Child standing between two women in robes (© Osman Orsal/Reuters)
Uyghur refugees wait during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul on July 16, 2015. (© Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Sometimes it’s a call. Sometimes it’s a text, Gulchehra Hoja, a Uyghur journalist who works for Radio Free Asia, explained in 2018. But however it’s delivered, the message is the same: “You may live abroad, but your family still lives in China. You should do what we say.”

This scenario plays out over and over for Chinese Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities living outside of China. Despite China not having jurisdiction or any police rights over other countries, Chinese security forces reach out and threaten Uyghurs living abroad, even if they are citizens of the foreign country and are no longer Chinese.

Six people standing and sitting around table in office (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Radio Free Asia journalists, from left, Shohret Hoshur, Eset Sulaiman, Mamatjan Juma, Gulchehra Hoja, Kurban Niyaz and Jilil Kashgary. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Over the past several years, the Chinese government has severely restricted the culture and religious practices of members of Muslim groups, including Uyghurs, forcing them to adopt Chinese language and traditions. Authorities have imprisoned at least 800,000 and possibly more than 2 million in internment camps primarily in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Now, the Chinese government is using the family members of Uyghurs abroad as leverage.

In some cases, Chinese state security forces threaten to detain or harm the Xinjiang-based family members of Uyghurs living abroad with the aim of coercing them to return to Xinjiang, where they will almost certainly be sent to a prison camp, Hoja explained.

Chinese security forces use friends and family who continue to live in China as hostages, threatening to make them disappear if the government doesn’t get its way.

In other situations, Chinese authorities seek to use overseas Uyghurs to spy on other members of the Uyghur diaspora in support of the government’s efforts to neutralize critics of China’s policies.

“My aunts, cousins, their children — more than 20 people [were] swept up by authorities,” Hoja told Congress in 2018. “No one has confirmed their whereabouts. But I strongly suspect they are being held in these camps.”

My family was “forced to pay dearly for my freedom to live and work as a journalist in the United States,” Hoja said.