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China's Repression on Uyghur Muslims: Interview with Nury Turkel

January 3, 2020

 

Mr. Nury Turkel is a lawyer and Uyghur rights advocate who was born in a re-education camp in Kashgar at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Turkel holds a Master of Arts in International Relations and a Juris Doctor degree, both from the American University in Washington, DC.  He is the first US-educated Uyghur lawyer. Turkel practices law in D.C., specializing in regulatory compliance, federal investigation and enforcement, aviation, and immigration. 

 

Turkel served as the President of the Uyghur American Association from 2004 to 2006. In 2003, he co-founded and served as the first Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), an organization for which he has served as Board Chair since March 2018. He also served as a legal and policy adviser to the World Uyghur Congress. In addition to his regulatory law practice and human rights advocacy work, Turkel assists Uyghur refugees in the U.S., Europe, and Turkey, and from 2005 to 2009 played a key role in efforts to release and resettle Uyghurs who were wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. 

 

As an important voice for the Uyghur people, Turkel has spoken at numerous policy forums, academic institutes, and human rights conferences; testified before the US Congress and Australian Parliament; and appeared on many major media outlets including CNN, BBC, PBS Frontline, Fox News, Al Jazeera, Australian ABC, Sky News, France 24, and TRT World. He was the opening speaker at the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum. His writing has appeared in major U.S. publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, and Foreign Policy. Follow him at @nuryturkel.

 

He was interviewed by our Founding Editor, Prashant Khurana. 

PRASHANT- Thank you for interacting with Polemics and Pedantics. For the benefit our readers, could explain your work, the work of Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and what exactly it has been trying to accomplish outside China?

 

MR. TURKEL- UHRP works to advocate human rights research and documentation. We received a generous research grant from the national Endowment for democracy. During the last 15 years, we grew from a one-man organization to a credible organization with a professional team. We are based out of Washington D.C. We use our website to publish reports on the various programs of governments [relating to the rights of Uyghur people]. In the last 15 years, we have published over 40 Asia specific research reports. These include China’s legislative initiatives, their war on terrorism, environmental issues, and the ban on Uyghur language and their educational system. Most recently, we published a report on the disappearance of Uyghur scholars, and another on the demolition of mosques. The latter constitutes China’s attempt to debase Uyghur culture, historic sites, cemeteries, etc. Our researchers were able to identify 150 such sites using before and after [satellite] images. We are currently focusing on other pressing issues, for example, some of the camps [in China] are being transformed into forced labor camps. So, those are the issues on which we have had a focus. The [US] State Department and the [US] Congress often rely on our research in conducting their fact-finding on such issues.

 

As for my personal involvement, I was the first Executive Director of UHRP, and since 2017, I have been the Chairman of the Board. I don’t work at UHRP full time, but I help with the organization’s policy advocacy work, fundraising, and media appearances.

 

PRASHANT- Can you draw a brief timeline for how these recently reported camps and violations of Human Rights began? Is Chinese repression restricted to the Xinjiang province or does it go beyond that as well?

 

MR. TURKEL- First of all, the term ‘Xinjiang province’ is incorrect. I would rather not use that term. Whenever we mention official government entities or specific Chinese government officials, only then [would it be right to] use the word Xinjiang. For instance, we say Xinjiang Party, Communist Party in Xinjiang, etc. This has since been misrepresented in popular media to be the name of the province. The official name is Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). So, we should use either ‘East Turkestan’, which is the historic name, or use the term ‘Uyghur region’.

 

The ongoing crisis, which has now entered its third year, did not start overnight. It has been in the works for at least two-three decades. The major policy shift really took place after the end of the Cold War. The Chinese government in the mid-90s realized that if it is not pre-emptively tackled, the ‘Uyghur issue’ may become a global concern. In other words, they were trying to prevent the region from going the way of the Balkan region [under the Soviet Union]. To this end, [China] started its ‘Strike Hard Campaign’ in mid 1990s, and used its diplomatic and regional influence to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Through this international entity, China exercises control over political activities in its neighboring countries - all the ‘-stans’ [like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, etc.].

 

Then came 9/11. Prior to this [the 9/11 attacks in the US], the Chinese government had characterized the Uyghur resentment as a ‘separatist movement’. Post 9/11 however, there was a change in the tone as China began portraying itself as a victim of terrorism. In 2002, the United Nations agreed to designate the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. This helped the Chinese government to advance its propaganda against them.

