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April 2022 Issue [Letter from Istanbul]

The Spies Next Door

China’s covert campaign to intimidate Uighur exiles
Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

Illustrations by Danijel Žeželj

[Letter from Istanbul]

The Spies Next Door

China’s covert campaign to intimidate Uighur exiles

Adiljan Abdurrahim woke up in his one-bedroom Istanbul apartment on March 28, 2016, without much to do. This was how it was most days, but he put on his sleek black suit jacket all the same. Exile had taken nearly everything from him—his family, his homeland, his thriving jade business in the Ürümqi Grand Bazaar—and left him with sporadic, lonely work buying Turkish clothing for a company back in Xinjiang. Yet it hadn’t dulled his sense of enterprise, or the care he took with his appearance. He was still the kind of man who kept an eye out for opportunities, and he made sure to dress accordingly.

Abdurrahim was thirty-three, with cropped hair, a neat beard, and a quick, nervous smile. From his apartment, he walked to a broad, sunny boulevard with benches, restaurants, and mosques, where other Uighurs tended to gather. It was less crowded than usual, and he didn’t see anyone he knew around, so he just sat a while, letting the time pass. The afternoon brought a familiar face: Abdullah Aktaş, another Uighur, who was nearly twenty years his senior and had been in Turkey long enough that he’d been granted citizenship. Aktaş also worked in textiles, and owned a factory producing, among other things, women’s underwear and bikinis. A mutual acquaintance had introduced them the previous year, and each time they had met since, Aktaş had invited him for a meal or a cup of coffee. He was always friendly, though sometimes he asked the kind of sensitive, personal questions that displaced Uighurs knew not to ask one another. Wary, Abdurrahim had not divulged his real name, opting instead to go by the alias he had assumed when he arrived in Istanbul three years earlier. Even in Turkey, friends had warned him, the Chinese authorities were watching.

The two exchanged greetings and headed toa teahouse on the edge of a nearby park. It was a popular spot, with a faded wood interior where men met to play the tile game Okey beneath harsh lighting and old photographs. They sat toward the back, and Abdurrahim, who was still not used to bitter Turkish coffee, ordered a Nescafé with milk, and fiddled with his phone. As he did so, he thought he heard the click of a camera shutter. Across the table, Aktaş had his own phone in his hand, and a guilty expression on his face.

“Brother,” Abdurrahim asked. “Did you take my picture?”

“I did not,” Aktaş said.

“Can I look at your phone?”

Aktaş held it out with a confidence that Abdurrahim would later come to interpret as a bluff. Abdurrahim snatched the phone, opened the photo gallery, and with a jolt of anxiety saw that he had been right. The image showed him absorbed and unaware, bent forward with his jacket bunched up around his shoulders, but his face was clearly visible. It was, he thought, exactly the kind of picture that might be useful to Chinese intelligence.

“It’s nothing,” Aktaş said. “Just a joke.”

Abdurrahim suspected it was neither. He thought of his wife, Mihribangul, and their children, who were still trapped in China. “I’m living here, and my family is in Xinjiang,” Abdurrahim said, growing angry. “If you take my picture and send it to the government, it will be dangerous for me and my family.”

Aktaş offered to delete the photo, but Abdurrahim did not want to take any chances. “This is evidence,” he said, putting the phone in his pocket and promising to return it after searching its contents. Aktaş protested. There was personal information on there, he said, pictures of his wife. Growing increasingly desperate, he offered Abdurrahim money. At that moment, Abdurrahim knew he was hiding something.

They left the teahouse without touching their drinks, the phone still in Abdurrahim’s pocket. Aktaş suggested they talk things over in his car, which was parked close by. Instead, Abdurrahim sprinted down the street, making his way to the apartment of a friend, who could act as a witness while he searched the phone. With his friend watching, he opened WeChat, the Chinese app that provides diasporic populations with a vital link home, but is subject to extensive government surveillance and censorship. A few conversations stood out: exchanges of voice messages with men identified by what appeared to be pseudonyms.

Two of them sounded like Uighurs, including one whom Aktaş seemed to have met with during a trip back to Xinjiang at the Khorgos border crossing into Kazakhstan. A third spoke Uighur with a light Chinese accent. Aktaş was solicitous and fawning with the men, carefully detailing his movements and often asking after their health. One message, sent to the Khorgos-based man shortly after Aktaş’s return to Turkey, made clear the exact nature of their relationship. “If you have anything you want me to do,” Aktaş said, “I’m ready to serve you.”

