It’s not just Dolkun Isa: India has barred at least eight other Chinese activists from its democracy conference

“I’m listening.”
“I’m listening.”
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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Several Chinese human rights activists and dissidents based outside the country have been banned from traveling to India for a China-focused conference about democracy—sparking concerns that Delhi is bowing to Beijing when it comes to human rights issues.

India is this year’s host to the annual Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conference, a high-profile forum that brings together Chinese exiles and dissidents to discuss everything from democracy to human rights to religion. None of these are issues Beijing is comfortable with.

This year in particular, the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who has been based in India for decades, plans to attend the meet that begins on Thursday (Apr. 28). The event was held last year in Washington, D.C.

At least nine activists say they have been banned from the meet—and they believe Beijing is the culprit behind it. Earlier this week, exiled Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa said the Indian government had approved but later revoked his visa after Beijing publicly denounced the decision.

Dolkun Isa, exiled Uyghur activist.
Dolkun Isa, exiled Uyghur activist.
Image: Reuters/David Lague

Isa, who now lives in Germany, is a leader of the World Uyghur Congress, a Munich-based group that seeks self-determination for China’s far west Xinjiang region, home to millions of ethnic minority Uyghurs who are mostly Muslim. China claims Isa is a “terrorist,” an accusation he denies.

Five other associates with the World Uyghur Congress, including president Rebiya Kadeer, were also declined visas to travel to India for the meeting, the US-backed Radio Free Asia reported on Wednesday, citing a spokesperson with the organization.

Another well-known Chinese activist, Lu Jinghua—a protester during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre who now lives in the US—said she was barred from getting on a plane in New York, even though she had gotten a visa online. On Wednesday, Lu wrote on Twitter “I have no reason to doubt the Chinese Communist Party is messing about with it,” linking her case to Isa’s cancellation.

Ray Wong, activist and spokesperson of Hong Kong Indigenous, a political group that seeks the former British colony’s independence from China, also got rejected, according to his Facebook page.

Hong Kong activist Alex Chow, who co-organized the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, told Quartz today (April 29) that he, too, was denied a visa. Chow said he applied for an electronic tourist visa but got rejected several days later with “no reason provided.” He attended last year’s conference.

India’s foreign ministry told local media house India Today that in Isa, Lu, and Wong’s cases, they have applied for the wrong category of visa. All of them should have applied for a conference visa instead of a tourist one. It was common for attendees to travel to India on tourist visas in the past, India Today noted citing unnamed sources in Dharamsala.

The Interethnic/Interfaith Leadership Conference was launched by the US-based democracy group Initiatives for China in 2004, and co-hosted by Dharamsala-based NGO Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy this year.

Chow said conference insiders told him that they sense the Indian government is paying close attention to the event. “Obviously the Indian government has its eyes on the visa,” he said. “It might signal a change of Sino-Indian policy, a more restrictive policy towards anti-Chinese dictator NGOs.”

After his trip to India was aborted, Isa—in an interview with The Wire—called on India to impart some lessons in democracy to China:

Both India and China have the largest population around the world, and both are economic powers. But India is the largest democratic nation in the world, there is freedom of speech, freedom of movement, assembly rights guaranteed by the Constitution and India also accepts international law. India is one of the few democratic countries in Asia, in my view. So I believe and I suggest, India should have some responsibility to teach some democracy to China.