 

PRASHANT- Can you tell us a little about this organization? Why was it designated as such by the UN?

 

MR. TURKEL- The ETIM’s designation expired in 2004. It was only designated for 2 years. However, the publicity was already created by then among China’s Muslim allies. This has allowed the Chinese government to continue the propaganda campaign that we’ve been hearing about even as we speak today.

 

Anyway, this went on for about eight years. In 2009, there was a peaceful street protest that turned into a violent clash between Han Chinese individuals managing security, and Uyghur protestors. For the Chinese government, this was a wake-up call. They realized [that] they needed to do something to prevent such an uprising from taking place again. Then, when the Syrian Civil War started, some Uyghurs managed to reach Syria to fight against the Bashar Al-Assad Regime [in Syria]. During this period, from 2012 through 2015, there were some violent incidents that took place in China where Uyghur Muslims were harmed. A New York Times revelation from 2019, that I would invite all your readers to read [The NYT investigation can be accessed here], Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping decided that improving the materialistic situation of Uyghurs had not given them the type of obedience and loyalty that they desired.

 

 

At that point, in 2014, Xi Jinping decided to debase the ideological underpinnings of Uyghur culture and began a process of forced assimilation by attacking the Uyghur ethno-national identity and practices. From 2014-16, the Government began this ‘final solution’ to the so-called ‘Xinjiang Problem.’ This has been documented by various scholars specializing in CCP [Communist Party of China] policies. In August 2016, the Chinese brought in officials from Tibet, and gave them the resources and authority to set up the modern-day concentration camps. The news of these camps surfaced in 2017.

 

Legislatively, in April 2017 China enacted the ‘de-instrumentation policy,’ which paved the way for authorities to justify who to lock up; and why to lock up. Based on leaked documents revealed by the Western Press, this Chinese official in the region by the name, Mr. Chen Quanguo, ordered that everyone who should be arrested, must be arrested. In December 2018, a UN Panel on Elimination of Racial Discrimination brought light on the present crisis challenging the Chinese Government. This report finally increased the media scrutiny, government responses, the number of Uyghurs coming to testify, etc. [The committee discussion with the Chinese Government delegation can be accessed here].

 

In October 2019, the US government ratcheted up the pressure, announcing an entity list. In this list, 28 entities including 18 police departments were sanctioned. The US has also imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for the ongoing Crimes Against Humanity. The [US] Senate passed a legislation which was sent to the [US] House [of Representatives]. The House passed an amended version of the same on December 3, 2019, challenging the Chinese actions against Uyghurs.

 

This is where we are now. Clearly, this did not happen overnight, it took the Chinese Government atleast 15 years, if we consider since 9/11 in 2001, to get to the level of repression we see today.

 

PRASHANT- But what exactly is the Chinese objective here? They couch it in terms of terrorism, but would you say that the objective is some sort of an ideological integration or is there some material motivation behind all this?

 

MR. TURKEL- One word: Racism. The Chinese government perceives Uyghur Islam and their cultural identity as a source of future political unrest. They [are] claiming to fight against extremism and terrorism, but you don’t do that by locking up three million citizens – Chinese citizens. To put it in perspective, three million is the equivalent of 4 times the population of Washington, D.C. It is a very significant number.

 

While the Chinese claim that they’re fighting against terrorism, but their policies are not based on an actual threat – they are based on a perceived threat. There is nothing to base that perception on, I would say. To put in layman’s terms everything has been so quiet since 2015 [there are no reported protests]. Yet the repression has only intensified. This shows that counter terrorism is only a claim. If you visit The Washington Post and look for an Op-Ed by Nathan Sales, the US State Department’s top counter terrorism official, and US Ambassador Sam Brownback, you will conclude that this has nothing to do with terrorism. [The Washington Post Op-Ed can be accessed here]

 

 

PRASHANT- What can you tell us about the camps? What are the living conditions there?

 

MR. TURKEL- Based on the survivors’ accounts and victims’ descriptions, the Chinese have four types of camps. The first type, are Mass Internment Camps, where they [Chinese Officials] just round up people based on the information generated through artificial intelligence. This AI relies on travel history, family connections, publications, social influence, wealth, business activities, that’s the first one, that’s where a massive number of people are being detained.

