Rushan Abbas wants to know if her imprisoned sister is still alive. Kuzzat Altay fears for his father’s safety. And Nury Turkel seethes over the U.S. companies he says are effectively funding China‘s repression of its Uyghur Muslim minority. These expatriates spoke recently about the effects of Beijing’s yearslong campaign to erase a people’s identity in the restive western Xinjiang region.
For nearly 10 years, Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have increased repression of the Uyghurs, most of whom are Muslims. Critics say the tactics include arbitrary imprisonment of more than one million civilians; setting up “reeducation” camps where Uyghurs are propagandized against their faith; forced labor; forced sterilizations; and torture, including sexual violence.
The Communist regime of President Xi Jinping denies the charges, but in 2021, the Trump administration found China is engaged in genocide against the Uyghurs, and cited the issue in the State Department’s annual report on “Countries of Particular Concern.”
This week, Erkin Tuniyaz, Xinjiang’s governor, is expected to visit the United Kingdom and the European Union headquarters in Brussels. Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, has called for Mr. Tuniyaz’s arrest for crimes against humanity, media reports indicate.
“We have been [speaking] about the early warning signs at the beginning of this genocide in 2014 when the first concentration camps [began construction]. And right after Xi Jinping came into power, he started a ‘strike hard’ policy against the Uyghurs,” Ms. Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, a District-based advocacy group, said in an interview.
“Finally, for the last five years or so, when it became an active genocide, we are getting some attention,” she said.
Ms. Abbas asked why so many liberal figures in business, professional sports leagues and the mainstream media have been muted in the face of this persecution.
“What happened to those so ‘woke’ people and all these people who are supposed to defend the weak people’s rights?” she asked. “When the perpetrator has the money and power, they will stay silent.”
For Ms. Abbas, the effort to call attention to the Uyghurs’ plight is personal: Her 60-year-old sister, Gulshan, a retired physician, was imprisoned by Chinese authorities.
“She was taken from her home in Ruchi, the capital city, and I became extremely vocal about her disappearance,” Ms. Abbas recalled. “I wrote an op-ed published in The Washington Post and was interviewed by The New York Times. I was protesting, carrying her photo … and demanding her release from the Chinese government.”
Those demands provoked mixed responses from China, Ms. Abbas said. At first, the government denied Gulshan Abbas existed, then a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Ms. Abbas’s sister was a convicted spy.
“They’re getting caught on their own lies,” Rushan Abbas said. “But for four years and four months now, we have no picture or any proof of life. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. I don’t know where she’s being held. She just disappeared in this black hole.”
Kuzzat Altay knows the dangers associated with “disappearing” — Chinese authorities took his father in 2018, he said in an interview. “I don’t know where he was taken,” he said.
Mr. Altay, who lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, escaped from Xinjiang in 2005 and came to the U.S. as a refugee three years later following a stint in Turkey.
“I was 20 years old, and the Chinese intelligence arrested me and they were threatening to kill me,” he said. “So after two days of interrogation, they let me go, and I realized I needed to escape.”
In America, he learned computer coding “and tripled my salary.” He began teaching others and started a company offering “boot camp” training in coding that he said operates in 34 countries.
“I have two full-time jobs,” Mr. Altay said, “[running] a full-time business and [being] a full-time human rights advocate. He’s just finished a term as president of the Uyghur-American Association but still supports the human rights efforts to end China‘s persecution.
The coding entrepreneur says American consumers “should boycott [products] made in China. They should force these companies to move out of China.”
He believes that if the “Chinese Communist Party stops making money, this evil will stop because their economy empowers them. Why are we supporting a government that is committing genocide against the citizens and threatening our future as well?”
Retired Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican and longtime champion of religious freedom globally, agrees. Now a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, his voice rose with anger when speaking at an International Religious Freedom Summit panel on Chinese authorities’ treatment of Uyghur women, including dissident reports that these women are forced to undergo sterilization, are married off to non-Uyghur men, or are raped and sexually abused.
Mr. Wolf decried the Washington lobbyists who represent China while this oppression continues.
“How can any law firm or lobbyist represent China with this genocide?” he asked.
David Curry, who heads Global Christian Relief, said the Chinese Communist Party’s Uyghur policies could serve as “a dress rehearsal” for the persecution of Christians in China who don’t “sinicize” their religion to bow to the regime’s dictates. He said the nation’s facial recognition technologies, “social credit” program that tracks public statements, and other measures could be employed against dissenting believers.
“I don’t think you’ll see concentration camps,” Mr. Curry told The Washington Times. “I think you’ll see Christians potentially forced to stay in their own homes, are kept on a no-fly list, kept out of work,” he said.
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American who has become an attorney and now chairs the USCIRF panel, said China‘s religious policies have has managed to skate past the kind of widespread international condemnation Russia received following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Within two weeks of the Ukraine invasion last February, he noted in an interview, “close to 100 global brands either suspended [operations] or pulled out completely from Russia.”
By contrast, he said, “no single American or global brand company has even remotely acknowledged that there’s a serious problem” or use the word “genocide” to describe what’s happening to the Uyghurs.
Mr. Turkel believes Chinese money and the allure of the vast Chinese market are at the root of the problem, citing the NBA’s treatment of pro basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom, whose NBA career was sidelined after he spoke out in favor of human rights for Chinese people.
“So the NBA, the sports world, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, academia, or lobbyists in Washington in some think tanks — all are doing the bidding of the CCP. This is paralyzing our government,” he said.
“The way that they are promoting this engagement [with China] is almost moral fraudulence,” Mr. Turkel said. “… We’re not willing to take on that. We’re not willing to prevent it from happening.”
He blamed a “corrupt business environment, fecklessness in our leadership, entanglement in Chinese investment, even our retirement funds” for the inaction.
“It should not take a lobbying effort for our government to recognize or give atrocity a proper name,” he said.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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