China’s crackdown on Uyghurs reaches the Arctic
- Photography by Frankie Mills
During his final month in Xinjiang, before he set off for Europe, Memettursun Omer’s Chinese handlers threatened him.
China’s repression of journalists: no more borders, no more constraints
Governments targeting journalists for repression and violence is nothing new. Journalists had been killed for chronicling Hitler’s crimes against humanity and exposing Stalin’s Holodomor, the intentional mass starvation in Ukraine. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of Saudi Arabia’s government was dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
But China’s campaign to intimidate and silence journalism and speech around the world has altered the global repression calculous. Gone are the guard rails that imposed some limits beyond discrete episodes of harassment, efforts to undermine an individual’s credibility, or even targeted assassinations. Instead, a new regime has emerged that ignores national borders and a sense, however wobbly, that there are constraints.
There’s a new term that captures the new war on freedom of expression: transnational repression, and it encompasses high-tech surveillance, shocking acts of transgression against international laws and norms, and old school mafia tactics of threats against family back home.
They told him how they “dealt” with people who went to the west on intelligence missions and then severed contact with the authorities.
“Wherever you go, we can always take you back. You have no other way except to work for us,” they said. When they dropped him off at the airport, they said, “Little brother, if you ever start to forget what we told you, just look at the moon. Wherever you can see the moon, we can find you.”
It was early 2018. The Chinese agents sent Omer to Dubai, with the hope that he would continue on to Europe to spy on the Uyghur diaspora.
He had instructions to infiltrate Uyghur groups and send back information about activists working to draw attention to the human rights crisis in northwest China.
Omer said the Chinese agents had spent months grooming, threatening and brainwashing him, and in turn, Omer persuaded his handlers that they’d produced a loyal Chinese citizen, who would be able to do the state’s bidding.
In Xinjiang, which many Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan, more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are thought to have been locked up in concentration camps, as well as detention centers, prisons and forced labor complexes.
Omer, 31, is one of very few Uyghurs to escape Xinjiang in recent years. He’s fled almost as far as it is possible to go: to Kirkenes, a remote Arctic town at the northernmost tip of Norway, just a few miles away from the Russian border. He arrived in January.
Here in the Arctic, where the northern lights flicker overhead and every sound is muted by the snow, he feels safer than he’s felt in years.
“I sleep better here,” he said. “It almost feels like I’ve come to the edge of the world.”
The Xinjiang Crisis
In recent years, the entire region of Xinjiang, northwest China, has transformed into a police state. The Chinese authorities have subjected Xinjiang’s Turkic, predominantly Muslim ethnic groups — Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kygryz and Tajiks — to a crushing policy of repression, imprisonment and surveillance.
Huge numbers of the population have been funneled into a range of security systems, with a million Uyghurs thought to be locked into indoctrination camps, detention centers, prisons and forced labor complexes. Children have been sent to state-run, heavily guarded orphanages, while everyone is subjected to round-the-clock surveillance.
The aim has been to exert total control on the the Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang, ensure Han cultural and racial supremacy, shore up security of the area’s vast natural resources — and above all, quash political separatism, silence dissent, and crush any voices that question the Communist Party line.
Now, Chinese authorities are looking beyond Xinjiang’s borders to suppress Uyghurs’ voices anywhere from telling the world the truth about the catastrophic human rights crisis in their homeland.
There are roughly 2,500 Uyghurs in Norway. With its famously egalitarian laws and democratic values, Norway — the world’s top-ranking democracy, home to the Nobel Peace Prize — seems like it should be the safest place on earth.
It’s not — not for the Uyghurs trying to live here.
“Close to 100%” of Uyghurs living in Norway face surveillance, intimidation and censorship from the Chinese state, according to Uyghur activists in Norway.
They describe a collective sense of unease among Norwegian Uyghurs — a feeling of constantly being watched.
“Uyghurs here often say we would like to live free from psychological pressure, just like the Europeans do,” said Bahtiyar Omer, director of a Norwegian Uyghur justice group in Oslo (Bahtiyar Omer and Memettursun Omer are not related). “But it’s really difficult, and we never feel secure.”
