top of page

Why this Chinese-Australian feels unsafe after speaking out about China's treatment of Uyghurs

Vicky Xu says human rights activists and critics of the Chinese government in Australia are being harassed and intimidated.

By Tom Canetti

August 24, 2022

Researcher and journalist Vicky Xu withdrew from appearing in the media for the past year-and-a-half due to what she calls "harassing, targeting and intimidating" by the Chinese government and its "fanatic" supporters.

Last week, Ms Xu returned, making an appearance at La Trobe University in Melbourne, where she was to give a talk on China's human rights records.

Ms Xu has worked extensively on researching China's "re-education" of its Uyghur minority, and is the lead author of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report Uyghurs for Sale, which condemns the alleged forced labour of Uyghurs.

On 17 August, UN Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata released a report claiming to verify forced labour against Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region.

Once Ms Xu began her talk last Wednesday, a man in the audience at La Trobe University repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of her work.

Ms Xu, who says she's been followed since moving to Australia and speaking out on human rights, says groups of people supporting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are trying to scare activists out of speaking at events.

"It seems to me that their aim is to make institutions and universities fear such disruption and to make them too scared to invite journalists, researchers, analysts like myself," she said.

"Because I was participating at the event, La Trobe University had to hire security specifically for this event. Especially in light of what's happened to [Salman] Rushdie . And recently what happened to former Hong Kong legislator, Ted Hui in Sydney."

Ms Xu is referring to an incident that is alleged to have happened to Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and former legislator Ted Hui in Sydney earlier this month.

Ms Xu recognised the man from a similar encounter at Melbourne airport, where she claims he "ambushed" her, questioning her journalism on alleged human rights abuses in China.

"It was deeply unsettling," Ms Xu told SBS News.

"The Chinese government and its fanatic supporters have been harassing, targeting and intimidating me really intensely for the past year and a half.

"I've been one of the most outspoken Chinese journalists in Australia. And even I felt that I had to shy away from public attention for my own sanity," she said.

"It creates doubts and fear in organisers, in my fellow panellists, and in myself and everybody who cares about my safety.

"This cultural fear is only growing, and it's extremely unhealthy for Australian public debates."

Co-author of Uyghurs for Sale and senior ASPI fellow James Leibold was chairing the event and had to call security to ask the man to leave.

ASPI is a national security and defence think-tank that receives funding from Australia's defence department, foreign governments including the US, and military contractors.

"He became quite agitated and stood up and started to walk towards her in a pretty confronting way, and myself and Sophie McNeill, from Human Rights Watch, had to intervene," Mr Leibold said.

"Clearly there's a group of people who are Australian citizens, but there's also others that inhabit the kind of Twittersphere that's seeking to parrot CCP talking points, and to intimidate those who are critical of the Chinese Communist Party and some of its policies. "

Mr Leibold says these groups have "really honed in on people like Vicky Xu".

"I know she doesn't feel safe. And that shouldn't happen in a open democracy like Australia," he said.

'Efforts of intimidation': Australia should be a safe place for critics, HRW says

Sophie McNeill, an Australian researcher for international non-government organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW), was at the event.

She told SBS News that Australia should be a safe place for dissidents, critics and journalists to speak about human rights without feeling intimidated.

"We've increasingly seen in the last few years real concerted efforts to attack anyone who publicly criticises the Chinese Communist Party in Australia," Ms McNeill said.

"These efforts of intimidation sometimes reach the extent where it's harassment.

"Over the next few years, it's going to be really important that Australia is a safe haven for critics of the CCP and anyone who speaks up against the Communist Party's abuses."

Ms McNeill says dissidents from the "Cambodian community, Eritrean community, and Saudi female asylum seekers" must also feel safe in Australia.

Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, says while he disagrees with many of Ms Xu's claims around the CCP, he wants to send an "unambiguous message" to those who follow him that he's "100 per cent in solidarity with Vicky and supports her participation in Australia’s China debate and doing so feeling safe".

"Vicky has had death threats, rape threats and god knows what else, so the fears she has for her safety are not just made up," Professor Laurenceson told SBS News.

Who's being accused of 'harassing' Vicky Xu and what's their motivation?

The man who Ms Xu claims "harassed" her is Robert Barwick from The Australian Citizens Party.

Albert Zhang, an analyst at ASPI, says Mr Barwick is affiliated with the so-called LaRouche movement.

"The party denies climate change exists and Mr Barwick himself has published articles claiming Prince Philip is a mass murderer who created the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to commit genocide," Mr Zhang said.

An associate of Mr Barwick, Jacqueline James, is another vocal critic of ASPI and Ms Xu.

