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  • 01 Aug, 2023
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China pressuring Uyghurs abroad to Spy on Human Rights Activists, using families as hostages


China is using intimidation tactics to pressure Uyghurs living abroad to spy on human rights campaigners by threatening their families back home, according to recent report by the BBC. Refugees and activists have reported that these tactics are tearing Uyghur communities apart.

One Uyghur refugee, referred to as Alim, experienced an emotional but controlled reunion with his mother over a video call after six years of separation. A Chinese police officer acted as an intermediary, making it impossible for them to speak directly to each other. This officer later pressured Alim to spy on Uyghur human rights activists in the UK.

Researchers, including Dr. David Tobin from the University of Sheffield, have extensively studied this form of "transnational repression," where Chinese authorities control access to family members in exchange for compliance abroad. The severing of family ties allows the Chinese police to offer managed access through video calls as an incentive to comply, with the threat of harm to the family if demands are not met.

Uyghurs living in various countries are affected by these tactics. In the UK, two-thirds of surveyed Uyghurs reported being directly contacted by Chinese police with similar demands. In Turkey, traditionally considered a safe haven, 80% of Uyghurs surveyed faced threats from Chinese authorities, leading to a splintering sense of camaraderie among the community.

Even Uyghurs with non-Uyghur relatives face harassment. Activist Julie Millsap, married to a Han Chinese man, was targeted by Chinese police, putting her family in China at risk.

The US government is taking steps to address the problem with the Transnational Repression Policy Act, which aims to report abuses and bring sanctions against perpetrators. However, tackling this issue is complex, as many of these threats do not constitute a crime on foreign soil.

While Chinese authorities deny the allegations of transnational repression, Uyghur rights activists persist in their advocacy work despite the challenges posed by China's tactics.


Edited and collated by Team TRC