Demands followed from all three men: details of meetings organized by Uighur groups, pictures of Uighur restaurants, and information about specific Uighurs who were suspected of being in the city. Then there were the messages referring to Abdurrahim, whom Aktaş had offered up as a useful source of intel. “He has a very large circle and that circle is very important,” Aktaş said. “Let me try to take his picture or take a picture of his passport and clarify his identity.”

“Now look,” Abdurrahim told his friend. “This man is one hundred percent a spy.”

Since early 2017, when the Chinese Communist Party intensified its repression of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, it has been virtually impossible for residents who are not members of China’s Han majority to leave the country. A few Uighurs with the means to do so, however, managed to escape in the early days of the crackdown, joining those already studying and working abroad. Exile has not granted them safety. The CCP has monitored their movements, threatened their families, and attempted to prevent them from discussing events in Xinjiang—all part of a systematic campaign of intimidation that reaches far beyond China’s borders. Dissidents were the government’s primary focus, but even low-profile individuals who have distanced themselves from politics have been targeted.

An estimated fifty thousand Uighurs now live in Turkey, the largest such population outside central Asia, thanks to a largely sympathetic public and long-standing cultural links encouraged by the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This has made the country a base for various Uighur associations, activists, and media organizations. At the peak of the Syrian conflict, it was also a waypoint for Uighurs who had given up on any hope of a peaceful life and were heading south to join militant jihadi groups. The Chinese security apparatus paid close attention.

Abdurrahim arrived in Istanbul in 2013, taking a taxi from the airport straight to Zeytinburnu, a working-class neighborhood where Uighurs had settled. It was his first time outside of China. He had grown up the eldest of three brothers in a brick house near the northwestern city of Ghulja, its backyard lined with apple, apricot, and cherry trees. As a teenager, he learned how Xinjiang had twice tried to separate from China as an independent East Turkestan in the Thirties and Forties, and about the ensuing waves of government-sponsored Han migration designed to dilute the Uighur population. He also learned how, during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards had shuttered mosques, burned Qur’ans, and publicly humiliated imams, and how his grandfather had died in Chinese detention.

In 1997, when Abdurrahim was fourteen, protesters took to the streets in response to a crackdown on expressions of traditional Uighur culture and reports that authorities had executed thirty accused Uighur separatists. Troops fired into the crowds, killing several demonstrators, and mass arrests followed, as well as more executions. Not long after, Uighur militants bombed buses in the regional capital of Ürümqi, leading to further repressive state measures. Newly awakened to the inequalities Uighurs faced, Abdurrahim became drawn to a conservative interpretation of Islam. He began attending services at the mosque, joined a Qur’an study group, and grew a patchy teenage beard. For that, police arrested him when he was seventeen. Officers held him, along with some friends, for two weeks, taking them out of their cells to beat and insult them in front of one another, and locking them in a restraining device known as the “tiger chair.” Before they were released, they were ordered to shave. Abdurrahim did as he was told; those who refused, he says, had their beards pulled out with pliers.

Six months later, he was detained again. And again a year after that. Unable to bear the harassment, Abdurrahim left Ghulja, and eventually settled in Ürümqi. Things were easier there for a time. He became a jade trader and met Mihribangul. They got married in 2007. He called her Mihribanim, my merciful one, and she called him Wapadarim, my loyal one. Two quiet years later, they welcomed a daughter, Bumaryam.

That July, a brawl in Ürümqi between Uighurs and Han Chinese escalated into violence that killed nearly two hundred people, according to official figures. Abdurrahim, who had witnessed the beginnings of the upheaval while on his way to Friday prayer, sheltered indoors for two nights and emerged to see a mob of Han men beating Uighurs, including a disabled shoe shiner, outside the bazaar. Authorities intensified security and surveillance measures in the aftermath, justifying them with language that recalled the American war on terror.

Abdurrahim shaved his beard and did his best to stay out of trouble. He and Mihribangul had another child, Muhammed. Business went well, and the family moved into a spacious house in the suburbs. They took trips to the fair and the cinema in Abdurrahim’s new minivan, and they treated themselves to expensive fast food. Abdurrahim had once envied businessmen who traveled by trains. Now when he had to leave Ürümqi for work, he flew.

