In his autobiographical book, USCIRF’s chair combines scholarship and personal memories to paint a dreadful scenario.
by Marco Respinti
“The party apparatchik leading the meeting shouted out to the assembled Uyghurs, ‘Is there a God?’ The shocked crowd paused, before answering, ‘No.’ They had to‒other members of the neighborhood watch were scrutinizing their reactions as they stood around the flagpole. Zumrat moved her lips without saying the words that first time. ‘Who is your god?’ the meeting leader called. ‘Xi Jinping,’ the crowd dutifully chanted back. Later, when Zumrat got home, she prayed for forgiveness.”
Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur businessperson in her late thirties at the time of this incident, was forced to blasphemy at 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning at the weekly flag-raising ceremony that, since 2016, takes place all over Xinjiang, a region that its non-Han inhabitants call East Turkestan. The “attendance was obligatory, come rain or shine.” And in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR), “the temperature can plunge to forty degrees below in winter, and the people standing in the snow for two hours were forbidden from wearing any form of head covering that could be taken as a sign of religious devotion.”
The episode and the quotes (99–100) are from a formidable book, No Escape: The True Story of China’s Genocide of the Uyghurs published by HarperCollins. Its author is a formidable person too. He was born in a concentration camp at the height of one of the most murderous human-made catastrophes in history, and grew to incarnate the “American dream.” He is Nury Turkel, and his book tells his and other grim stories of cruel persecution by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Answering shy observers and culturally complicit media, Turkel says it clearly. The CCP is waging a genocide aimed at the physical annihilation of the Uyghurs in the XUAR. One of its known instruments are the dreadful transformation through education camps, where at least one million people are detained, Sinicized, and “de-programmed.” But one million inmates was the starting point in 2018, when the first studies were published. Today, one million is a very conservative figure. Out of prudence, it is the figure still used in several documents recognizing the Uyghur genocide, because at least that number may be regarded as proved. Nonetheless, independent scholars have reasons and moral certainty to triple it.
Born in a concentration camp
Ayshe, Nury Turkel’s mother, was arrested when she was 19 and 5 months pregnant. A businessperson, she was “guilty by association.” Her father, a jeweler, “used to keep up with his old contacts” (32) of the first and second East Turkestan republic in the 1930s and 1940s, supported by the Soviet Union. When China definitively broke with the USSR at the end of the 1960s, Beijing considered enemies all those who had any kind of ties with Moscow and its satellites. The man, like many others, fell into disgrace, and his family too. Young Ayshe was interned in the detention camp of Kashgar (sinicized as “Kashi”) in southern Xinjiang/East Turkestan. “The reeducation camp,” Turkel writes, “wasn’t hidden out of sight, like Stalin’s gulags.” It was “in downtown Kashgar, in an old Soviet-era government building, a brutalist slab of early-twentieth-century concrete whose windows boarded up to prevent inmates from seeing more than thin cracks of sunlight” (33).
“One of the guards,” the book recounts, “was a Uyghur woman, a party loyalist who had taken a particular dislike to the pregnant young inmate. She used to beat her frequently, even hitting her across her swollen belly. This woman would kick her and call her a whore for marrying an older man […]. Mom was terrified she would lose her first child. […] Then one day, just weeks before she was due to give birth, she fell down a flight of steps, weak and dizzy for hunger. Her ankle and hip bone were fractured.” Nury was the baby Ayshe carried. He was born in the camp in 1970, when her mom’s “hip bone was still broken, her body in a cast from the waist down” (35).
The bloody Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong (1893–1976) in 1966, and terminated only by the death of the tyrant in 1976, was at its climax. Mother and son were badly malnourished. Ayshe suffered terribly, both physically and mentally, and never fully recovered. Turkel’s father, Ablikim, a math teacher, was sent to an agricultural labor camp, “guilty by association” as well. In fact, “he had cousins who, during the Chinese reannexation of our land, had ended up on the other side of the border, in the Soviet Union” (33).
Turkel lived in the camp for the first five months of his life. Then mother and son were released. Nury grew and completed his studies. China had entered the post-Mao era and the Soviet Union crumbled in 1989. “I was young and naïve enough,” he remembers, “to hope that the end of the Soviet Union might presage the end of China’s Communist Party. Tiananmen Square cured me of that.” In 1995, at 25, he moved to the US as a university student, and never came back. Ayshe and Ablikim remained there. On of Turkel’s siblings, his brother Mirsalih, remained home too, taking care of them. Later Abilikim, in his 70s and diabetic with shaking hands, had to attend daily sessions in a re-education facility until he died. He passed away after the publication of “No Escape.” Ayshe still enjoys the nightmarish care that President Xi Jinping reserve for Uyghurs.
