China’s shadow reaches Uighurs living in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Uighur man living in Japan holds the first Koran he bought in the country in July.

Uighurs from China living in Japan are thought to number about 2,000. Amid the oppression of their ethnic group in their homeland, Uighurs should feel safe in a foreign country, if not for the invisible pressure Beijing continues to exert on them.

Once a month, a Uighur man in his 30s living in a western Japan city uses a videophone app to talk with his parents living in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of northwestern China.

He has told them, “I’m doing fine” and “I also graduated from school and everything is all right.” These were all lies.

In reality, he quit the school in Japan several years ago. His daily life amounts to working part-time for a delivery company to make enough for living expenses.

He had to quit the school because his parents became unable to transfer money to pay the tuition.

Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are said to be nervous about “pro-independence ethnic groups” having contact with people living abroad. Thus, overseas money transfers are also seen as problematic.

The man even tried to go back to the school by borrowing money, but his health deteriorated as he had to work and study too hard.

“I came to study, but I have done nothing for many years,” he said, his irritation apparent, as he also couldn’t just return to China.

In his apartment were dozens of books, from the Koran and a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, to histories of the Uighur people. In Xinjiang, even having a long beard customary of some Muslims is prohibited. As a Muslim who feels at peace with the Koran in his hands, he doesn’t think he would be safe there.

A few years ago, the man’s father stopped saying over the phone, “Assalamu alaikum,” a usual greeting among Muslims. It is highly possible that telephone conversations are tapped by the authorities.

Just this one change on the part of his father makes the man understand what kind of circumstances his family lives in.

He continues pretending to be in a tranquil state so as not to talk too much, nor have his parents say too much.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Protesters decry China’s persecution of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities during a demonstration in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in July.

Threatening family

Uighurs living abroad, including in Japan, have been among those asserting that China has been persecuting the ethnic group in Xinjiang.

China’s intelligence network extends beyond borders, so Beijing is likely monitoring Uighurs in Japan to crack down on opinions that might be linked with protest movements against the Chinese government.

These machinations might negatively affect Uighurs who have kept their distance from political affairs, but for those actively involved in protests, China’s reactions are sometimes more direct.

Halimat Rose, a 47-year-old Uighur living in Chiba Prefecture, has participated in protest movements against China in Japan where he has made his name public.

He was considering applying to become a naturalized Japanese citizen when his passport expired in May last year. He was then unable to have China issue the necessary documentation.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Halimat Rose is a Uighur living in Chiba Prefecture who has participated in protest movements against China in Japan.

Around that time, he was having a video chat with his elder brother living in Xinjiang using WeChat, a Chinese social media app, when a Han Chinese-looking man appeared and interrupted the conversation. The man displayed an ID card that seemed to be from China’s Ministry of State Security and presented a proposal to Rose: “If you tell us the names of participants in the protest rallies, we will cooperate with the naturalization procedures in Japan that you are considering.”

Rose could see traces of assault on his brother, who had initiated the call. He thought that if he spied once, he would be unable to turn it down the next time, so he hung up. He doesn’t know whether his elder brother is all right.

Nonrenewal of passports

Chinese authorities have been putting pressure on Uighurs in Japan not only through surveillance and intimidation, but also by not approving their passport renewals.

This has led to a number of cases where Uighurs who face hardships in Japan are stuck here or are hesitant to go back to China for fear of being persecuted.

In the case of a Uighur woman living in the Kanto region, her Chinese passport had already expired. Three years ago, the Chinese Embassy did not approve her passport renewal and handed her a Chinese Travel Document valid for two years that can be used only once, when she goes back to China. The embassy staff recommended that she go back to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, as she would be able to renew her passport there.

The woman could not spare time to return home, mainly due to her work schedule. This past summer, she submitted documents to renew the Chinese Travel Document. The embassy said, “Interviews are necessary for Uighurs,” and summoned her to appear.

She said the embassy staff kept asking her why she did not go back to Urumqi to renew her passport. They also asked her, “Do you have any reason why you can’t go back to China?” and “What do you do on your days off?”

In another case, a Uighur man living in the Kansai region has since 2017 had his and his family’s passport renewals rejected by a Chinese consulate general.

Initially, staff at the consulate general did not give any clear explanations. The man said that in 2019, one of the staff told him plainly, “We have been ordered not to make passports for Uighurs.”

The aforementioned woman and man had come to Japan to study and said they had kept their distance from protest movements against the Chinese government.

“We Uighurs alone receive different treatment,” the woman said, “though we are Chinese nationals all the same.”

If they go back to China, as the diplomatic staff recommends, they fear that they may be detained.

“I can no longer coexist with the Han Chinese,” the man said, referring to the majority ethnic group in China. He became a naturalized citizen of Japan in 2020.

Even if their passports have expired, Uighurs can maintain their residence permits in Japan. They cannot go abroad, however, making many Uighurs in Japan feel that such processes are exerting pressure on them.

The Japan Uyghur Association said it does not know the exact number of Uighurs in such situations, but presented the view that “a large number of people have been negatively affected.”

There are some cases in which Chinese passports of some Uighurs were renewed in Japan. The Yomiuri Shimbun sent a written request to the Chinese Embassy, asking the embassy to provide reasons why some passports held by Uighurs were not renewed in Japan. More than a month has passed and the embassy has not replied.

Seeking naturalization

An increasing number of Uighurs living in Japan have proactively taken action to become naturalized Japanese citizens or to apply for recognition as refugees.

Uighurs who reside in Japan come from well-off families and many of them are highly educated, allowing them to enroll in universities or graduate schools in Japan. There are also Uighurs who come to Japan through their relatives’ connections.

Residing for a certain period of time and securing a livelihood are among the conditions for naturalization in Japan.

More than 10% of Uighurs living in Japan have already been naturalized, according to the Japan Uyghur Association.

Uighurs who cannot meet the conditions for naturalization bet on the hope that they can be recognized as refugees. According to the association, it can take several years until the Japanese government makes a decision on refugee status and only a small number of Uighurs have been recognized as refugees.

“Until the facts of persecution are firmly proved, it is unlikely [the Japanese government] will recognize them as refugees because of security measures to deal with fake refugees,” said University of Tokyo Prof. Tomoko Ako, whose research focus is on contemporary China.

“Despite that, making them return to China is problematic from a humanitarian point of view, so Uighurs have no other choice but to stay overseas,” she added. “Japan will have to accept their residence in this country.”

Deportation, detainment

The Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, organized by Uighurs in exile, estimates that 1 million to 1.6 million Uighurs have escaped from China and now live around the world. Uighur communities are believed to exist in Central Asian neighbors of China such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as countries including France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

Cases in which Uighurs living in such places were deported to China or detained in the countries they resided have been highlighted. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a U.S. nonprofit organization, released a report about this issue in June this year, saying that at least 695 Uighurs have been treated in these ways in 15 countries since 2017.

Specifically, if a Uighur has had contact with anyone in 26 countries of regions such as Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Chinese authorities deem the person as suspicious for possibly being affected by extremists. The Chinese government places this label in the name of preempting acts of terrorism.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project report said that there have been a rash of cases where Uighurs have been deported or subjected to other harsh treatment in those 26 countries.