Exiles from Tibet and Xinjiang are monitored ever more closely by Chinese authorities. The collected information is often used to retaliate against friends and family back in China.
Earlier this week, the Swedish Security Service announced that a man had been arrested for suspected espionage against the Tibetan community in Sweden. The information he gathered was passed on to an intelligence officer from a “foreign power,” Nina Odermalm Schei, press secretary of the security service, said on Monday.
The security service confirmed that the man had been living in Sweden for several years and described how it was able to “see over time” his infiltration of the Swedish Tibetan community. The act has been labelled as “refugee espionage,” a method to prevent refugees from expressing criticism of the political system in the country they once fled from.
“[Refugee espionage] is about collecting information to share with the regime in order to pressure a person, or his family left in the home country. The ultimate purpose is to silence critics of the regime,” Odermalm Schei explained. While the security service would not comment on the man’s nationality or wether the above-mentioned “foreign power” is China, it would not be the first time that Chinese authorities were engaging in refugee espionage on Swedish soil.
Already in 2010, a diplomatic scandal occurred when an Uyghur man was sentenced to 16 months in prison by a Swedish court, after having collected personal data on Uyghurs in Sweden and handing over the information to the Chinese embassy in Stockholm. The case also led to to the expulsion from Sweden of a Chinese official at the embassy, as well as an undercover Chinese intelligence officer working as a “journalist” for the People’s Daily.
By tapping phones, the Swedish Security Service established how the Chinese embassy was working both on mapping and persecuting exiled critics of the Chinese regime living in Sweden. The sentenced man had also successfully infiltrated the World Uyghur Congress, an exile organization that regularly highlights the violence in Xinjiang.
“[Refugee espionage] is about collecting information to share with the regime in order to pressure a person, or his family left in the home country. The ultimate purpose is to silence critics of the regime.”
Similar stories have also emerged in other Western countries. In 2011, three Chinese men were given suspended sentences by a court in Munich for “secret service activity.” Court records show how one of the men had been “spying on the Uyghur community in Germany and sending the information he gathered to the Chinese intelligence service.” A later report from the Bavarian Interior Ministry noted how Chinese intelligence officers working under the cover of diplomats subsequently left Germany after the sentences were handed out.
But trials and sentences seems to do little to stop the worrying trend. In 2012, Swedish radio interviewed a Uyghur asylum seeker in Sweden, who said her family back in Xinjiang was being surveilled and blackmailed. The interview gave a glimpse of the tactics used by Chinese authorities to recruit its spies: “[The police] has visited my parents and threatened my family with accusations that I have been leaking Chinese state secrets and assisted the East Turkestan movement abroad. They said my punishment would be milder if I cooperated with and started giving information to the Chinese authorities,” the woman disclosed.
When the woman refused to work as a spy, the police instead started to pressure her parents to convince her to return to China. And this was by no means an isolated case. In the same piece, Swedish radio reported how Uyghurs with a Swedish passport were experiencing difficulties applying for a visa to China to visit their families, unless they first provided the Chinese embassy in Stockholm with information on exiled Uyghurs.
At the time, Pi Lijun, who worked at the political section at the Chinese embassy, denied that any refugee espionage was taking place, and called the accusations “groundless, and unworthy of a response.” If there is any comment from China on the issue, it usually consists of the claim that there is no reason for anyone to escape China, and hence that legitimate Chinese refugees do not exist.
Sadly, this is accepted by many countries, and surprisingly enough it was accepted by Sweden in 2012, when the country became the first Western democracy to send back two asylum seeking Uyghurs to China. The two repatriated Uyghurs were said to have taken part in the Urumqi riots of 2009.
They were never seen or heard from again after being sent back.
Carrot and stick are often behind similar decisions. Already in 2009, Cambodia repatriated 20 asylum-seeking Uyghurs back to China, and was rewarded with “economic cooperation deals” worth US$1.2 billion only two days later.
And in 2013, the Munich-based vice president of the World Uyghur Congress was suddenly arrested during a trip to Hungary, with the explanation that the police was looking for a bomb at his hotel. Only after contacting the German embassy was the vice president released, but he was forced to leave Hungary together with his travelling companions “within an hour.”
As Reuters recently reported, the economic ties between China and Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian government “have blossomed in recent years.” Hungary was also the first European country to sign a contract related to China’s One Belt One Road project.
Yet another authoritarian government moving closer to China is the military junta in Thailand, which repatriated about 100 Uyghur refugees to China in the summer of 2015. UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, condemned the deportations as against international law, stressing the high risk of torture once the Uyghurs arrived back in China. (The warning is by no means farfetched, as a Uyghur repatriated from Pakistan in 2007 was executed upon his return to China.)
Most of the 100 Uyghurs sent back from Thailand were believed to be en route to Turkey, where the Uyghur people have their cultural roots. But according to China, the refugees were about to join jihad, or to receive training in warfare and terror from islamic groups before going back to China to take up arms.
The same arguments are often used by Chinese authorities to prevent Uyghurs and Tibetans from going abroad in the first place. Normally, a Chinese citizen’s passport application is handled in about 15 days. But a report from Human Rights Watch in the summer of 2015 showed that residents from Tibet or Xinjiang have to wait up to five years, and many are denied a passport without explanation, effectively barring them from ever leaving China.
According to Nyima Sherlhokangsar, head of Tibetan Community in Sweden, there are about 100 people of Tibetan origin living in Sweden, mostly in the capital Stockholm. She describes the recent arrest as “shocking.” Fully aware of exiled Tibetans in other countries who are subjected to refugee espionage, this is the first time she has heard about this kind of activity in Sweden.
“We Tibetans are already a vulnerable group. Sometimes it feels like walking on barbed wire. Whatever you do there will be consequences for friends and family back home,” Sherlhokangsar told Swedish media.
Her worries are not farfetched either, as the case of Shorhet Hoshur shows. The Uyghur journalist left China in 1994 and is today a U.S. citizen as well as a reporter for Radio Free Asia. In 2014, his three brothers were arrested for endangering “state security.” While one of the brothers was sentenced to five years in jail, the other two were set free after 18 months’ imprisonment and can still be used as leverage against Hoshur for his reporting on Xinjiang.