself,’” Gheni recalled the security officials told her mother.
“When I called my mom on the second day after my tweet, my poor mother cried and shouted saying that if I didn’t delete what I had posted, she would sever her blood relationship with me,” Gheni said.
The agents threatened to charge her mother with the “crime” of being “a two-faced person” if she failed to persuade Gheni. The Chinese Communist Party uses the term to describe people — usually officials or party members — who are either corrupt or ideologically disloyal to the party.
Gheni’s sister, , was a primary schoolteacher in Cherchen county when authorities allegedly took her to an internment camp in 2018. Two years later she was sentenced to 17 years in prison — seven years for praying during her father’s funeral and 10 years for possessing a Quran.
Gheni said security officials had pressured her family over her tweets about her sister before the latest incident.
“The same state security official has been contacting me directly over a year now,” Gheni told RFA, adding that the agent has told her that he is taking care of her family members in Xinjiang.
Gheni’s younger brother, who had not spoken to her for more than two years, also had left a message asking her to delete her Twitter posts.
“After this tweet, my brother with whom I had lost contact for over two years, left a voice message on WeChat saying, ‘We heard that while abroad you have made anti-China statements. Will you let us live or not? Stop making these statements and delete everything you posted.’”
On May 23, Gheni tweeted: “I will keep up the fight, I won’t give up on my loved ones.”
‘No Uyghur is safe’
U.S.-based Uyghur Gulruy Esqer told RFA that Chinese government authorities also tried to silence her by rearresting a relative in the XUAR.
Esmet Behti, who was a history professor the Bingtuan Pedagogical School under the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, was rearrested in May 2021 in an attempt to silence Esqer. The teacher was first arrested in 2019 and taken to a detention camp but released nine months later.
“I thought he had been released because of my activism in the U.S. and that he would be safe from further harm by Chinese authorities, but I was wrong,” she told RFA. “No Uyghur is safe from Chinese authorities. That’s what I’ve now concluded. Any Uyghur on any given day or night might be taken away by Chinese authorities.”
Shortly before the start of Bachelet’s visit to the XUAR, the Chinese government launched a campaign there to “protect state secrets,” warning Uyghurs not to talk about or discuss “state secrets,” meaning the detention of Uyghurs or other measures to repress them.
International human rights organizations say that China’s efforts to silence Uyghurs abroad serve the same purpose as using propaganda to cover up the reality of rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Bachelet’s visit coincided with release of on Uyghurs in the XUAR published online by German researcher Adrian Zenz, director in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. The files detail the brutality of the Chinese authorities against Uyghurs and show top Chinese leaders’ direct involvement in the mass internment campaign.