Activists Trace Origins of China’s Intensifying Repression of Uyghurs

Uyghur Nury Turkel, Chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, left, and Rushan Abbas, Executive Director of the Campaign for Uyghur on the right.

J Michael Cole

Taiwan on March 11-12 hosted the ‘Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region.’ Organized by the U.S. State Department, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, the American Institute in Taiwan and the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, the event — the first of its kind in the region — brought together more than 100 academics, religious leaders, experts and officials from more than 10 countries for talks on religious freedom in the region. Taiwan Sentinel chief editor J. Michael Cole sat down on the sidelines of the event with Nury Turkel, Chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Rushan Abbas, Executive Director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, and Timothy Grose, Assistant Professor of China Studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, to discuss the current plight of Uyghurs, who face severe repression at the hands of the People’s Republic of China. 

Q: Your people have suffered tremendously in recent years, and there is mounting evidence that as many as 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims are currently being detained in concentration camps — what the Chinese government euphemistically calls re-education camps — in Xinjiang. Please tell me a little more about your personal stories and how your families have been affected.

Rushan Abbas (RA): I have been an activist all my life. After the deterioration of the situation back home and the [concentration] camps [in Xinjiang] I was a speaker at the Hudson Institute on Sept. 5, where I talked about the conditions at the camps and my personal story. My mother in law, my father in law and 14 of my nieces and nephews on my husband’s side, and my sisters in law — we’re talking about almost 30 people [who have disappeared]. I talked about that, and six days later my sister [who is ailing] and my aunt, who live about 1,400 kilometers away from each other, were both abducted. My aunt is a house wife, and my sister is a medical doctor. This is retaliation for my activities.  

Nury Turkel (NT): I was, oddly enough, born in a re-education camp. I was born during the Cultural Revolution. My mother was detained because of her family connection — her father was an active member in the establishment of the East Turkestan Republic. She was beaten up and subjected to verbal abuse, and she got injured. She delivered me while she was in a cast, neck down. They brought us back into the camp, and we were released when I was about five months old. Because of malnutrition and other reasons, she didn’t think I was going to make it. 

My family has been suffering various forms of harassment and intimidation since 2007 or so, right around the time my brother fell in love with the daughter of China’s most hated Uyghur, Rebiya Kadeer.

I have been an activist and advocate, in addition to being a full-time lawyer [in corporate law], for almost 20 years. The first time I publicly protested against China was in 1998 in front of the People’s Republic of China embassy in Washington, D.C. I became involved at the organization level in 2002, and in 2004 was elected president of the Uyghur-American Association. During that period I co-founded the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), which is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). NED has given us a sizable research grant to conduct research and documentation. To date the UHRP has released over 40 issue-specific reports. We have seven full- or part-time staff with offices in Hawaii and Washington, D.C. 

Since the crisis [in Xinjiang] became known to the public I have spent a substantial amount of time in the media, giving public speeches and mostly closed-door conversations with government officials trying to encourage them to formulate and to implement actionable policies. As we all know, expressing concern is not the same thing as taking action. We have been somewhat successful, as demonstrated by the senior leadership in the U.S. — Vice President Mike Pence dedicated a paragraph to the Uyghur issue in a major speech on U.S.-China relations last October, Secretary of State Pompeo has posted a few Tweets and even said [paraphrases] “We will not stop unless oppressed religious minorities like the Uyghurs are treated with respect and dignity by China.” And we have this wonderful man named Sam Brownback [Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom], who has spearheaded much of the effort. Meanwhile in U.S. Congress, at least two dozen influential lawmakers have spoken publicly, organized hearings, written op-eds, introduced legislation and given interviews in the media. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) quite comfortably said that [the camps in Xinjiang] is nothing but concentration camps, and we’ve seen this in history before. And we didn’t ask Marco Rubio (R-FL) to say that the Chinese have set up the largest minority concentration camps since World War II.

Q: How do you explain the “sudden” intensification of China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims — or muslims in general — in China? Is this directly linked to Xi Jinping, or is there something else behind this campaign?

