China has ‘a lot of spies’ in Ireland, activists claim

People in Chinese-Irish associations ‘keep an eye on everyone’ for signs of disloyalty

It’s not often that prospective interviewees turn up at The Irish Times wearing face masks and reflector sunglasses, with black baseball hats pulled low over their foreheads. But that’s what happened when three supporters of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong agreed to be interviewed. All living in Dublin, two are from Hong Kong and the other from the Chinese mainland.

“They are killing people,” a woman from Hong Kong says soon after the interview began. “That is what is happening now. The Hong Kong government, and the police, they are really killing people.”

The Chinese government is believed to have incarcerated a million or more Uighur and other Turkic Muslims as part of a massive campaign of repression

Each of the interviewees is concerned about the potential consequences should it become known that they had spoken with the Irish media. One has already had the experience of losing her job with a Chinese employer in Dublin after her image attending a protest here was posted on Chinese social media.

Over the past fortnight, The Irish Times has been speaking with people from the Tibetan and Hong Kong communities about living in Ireland while being careful not to come to the attention of the Beijing authorities. No one from the small Irish community of Uighur Turkic Muslims, from the northwestern province of Xinjiang, would agree to be interviewed.


The Chinese government is believed to have incarcerated a million or more Uighur and other Turkic Muslims in re-education camps in Xinjiang, as part of a massive campaign of repression.

"The high level of persecution spreads fear to the extent that Muslims living abroad are reluctant to talk about it lest members of their family at home should face serious repercussions," said Dr Ali Selim, of the Islamic Cultural Centre, in Clonskeagh, where some the Uighurs attend the mosque.

For people who have family back in China, being identified as expressing views Beijing does not approve of can have significant consequences, these activists claim. People who live here can find it hard to get visas to visit family, they say. Family members back in China can be punished for what a family member has said here in Ireland, they claim. And people here temporarily fear the consequences for themselves once they return home.

This week, leaked Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents – the China Cables – gave new insight into what is happening in Xinjiang.

The classified documents were given to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which shared them with a number of its media partners, including The Irish Times.

Among other matters, the documents show how the Chinese government uses its international diplomatic network as part of the campaign in Xinjiang.

People from Xinjiang living abroad who have dealings with China’s embassy and consulate network are flagged for attention by a computerised surveillance system, the leaks show. The very fact that these people are abroad is sufficient reason for them or their families to be treated with suspicion, and become candidates for detention.

The Chinese Communist Party has killed more Chinese people than the Japanese did during the second World War, the activists say

The Chinese man from the mainland, who supports the protesters in Hong Kong, believes the wider Chinese community in Ireland is also part of a monitoring network. “They have a lot of spies,” he says. Some spy because they are asked to, he says. Others do it because they love China and CCP. “They don’t see a difference between China and the party, but the party is very evil. It is a dictatorship.”

All three pro-democracy protesters say they fear that people who are being arrested in Hong Kong might end up in re-education camps similar to those in Xinjiang. “We do not know what will happen in the future.” An interviewee who grew up in Hong Kong says that, even going to school there during the period of British rule, people didn’t learn the truth about Chinese history. “The CCP has killed more Chinese people than the Japanese did during the second World War,” the activists say. “No one knows this.”

Even educated Chinese people living here try not to learn the truth. “They are afraid to speak freely, even when they are here, in Ireland. They are brainwashed.”

In a cafe in south Dublin, two men who were born in Tibet but who now live in Ireland agree to talk as long as they are not identified. Both have family in Tibet.

Tibet lies below Xinjiang in western China. Like Xinjiang, Tibet has experienced extensive settlement by the majority Han Chinese in recent decades. It is also, like Xinjiang, the subject of a campaign of mass surveillance and repression by a Beijing government that fears separatist sentiment and loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

“They started in Xinjiang recently, but it’s been going on for a long, long time in Tibet. I am here for . . . years and I have family in Tibet, but I never dare talk to them.”

The situation eased a decade or more ago, but since the rise to the top of the CCP by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in 2013, the situation has changed for the worse.

“Phone calls were always listened to, but now you have United Front propaganda teams going into every village, asking questions. Where is your son? They reward good behaviour [and punish bad behaviour]. Even though you are living in Ireland and not politically active, just attending to the Dalai Lama’s teaching can be dangerous for your family in Tibet. They warn your family.”

Getting visas to go back for family visits can be difficult. Family members have to sign letters saying the visitor will not “destabilise the motherland and disturb the social harmony. They have to guarantee it.”

“I never went back. It’s hard for me to contact them. I am in the free world, but they are not.”

The men have friends in Ireland from mainland China.

“They believe [China is] lifting Tibet out of poverty. They see themselves as the saviours of Tibet. They have no idea how many cultural sites were destroyed [in Tibet] during the Cultural Revolution, are still being destroyed now. They say that is American propaganda. That we are dogs of imperialism.”

