Nury Turkel is the chairman and founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. At the Oslo Freedom Forum 2019, WikiTribune interviewed the longstanding activist for the rights of Uyghurs, a Muslim minority native to China’s western Xinjiang province.
Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities native to the Xinjiang region have been subject to what the US State Department has called a “campaign of repression” and “mass detentions and internment” since 2014. According to Adrian Zenz, a researcher of China’s minority policies,up to 1.5 million inmates are currently being held in a network of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang.
In addition, those Uyghurs not in camps are subject to widespread surveillance and monitoring, through an extensive network of police stations, surveillance cameras, and electronic monitoring. Xinjiang has been described by Der Spiegelas “a surveillance state unlike any the world has ever seen”. The aim of the surveillance state, Turkel claims, is to “make it impossible to have a normal life as a human being”. For Xinjiang Muslims, including ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks, “nothing is private anymore,” he says. “Physical activities, social engagements, conversations … [the Chinese state] is in your bedroom, at your dining table.”
Referring to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on a mobile app used by Chinese authorities to carry out what HRW calls the “illegal” mass surveillance of Xinjiang Muslims, Turkel says that incarceration in the network of camps can be on grounds as “harmless” as using too much electricity. Even a phone call to someone outside China can lead to imprisonment, he says.
The aim of China’s Xinjiang policy, Turkel says, is to change “part of the genes, the thought process, the values” of minorities. To this end, he points out that China has been building a network of orphanages for the children of inmates. Critics say the orphanages distance Uyghur children from their families and language, ultimately with the aim of marginalising a separate Uyghur culture.
Turkel is highly critical of Muslim countries for “denying the existence” of Uyghur camps. Lukman Harees, a Uyghur-American activist, has accused Muslim nations and leaders of “debased silence” over the oppression of Uyghurs. Turkey, previously critical of China’s policy towards Turkic minorities, has recently backed China’s “de-radicalisation” policies, according to Chinese state media.
The mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is proving costly for China’s global image, Turkel says. As a result, China denies that its minority policies are oppressive or illegal, and are aimed at fighting separatist terrorism rather than social engineering. (Some Uyghurs advocate for a sovereign Xinjiang in a state called East Turkestan.) Yet Turkel is hopeful that the truth about China’s policies will prevail: “We have first-hand survivor accounts. We have people who been in a camp or affected by their family members being locked up.”
“The truth is out.”