RA: From the time of Mao Zedong’s occupation of East Turkestan in 1949 the Chinese have been using different reasons and labels to persecute Uyghurs. It was nationalism in the 1950s, then counter-revolutionaries during the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution. The 1980s, after the Cultural Revolution, were a time where we had a little bit of breathing space. I participated in two demonstrations against the government, in 1985 and 1988. Then right after that it was fighting “separatism.” They tried to assimilate Uyghurs, and just a few months before the 9/11 [Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.], Beijing was claiming that Xinjiang was the safest place for Western investors to come and build and make money. China then used the [U.S.-led] war on terrorism very effectively. After 9/11, they established the fastest way to eradicate the Uyghurs.   

When Xi Jinping visited Kashgar in May 2014 he saw the Uyghur markets on the streets and the mosques where people were going to pray, the wonderful culture and the language they were speaking. He was extremely upset and during closed-door meetings asked [paraphrases] What did you [Chinese officials] do in the past 60-70 years for Uyghurs to still be living their culture and language? 

Another elements is Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Our homeland sits in the strategic heart of his plans for world domination, as a gateway to central Asia, Europe and Africa. The success of his BRI therefore depends on taking complete control over the whole area.   

NT: [The Chinese crackdown] wasn’t sudden and it didn’t happen overnight. But since Xi Jinping came to power the landscape has changed dramatically, particularly from 2014 through 2017. The Chinese government has become more activist in the international diplomatic arena in comparison with previous Chinese administrations. This historic, ideological approach to policy has led Xi to believe he needs to squelch any type of threat that may pose a challenge to his survival. 

When the Chinese government formulates its security policies, the presence of a threat is not important; the perceived threat, and the potential for upheaval that could undermine Xi Jinping’s leadership, is what concerns them. The domino-effect concept is long gone and I don’t think the Chinese authorities worry about that anymore. In the past they said, If Tibet and East Turkestan get out of hand it could affect volatile regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan. But that is gone.  

Geopolitically, when you look at the map, [Xinjiang] is four times the size of California and one sixth of China’s territory. It’s the longest international border. For China’s dream of becoming a globally influential power, fully controlling not only the land, but the soul and mind of the people, is critically important. China sees Uyghur ethno-national identity as a political threat. This also has a very strong racist character. The Chinese government has been saying things like “break their lineage” and “break their roots,” which is part of a very deliberate attempt to debase the Uyghur existence by targeting centuries of Uyghur ethno-national identity and religious practices through human engineering. 

Why do I call it human engineering? Because this is a conversion. I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying this, but there are people in the U.S. who try to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals, and this has been unsuccessful for the most part. What China is trying to accomplish is very similar. They are forcibly making Uyghurs undergo this kind of human engineering. It used to be social engineering, and we tolerated that. But now they are engaging in DNA sampling; we don’t know what they use those samples for. We were told by camps survivors that they were given mysterious pills. They have been forcing Uyghur women to marry [Han] Chinese bachelors with government incentives and the threat that their families would be locked up if they refused. And Uyghur children have been taken to state orphanages. The current institutionalization rate for state orphanage is about 22 percent and is expected to reach 100 percent by 2020. 

The Chinese people need to realize that none of the things they call “Chinese” is universal. They cannot force us, or the Tibetans or others, to become Chinese. It’s just against human nature.

Timothy Grose (TG): I think the elephant in the room is the spread of violence that has occurred since 2009. I don’t think that mentioning or acknowledging the violence undermines any of the momentum or any of the objectives, nor does it justify the mass incarcerations. Because if we look at each incident, they are actually responses to very local things and not part of an organized effort by any one group in Xinjiang. In fact they’re not orchestrated by any group; [the perpetrators] are actually individuals, akin to the “lone wolf” killers in the U.S. But the Chinese government is not telling the whole story and is able to seize on it and control the narrative, and to brand it as terrorism when it’s not. We should take ownership of the violence and actually put it under a microscope, and show how these are responses to local conditions. 

