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How China Uses Family Members to Pressure Uyghur Journalists

Ehmet Sulaiman,left, and Ehet Sulaiman, right, the brothers of RFA journalist Eset Sulaiman (Credit: Family handout)
Ehmet Sulaiman,left, and Ehet Sulaiman, right, the brothers of RFA journalist Eset Sulaiman (Credit: Family handout)

Officials in China’s Xinjiang region have confirmed that two brothers of a Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalist who have been missing since 2018 were detained by authorities.

The confirmation in early March, after RFA interviewed several local officials, is the first formal acknowledgment Eset Sulaiman has had of the whereabouts of his siblings, Ehet and Ehmet. Local police and government officials refused to say where they are being held, saying it was a “state secret.”

Five of the journalist’s cousins who also went missing are believed to have been detained in mass “re-education” camps, as part of what the U.S.-based journalist said he believes is an attempt to stop his coverage of rights abuses.

RFA, like Voice of America, is an independent network funded by the U.S. Congress.

Sulaiman recalled the last phone call he had with his late mother in 2016.

“She told me that two Chinese police knocked on (her) door several times and warned her if I continue to report about Uyghurs, our family will pay costs,” he told VOA.

Over a million Uyghurs are believed to have been detained in camps in Xinjiang, a semi-autonomous region in China, since 2016, according to Human Rights Watch. The region has been the site of unrest and ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Groups such as the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) said those inside the camps are victims of torture, rape, political indoctrination and forced sterilizations.

The United States has condemned what it described as “China’s abuse of members of ethnic and religious minority groups, including crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang.”

China has denied allegations of genocide and said the camps were set up to deter religious extremism and terrorist attacks, and to lift Uyghurs out of poverty.

“Many, including the UHRP, consider that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs constitutes genocide and crimes against humanity,” Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at UHRP, told VOA.

“Journalists have played a central role in uncovering the reality on the ground in East Turkestan,” he said, referring to the name Uyghurs commonly use for the region.

But that role brings risks. Journalists inside the country face lengthy incarceration, and those in exile risk retaliation against family members if they speak out.

“Intimidation, including detention in some cases, comes in response to Uyghurs overseas speaking out about China’s rights abuses,” Irwin said, adding that China shares “proof-of-life” videos in which detained or missing relatives ask family members to stop criticizing Beijing.

In its January report on the videos, the UHRP found that “the predominant threat against activists is against their loved ones in China,” forcing many to weigh speaking out against human rights violations against keeping family safe.

“The staged videos serve as a tool of misinformation, intimidation and fear directed at the overseas Uyghur community. They remind overseas Uyghurs that their loved ones are subject to totalizing control, pressuring them not to continue speaking publicly,” Irwin said.

Transnational repression

Cases of transnational repression — retaliation against the relatives of activists or journalists who are living overseas — can take several forms, including attacks, digital intimidation, coercion, unlawful deportation from a host country and restrictions on visa and travel documentation.

In its February report “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach,” Freedom House described transnational repression as a government’s attempts to “reach across national borders to silence dissent among their diaspora and exile communities.”

Central to the issue is the rise of technology, said Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy at Freedom House and co-author of the report. These advances simultaneously increase “the capacity for exiles and diasporas to have voice inside of the countries that they have left behind,” as well as “the capacity of those states to reach those exiles,” he said.

Journalists are “uniquely visible and uniquely exposed because of the work that they do,” Schenkkan said. But that visibility leaves them vulnerable to harassment, attacks and spyware surveillance technologies.

The Uyghur population is a major target of China’s attempts at digital intimidation, Schenkkan said. “There's this total effort to bring people who are Uyghur under control, no matter where they are.”

The detainment of Sulaiman’s brothers is part of that larger pattern of transnational repression.

“It’s one of the most common tactics that we see around the world, what we call coercion by proxy,” Schenkkan said. “There're lots and lots of examples of China using this in very direct and blunt ways,” especially when it comes to “recording videos or having family members call their relatives abroad in order to warn them against activities."

On an international scale, Schenkkan advocated for “the use of targeted sanctions” and support for those targeted.

“Some of it we can't control. Some of it we can't change at the source. But we can change how we interact with these people and the opportunities that they have in our country to get protection,” Schenkkan said.

The U.S. imposed sanctions against China in July 2020 including blacklisting Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, as well as the company’s former party secretary, Sun Jinlong, and its deputy party secretary, Peng Jiarui, over accusations that the company was involved in rights abuses.

In December, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called for the European Union’s use of sanctions against China and called for the country to allow international observers into the Xinjiang region.