A mysterious Chinese couple approached Singaporean entrepreneur Marcella Goh* at a hotel in Bangkok earlier this year. The pair introduced themselves as “Brother and Sister Lei,” Goh said, and had one request: to gain information about Goh’s husband Mehmut*, a successful accountant who moved to Singapore in 2010. Born and raised in Australia, Mehmut is a Uighur Muslim with family members and relatives in the autonomous northwestern Chinese territory of Xinjiang.
“I didn’t think much of it at first,” recalled Goh, a 37-year-old mother of two. “I just assumed they recognized me as Mehmut’s wife because he is very prominent here.”
But what happened next, she said, made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
“They spoke to me in thick mainland Chinese accents and started asking blunt questions about Mehmut’s job and recent movements,” she said.
“That was when I knew something was up,” she continued. “I thought about the news reports of Uighurs in China being sent to state prison camps and Chinese agents spying on those abroad and I flipped out. I ended up reporting them to security as I didn’t want to risk putting our lives in danger.”
Goh’s concerns are not unwarranted—China has been accused of a brutal widespread crackdown on the predominantly Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang.
While the Chinese government strongly denies allegations of human rights abuses in the region and has defended the detention of Uighurs in what it calls vocational re-education schools, recent international investigations have revealed the existence of massive prison facilities and the use of forced sterilization campaigns to lower Uighur birth rates and forced labor schemes to subjugate Uighurs.
According to the United Nations, an estimated one million Uighurs are being held in Chinese camps, though estimates by rights groups suggest that number may be as high as three million.
Safety concerns have prompted many Uighurs to flee to nearby countries, including the Muslim-majority nations of Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Vietnam, which shares a border with China. In 2018, Voice of America reported that there were an estimated 400,000 Uighurs living outside of China.
But as with other regions where Uighurs have fled to—VICE News has previously reported on Chinese spying on Uighurs living in the UK—they have not found safety in Southeast Asia either.
Southeast Asia is now home to a sizable Uighur diaspora community, but many remain vulnerable to political persecution—there have been reports of Uighurs being forcibly repatriated to China despite living overseas, indicating that maintaining a physical distance from Xinjiang doesn’t guarantee Uighurs and their families’ safety, nor does it protect them from Beijing’s wide-reaching campaigns of cyber spying and harassment.
China is regarded as one of the most aggressive nations when it comes to cyber espionage and the global coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed its digital spying campaigns. Hackers from the infamous Naikon group, which has been linked to China’s People’s Liberation Army, are reportedly ramping up efforts across Southeast Asia, targeting governments, firms and individuals across Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
“China has adopted an aggressive strategy of ‘hard diplomacy’, forcing Southeast Asian countries to comply with their demands for years,” political analyst Bridget Welsh, a research associate at Malaysia’s University of Nottingham, told VICE News.
“Beijing is playing an active role and an overwhelmingly dominant game,” she said.
“The Uighur issue fits within this context, where Southeast Asians are being asked to provide information on this vulnerable community,” she continued.
“This doesn’t mean people like the dynamic. In fact, there is considerable distrust and anger against China and its bullying, but it is sadly much easier for governments to comply with China with regards to Uighurs as it doesn’t involve their own nationals.”
Welsh added that few countries in the region defend the Uighur community and that even in those countries “meaningful protection for them is still elusive, as most governments put national interests over principles of decency.”
Security experts, like Malaysian analyst Munira Mustaffa, told VICE News that these actions also extend to recruiting people to gather information and spy on Uighurs living abroad, as she herself has experienced.
“China is looking to increase its influence and control in Southeast Asia, and I am certain there are many like me, who have been approached by Chinese ‘recruiters’ and others unwittingly linked,” Mustaffa said.
Mustafa said that Beijing was “courting” many nations in the region to develop new networks of security partnerships.
Mustaffa said that she receives “regular requests” from so-called recruiters on LinkedIn asking to connect. She showed VICE News a LinkedIn message from a “human resource manager” in Beijing looking for individuals “to cooperate and exchange ideas with Chinese counterparts,” who claimed to have clients in “public departments, academic institutes and universities.”
“Unless we have mutual acquaintances or I’ve worked with them before, I usually ignore their invitations,” Mustaffa said. “I also conduct due diligence so that if they have no online footprint other than a LinkedIn profile, that’s a red flag. And if the company they work for looks suspicious, I won’t entertain their requests either,” she said.
