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Politics & Security

A Call for Vigilance as China Uses Families to Pressure Expat Activists to Return Home

Uyghur in exile Meryem Sultan has been receiving strange calls from her mother, asking her to swear allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP is doing this to other expats, says the Japan Uyghur Union.

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Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region

“Pledge your allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and come home.” 

This was what the mother of Meryem Sultan told the 35-year-old Uyghur human rights activist, who revealed the pressure in an online interview with The Sankei Shimbun at the end of May. 

While Sultan lives in exile in Ankara, Turkey, her mother is detained in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, making repeated calls to her daughter to return home. 

China, Sultan said in the interview, is “using family members of Uyghurs who fled abroad to call them back home and take them to reeducation facilities.”

Uyghur female human rights activist Meryem Sultan in an online interview (photo by Kazumasa Bando)

How It Started

Meryem was born in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. However, she entered Ankara University in 2010 to study Turkish history and culture. When she returned home in 2012, she was temporarily detained and interrogated by local police officers for no apparent reason. 

After that experience, she returned to Turkey in fear for her life. She has lived in Ankara on a long-stay visa since that time and has never returned home. 

In 2013, the Chinese embassy in Turkey approached her with an offer of a scholarship, she told The Sankei Shimbun. She turned it down, though, because she was afraid of being forced to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party.

After returning to Turkey, Meryem says she kept in touch with her mother, Aygul Sultan, 57, via the Chinese online communication app WeChat and by other means. However, she lost touch with her in March 2017. 

Calls from an Unknown Number

Then she learned of her mother’s whereabouts through Radio Free Asia (RFA) in 2018, Meryem said in the interview. The United States government-affiliated broadcaster reported that the mother was being forcibly detained in a “reeducation camp.” A friend in the expatriate Uyghur community who knew her mother also confirmed Aygul’s forced internment, she explained.

In July 2020, Meryem described receiving a call from an unknown number on WeChat. When she switched the call to video, she found that it was her mother, who begged Meryem to come home. “I trust the Party and the government because I was soundly raised by the Chinese Communist Party and the government from my youth,” Meryem quoted her mother as saying. 

Then Aygul pursued her daughter, saying: “You were also raised by the Communist Party. Swear allegiance to the party and return to your country.” 

Her mother looked exhausted, Meryem said, her eyes sunken, and her body emaciated. However, she told her daughter: “I used to have wrinkles that I couldn’t hide with makeup, but now I don’t have wrinkles to hide. It’s because I’m happy. If you come back, I will be happier.”

Meryem recalled telling her mother, “It was you, mother, who raised me, not the CCP.” She refused to return and declared, “If I return home, they will put me in a camp and kill me.”

Meryem’s mother, Aygul, during an online call with her in March 2022. (Photo provided by Meryem Sultan)

Tragedy of Family Coercion

Subsequent video calls from her mother continued intermittently until March, she said, with repeated requests for her to return home. Sometimes her mother tried to intimidate Meryem by saying, “Stop your public criticism of China,” or probed her with questions such as, “What kind of work are you doing now?”

During the video calls, Meryem’s mother seemed to be in her own room, Meryem recalled, in what appeared to be a downtown Uyghur neighborhood. The number that Aygul used to call was different each time. And in their conversation, her mother also confided, “I don’t have my own cell phone.”

Considering the question of why her mother was behaving this way, Meryem said, “I don’t believe my mother was brainwashed [by the CCP].” Instead, she said, she suspects that her mother was “forced to take part in the Chinese Communist Party’s scheme to ensure the safety of herself and protect relatives who remain in the Uyghur autonomous region.” 

She surmised that “the Communist Party is using my family to pressure me not to criticize China from outside the country and to try to learn information about my current activities.”

Not the Only Case

Tur Muhammet, the president of the Japan Uyghur Union who has researched the plight of Uyghurs in the Autonomous Region, commented: “More than one million Uyghurs are living outside of China. There are already confirmed cases of China using relatives to call and detain Uyghurs living abroad, so we need to be vigilant.”

Meryem has been using SNS (social networking sites) and other media to raise the issue of human rights abuses by China in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. She has testified about her experiences before the “Uyghur Tribunal,” a British people’s court that released a human rights report in 2021. 

The Chinese authorities have criticized the Uyghur Tribunal for “falsifying evidence.”

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(Read the article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Kazumasa Bando