In 2013, Abdurrahim acquired a passport so he could perform the hajj. He departed for Saudi Arabia via Cairo in July, leaving behind a pregnant Mihribangul. When Abdurrahim arrived in Egypt, his mother called with a warning. His “friends” had recently visited to ask about him. “Friends” was code for the police, and Abdurrahim took her to mean that he would likely be arrested if he returned to Ürümqi. “Take good care of yourself,” she said before hanging up. “And never come back.”

Severed from everything he knew and unable to secure a Saudi visa, Abdurrahim abandoned his plans for Mecca and traveled to Turkey. He felt an affinity for the country, in part because he had watched the popular television dramas set in Ottoman courts or Istanbul mansions that were available on Video CD in Xinjiang markets. From those, he had concluded that Uighurs and Turks had much in common. This impression was reinforced when his new neighbors turned out to be familiar with his background, too. “You are the same as us, you come from the same place as our ancestors,” they would say when he told them about Xinjiang. “You are a true Turk, you are our brother.”

Abdurrahim found an apartment, then a job, and resolved to live as quietly as possible for the sake of his family. He went mostly by his alias, and stayed away from protests and other political activities. When he had free time, he spent it in mosques or in Uighur restaurants. He discovered that several people he’d known in Ürümqi and elsewhere in Xinjiang were also living in Istanbul, and he met other exiles too, including Aktaş.

The day after the teahouse incident in 2016, Aktaş called Abdurrahim with a threat: if he did not return the phone, Aktaş would report him to the police as a member of the Islamic State. “Do what you want,” Abdurrahim told him. But as a precaution, he sent recordings of Aktaş’s WeChat conversations to prominent members of Istanbul’s Uighur community. Three days later, Abdurrahim and a friend were walking through Zeytinburnu when plainclothes police officers arrested them on charges of threatening a Turkish citizen and being a member of the Islamic State. The officers handcuffed them and put them in the back of a van.

The Turkish police, Abdurrahim learned, were nothing like those back home—“the difference between the sky and ground,” he told me later. There were no beatings or insults, and he was allowed to call the head of an Istanbul-based Uighur association, who promised to send him a lawyer. The officers interrogating Abdurrahim were sympathetic. “A man from your own nation betrayed you,” Abdurrahim recalled one saying. “This is unforgivable.” Even so, stealing was illegal, and they returned the phone to Aktaş without deleting the photo. Soon the lawyer arrived, and Abdurrahim was released into a world altered: Chinese authorities, he was sure, now knew exactly who he was.

The months that followed brought alarming news from China. In August 2016, President Xi Jinping appointed a regional party head in Xinjiang known for implementing a harsh security policy in Tibet. Stories spread of high-tech surveillance measures disrupting every facet of life in Xinjiang: forcible collection of biometric data, facial recognition cameras, countless police checkpoints. Uighurs had their passports confiscated and were effectively barred from leaving the country, eliminating the possibility of Abdurrahim’s family joining him in Istanbul.

Then came reports of the camps, vast facilities that were officially termed “vocational education and training centers.” The CCP attempted to keep its operations secret, but it soon became clear that the camps were designed to forcibly assimilate Uighurs and other minority groups through indoctrination, torture, and abuse. People could be taken to a camp for almost anything: praying in public, having an “abnormal” beard, showing interest in Uighur history, not using a cell phone, or quitting smoking. Simply being related to someone the government regarded as suspect could be enough, as was speaking to a son, daughter, or spouse abroad. Hundreds of thousands of people disappeared.

Meanwhile, the so-called Pair Up and Become Family scheme sent party cadres to live with Uighur families, sharing their food, their homes, and even their beds, while compiling detailed accounts of their behavior. Other reports described Chinese authorities forcing Uighur women to have abortions, undergo sterilization surgery, or be fitted with IUDs. Birth rates in Xinjiang plummeted.

Abdurrahim was unable to discuss any of this with his family. His brother-in-law was detained in 2014 for taking his calls shortly after he arrived in Turkey, and since then he had spoken to neither his parents nor his wife. Finally, he managed to reconnect with Mihribangul over WeChat toward the end of 2016. Her messages were cautious and brief, but sometimes included pictures of the children, as well as a few selfies. There was one that Abdurrahim particularly liked: she was gazing ahead wearing immaculate makeup, a serious expression, and a white headscarf patterned with lilac flowers. He made it his phone background.

