China’s harassment of minority groups spills out beyond its borders

As recent incidents in Canada show, China’s treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans is increasingly felt globally. Raphael Tsavkko Garcia reports on the tactics used — and the international response.

By: /
19 July, 2019
People protest China's treatment of the Uighur people during a court appearance by Huawei's Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
By: Raphael Tsavkko Garcia

Relations between China and Canada have been shaken by the arrest of Huawei finance chief Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, and the subsequent process to extradite her to the United States.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a progression of retaliatory acts from the Chinese government, including the detention of at least two Canadian nationals accused of espionage and a block by China on imports of canola and meat from Canada.

Amidst the “bitter stalemate” between the two countries, there is another topic that has received less attention and is also among the reason relations are deteriorating: an increase in harassment of minority groups by China.

Last week, on July 10, United Nations ambassadors from 22 states, including Canada, co-signed a letter sent to Coly Seck, the Human Rights Council president, and Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemning China’s treatment of the Uighur people and other minorities in the Xinjiang region.

“We, the co-signatories to this letter, are concerned about credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” the letter read.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reports that family members of detained Uighurs living outside China face the anguish of not knowing the fate of their relatives, and the fear of being arrested if they try to seek them out, or deported if they engage in campaigns. Even those members of the Uighur diaspora outside of China, including those in Canada, without detained family members at home have also been targeted — joining other groups under attack by China, such as Tibetans.

A history of repression

Chinese oppression of the Tibetan population might be most well known — China has historically protested before every visit by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, to allied countries. But a crackdown on the Uighur population in the Xinjiang region (also called East Turkestan) has been taking place for decades, by sending millions of ethnic Han Chinese to Uighur-majority regions with the aim of making them a minority in their own land, as well as by destroying mosques and imprisoning imams.

Since 2014, more than a million people have been sent to re-education camps. China is using (and abusing) tech surveillance tools to track down and arrest as many Uighurs as the government sees fit — using AI face recognition, collecting DNA, location tracking, etc., along with US-developed tech.

“China is using tech surveillance tools to track down and arrest as many Uighurs as the government sees fit.”

This crackdown has heavily impacted not only the Uighur population in China, but also the diaspora, who suffer from heavy harassment and are trying to set up campaigns to denounce China’s persecution and help their friends and relatives.

Both groups, the Tibetans and Uighurs, are now facing increasing repression abroad.

Tibetans have a sizeable diaspora living in India, Nepal and the United States, while Uighurs outside China live mainly in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. According to Canada’s 2016 census, there are about 8,000 Tibetans and 1,500 Uighurs in the country. Despite the seemingly small numbers, they have been facing online and offline harassment from Chinese nationals, according to Amnesty International Canada.

While repression in Tibet has been ongoing since the 1950s, it has gradually received less attention as the crackdown in the Uighur-inhabited region has increased, which China claims is in response to a series of attacks against Chinese interests by Islamic terrorists. Yet, both cases serve as an example for what may become a reality around the world in a dystopic future: complex surveillance and monitoring systems, coupled with a policy of mass persecution and “re-education” camps to avoid any kind of resistance to Chinese control.

Harassment in Canada

Diaspora members of the two groups in Canada have been facing an increase in pressure coming from Chinese nationals under the control of the Chinese embassy here.

Earlier this year, a Tibetan student, Chemi Lhamo, was cyberbullied and received death threats after being elected student president of the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), and a Uighur activist, Rukiye Turdush, experienced harassment while speaking at Ontario’s McMaster University.

Lhamo and Turdush have different backgrounds — Turdush has been fighting for the cause of East Turkestan for years, having left China in 1998 with her five-month-old son for fear of persecution, and Lhamo was born in India, a Tibetan refugee’s granddaughter, and moved to Canada when she was 11 years old.

Yet they have both suffered harassment for defending the cause of their people, and for identifying themselves as a member of a nation under Chinese control.

Lhamo found refuge in the Tibetan community in Toronto when she was a teenager searching for her identity. She began engaging with the community, for instance becoming a member of the board of Students for Free Tibet. This led her to run in UTSC elections, campaigning against racism, Islamophobia and issues affecting her community, as she explained in an interview with OpenCanada.

