Exclusive: China continues to harass exiles on British soil, claim victims

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Originally published by The Telegraph on August 16, 2020

China is suspected of orchestrating a sinister campaign to suppress prominent critics living in Britain from speaking out against the ruling Communist Party by harassing, intimidating, and surveilling them while they are in the UK, the Telegraph can reveal.

Simon Cheng Man-kit, a former British consulate employee in Hong Kong who was tortured by Chinese secret police, said he had been followed at least three times in the last two weeks.

Mr Cheng, who has been granted asylum in the UK, has been vocal about eroding freedoms in Hong Kong.

A threatening email also arrived in Mr Cheng’s inbox this week. “Chinese agents will find you and bring you back,” read the subject line.

In the body, the message said: “Only a matter of time.”  The email alias was ‘CY Leung’, the name of Hong Kong’s former chief executive who pro-democracy protesters accused of cosying up to Beijing.

Azis Isa Elkun, a British Uighur who has campaigned from the UK about China’s internment camps for Muslim minorities, revealed he had been sent messages from his mother, apparently under duress. He believes it is a warning to remain silent.

Frances Eve, deputy director of research for Chinese Human Rights Defenders , a network of advocacy groups, said: “These kinds of threats are definitely to try to silence them from using their voices outside of China to raise awareness of these human rights violations. It’s intimidation. It can take different forms, but the purpose is to silence them.”

“China doesn’t care if you’ve acquired foreign nationality or foreign residency; the government still considers you as Chinese, so there is always a threat to personal safety.”

Mr Isa Elkun, 50, was shocked in July last year to receive pictures of his mother, who lives in China, and hear voice messages asking him to contact her. They were sent via WhatsApp from a Turkish number he didn’t recognise.

Over the next year, he received more voice messages via foreign numbers from Turkey, and also Hong Kong. He believes she was forced by Chinese police to record them.

His mother’s voice trembled in one message shared with the Telegraph. She says: “Today, a working group of officials came to visit me. They said ‘we will help you to speak with your son’.”

Mr Isa Elkun said: “These were Chinese agents trying to contact me. It’s clear that they are trying to stop my activities.”

They were warning him “they are keeping my mother hostage.”

Mr Cheng, 29, said that the first time he noticed he was being tailed was when he was meeting Ray Wong, also a Hong Kong activist at a train station. He suggested they stop walking to see how the man suspected of tracking them would react.The middle-aged Asian man in a navy polo shirt and face mask eventually moved past them. But he kept his eyes on Mr Wong to see who he was meeting.

Mr Cheng said: “I looked back to give him a signal that ‘we are watching you, and we know you are following us.’” After that, the man disappeared.

He said he was then followed by a team of up to four men after a protest outside the Chinese embassy in London. He checked them by taking turns and loitering. A man in a red t-shirt stayed close enough that Mr Cheng was able to snap photos. Eventually, the man boarded a bus. 

The third instance was last Wednesday, when he noticed a man in a white car idling outside of a shop where he was grabbing lunch. When Mr Cheng approached the vehicle, he said the driver appeared to get nervous and pretended to be an Uber driver picking up a passenger.

However, the car yielded no results on Transport for London’s private hire vehicle licence checker.

Mr Cheng thinks a coordinated state campaign is being mounted against him “to give me pressure, to make me nervous”. An email seeking comment sent by the Telegraph to the address that had contacted Mr Cheng bounced back. Calls to four numbers used to contact Mr Isa Elkun also didn’t connect.The Chinese embassy in London declined to comment.

China has long gone to extreme lengths to suppress its critics abroad. It abducted human rights activist and US permanent resident Wang Bingzhang from Vietnam in 2002 and Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who published salacious titles about Chinese leaders, from Thailand in 2015.In both cases, Mr Wang and Mr Gui disappeared for months before they resurfaced in China and were convicted on trumped-up espionage charges. Mr Wang was sentenced to life in prison. Mr Gui received ten years.Another tactic, as Mr Isa Elkun experienced, is “using family as a kind of hostage or conduit to send threats,” said Ms Eve.A Chinese activist living in Australia, who uses the pseudonym Horror Zoo, this year began receiving threatening video calls from Chinese police using her father’s mobile phone after officers hauled him into the station.Relatives of an American journalist, a Uighur who has reported on China’s persecution of Muslim minorities, were arrested years ago and thrown in camps.

Amnesty International has collected hundreds of similar testimonies from Uighurs living outside of China. Many said Chinese authorities had used social messaging apps to track and intimidate them.

Despite the risks, both Mr Isa Elkun and Mr Cheng refuse to stop speaking out. Both have alerted the Foreign Office to what happened.

Mr Isa Elkun, granted asylum in 2002, continues to campaign for information about his mother. For the last three years, has been unable to directly contact his mother, as calls to her number no longer connect.He doesn’t believe she voluntarily appeared in a Chinese state media broadcast denouncing his claims that they hadn’t communicated, and that his father’s grave, an important Uighur tradition, had been desecrated.

He said: “It was very clear she was forced to speak against her will and belief. I [could] see deep sadness and fear from her eyes. It’s really a distressing situation. The tactics Chinese security use is disgusting, immoral and disturbing.”

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