Other Uighurs in Turkey had noticed that friends and relatives had been quietly disappearing from their WeChat contact lists, presumably unwilling to risk even the slightest association. Some received calls from family members that sounded as if they were being directed by the police, telling them to stay away from political activities.

In April 2017, Mihribangul sent Abdurrahim some concerning news: she was going to work at a textile factory in Aksu, and would have to completely cut off contact. Abdurrahim tried to dissuade her—she was not a seamstress, he said, and the children were still so young. “We need to go,” she replied. “It’s the order of the government.” There was something else, she added. Officials had told her she needed to have sterilization surgery.

Three months later, Abdurrahim said, he received a short WeChat message from one of Mihribangul’s friends saying that his father had been taken to the “big school,” which was code for prison. Mihribangul had been taken to the “small school”—a detention camp.

Abdurrahim sank into a sorrow like none he had known before, an incredible hollowing out that he later struggled to put into words. On his worst days, only the knowledge that Islam considered it a sin, and the feeling that he would be abandoning his family, kept him from ending his own life. And it was thinking about how he might help his family that moved him to channel his grief into activism. One afternoon in July 2018, he hung up the light-blue flag of East Turkestan, put on a traditional four-cornered doppa skullcap and a matching embroidered shirt, and filmed himself reading from a sheaf of handwritten notes. He spoke in Turkish, then Uighur, explaining the crackdown in Xinjiang and what had happened to his father and his wife. “We need to act quickly to be the voice of the detained,” he said. “And tell the world of their situation.” It took a few attempts, but Abdurrahim soon had a take that satisfied him. He posted it to Facebook, hoping it would encourage others to speak out.

A week later, Abdurrahim received a series of WhatsApp messages from a Turkish number he did not recognize. He opened the app to find images of Mihribangul’s mother sitting with his children. Bumaryam was in a red-and-white tracksuit with a colorful neckerchief; Muhammed was in a traditional shirt; and Omer, the son he had never met, was beaming and clutching a toy tractor to his chest. There was a video of the boys rolling the tractor across a dusty concrete backyard as Bumaryam ran in and out of the shot, all of it soundtracked by a sentimental ballad. “I forgot all the pain in my heart,” the singer crooned. “When my child called me father for the first time.”

The video cut back to the scene from the photos and the camera panned across his children’s faces. Bumaryam laughed and Omer looked up expressionless. Muhammed, however, seemed worried, turning away and lowering his eyes. Mihribangul’s mother tried to encourage him with a hand on his shoulder, but when the camera lingered on her, she, too, looked uncomfortable. Abdurrahim opened the accompanying audio message, and heard a warm, male voice addressing him by his real name. “We haven’t heard from you for a long time,” he recalls it saying. “Do you remember them?”

Shaken, but trying to stay calm, Abdurrahim responded with a note of his own. Yes, he remembered them, he said. But who was he talking to? The man replied that he was a party cadre who had been assigned to Abdurrahim’s family. “We haven’t spoken before,” he said. “But let’s be friends and keep in contact.” If Abdurrahim cooperated, the man went on, he would have a chance to see his children again. Abdurrahim could not bear it. He knew well what cooperation meant: becoming a spy like Aktaş, who must have had a similar conversation of his own. Abdurrahim chose differently. “I’m responsible for the things I’ve done, not my family,” he recalls responding in another note. “But don’t expect cooperation from me. I would never betray myself or my people.”

“Just be calm,” the man replied politely. “Take it easy, and come to us slowly.”

Other Uighurs abroad have described similar patterns of contact from Chinese security operatives, which together attest to a campaign of widespread surveillance and intimidation. Initial messages usually come via WhatsApp or WeChat and begin with seemingly friendly requests for basic details about exiles’ lives. Demands for information about fellow Uighurs follow. Those who comply are allowed to make supervised calls home. Refusal is met with veiled or overt threats to loved ones in Xinjiang, and in some cases, their subsequent disappearance.