On the harassment she suffered, broadly covered by local media, she says she found it “interesting, because I was vice president before and no one had a problem. Now suddenly thousands of students opposed me even running for president. It was a bit of a shock.” She adds that “this is not even about me…it’s something bigger. There’s a pattern. [Chinese students] are always talking about Tibet being a part of China, of me being part of a Free Tibet movement.”

“If they see that Tibet is part of China, they should be proud of having me, [someone] ‘Chinese,’ as president of the student body of the university,” she added ironically.

Turdush was president of the Uyghur Canadian Society for two terms, and even outside China, she has reasons to fear for her life (and that of her son), she said in an interview. She is constantly harassed on Twitter and YouTube: “[Chinese students] use a lot of bad words. They attack [me] with curses, harass, say terrible things. They sometimes say I’m not real, but a machine. They e-mail me private messages with threats.”

Recalling her experience giving a speech at McMaster University in February, she said: “When I entered the huge classroom with about 100 people, one Chinese [man] opened the door and started filming me. Another guy came and stood by the door, said bad words in Chinese and left, then another Chinese girl came and started walking all over the place trying to disturb me. Then another girl came. One by one, they came when I was talking to disturb me, and I realized that they were there on purpose.”

Cases of harassment and intimidation against activists such as Turdush and Lhamo seem very well organized and planned by Chinese officials. Turdush published a video statement on her Facebook profile about what happened at McMaster University and shared images of WeChat messages to students, which she said she believed were from the Chinese consulate. Included in the conversations, she said, was the instruction to find information on Turdush’s son, a student at a Canadian university. However, she said she doesn’t have explicit proof of the senders’ identities.

Lhamo also believes that the attack against her was coordinated. “There’s definitely a connection to the Chinese embassy, students out of nowhere couldn’t organize protests quickly with thousands of Chinese nationals. These international Chinese students can’t organize such demonstrations in one day,” she said.

Targeted attacks

Tibetans and Uighurs in Canada are not the only targets of Chinese harassment and scare tactics. China is surveilling and threatening Uighurs in the US and, according to a report by the Uyghur Human Rights Project called “The Fifth Poison: the Harassment of Uyghurs Overseas,” the monitoring and harassment of Uighurs, as well as of Tibetans, is taking place globally. China has also resorted to spies in Germany and Sweden to keep tabs on members of the Uighur community, as well as threatening messages through WeChat against Uighurs in France and other parts of the world.

“Tibetans and Uighurs in Canada are not the only targets of Chinese harassment and scare tactics.”

Meanwhile, China has also increased surveillance within Tibet and, in March, pressured Concordia University to cancel an event with a Uighur activist. In April, Chinese officials pressured the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia to cancel an event about Uighur repression in Xinjiang.

Peter Irwin, program manager of the World Uyghur Congress, said in an email exchange that the NGO’s Facebook page was attacked, also in April, “by a Chinese group called Di-ba” and that he expects further attacks “given the sensitivity of the Uyghur issue to the Chinese government.”

Tibetans have also been systematically targeted by malware-enabled espionage operations, and by digital campaigns “seeking to compromise private data or discredit activists,” says the report “Harassment and Intimidation of Individuals in Canada Working on China-related,” published by The Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in Canada Activism.

Sonam Chokey, national director of Students for a Free Tibet Canada, denounced the threats and online harassment suffered by her and the Tibetan community. “From time to time, we do get messages and comments [on] some of the stuff we post on the internet,” she told OpenCanada. “Personally, I’ve experienced harassment from Chinese nationals at street protests and I have also received really unfriendly phone calls. I have voice mails from this one person who called me many times speaking very poorly about the Dalai Lama, talking about me, threatening me and my life.”

To control communication entering or leaving China, access to Tibet is heavily restricted for journalists. China also has the Great Firewall — a combination of technologies such as DNS spoofing, URL filtering, etc. that censor content deemed illegal by Chinese authorities. Chinese authorities also use a mobile app, IJOP, to carry out illegal mass surveillance and arbitrary detention in East Turkestan, says a report by Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, Toronto police launched an investigation into the threats received by Lhamo, but so far the Canadian government hasn’t issued statements on either case. Chokey believes that Chinese pressure on activists in Canada and elsewhere is increasing.

Lhamo agrees: “In general there has been multiple folks that have been detained in China even for singing songs in China, so repression is growing,” she said. “Pressure is increasing as the economic power of China is growing.”

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