RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — China has been detaining members of the Uighur ethnic group, placing an estimated 1 million in internment camps and prisons. Now the Uighur community living in neighboring Pakistan fears that Beijing could come for them or their families back home next.
The last time Muhammad Umar Khan saw his uncles, aunts, and cousins was when his mother died in 2015. The whole group made the journey from Xinjiang, the province in northwest China where the bulk of the majority-Muslim group lives, to the city of Rawalpindi, where Khan’s parents settled in 1948 after migrating from China.
But since then, nothing. “We haven’t been able to contact them for the past two years,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Only some details — like the fact that some of my relatives are in prison — have trickled through the grapevine.”
Khan, a Pakistani citizen, fears other Uighurs in Pakistan are about to go through the same thing themselves — or worse.
Approximately 2,000 Uighurs live in Pakistan’s northwest, divided between the cities of Rawalpindi and Gilgit. For the past six months, China has doubled down on collecting data on Uighurs in the country, including where they live, where their parents migrated from, and how many children they have, Khan told BuzzFeed News.
The group gathering information on Pakistan’s Uighurs are members of an organization called the Ex-Chinese Association, and have been going door to door in Uighur neighborhoods in Rawalpindi distributing “registration forms” to Pakistani citizens of Chinese descent. They say the forms will allow Uighur children to attend Chinese Embassy–run schools for free. Khan fears that information will be used against Pakistani Uighurs by the Chinese government, including to extradite them to Xinjiang and have them placed in internment camps under false charges.
Already China has exerted pressure on the governments of Malaysia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan, forcing them to repatriate Uighur populations to China, where they are placed in internment camps and prisons. In July 2015, Thailand, following pressure from the government in Beijing, deported close to 100 Uighur Muslims to China, many of whom were reportedly Turkish citizens. In March this year, BuzzFeed News reported the presence of several Turkish nationals in Uighur internment camps in Xinjiang, confirming that China’s crackdown on Uighurs was not limited to Chinese citizens.
Now the Chinese are looking toward their biggest ally in South Asia, as the Pakistani government either ignores the Uighurs’ concerns or actively assists Beijing in its mission.
The ties between China and Pakistan have run deep for decades. Beijing has pledged more than $60 billion to Pakistan in the form of loans and investments for roads, ports, power plants, and industrial estates under the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has dodged questions about China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, claiming to “know nothing about the issue.” Pakistan’s Ministry of Human Rights did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Ex-Chinese Association, also known as the Overseas Chinese Organization, describes itself as an organization “established for the welfare of Ex-Chinese Uighur Pakistani community.” “Overseas Chinese” is a term used by the Chinese government to describe Chinese migrants, as well as their offspring or descendants.
The Ex-Chinese Association’s Facebook page features posts detailing China’s investment in Pakistan and news articles that defend the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang. Between 2003 and 2013, the organization received about 16 million rupees ($150,000) from the Chinese Embassy, according to University of Colorado anthropologist Alessandro Rippa’s 2014 ethnographic study on Uighurs in Pakistan. There are few details about how and to whom the money was distributed. Rippa, one of the few scholars to look in depth at the Pakistani Uighur community, told BuzzFeed News that several people he spoke to during the study, under condition of anonymity, told him that they were suspicious of the activities of the Ex-Chinese Association and had little sympathy for China’s repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The organization’s general secretary, Azeem Khan, confirmed to BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that they have been receiving money from the Chinese Embassy for the past 11 years. Azeem during the call said that he himself was Uighur, and that stories and reports about internment camps in Xinjiang were part of “Western media’s agenda designed to defame China.”
“Most of the reports coming in about Xinjiang are baseless and based on isolated incidents,” Azeem said. “I visit China for business all the time — Urumqi, Beijing, Shanghai — and I haven’t witnessed any persecution of Uighurs.”
Lijian Zhao, deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, however, denied any connection — financial or otherwise — with the Ex-Chinese Association. Zhao went as far as to say that the Chinese Embassy was not aware of the organization’s existence.
Azeem Khan did not respond to a request for comment on Zhao’s refusal to acknowledge the Ex-Chinese Association. Meanwhile, Zhao was photographed with members of the Ex-Chinese Association as recently as June 6, 2019.
So far, Umar Khan believes Chinese authorities — with the help of the Ex-Chinese Association — have managed to obtain information from approximately 400 Uighurs in Rawalpindi, and he fears refusing the Chinese’ demands to fill out Ex-Chinese Association registration forms means trouble for the community. That especially includes the estimated 10 families in the city who are stateless, lacking citizenship with any country, after entering the country through Afghanistan in the 1980s. They and their children now are denied access to school, medical care, and any protection from China’s reach.
“We have reached out to NGOs, the government, the UNHCR, asking them to help us, saying this collection of data is unjust and unlawful. No one has agreed to help,” Khan said. “Instead, people tell us that we are poisoning Pakistan’s relationship with China.”