Last year, his mother in Xinjiang told him that police had been visiting her regularly. She warned him to be careful in Norway. “She told me, ‘The police know everything. They even know what’s happening inside your house.’”
He described how police will call Uyghur Norwegians via WhatsApp from inside their relatives’ homes in Xinjiang, and begin pressuring them to hand over information and stop their activism. The calls trigger tremendous anxiety for Uyghurs in Norway, who fear their families will be taken hostage if they don’t respond.
“This is just the way the Chinese government tests out different methods and sees who can easily be controlled,” Omer said.
The aim is to silence the Uyghurs in Norway.
In the past, Uyghurs in Europe have pleaded with their families back in Xinjiang to be careful, to watch out for the authorities and to not speak out against the Chinese line. Now, the same thing is also happening in reverse. Uyghurs inside China are warning their families abroad to keep silent, to stop their activism, and to watch out for themselves — in Istanbul and London, on the snowy streets of Oslo, and in small Norwegian towns far above the Arctic circle.
I was afraid when I came to Norway. That’s why I changed my name,” said Merdan, 34. Officially, he goes by the Norwegian name “Martin Gunnar.” But everyone knows him by his original Uyghur first name, Merdan.
Merdan left his homeland in 2010 after being brutally tortured in Chinese prisons.
He was living in an asylum camp in southern Norway when he got a phone call from a Chinese official who told him to keep silent about what he witnessed in Xinjiang’s prisons.
“He said if I told anybody what I experienced it would be dangerous for my family in East Turkestan,” he said.
During his early years in Norway, Merdan lived in fear of the officer’s words.
But in 2018, as the crisis in Xinjiang deepened, he decided he could no longer remain silent — even if it meant his family would be harmed.
“No matter what we do, our parents will suffer under the Chinese government,” he said.
Merdan began to speak out. He organized Uyghur youth activist groups in Oslo, began running an Islamic Uyghur cultural center, took media training, and built a home studio where he filmed news videos about the Uyghur crisis on YouTube. He also re-adopted his Uyghur first name.
Merdan said he has gone past the point of caring what information the Chinese authorities gathered about him. An ebullient figure with an easy laugh, he’s often seen wearing a Uyghur doppa — a traditional hat.
He drives around Oslo in an Audi, with a Red Bull in the cupholder, his doppa on the dashboard, and an unmistakable license plate that defiantly says “UYGHUR”. He paid just over $1,000 to have rights to the vanity plate for a decade.
“When I first got the license plate I drove five or six times past the Chinese Embassy. Because I’m not a terrorist, I’m doing nothing wrong.”
In addition to his work as an activist and filmmaker, Merdan spends his nights doing nursing training, visiting care homes and retirement residences to take care of the local elderly.
He does this work to feel a connection with his parents back in Xinjiang. “I cannot get back to my own country, and take care of my own parents. So I just think, if I can take care of other people’s parents, then I hope somebody can take care of my parents,” he said.
In 2019, he got a video call. His father was sobbing while filming his mother, whose knees were broken and bandaged.
“If you don’t stop what you’re doing, maybe we will come to further harm,” Merdan’s father said. “Look at your mother’s situation — it’s all because of you.” Merdan believes that his father meant the Chinese authorities would punish his mother if he carried on with his activism.
In 2019 and 2020, his phone rang twice more. A man’s voice introduced himself as an officer with China’s security services. He asked, “Don’t you care about your parents? Don’t you care about your children?” The officer listed the names of Merdan’s children and their Oslo schools.
“They threatened me, suggesting ‘maybe I would get into a car accident’ or that ‘thieves might come into my house while I was on night shift,’” he said.
The agent told Merdan that he knew about his loans from Norwegian banks, and proceeded to list the amounts.
He offered to send Merdan money, indicating that in return, Merdan would spy on other Uyghurs, and stop his activism. Merdan refused. Instead, he installed multiple surveillance cameras around his house in Oslo.
“I told him, are you stupid? You don’t need to send money to Uyghurs to spy on me and collect my information. You might as well just give all the money to me! I’m making videos about what we are doing!” Merdan said. “Everything is open, we have nothing to hide!”
Merdan believes the Chinese authorities are setting up spies with the aim of creating rifts within the Uyghur community.