These tactics extend far beyond Turkey. Buerhan Saiti, a finance professor based in Malaysia, was contacted in 2017 by a police chief from his hometown in Xinjiang who asked if they could meet in Kuala Lumpur. Rattled, Saiti made excuses, then expedited a planned move to Turkey with his family. The police chief sent him a series of angry messages when he realized what had happened, and went on to demand that Saiti “cooperate.” Saiti refused, and discovered later that his parents and sister had been detained. Kalbinur Gheni, a sales manager from Xinjiang who now lives in the United States, told me she had received WeChat communications from five different security figures, including threats to her mother back home. When she tweeted about her sister Renagul in 2020, who she believed had been arrested under dubious circumstances, the harassment intensified, and she was sent what seemed to be an audio recording of Renagul in a detention facility. “Please don’t do anything against the country, and don’t do anything against the law,” Gheni remembers her sister saying. “Otherwise you will end up like me.”

Those who choose to speak out in public against the CCP are also targeted with other forms of harassment. Their relatives back home appear on state-run media outlets to denounce them, or are reported to have died under mysterious circumstances. One man in Istanbul, who had told journalists he had been forced to become an informant, was shot twice in the shoulder while visiting a friend. He survived, but the assailant has not been found.

China also employs diplomatic pressure and financial incentives to secure foreign assistance in its efforts to persecute Uighurs abroad. Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan—one of China’s principal allies and the recipient of billions of dollars in loans as part of the Belt and Road Initiative—has said he accepts China’s explanation of the events in Xinjiang, despite frequently speaking out against Islamophobia elsewhere. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which is China’s largest oil supplier, defended the CCP’s “right” to carry out “anti-terrorism and de-extremization work” during a 2019 trip to Beijing, where he signed a multibillion-dollar trade deal. The kingdom was one of the thirty-seven nations that signed on to a letter to the UN Human Rights Council praising China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” Saudi Arabia, along with other countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have extradited Uighurs at China’s request, and the Associated Press reported last year on the alleged existence of a secret Chinese-run black site in Dubai, where abducted Uighurs had been detained. After an injection of Chinese funds into Turkey’s crisis-hit economy and shipments of vaccines during the height of the pandemic, even Erdoğan appears to have muted his once-strident criticism. Over the past two years, Turkish police have detained over one hundred Uighurs, including a number of activists, and deported several others.

These efforts have fostered a sense of insecurity and paranoia throughout much of the Uighur diaspora—a feeling among exiles that Chinese authorities can reach them anywhere at any time. Just owning a phone brings with it the possibility of communication with agents of the security apparatus. And the ubiquitous nature of such contacts turns those suffering through the same ordeals into potential spies. In exile, the very people with whom one shares a home and a language, the only people who truly understand, cannot be trusted.

The WhatsApp exchange was the last time Abdurrahim heard from the cadre or any other CCP representative. Emboldened by the sense that there was little else they could take from him, he became increasingly involved with Uighurs protesting the crackdown. He joined a group marching on the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul’s upscale Sarıyer district, striding up the street without bothering to hide his face. He made two placards. One featured images of Bumaryam, Omer, and Muhammed with the caption where are my children? in Turkish. The other featured his favorite photo of Mihribangul in her flowery headscarf, accompanied by the words my wife is innocent, release my wife. He staged a solitary vigil in the city center and continued attending demonstrations near the consulate.

When I visited Abdurrahim last August, he was struggling to find regular work, and had moved from Zeytinburnu, where rents were climbing, to a cheaper apartment just off the highway. He repeatedly apologized about the mess, though there was none to speak of. The place was neat and clean, with a mismatched patchwork of worn rugs underfoot. A lace-curtained window looked out onto a wall and did little to alleviate the summer heat. There was an ornate dresser too large for the apartment, and a small sofa. East Turkestan and Turkish flags hung from an exposed water pipe, and underneath the boiler was an empty cage that had belonged to his parakeet Aşkım, “my love.” The bird had died on a cold day that spring, but Abdurrahim hoped to find a replacement. Talking to it, he said, had made him feel less lonely.

There were other Uighurs in his new neighborhood, he told me, and Uighur restaurants, too, as well as a mosque in a leafy square that he attended for prayer. But after everything that had happened, he struggled to trust his own people. Guilt seemed to torment him: over his decision to leave China, over things left unspoken and undone. His biggest regret, he said, was that he had not appreciated Mihribangul as he should have when he was in Xinjiang. It was only once they were apart that he realized no one else would ever love and understand him as she did.

“It’s painful, it’s unacceptable,” he said as we sat beside an air-conditioning unit at a local café one stifling afternoon. “For such a small reason, they punished me in such a heavy way.” He slumped forward and began to sob.

 lives in Istanbul.

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