Yasin Üztürk, an ethnic Uyghur who runs a barber shop in Istanbul, never expected to become the target of a Chinese intelligence operation. Fearful for the safety of his parents back home in China, he avoided political protests and speaking out about rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Then he spotted one of his customers surreptitiously photographing him from the street. When he forced the man, another Uyghur, to show him his phone, he discovered photographs of his shop and voice messages from what seemed to be a security official in China demanding more information on Üztürk. These included ominous instructions to “finish the job”.
“I’m not safe when the hand of China reaches all the way here,” said Üztürk, 38, who moved to Istanbul in 2016 and has since become a naturalised Turkish citizen. “Everyone here is suspicious of one another.”
Üztürk’s case is typical of many of the hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs living outside China, according to research from the University of Sheffield, whose academics surveyed more than 120 Uyghur respondents in Turkey and dozens in the UK, and obtained Chinese police notes detailing their tactics.
About six years ago Beijing began carrying out mass detentions of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims living in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang amid a crackdown on their religion. A UN report has found extensive evidence of abuses that may amount to “crimes against humanity” in the region, though Beijing argues that its policies counter extremism and promote development.
At the same time, China’s government has extended its surveillance over these Muslim groups beyond its own borders, part of a broader phenomenon that academics call “transnational repression”.
That includes putting pressure on Uyghurs overseas to keep quiet about abuses in Xinjiang and to inform on other members of their community. Tools used to coerce people include threats to their families in China or promises of contact with loved ones in exchange for aiding Chinese surveillance. Some Beijing-friendly governments are willing to turn a blind eye or even to help; a climate of suspicion caused by this activity can lead to isolation and the fragmentation of Uyghur communities.
“The scale of transnational repression in the Uyghur diaspora is universal, and its impact severely restricts their rights to free speech and associations, and the capacity to maintain their culture,” wrote report authors David Tobin and Nyrola Elimä.
Four-fifths of Uyghur respondents in Turkey said they had been threatened by Chinese police or state security officials over the phone while in Turkey, often with retribution against family in China, or had threats made to their families back in Xinjiang.
Almost three-fifths were offered contact with their families or safe passage home in return for ending their advocacy or refraining from speaking out about the situation in Xinjiang, where the UN found a pattern of abuses including torture and forced labour.
All interviewees in Turkey said they had experienced some form of Chinese surveillance, except for those whose families had already been imprisoned, possibly because the Chinese police believed they could no longer put pressure on such individuals. Almost all were asked to conduct surveillance in Turkey of other Uyghurs on behalf of Chinese police.
In response to a request for comment, China’s foreign ministry said it was “not aware of the specific situation”, adding that “anti-China forces” had “spread sensationalised lies and fallacies” about Xinjiang, where “people of all ethnicities live in peace and work happily”.
At Üztürk’s barber shop in a working-class district of Istanbul, customer Turgut, a 51-year-old Uyghur who has been in Turkey for decades, said he had received a call that morning from Chinese police asking him to spy on acquaintances.
“It happens to all of us. They do it to make us paranoid and turn on each other,” he added.
Üztürk’s wife Hatice, 33, believes her husband has been targeted because the barber shop attracts Uyghurs who come for a shave and a gossip. The family reported the incident involving the customer’s phone to Turkish police, who told them there was nothing they could do if Üztürk was not physically harmed.
“I live in constant fear they will hurt Yasin. I cannot trust anyone,” Hatice said. Her 77-year-old father was placed in a camp for “re-education” in Xinjiang, police told her in a recent call.
Sean Roberts, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said: “China has been involved in repressing Uyghur activists around the world since the late 1990s, but what changed in 2017 was attacking the people writ large.”
After China’s crackdown in Xinjiang, Roberts added: “Uyghurs became activated politically. When even relatively regime-loyal Uyghurs ended up in internment camps, they decided they might as well speak up, since silence was not going to protect them.”
The effect of Beijing’s extensive surveillance was to increase isolation within the Uyghur community abroad, the authors found, with many respondents saying they avoided other Uyghurs.
At least three Uyghur restaurant owners said they had faced pressure from Xinjiang police to photograph their customers and monitor their comings and goings.
In the UK, the Xinjiang police have also attempted to spy on prominent British Uyghur activists through co-opting other Uyghur exiles, according to the researchers, who interviewed a man who was approached to become an informant but refused to co-operate.
The 40-year-old Uyghur man was told by Xinjiang police to invite Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, a rights advocacy group that China designates as terrorist, to dinner in London. He was told to fund this by borrowing money from a specified Uyghur restaurant in the UK; the police made it clear that they would put pressure on the restaurant owner’s relatives in Xinjiang if he refused to lend money.
Yerbakyt Otarbay, an ethnically Kazakh man born in Xinjiang, fled to Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2019 after his release from a detention camp. Before he was allowed to leave China, Otarbay was made to sign an agreement not to speak out about his experiences.
But a few months after arriving in Almaty, and after receiving Kazakh citizenship, Otarbay started speaking to journalists and took part in a discussion posted to YouTube describing his experiences in the camp.
“I can’t be silent about the things I’ve seen,” he told the Financial Times.
A year after his arrival, he was visited by Kazakh police who told him that China-Kazakh relations were “very good” and that “there should be no leaks that threaten our relations”. If Otarbay continued speaking out, the police warned him, they would deport him. Kazakhstan has the largest Uyghur population outside China, numbering 290,000 at the last census.
Otarbay stopped speaking out until September 2021, when he was invited to testify in London at the Uyghur Tribunal, an independent hearing on the atrocities in Xinjiang, chaired by human rights barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice.
After arriving in the UK, Otarbay began receiving phone calls up to three times each day from unknown numbers. Some of the callers threatened him in Chinese, telling him to think about the consequences for his family in Xinjiang. Others identified themselves as Kazakh authorities, promising a good job and salary for him if he returned to Almaty.
Undeterred, Otarbay gave his testimony, and the calls stopped after that. He did not contact UK police, as he did not think they would help.
The UK government said: “We continually assess potential threats in the UK and take protection of individuals’ rights, freedoms and safety in the UK very seriously.”
Peter Irwin, of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group, said: “The best thing that governments can do is immediately offer asylum to Uyghurs. Swiftly affirming their immigration status is the most effective way to combat transnational repression.”
Otarbay has now been waiting more than two-and-a-half years for the outcome of his application for asylum in the UK.
“I was straightforward in my application,” Otarbay said. “My greatest honour would simply be to see the dawn of each day.”