The Chinese government is not telling the whole story and is able to seize on it and control the narrative, and to brand it as terrorism when it’s not.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had a choice: it could have interpreted regional ethnic autonomy as it is stated, and that could have been one solution, or at least one attempt at reconciling the problems. Instead they chose the other approach, the kind of zero-tolerance, heavy-handed approach. They’re getting sympathy abroad because they are able to present is as part of a broader package of China’s own terrorism problem. Therefore, it’s absolutely imperative for any activist or academic to not ignore this part of the issue, to show that it is actually sporadic and isolated, not part of any coordinated group inside Xinjiang nor part of these kind of shadowy, weak or unorganized iterations of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement [now known as the Turkistan Islamic Party]. 

NT: I mentioned that China’s security policy is not based on the presence of a threat but a perceived threat. When you look at the timing, the last violent incident took place in 2015. The CCP always cites three incidents — the Urumqi train station bombing, Kunming bombing and Tiananmen —  as the three major events that led them to adopt their more hardline policy. But if you look at the timing of the formulation and implementation of their political policy, there’s a big gap. 

They can claim 15 times that they are fighting separatism, terrorism and extremism, but look at other countries — France, Belgium, Tunisia, Canada, the U.S., England — they have more ISIS fighters in Syria, and none of these governments have set up concentration camps. Shamelessly, China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, has ridiculed the West by saying [paraphrases] “You guys are a bunch of fools. Instead of dropping bombs you should do the same thing that we do and try to create a normal human being in Uyghurs.” 

Q: How would you characterize the response from the international community to date?

NT: We’re very pleased with the progress we have made in the U.S. But we’re very disappointed with the extent to which the liberal democracies around the world, particularly the ones in Europe, who told us “Never again,” have been sitting on their hands when it comes to China. They do know how it ends when a government uses language like “the final solution.”

We’re very disappointed with the extent to which the liberal democracies around the world, particularly the ones in Europe, who told us “Never again,” have been sitting on their hands when it comes to China. They do know how it ends when a government uses language like “the final solution.”

Q: There are signs of growing Chinese influence at the U.N., more particularly at the Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly. Does this trouble you?

NT: It is very worrying because the U.N. is one of the few tools or venues available to shore up international support. In order to maximize the pressure on China and minimize the potential damage of retaliation against a single state, we need to have a coalition, and that coalition can be built at the U.N. With China’s increased funding of U.N. operations and buying the silence of some countries at the Human Rights Council, our battle is becoming even more challenging. However, on a positive note, the U.S. mission at the U.N. under the leadership of [former ambassador] Nikki Haley and Kelly Currie [Representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council] has been extraordinary. 

We also have to recognize the new U.N. Human Rights Council chief [High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet], the former Chilean president, who recently made a second request to visit the camps in Xinjiang. We need that kind of pressure, using the UPR [UNHRC Universal Periodic Review] — even though the U.S. has left that entity — via Canada, the U.K., Australia and other countries with sizable Uyghur populations.

I think this issue will eventually be taken to the judicial level at the U.N.

Q: What is the extent of Chinese harassment of and surveillance against Uyghurs abroad — on university campuses, community centers, at mosques, etc? Have you seen evidence of direct involvement by the Chinese government in these activities — Chinese embassies, consulates, etc? Has the Chinese government sought to penetrate Uyghur communities abroad, and if so has it been successful?

RA: Uyghur students in the U.S. are facing strict demands by the Chinese government to report to the Chinese embassy and consulates. They are receiving phone calls from their parents and their family members back home. We believe family members back home are being pressured by the Chinese government, with repercussions if they do not make such calls). There are some Uyghur students in Boston and Virginia who are reportedly being pressured by the Chinese embassy and consulates to report periodically. 

Uyghurs in the Diaspora are not only facing extreme emotional distress but also facing false indictments by some of the other members of the community. Some small numbers of the overseas Uyghurs abroad are attacking, harassing and falsely accusing Uyghur organizations, Uyghur intellectuals and political activists with groundless slander. We believe many of these actions are the direct results of China’s coercing or rewarding them in order to discourage and disrupt any political movement among overseas Uyghurs. Chinese state media has reported that Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), has pledged that the “current target is ‘Uyghur separatists’ and organizations abroad.” Beijing is therefore extending its oppression with its black tentacles to Uyghurs living abroad.