The world looks on as China resumes its persecution of Uighurs: A conversation with Mihrigul Tursun

Tursun with her son, Moez, one of the triplets. (Mihrigul Tursun/Women Under Siege)

JUNE 05, 2019

In 2015, Mihrigul Tursun arrived at a Chinese airport and was immediately apprehended by authorities. She was coming from Egypt, where she was a student at a university, to visit her parents in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Profiled for her hijab, Tursun said, she was questioned whether or not she studied how to become a terrorist while abroad. Without a chance to answer, Tursun’s two-month-old triplets were taken from her, and she was sent to what she describes as an “ethnic cleansing camp.”

Since her release, Tursun, 29, has exhaustively told her story—and that of the persecution of fellow Uighurs in Xinjiang—to international audiences countless times in an effort to garner public attention and political support for the Uighur minority. Uighurs in China have been policed under repressive policies that the Chinese government claims were a response to 9/11, with the supposed aim of cracking down on “the three evil forces of separatism, extremism and terrorism.” That repression has dramatically increased since late 2016, after Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo was relocated from his post in the Tibet Autonomous Region to Xinjiang to replicate his intensive securitization program, which includes mass recruitment of security personnel, GPS tracking of all vehicles, and the use of thousands of facial-recognition cameras and biometric data to surveil the population. The ongoing crackdown has also been characterized by arbitrary arrests, revoking passports, and the placement of Uighurs in internment camps.

China’s narrative on why the camps exist has changed rapidly over the last year alone, shifting from outright denial of the camps’ existence to legitimate counterterrorism effort to “free vocational training.” The camps were rebrandedas “places of patriotic education and occupational-training centers intended to help minorities integrate,” but accounts from former detainees, including Tursun, paint a very different picture.

Tursun was still breastfeeding her children when they were taken from her. She testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China that, upon her release three months later, she was told she could be with her sick children until their health improved. In an interview with CNN, Tursun said she went to Urumqi Children's Hospital in Xinjiang, and the hospital informed her that Mohaned, the oldest of her triplets, had died during surgery. The Chinese foreign ministry called Tursun’s testimony “a deliberate lie,” while the Urumqi Children's Hospital did not respond to CNN’s requests to comment.

Tursun spoke to Women Under Siege about her second internment—for 20 days in 2017 for “inciting ethnic hatred and discrimination” (according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying). Tursun was held in a small, overcrowded jail cell with more than 60 other women. Packed like sardines, the women had to stand up and rotate among the others so that there would be enough room to lie down. She said they were called at random to be interrogated and tortured. At times, there was no food for days. “We did not shower and could not see the sun,” she said. One of her fellow inmates was covered in scars from torture and told Tursun she was raped when she refused to say that the Chinese Republic was greater than Allah.

The conditions in the camp led to nine deaths in less than three months.

“I was electrocuted and beaten to the point where I can no longer hear from my right ear,” Tursun told Women Under Siege. Under pressure, she denied being a Muslim. She was asked if she prayed, and she said no. She was asked if she read the Quran, and she replied no. But under relentless torture, she said she heard herself scream, “Ya Allah” (“Oh God”).

“Tell your God to come save you now,” she recalled her tormentors jeering.

Islam is considered to be a disease, Tursun said. Any Muslim rituals are outlawed. The simple Arabic exchange of “assalamualaikum” (“Peace be upon you”) is prohibited. Women are banned from wearing hijab, as are men from growing beards. “Even if women wear long dresses, the Chinese officials will come and cut your dress in public to make sure it is shortened,” she said.

Reports of cultural genocide against the Uighurs continue to mount alongside growing accounts of torture. Tursun recounted a story of a Uighur couple who wanted to get married in accordance with Islamic traditions and held a party with 400 guests. All 400 guests were later arrested and given a seven-year penalty, she said. She told us that Muslims are forced to follow Chinese funerary customs of burning and cremation instead of burial, as is customary under the Islamic faith. “[And] the call for prayer is being replaced by [lewd] songs, and Uighur human rights are being dismissed,” she said. “China is demolishing Islam.”

It was not until September 2018 that Tursun was able to escape from China. The Egyptian Embassy in Beijing assisted with her release from detention and reuniting with her Egyptian-born children. She and her two children are currently working through the U.S. asylum process. Though their future remains unclear, the family enjoys safety—and quiet reprieve—from their home in Virginia, where they have been resettled.

But, Tursun told us, “While others are afraid, I will continue to speak.”

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019 (both spellings, of "Uighur" and "Uyghur," are accepted), introduced by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and which aims to hold Chinese officials accountable for alleged abuses against the minority group, is currently pending ratification by Congress.