Mustaffa said there are “obvious advantages” for China to grow its influence in the region.
“Some countries like Malaysia have entered into partnerships with Chinese state companies like Huawei to provide 5G network capabilities. This raises concerns that China will be able to access sensitive information from its servers and only adds to reports of intrusions by Chinese hackers, not only to track and monitor the movements of overseas Uighurs and other minorities but also to gather and provide intelligence for active measures against them.”
The use of LinkedIn as a contact tool is not a new phenomenon in the world of Chinese espionage. Unlike other social media apps and sites, LinkedIn is not censored in China, making it an ideal hotbed for Chinese recruiters to approach impressionable targets—like 39-year-old Singaporean student Dickson Yeo, who was caught spying on the US for Beijing.
Yeo first focused his efforts on Southeast Asia and was tasked with gathering intel about politics, diplomacy and economics before moving on to bigger targets, like the United States government, reported Reuters.
LinkedIn appears to have been a lucrative platform for Yeo in his secretive operation. In his guilty court plea last month, Yeo admitted to scouting for important contacts on a professional networking website and confirmed that he was in contact with U.S. government and military personnel. He said he targeted those with access to sensitive information, getting them to write reports for fake clients with the intention of passing the information on to the Chinese government.
Singapore’s home affairs ministry said on July 26 that Yeo’s conviction was “unlikely to pose any direct threat” to the country’s security.
In a statement, LinkedIn said that it takes “serious action” on accounts that violate their policies.
“We enforce our policies which are very clear. Fraudulent activity with an intent to mislead or lie to our members violates our terms of service,” LinkedIn spokesman Greg Snapper told VICE News.
China’s foreign ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even for Uighurs without access to social networking sites like LinkedIn, they are still subjected to total surveillance, often leading to dangerous consequences.
For Mamutjan Abdurehim, a Uighur academic and 42-year-old father of two from the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, his time in Malaysia cost him his wife and family.
Abdurehim left Xinjiang in 2010 to pursue a post-graduate degree in Malaysia in civilizational studies and Muslim world issues. Two years later, his wife Muherrem Ablet and their daughter Muhlise joined him in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, where they spent three years together, eventually welcoming a baby boy named Hikmet.
“Malaysia has always been a popular destination for Uighurs because of its vibrant Muslim culture, lower costs of living and relatively good English education system,” Abdurehim told VICE News. “But harassment and threats from mainland Chinese agents in the region, usually through vaguely-threatening phone calls and messages, is not surprising.
“It is common for many of us to be interrogated about our overseas lives when we return to China,” he added.
Muherrem disappeared after she returned to Xinjiang with the children in 2016.
Abdurehim was devastated and believes it was their time spent overseas in Malaysia that led to her arrest and imprisonment.
“Malaysia has a history of deporting Uighurs, so it has stopped being safe,” he said.
“I started to read about overseas crackdowns on Uighurs at the behest of China and it made me feel very, very nervous,” he said, adding that China had suddenly stopped renewing visas and passports and were recalling Uighurs back through their family members.
“Kashgar authorities denied my family members’ applications and told them to return,” he said. “They wouldn’t tell us why, but I believe our time in Malaysia and religious practices were the main reasons.”
Today, Abdurehim lives in Sydney, Australia. He hasn’t heard from his wife or children in several years.
“Communication was swiftly cut off and my parents told me Muherrem had been questioned by authorities and taken away to a detention camp to be imprisoned for at least another five years,” he said.
“China ignores our grievances, there’s been no help or support whatsoever. It is too brutal for an innocent person like my wife to be imprisoned and re-arrested, cut off from her husband and life. I don’t know how my children are, but I think of them a lot.”
“I am coping as well as I can and trying to be resilient but I am depressed and anxious about us all being separated from each other,” he added.
Human Rights Watch has been actively documenting the harassment of overseas Uighurs and their families. Senior China researcher Maya Wang said the stories of Uighurs in Southeast Asia being endangered do not surprise her.
“Police in Xinjiang have been forcing people to pressure their families abroad into handing over personal information, like addresses and phone numbers, to the Chinese authorities,” Wang told VICE News. “There have been documented cases in which the Chinese government recruits and forces Tibetans and Uighurs in exile to spy on others in the diaspora.”
Wang added that this aggressiveness of the government “creates a sense of fear” that transcends borders.
“Even though they may be thousands of miles away from China, they are still terrified by the Chinese government’s long arm of surveillance and control.”
*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees over concerns for their safety.