In due time, Turkel became an American citizen, the first Uyghur to obtain an American law degree (a Juris Doctorate from the American University in Washington, D.C.), a well-respected lawyer, the co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in 2003, then the Chairman of its Board, one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” according to the “Time” magazine issue of September 2020, a Commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in May 2020 and its President in June 2022. Bitter Winter is proud to count him among its friends.
Women, culture, and genocide
Turkel’s “No Escape” is many books in one. One is a personal memoir, others narrate the paradigmatic stories of several exemplary Uyghurs. In his tale “Del rigor en la ciencia” (1946), collected in his “Historia universal de la infamia” (published in 1935 and substantially revised in 1954), Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) invented the paradox of a fictional empire whose map is so detailed to be as large as the mapped land itself. A review to do justice to Turkel’s rich book would be like that map: an article as long as the reviewed book and as impossible as Borges’ map. But exploring its principal themes would bring the reader into the middle of the tragedy.
Parts 3, 4 and 5 are central to the book. They concentrate on, as their respective titles tell us, on “The War on Uyghur Women,” “How to Delete a Culture,” and “The Reinvention of Genocide.” Their matters are of course strictly connected and indeed intertwined, as they address the key points of the book.
The war against ethnicities, cultures, and religious groups, perceived by the CCP as dangerous enemies, started the day the CPP took power in 1949. But the Uyghur genocide, in its present paroxysmal form, became official standard policy with Zhu Hailun as the CCP Committee Secretary of XUAR, from 2009 to 2016, and his successor, Chen Quanguo, who had the same role and exhibited the same ferocity in the Tibet Autonomous Region from 2011 to 2016.
One story may suffice to illustrate the CCP’s war on Uyghur culture. Linguist and poet Abduweli Ayup, an intellectual famous in his homeland and abroad, was arrested in August 2013 when he tried to establish schools for teaching and practicing the Uyghur language. Released in November 2014, “[a]s he was being interrogated in the police station,” Turkel notes, “strapped into a tiger chair, he heard a strange noise behind him but couldn’t see what was causing it. Then he felt a burning shock rip through his body. The police were using an electric baton, burning his rib cage.” Writing for PEN International, Ayup alluded “to the sexual abuse he was subjected to by twenty prison guards who forced” him “to strip naked in front of them” (210).
As to the hate against Uyghur women, it became almost an exact political science, targeting savagely and sadistically the women as the strategic link between generations of Uyghurs. Uyghur women have been and are harassed and vexed, humiliated and violated, sneered at and offended. Rape is ordinary and not even hidden, as it happens in the CCP program that sends “extremism”-monitoring agents to live with Uygur families‒and to sleep with their women. Among others, Bitter Winter has covered this horror and its backlash. As Turkel reports, “Darren Byler, a sociocultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado who has closely studied the Uyghur dispossession, estimated in 2018 that around a million Becoming Family ‘big brothers and sisters’ had been dispatched to live in Uyghur homes” (127). The arrival of these false “relatives” often announces the fate awaiting Uyghur women.
In the late 1990s, party zealot Zhu Hailun “would always ask two things upon his arrival in a Uyghur community: the first was about the crops the farmers were growing, and the second was how many women were pregnant or had an IUD contraceptive device implanted” (224). Uyghur birth rate was and is an obsession for the CCP; and the CCP measures against Uyghur women are, in Turkel’s own words, “the seed of genocide.” “The enforced population control” is meant to purify the Uyghur “primitive ‘barbarians’ whose mind needs to be exposed to China’s glorious language and culture,” in a scenario of “anti-religious fervor” and “deep-seated paranoia about separatism” (224–25).
Building on statistics elaborated by German researcher Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow and Director of China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Washington D.C., Turkel calculates that “the natural population growth rate in Kashgar and Hotan,” both predominantly Uyghur regions in Xinjiang/East Turkestan, “fell by 84 percent between 2015 and 2018.”
All this explains the title of Turkel’s book: under the CCP rule, Uyghurs are doomed to extinction. Worried by “the Biden administration dropping the term ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ in official statements” (332), Turkel’s diagnosis is clear. What we witness in XUAR is the systematic attempt to wipe out an entire people canceling its identity and preventing its future in a way that reminds the Nazi policy toward the Jews. “Instead of outright extermination or expulsion, Turkel writes, the Chinese Communist Party has devised its own multifaceted plan to eradicate and exploit the Uyghurs in ways that are both disturbingly new and shockingly familiar” (233).