Uyghurs spy on each other, he explained, “not because of the money. They do it because they’re scared that their parents will get tortured or arrested, sent to the concentration camp or the jails.”
“Nobody can trust anybody,” he added.
The Chinese embassy in Oslo has been a source of anxiety for Uyghur Norwegians, who report regularly receiving automated calls from embassy phone numbers, informing them they need to come in and retrieve “emergency documents” or face being blocked at the border. One Uyghur man described getting as many as 20 calls in a matter of weeks while he was a student in high school.
The Chinese Embassy in Oslo denied all claims Uyghurs made of being tortured in prisons, coerced to spy, hacked, threatened, or contacted by the embassy or the Chinese authorities. “What you mentioned are totally groundless rumors and lies fabricated by anti-China forces,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “There is no evidence so far to support any of those accusations. In front of indisputable facts, a lie repeated a thousand times will remain a lie.”
In 2019, Oslo-based researcher and law student Muetter Iliqud, 24, began writing anonymous articles about Uyghur human rights issues for a Norwegian website run by Uyghurs.
But her efforts to keep her writing secret were in vain. Several months after she began writing, her grandmother, living just outside Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, got a knock on the door. The Chinese National Security Bureau officers had arrived with printed versions of Iliqud’s work.
“I have no idea how they figured it out,” Iliqud said. Her grandmother received a warning from the police, who also asked her for Iliqud’s contact details in Norway. “She ended up in trouble because of my anonymous articles.”
When Iliqud heard about these visits, she felt a wave of guilt. “I felt like it was my fault that my family was threatened. But then I kept telling myself that I did nothing wrong.”
Iliqud stopped using a pseudonym, and instead became more vocal. “I realized there was no sense in being anonymous, because they can just find out anyway,” she said.
Iliqud works for the Uyghur Transitional Justice Institute, a project that gathers data about Uyghur disappearances in Xinjiang. Harassment, surveillance and hacks are an occupational hazard for the Institute.
In 2021, when Iliqud gave expert evidence at London’s Uyghur Tribunal, which was investigating whether China’s actions in Xinjiang constitute genocide, her phone bleated out alerts that she was being hit with brute-force hacking attempts to her social media and email accounts.
“China, Iran and other authoritarian states use their intelligence services to identify and spy on dissidents and refugees in Norway, and will continue to do so in 2022,” said Martin Bernsen, senior advisor at the Norwegian Police Security Service. He added that their aim was to “eliminate” political opponents.
He described how regimes like China’s often will infiltrate exile communities’ events and activist groups, while foreign intelligence officers try to gain access to Norwegian immigration databases.
Last autumn, 101 Uyghurs arrived in Norway from Turkey. As life under Recep Erdogan’s regime has become more difficult, with the looming prospect of an extradition treaty between Ankara and Beijing, there has been an exodus of Uyghurs from Turkey.
They bought a ticket from the Turkish city of Antalya to Belgrade, Serbia, with a stop-off in Oslo. Chinese citizens don’t need a visa to Serbia, so they were allowed to board the plane, and disembarked during the Oslo stopover.
Memettursun Omer was one of the people on board.
When he was a child in Guma, a county in Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert, Omer’s parents told him stories about places in the far north, where there was no darkness in summer, and no light in winter, and where during Ramadan, people sometimes had to fast for 20 hours a day.
Omer thought it was a fantasy — something the adults had just dreamed up.
In January, he was posted to the Arctic border town of Kirkenes, where the Norwegian immigration authority has just opened up an asylum reception center, alongside around 60 other Uyghurs.
During his first few days there, the sun did not rise at all. “I never dreamed I would end up this far north,” he said.
He spent days walking around the icy border town in the blue twilight of the polar winter, gazing out at the desolate wilderness.
China’s Arctic Interests
Norway was one of the first western countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950. But in 2010, the relationship became frosty when Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. Trade talks only resumed in 2016 — when Norway agreed not to undermine actions that “supported China’s core interests and major concerns.”
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has been laying out plans for its “Polar Silk Road” and talking up Beijing’s role as a key player in Arctic trade and logistics.
The town of Kirkenes lies along NATO’s northernmost border with Russia. Though Kirkenes feels very far from China, it’s not beyond the superpower’s realm of interest.
