BRUSSELS—In the comfortable living room of a family home near Antwerp, photographs from not so long ago recall the faces of the missing. A business man sits proudly behind the desk of the company he owns. A party of women smile and laugh as they share a cup of tea. Four brothers in sharp suits, with their arms spread across one another’s shoulders, grin at the camera.
One of them is Ibrahim Ismael. He and his family fled their home in Hotan, Xinjiang, in 2011. They are ethnic Uighurs, a minority in China but the biggest group in Xinjiang, China’s largest and westernmost region, which borders eight countries. They cannot go home, where at least 1 million Uighurs are detained in camps that Beijing says are for “reeducation” (human-rights groups label them “concentration camps”). Nor can they freely campaign for Uighur rights in Europe. Conversations with Uighurs in Belgium, Finland, and the Netherlands reveal a systematic effort by China to silence Uighurs overseas with brazen tactics of surveillance, blackmail, and intimidation. Many of the Uighurs I spoke with did so on condition of anonymity out of concern for their families in China.
Beijing claims that Xinjiang has always been part of China. Some of the province’s main cities—Ürümqi, Hotan, and Kashgar—have been strategically important posts on the Silk Road, the legendary trade route that connected China, the Middle East, and Europe for centuries. But the region’s history is more complicated. In 1949, separatists briefly declared independence for East Turkestan, the Uighur name for Xinjiang. Although it didn’t last long—China took control shortly after the establishment of the communist state in Beijing that same year—the memory of self-governance and invasion lives on.