"Jaqueline James is a pro-China voice that claims to be a ‘Western Propaganda Analyst’," Mr Zhang said.

"On her LinkedIn page, she claims to have taught English to members of China’s People’s Liberation Army at a Chinese defence university and over the past few years appears to have run a campaign solely to attack ASPI and Vicky Xu.

"Her and her father, Milton James, who denies the Tiananmen Square massacre happened, operate the website ‘Critical Social Work Publishing House’ and have tweeted out fake figures of Vicky Xu’s book deal which were planted in Drew Pavlou’s email account as a trap for alleged Chinese government hackers."

Mr Zhang says the CCP use its state run media, such as the Global Times, to "spread propaganda," attacking their critics' credibility, authorising Chinese intelligence agencies to "surveil and intimidate them", and conducting "state-led mass trolling".

SBS News contacted Mr Barwick to ask him if he had any connections to, or funding from, the Chinese government. He said he didn't, however he conceded that employees from state-run Global Times had reached out to him and published articles supporting his and the Australian Citizens Party's ideas.

SBS News asked Ms James the same thing, to which she responded with a Twitter post denying any funding and calling it a "McCarthyite" question.

When asked what his motivation was for criticising ASPI, Mr Barwick answered: to "prevent war".

He denies Ms Xu's claim that he "ambushed" her at Melbourne airport as "completely untrue" and said they "happened to bump into each other".

Mr Barwick denies he was harassing Ms Xu, and says the motivation of his questions were "to see if she's [Vicky Xu] willing to take credit for the consequences of the ASPI report [Uyghurs for Sale], in terms of the employment of Uyghurs in China".

The Australian Citizens Party reported receiving $2.2 million in donations in 2021/2022, according to the Australian Electoral Commission.

Nearly all of these are under the transparency threshold of $14,300, meaning the party isn't obliged to provide donor details.

Mr Barwick ran unsuccessfully as a Senate candidate in the 2022 federal election.

SBS News asked Mr Barwick, who along with his colleagues vehemently claim there is "no evidence" of Uyghur concentration camps or human rights abuses towards them, if he had contacted anyone from the Uyghur community in Australia.

"No I haven't," Mr Barwick said.

"But I can state something categorical. There has been a massive extremism problem in Xinjiang, a massive Muslim extremism problem that China had to address because it resulted in a massive wave of terrorism."

Mr Barwick went on to acknowledge the CCP's re-education programs in Xinjiang, but asserted they should be referred to as programs and not camps.

He said their purpose is to "discourage people in dabbling in extreme Islamist practices" and when asked how that's done, he responded: "I'm certainly not an expert on that at all".

In Uyghurs for Sale, ASPI says since 2017, "more than a million" Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have "disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education camps’ in the far west region of Xinjiang."

ASPI says inside the camps, detainees are subjected to "political indoctrination, forced to renounce their religion and culture and, in some instances, reportedly subjected to torture".

"In the name of combating ‘religious extremism’, Chinese authorities have been actively remoulding the Muslim population in the image of China’s Han ethnic majority," the report reads.

What do members of the Uyghur community in Australia think?

Ramila Chanisheff, president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association confirmed to SBS News that none of Ms Xu's or ASPI's critics had contacted members of the Uyghur community in Australia to ask them about the allegations of forced labour.

She implored them to speak to members of the Uyghur community themselves, as she says many have had relatives "disappear" in China.

"We're the ones whose cousins and brothers and sisters have disappeared into these concentration camps," Ms Chanisheff said.

Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association president Ramila Chanisheff.

"We're the people who've lost complete connection with our family members, and countrymen, and we're the ones who've got evidence.

"It's our sisters and our brothers who are making all these products [under forced labour], so get in touch with the people who are really affected.

"Come and talk to the community.

"Find out exactly why are we talking and why Vicky Xu and every other academic is speaking up on this topic."

Should Australia do more to protect critics and dissidents?

Ms Xu says the Australian government does less to protect people calling out human rights abuses than in the United States.

She says this is because anyone who's attempted to harass, intimidate or stalk Chinese journalists, analysts, or dissidents in America, "have received indictments," and because there are permanent visa options for critics.

"There are a number of Chinese heritage journalists - some of them are still Chinese citizens - working in Australia on the frontline of China-Australia debates," Ms Xu said.

"These people need protection, and the number one thing is a visa."

The Department of Home Affairs said: "Individuals who wish to seek Australia’s protection, and are found to engage Australia’s non‑refoulement (non-return) obligations, may be granted protection provided they also satisfy the relevant visa criteria, which includes the health, character and security requirements that apply to all Australian visas.'"


bottom of page