In 2019, Kirkenes played host to a Chinese port infrastructure delegation, exploring Kirkenes’ potential role as a future port on a Northern Sea route along the Russian Arctic coastline.
As the sea ice melts, this route could soon become navigable, and would cut down around 40% off the journey from Europe to Asia.
“I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by people. But here, there’s hardly anyone around. It’s all so different,” he said.
“I thought to myself, will this be my life forever?” He posted videos of the northern lights on Instagram.
As a young man, Omer loved China. His WeChat pages were frequently peppered with Chinese flags, and as a chef training in Beijing, he had a lot of Han Chinese friends and colleagues.
“I was always against Uyghur people who were standing up to the Chinese,” he said. “I believed the Chinese government wouldn’t do anything to innocent people. And I never thought they would do anything to me — because in order for that to happen, I’d have to do something bad.”
Omer was arrested in Xinjiang in 2017 after traveling abroad. Uyghurs in Xinjiang are invariably targeted by police following foreign trips, which Chinese authorities claim is grounds for arrest on suspicion of terrorist activities. He spent more than ten months in detention centers and high-security prisons.
He was tied to a tiger chair, interrogated and electrocuted. At night, as he slept, 360-degree cameras watched him from all sides. If he turned over in bed, the camera would whirr to follow his movement. If he moved again, a guard would yell through the speaker system to keep still.
His interrogators told him “we are going to be best friends.” He was forced to meet regularly with them, and field their questions about his relatives living in Europe.
He managed to convince the agents that his father was a prominent activist in Germany, with influence within the World Uyghur Congress, a leading Uyghur human rights organization.
The Xinjiang agents hatched a plan that he would infiltrate the group and send intelligence back to his handlers.
“They wanted me to go to Germany, and get in with their group, collect phone numbers and addresses, find out which flights they were taking, which restaurants they ate at,” he said. He was instructed to pass back information via regular WeChat video calls.
Over and over again, Omer said he was threatened about what would happen if he dropped his handlers.
“You need to remember, your older brothers are still here in Xinjiang,” the agent told him. “If you just disappear, we can make them suffer.” They forced him to sign a deposition admitting he was a terrorist. “Wherever you go, we can use this to show you’re a criminal, and bring you back to China.”
Despite their threats, Omer had no intention of becoming a spy. He planned to escape the agents’ control as soon as he left China.
He flew to Dubai, where he immediately called his father in Turkey and told him what was going on. From there, he went to Istanbul, where he attempted to start a new life.
As spring arrived in Istanbul in 2018, Omer reunited with his father, found a job as a chef, and got engaged. He tried to forget what the Chinese agents had told him. But it proved difficult: he was continually dogged by desperate calls and messages from his handlers. He keeps the voice notes on his phone to this day.
Sitting in his living room in Kirkenes, he played them one by one, as snow floated down outside. The tinny voice of the official rang out into the room.
“We didn’t send you out there so you could behave like this,” the official drawled in one recording. “You’re forgetting who you are.”
During phone calls, the threats began. “You don’t need us to tell you how we do things. We’ll kill you — even if you’re in Germany. We’ll deal with this problem according to our own rules.”
The messages “had a psychological way of crushing your mind,” Omer said. “I felt like I was still in prison. I was scared and paranoid every day. Even thinking about it now, I’m afraid.”
In the summer of 2018, Omer gave the voice notes to Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur-language service, which serves the Uyghur diaspora. RFA published the messages, and promptly the calls from China stopped.
Omer’s handler attempted to contact him again just once more, with the message “don’t be like this, little brother.”
Omer responded with a “winky tongue face” emoji.
Although the messages went quiet, Omer lived in fear that Turkey wasn’t really safe — that he might be spirited back to China at any time, trapped once again in Xinjiang.
In September 2021, Omer flew to Norway.
“We don’t have a choice in coming here. There’s no other way. We cannot go back,” Omer said.
Two weeks into his time in Kirkenes, Omer saw his first sunrise. Now, as the spring equinox approaches, the days are getting longer. Kirkenes lies at such an extreme latitude that for six days each month, the moon can’t be seen.
The Chinese agent’s words — that the state would be able to find Omer wherever the moon shines — are beginning to fade.
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