 

The second kind are the Daily Re-education Camps that they set up at various government establishments like universities, campuses, government bureaus, where people go for daily brainwashing, indoctrination program, and go home at night.

 

The third type is the actual prison that has individuals who were rounded up early on and faced criminal charges and are facing anywhere between 10-15 years of imprisonment. In some instances, they may get a 3-year reprieve. The most famous case is that of the Former President of Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Tiyip. We have recently received a disturbing news that his execution is now imminent. That’s the third type – an actual prison.

 

The fourth kind are the Forced Labor Camps. They [Chinese Government] show these on propaganda channels where people are wearing uniforms, working in factories. But it is forced labor. Some of the products made in these facilities have even made it to shelves in the United States. Recently, Costco removed baby pyjamas from its shelves, when it emerged that these were manufactured in those camps. [The report can be accessed here]

 

So, there are four types and once you add them up it will be a significant number of people [in involuntary detention of some form]. The three million number has been estimated by a US Pentagon official, Randall Schriver in May 2019. He is also the one who used the word ‘Concentration Camps’ and explicitly stated that around 3 million people have been detained. So, adding up the four types of camps, the number of people could be well above 3 million as well.

 

PRASHANT- So, the purpose of this daily re-education is to get them to forget about religion and to indoctrinate them in particular state practices? Or, is there some other purpose behind this as well?

 

MR. TURKEL- Indoctrination happens in all of those camps, it’s not exclusive to the Re-education Camps. All [four types of] camps have one objective: changing the belief in Allah to a belief in Xi Jinping. They have these new books, and even mobile apps called Xi Jinping Thoughts. Those captured are forced to attend to these indoctrination practices every day. These include renunciation of all religious beliefs, because the Chinese [establishment] believe that, and this is something they have publicly stated, Uyghur Islam is a mental illness that has to be weeded out. Their way of fighting against these forces [what the Chinese government refers to as ‘extremism’] on the ideological front is a euphemism of saying that ‘we need to get rid of Uyghur Islam.’

 

PRASHANT- So internally what sort of practices does China use in to identify people? You mentioned artificial intelligence is being used, how significant is the infrastructure that has been developed for this purpose?

 

MR. TURKEL- Well, they don’t need to use specific tools, Uyghurs are born Muslim. They breathe as Muslims, they go about their lives as Muslims. Their daily actions are shaped by their tradition and culture. All the Uyghur values, traditions and even the moderate way of practicing Islam [is an affront to China]. We are not even talking about hardcore Islamic practices, [even simple] greetings like, “Salam Walekum” or “Allah Rehmanet” (which is a wish for God’s protection), even these have been banned.

 

They have also banned Muslim names which have Islamic context. So, Mohammed, Fatima, Yusuf, all the Biblical or Quranic names are banned. [The Chinese Government believes] that these could be a hallmark for someone being religious. Even one well-known soccer player was instructed to change his name to a non-Islamic one. This has been going on. It is a wholesale attack on Islam.

 

PRASHANT- Do your studies show any signs of people trying to fight back, or has the repression been so massive that it is impossible?

 

MR. TURKEL- No way, zero possibility. This is why they’ve been so effective. This is why we’re not seeing anyone leaving the country. This is why we’re not seeing anyone leaving the camps and go live a civilian life.

 

 

PRASHANT- There have been reports of the Chinese government silencing people abroad. What can you tell us about that?

 

MR. TURKEL- If you go to the UHRP website, we published a report in August, that describes the intimidation operations in societies like ours here [in America]. [The report can be accessed here]. What they’re doing is, they’re reaching out to Uyghur individuals, asking them to stay quiet about their missing family members with threats of consequences. Another tactic is they call people and force them to become their informants, asking them to spy on Uyghur activists. And the third, is using proof of life videos to intimidate activists whose family members have disappeared. They use both direct and indirect threats to individuals in the United States [and elsewhere].

 

PRASHANT- What would you say about the response of Western governments? Are you satisfied or do you think it has been muted?

 

MR. TURKEL- We welcome the responses that have been shown by the European Union, some European countries, and Australia. But this isn’t a typical human rights case that they can just raise with the Chinese government. There have to be both individual and collective responses to the crisis. If any country wants to fix this problem, they have to speak in one voice. We have to come up with a global response because China has effectively created a false division around the world by rallying countries that needed it’s financial or diplomatic support. So a vast majority of the Islamic countries are on China’s side.