The UNHCR’s spokesperson in Islamabad, Qaiser Khan Afridi, told BuzzFeed News that they were not aware of the presence of Uighurs in Pakistan. “We are unable to comment on any actions of any Embassy in Pakistan, since that is outside our mandate,” he added in an email to BuzzFeed News.
Khan’s troubles began, he said, when he established the Umar Uighur Language School in March 2009, with the aim of teaching Uighur language, customs, and culture to members of their community in Rawalpindi. Uighur riots against Chinese suppression had already begun in Xinjiang, and by July 2009, over 140 protesters — Uighur sources claimed the toll was much higher — had been killed in clashes with security forces. Soon after, Pakistani and Chinese embassy officials began making the rounds at Khan’s school, asking who the property’s landlord was and what curriculum the school was following, Khan recalled. And then, Kamirdin Abdurahman was arrested in China.
Abdurahman was a Uighur accountant employed by Khan, born in Rawalpindi with relatives in Xinjiang. In October 2009, Abdurahman crossed the border en route to Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, to meet his family. “Chinese immigration officials arrested him on his way there, stripped him naked, and beat him,” Khan said. “And they stopped only when he agreed to spy on my organization for them.”
But when Abdurahman came back to Pakistan and shared his story with the press, he began receiving threatening phone calls, from both Pakistani and Chinese state officials. A month later, fearing for his life, he fled to neighboring Afghanistan, where he has been living in exile for the past eight years. Abdurahman confirmed Khan’s account to BuzzFeed News but declined to comment further. “He wasn’t safe in his own country,” Khan added. “None of us are.”
In 2010, Khan’s school was forcefully shut down by the Chinese Embassy under allegations of involvement with Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur political activist. When asked by BuzzFeed News, Khan did not deny his involvement with Kadeer and her organization, the World Uighur Congress, which the Chinese government considers a terrorist organization. Khan was then barred from entering China, and his bank accounts in Pakistan were frozen. Opposite the plot where Khan’s school once stood, the Ex-Chinese Association — with the assistance of the Chinese Embassy — opened up a bigger, flashier high school with science labs, computer labs, and Mandarin classes.
“It is almost as if Pakistan is a Chinese proxy-state — the Chinese can do whatever they want, to whomever they want,” Khan said, bitterly. “Now our language and culture is beginning to die out and they have succeeded.”
Ever since the Ex-Chinese Association began collecting demographic details of Uighurs in Rawalpindi, Khan has been rallying his community and writing letters to the UNHCR and the government. “I even wrote a letter to the prime minister,” Khan told BuzzFeed News. “Signing these forms is dangerous for us because every Uighur household in Rawalpindi has relatives in internment camps in Xinjiang.”
For his efforts toward raising awareness about human rights abuses in Xinjiang and thwarting China’s attempts at collecting Uighur data in Pakistan, Khan has suffered dire personal consequences. Pakistan placed him on its Exit Control List for four years — between 2011 and 2014 — barring him from traveling outside the country. The paperwork placing him on that list stated that Khan had been “involved in anti-state activities.”
The chief minister of Punjab, who administers the list, did not immediately respond to a request for what activities against the Pakistani state Khan had taken part in.
In 2017, Khan was arrested in his office in Rawalpindi and held in custody for nine days. “I was treated like a terrorist,” he said. “My office was surrounded by police cars. Till today, I am ashamed to show my face in my neighborhood. People look at me strangely.”
Khan is often assisted in his activism by members of his community, including Abdul Aziz, who recently graduated from high school and works at a cellphone repair shop in Rawalpindi. He helps Khan — who isn’t fluent in English — with typing out letters and petitions. Aziz is a second-generation Uighur and was born in Pakistan, but he does not have citizenship.
“I am worried for my young children, particularly because of the forms China is pressuring Uighurs in Pakistan to fill out. I am worried that we will be deported to China and placed in internment camps,” Abdul Ahad, another stateless Uighur, told BuzzFeed News. Ahad was 10 years old when he came to Pakistan with his parents from Xinjiang via Afghanistan in 1984. “We went to Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior requesting them to grant us protection and citizenship, and they declined, telling us to go to the Chinese Embassy instead.”
“Pakistan is a large Muslim democracy, and one would expect them to at least be part of the solution, and use their leverage to work with the Chinese,” Nury Turkel, a Uighur rights advocate and attorney based in Washington, told BuzzFeed News. “The previous Pakistani government was terrible, particularly in their repatriation of Uighur refugees, but this government’s approach has been particularly heart-wrenching because they aren’t willing to come to the defense of their own citizens.”
A few days after the Chinese vice president’s trip to Islamabad last month, Khan called BuzzFeed News, saying he had just discovered that Beijing had ordered stricter surveillance on around 40 Uighur homes in Rawalpindi — including his — because they refused to fill out Ex-Chinese Association registration forms.
“We’ve been in Pakistan for decades, we’ve never caused problems or been involved in unrest or political activities,” Khan said. “We do our work quietly, raise our children. But I fear that we may be blamed, in the future, for things we have not done.”
Qaiser Khan Afridi’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.