August 18, 2020 — New York
This piece first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
If you are using any personal protective equipment, or PPE, to guard against the coronavirus, there’s a good chance it was manufactured by Uyghurs in a forced labor camp in China. More than one million Uyghurs have been detained in what the Chinese government calls “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang, the Uyghur homeland in northwest China. The Uyghurs call their autonomous region East Turkestan.
“This is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The State Department rightly said this is the largest incarceration of any ethnic minority since the Holocaust,” says Nury Turkel, a leader of the Uyghur community in the United States and a newly appointed member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Turkel describes himself as an American by choice. He first arrived in the US in 1995 to attend graduate school, and two years later was granted political asylum.
“I have not been home for more than 25 years,” says Turkel, who was born in one of the infamous “reeducation camps” in 1970 during the height of the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution. He appeared last week on an American Jewish Committee Advocacy Anywhere online program.
In describing what has been happening for decades to his people, the Washington, DC-based attorney does not mince words.
“It is a genocide,” says Turkel, adding that the “purposeful prevention of population growth” is one of the legal definitions of genocide. “In the last year, Uyghur population growth dropped by 24%, and in the previous three years by 84%.”
The Chinese government is “deliberately preventing population growth” by placing half a million Uyghur children in state orphanages, forcing Uyghur women to be sterilized, as well as forcing them to marry men of another race, he says.
Why are the leaders of a country with more than 1.4 billion people targeting this ethnic and religious minority, whose population is estimated by the Chinese government to be 12 million, though Turkel says the true number is about 20 million?
According to Turkel, the Chinese government has zero tolerance for people who appear and behave differently. The Uyghurs are Muslim, speak a Turkic language, some of the men grow beards, the women wear veils, and children are given names such as Ibrahim, Muhammad and Fatima.
UYGHURS ARE generally not seen as “normal” by the Chinese government, explains Turkel, and thus are selected to undergo “transformation,” the new term being used instead of “reeducation,” to forego their unique culture and traditions, and fully embrace Chinese Communist ideology and behavior.
Over the past three years, the government has stepped up its oppression of its own citizens by utilizing a surveillance technology, called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform that is mostly used for a detailed database on Uyghurs.
“It’s very disappointing that most of the Muslim countries not only did not take a position or publicly speak out. They have been praising the Chinese government,” says Turkel, who singled out Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Turkey for particular condemnation for their duplicity by ignoring the fate of Muslims in China.
He’s also critical of Germany, France and the United Kingdom for their lack of action.
“They lived through Nazi Germany, Hitler’s Europe, fascism. They know how this ends,” says Turkel. “We’ve seen this movie before.”
Turkel, however, is encouraged by recent American actions, notably passage in May of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act by an overwhelming majority in the US Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump. This legislative initiative will boost monitoring and reporting on the status of Uyghurs in China, imposing sanctions on Chinese government officials deemed responsible for the persecution of Muslims, and prevent the import of goods produced by detained Uyghurs. Given that 80 global brands are involved, that may be quite challenging, but at least it puts major corporations on notice.
If there is no significant change in Chinese government policy regarding the Uyghurs, Turkel would like to see the US boycott the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.
“I’ve heard people calling it Holocaust 2.0,” Turkel says of the persecuted population. “Personally, I don’t think it is appropriate. The word Holocaust belongs to the Jewish people.”
In the end, there’s only so much one dedicated individual can do.
“If the international community stays quiet, the Chinese government will succeed in destroying this proud people,” says Turkel. “If ‘Never Again’ means anything to anyone, they should speak up.”
The Uyghurs are waiting.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.