 

 

PRASHANT- You’re referring to countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, countries that haven’t spoken up.

 

MR. TURKEL- Yes. Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Egypt all the ‘-stans’ of Central Asia, as well as Palestine. [Primarily], except for Kosovo, everyone [among countries with major Islamic population] is in the Chinese camp on this issue.

 

PRASHANT- And what about the US response? We know that a certain section has always been appreciative of the Trump administration for bringing this up and imposing sanctions, but are you in anyway worried that this is a bargaining chip for the ongoing trade negotiations and could be bartered away by the US?

 

MR. TURKEL- No, I don’t think so. I am mindful about this possibility, but I do not second guess the intention, and sincerity of the US politicians in both the Legislative and Executive branch. It is a testimony to the fact that when you look at the number of people who were in favor of the Uyghur bill [that was passed by the House of Representatives on December 3, 2019], 407 members of the House came up in support. This speaks volumes. The Bill initially had more than fifty co-sponsors and, the House [of Representatives] version had more than a hundred co-sponsors.

 

In the Executive branch, I am mindful and grateful to the extent that even President Trump has publicly raised the issue. In addition, people like Mike Pence, and Mike Pompeo have been extremely vocal in an effort to raise public awareness.

 

PRASHANT- Could you tell us more about this bill that you just mentioned? What does this bill intend to do?

 

MR. TURKEL- This bill [House version] has three specific measures that have been added to the existing bill [the Senate version]. The first requires the US President to apply the Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against officials responsible for the construction and expansion of these modern-day concentration camps. [Information about the Global Magnitsky Sanctions can be accessed here]

 

The second is an export control provision, which sanctions US companies that willingly or unwillingly provide technological support to Chinese companies [operating against Uyghur Muslims]. The third one has global aspect; it provides for working with global partners to formulate a unified response. While the other stuff is pretty generic, these three are the most important elements.

 

 

PRASHANT- What about the wave of investment that’s been coming in from these Chinese companies that are essentially state-owned enterprises, in the form of universities, think tanks, as well as in Hollywood. Are you somehow worries that this could be used to repress the discussion about the Uyghur issue maybe like how papers like the economists have discussed them?

 

MR. TURKEL- Yes, the Chinese [government] has been very effective in its efforts over the years to create an environment where people are not comfortable criticizing China because of the corrupt, corrosive, and coercive influence operations that it has undertaken to silence think tanks, scholars and others who may be speaking up. They have very effectively created this soft image of China where people who may otherwise influence opinion [against China] have been rendered ineffective.

 

It’s going to take a while to reverse that, but there’s an active movement around the country [US]. The academic institutions are still lagging because of China’s funding to Confucius institutes and particular programs and professors. However, that is also changing because Federal Law Enforcement is also going after some academics who’ve benefitted from China’s foreign influence campaign.

 

PRASHANT- You also mentioned that there are certain US companies that are benefiting from this forced labor. If someone wanted to find out what brands are benefiting from this, how could we find out?

 

MR. TURKEL- Volkswagen, Heinz Ketchup, any cotton products coming from China to the US [have been involved in the past]. The Foreign Policy magazine profiled more than two dozen US companies that have been doing business, the most vulnerable ones are the tech companies and the textile industry.

 

PRASHANT- Could we have a Kimberley Process like arrangement for the goods that come out of these camps?

 

MR. TURKEL- Well, the US Customs and Border Patrol detained some products which were headed to the US, in October 2019. Some of them even made it to the shops in Costco, so this is an ongoing project and if you want to know more about it, I recommend visiting the Congressional Executive Commission on China. You will find my congressional testimony from October 2017 others that you should consider [The testimonies can be accessed here].

 

PRASHANT – Mr. Turkel, thank you very much for speaking with us.

 

MR. TURKEL – Thank you.

 

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

 

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About the Interviewer

Prashant Khurana is a student of Master of Laws (LL.M.) at the University of California – Los Angeles, USA. He holds a LL.B. degree from the University of Delhi, and a Bachelor’s degree in History from Hansraj College, University of Delhi, India. He is an accomplished debater, and an active participant and organiser of Model United Nations Conferences and was recently offered the position of Chairperson at the University of Kent, United Kingdom for their MUN conference. He has appeared as a guest panelist on Headlines Today News Channel and has also interviewed personalities such as Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Dr. Sambit Patra, the Ambassador of Canada to India, among others.

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