WhatsApp and WeChat are used to intimidate and surveil Uyghurs . Story from codastory
WhatsApp and WeChat are used to intimidate and surveil Uyghurs
It was May 2018 when the man first asked Nur to spy for him. The message came, as usual, via WhatsApp and was assiduously polite. Nur seemed like a good citizen, it said, but as a Uyghur living in Turkey, he must do more to prove his loyalty to China. “We see you as an educated and important person,” the next message read. “So we have chosen you for a special job.”
The messages kept coming every few days, and soon their tone changed. “You are a smart man,” one said. “You need to think about your family. You are there, but they are here, and if you refuse to do this, you could put them in a very dangerous situation.”
Uyghur exiles also found refuge in Kazakhstan, Europe and North America and Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon told Coda Story that he has heard similar stories from around the world. Many, he said, were told that if they did not return to China, their family members would be detained.
Around the same time, a former classmate who had gone on to join the police messaged Nur with a warning: just contacting someone from abroad put them at risk of being sent to the expanding network of camps. Friends and family began to disappear from his WeChat contact list, likely aware of the danger.
The request came and the messages began. The man went only by a common first name and said he was in charge of security in the district Nur’s parents lived in. He wrote in impeccable Chinese and finally got around to asking a series of simple questions: When did Nur arrive in Turkey, what was his address, how many children did he have, where did he study, and would he come back to China? Nur answered, mostly truthfully.
Mehmet, who has been in the city since 2010 and has a number of close relatives in Xinjiang who have been taken to internment camps, said that even his immediate family stopped replying to messages. His WeChat history with his sister is now just a series of unanswered pictures of his newborn daughter. Again, a government-operated WhatsApp number and intermediary became the only way to contact his family, and information about his life in Turkey—his job, his children, his address—was required in return.
It was then that Nur started to receive demands to spy on other exiled Uyghurs. His excuses appeared to put the man off and the messages stopped for a month.Once Nur answered a WhatsApp video call facilitated by the Chinese man and saw only his mother. He asked where his father was.
Then Nur heard another voice, a man he did not recognize, speaking Uighur.On another occasion, Nur received a photograph of his parents via the Chinese man’s WhatsApp account. The image was strange, he thought. There were multiple people in the room but only his father and his mother’s faces were visible; the others were cropped out.
In July 2019, the Chinese police contacted Abdulla on WeChat and asked — politely — about his family and his job. Then they asked for his WhatsApp number and if he knew the Uyghurs around him. In an attempt to protect himself, he deleted WeChat entirely. Soon after, his parents called his wife’s account. The police had visited their home with a message. It warned that Abdulla had been uncooperative, that he should think about his family members and that he was now on a terror list.
“The police can contact me whenever they want and ask me whatever they want,” Nur said. “And the one thing that makes me very uncomfortable is that I always need to listen to them.” –
Read more: Rappler
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