The Chinese authorities use local Chinese-Irish associations and student groups, the activists claim. Such organisations have people from the CCP in them who keep an eye on everyone, they say. “That is how they manipulate people when they are outside China. It is not obvious. It’s sneaky.”

Not all cross-cultural groups are invovled in this practice, of course, but one organisation about which there has been extensive controversy – and which has Irish branches – is the international network of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). Local CSSAs provide useful support to Chinese students and scholars studying and working outside China, but are also used by the CCP to promote and monitor loyalty, according to a report last year by the Washington DC-based US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

CSSAs “receive guidance from the CCP through Chinese embassies and consulates—governmental ties CSSAs frequently attempt to conceal—and are active in carrying out overseas Chinese work consistent with Beijing’s United Front strategy,” the report says.

Authoritarian Advance, a report published last year by the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, gave details as to the European network of CSSAs. "The CSSAs report to Chinese embassies on Chinese students who take part in activities that are considered sensitive by the Chinese government", the report says. "These students and their families at home can face retaliation in the form of threats from Chinese officials."

There are CSSA branches in UCD, NUI Galway, and DCU, and the Waterford Institute of Technology. The Irish website of the organisation is listed on the website of the Chinese embassy in Dublin. Efforts to contact the Irish association by email (its website lists no phone numbers) had received no response at the time of going to press.

The embassy says they are suffering from persecutory delusion or trying to gain sympathy in an attempt to discredit or smear the majority of Chinese in Ireland

The Berlin think-tank makes the point that it is important not to conflate the Chinese party-state with overseas Chinese communities, something the CCP itself is keen on doing, the report says, so it can present the party’s interests as being the same as those of all ethnic Chinese.

A statement from the Chinese embassy in Dublin in response to the points raised in this article reads as follows: “We respect the legal right of expression of all Chinese, no matter where they are or which part of China they are from.

It continues: “Regarding those Chinese who told you that their freedom of expression is threatened by other Chinese, I am afraid they are either suffering from persecutory delusion or trying to gain sympathy in an attempt to discredit or smear the majority of Chinese in Ireland with opinions different from them.”

“Kate”, who is from Hong Kong, has lived in Ireland for a number of years, and has family in Hong Kong. She is, she says, not just pro-democracy but pro-independence. “So I am quite scared of the Chinese people finding out about me.”

For her, China is not a country but an empire made up of 56 countries, including Tibet. She refers to Xinjiang – the word means New Territory – as “East Turkistan”, a name she believes is more appropriate. “It is quite dangerous to have Chinese friends. I think of them as Chinese agents.” Most Chinese people see those in favour of an independent Hong Kong as traitors, she says.

“I think the Chinese in Ireland embrace the CCP. They love the CCP. They think that without the CCP, they would be still living in poverty. They are against the independence movements of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet. They stand with the CCP.”

Chinese people, she says, fear that if the CCP collapsed, China would collapse, and this would be bad for them. They want the CCP to remain in power.

“Leftists say they are anti-imperialists, but they turn a blind eye to Chinese imperialism. I see people talking about Palestine, Catalonia, the Kurds, but they never seem to support the Uighurs. So I wonder do they just not know about it, or do they just pretend nothing is happening?”

“I am not saying it is a competition between who deserves the most pity. A death in East Turkistan is the same as a death in Palestine.”

She wonders if it is because China is ruled by the CCP. “The Soviet Union has collapsed. Maybe if China collapsed, then leftist ideology would no longer stand. Maybe. But it is a kind of hypocrisy.”

Chinese people are taken aback by the negative news reported in the media every day in the West

The Oireachtas website shows that the word Uighur has been mentioned four times this year in the Dáil and Seanad. Other searches show: Xinjiang (0); Kurd (25); Catalonia (12) and Palestine (109).

For a lot of Chinese people, coming to the West and being exposed to western media and political debate makes them view China more rather than less positively, according to Isabella Jackson, an assistant professor in Chinese history in Trinity College Dublin.

“Chinese people are used to a relentlessly positive approach to news and current affairs in the media at home and are taken aback by the negative news reported in the media every day in the West. It shows them all the things that are wrong with society here, reinforcing a sense that the Chinese government broadly has things right. It can be a relief to get back to the familiarity of Chinese culture.”

She says it often takes time for Chinese students to get to grips with the idea of multiple interpretations of political and historical issues, as against a single, dogmatic, state-sponsored viewpoint.

“On issues like the treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, Chinese people’s initial assumption is often that news that contrasts with the Chinese government’s line is a result of western propaganda.

“While some start to question the Communist state narrative, others end up trusting no news source, unable to discern what might be true between conflicting Chinese and western stories.”

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent