‘A Test of Humanity’s Conscience’

By Reuvain Borchardt

A guard tower around a detention facility in China’s Xinjiang region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, speaks with Hamodia about the treatment of the Uyghur (WEE-gur) people by the Chinese government.

The Uyghurs are an ethnically Turkic, mostly Muslim, people from the region that Turkic peoples refer to as East Turkistan, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

The East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, based in Washington, D.C., supports the independence of East Turkistan, and seeks to focus the world’s attention to the treatment of the Uyghurs and other Turkic people in the region by the Chinese government.

Tell us about the Uyghur people.

The Uyghurs are an ethnically Turkic people who have been inhabiting East Turkistan, according to genetic and other archaeological studies, for more than 5,000 years.

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China invaded East Turkistan and has been occupying it and essentially colonizing it, leading to the present-day genocide.

Was this region of East Turkistan ever an independent, self-governed region in recent history?

It declared independence as the East Turkistan Republic in 1933, before it was overthrown due to Soviet intervention in 1934. It declared independence again in 1944 as the East Turkistan Republic and maintained its existence until December 22, 1949, when the Chinese Communists took over.

What about prior to 1933?

Until 1884, East Turkistan operated as an independent region.

In 1876, The Manchu Qing Dynasty invaded East Turkistan. They occupied it in 1884, incorporating it into the Manchu empire, calling it “Xinjiang,” meaning “the new territory.” They started to try to colonize it. It then operated as a semi-autonomous region where you had various warlords, both Uyghur and Chinese, controlling various parts.

In the early 20th century, there was a national movement in East Turkistan which led to us declaring independence on November 12, 1933, as the East Turkistan Republic. This republic was overthrown in 1934 due to Soviet intervention, and East Turkistan became ruled by Sheng Shicai, a Chinese warlord who had aligned himself with the Soviet Union.

In 1941, Sheng Shicai aligned himself with nationalist China. We declared independence once more on November 12, 1944, and maintained our independence until December 22, 1949, when the Chinese Communists took over East Turkistan and overthrew our government.

Salih Hudayar, prime minister of the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile.

Now, tell us a little of your own story.

My family and I came to the United States as political refugees in 2000, when I was 7 years old, fleeing my homeland because of the ongoing oppression and colonization that our people were facing at the time. The situation has gotten much worse now, to the point that we are facing a 21st-century genocide.

I grew up in Oklahoma. Ever since I was a young kid, I had always wanted to be a military officer. I ended up doing ROTC and was a member of the Oklahoma Army National Guard for a few years. As a result of a kidney issue, I received a medical discharge, ending my military career.

I then decided to create a nonprofit organization called the East Turkistan National Awaking Movement to advocate for the independence and freedom of my homeland. In 2018, I started to advocate for passage of a Uyghur Policy Act, and urged the U.S. Congress and Government to recognize China’s atrocities against Uyghur and other Turkic peoples as genocide. In late summer of that year, we were able to convince Congress to introduce a Uyghur Policy Act. This led to me gaining some fame and recognition within our diaspora community. In the summer of 2019, I was nominated by the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile for the position of the prime minister, and was elected as prime minister in November of 2019.

The East Turkistan Government-in-Exile was officially established in Washington in 2004. I’m the fourth prime minister.

How many Uyghurs are in this area you are calling East Turkistan, which the world generally refers to as the Xinjiang region of China?

There’s no satisfactory, accepted population count. We don’t accept the statistics given by the Chinese government, because if you look at historical records, for example in the 1930s, the population of East Turkistan, according to the government at that time and Western researchers and travelers, was estimated as being upwards of 15 million. Even Mao himself stated that there were approximately 9 million Turkic peoples in East Turkistan after the Chinese took over in late 1949. But starting in 1953, when the Chinese government did its first official census, it stated that the population of East Turkistan was four and a half million, with 75% to 80% being ethnic Uyghur. So there’s a discrepancy. Officially, the Chinese government claims today there are about 12 million Uyghurs. Unofficial sources estimate that there are 20 million to 35 million.

The East Turkistan government exile estimates the figure at 35 million to 40 million in the region, but that includes not only the Uyghurs but other people such as Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, and Mongols.

What about the ethnically Chinese?

Today there are at least 10 million Chinese colonists in East Turkistan. But when the Chinese Communists invaded and occupied East Turkistan in 1949, there were only 179,000 Chinese, and they were actually the troops that were sent to occupy East Turkistan. There was no substantial Chinese civilian population at that time.

Tell us about the treatment of the Uyghurs today.

In East Turkistan, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chinese government began to crack down on any expression of Uyghur and Turkic identity, fearing that we would try to push for our independence as well, which we have been doing for the past seven decades.

Then, after 9/11, China began to portray any and all resistance or opposition to Chinese occupation — including peaceful demonstrations — as “terrorism.” Over the years, the Chinese government began to crack down on our religion, our culture, our language, and our identity. Starting in 2014, they launched the People’s War campaign, which essentially began to lead to millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples being locked up in concentration camps and prisons, for various bogus crimes.

Recently, the Xinjiang police files were hacked. They show over 2,800 pictures of people who have been detained, and data of 300,000 other people who have been detained.

Activists organized by the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement and the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile protest the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government, at a rally near the White House in April. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

These people are being charged with terrorism and extremism for crimes like having listened to a religious lecture, having traveled to a different country, or refusing to smoke or drink.

What about between 1949 and the post-9/11 crackdown?

It was, in many ways, very similar. They would target Uyghurs, especially those that they felt were nationalists. Prior to 9/11, they wouldn’t use the term “terrorists,” but they would label us as “counter-revolutionaries,” “ethnic separatists,” “ethnic nationalists,” or “foreign devils.” But after 9/11, abusing the fact that Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim, the Chinese government began to label us as “terrorists.”

What do you think motivates the Chinese opposition to the Uyghurs? Is it anti-religion, or is it a fear that they want to make East Turkistan an independent region?

It’s the latter.

There were leaks of statements made by high-level Chinese government officials that state that a large segment of the population has been “influenced by pro-independence thinking,” and that the Chinese government “must cleanse the source and carry out ‘de-extremification’ work.” The Chinese government officially claims that it is fighting against terrorism, extremism and separatism. But the Chinese government has already made it clear numerous times in its national defense strategy that one of its top national defense goals is to “prevent the creation of East Turkistan.” The East Turkistan issue is one of decolonization and a nation striving to liberate itself from foreign Chinese occupation.

In the Chinese government’s view, they fear that the international community, Western nations, like the United States, will help the Uyghurs to create an independent East Turkistan, leading to the People’s Republic of China disintegrating like the Soviet Union.

Do you know what life is like in these concentration camps?

Yes. We know what life is like in these concentration camps based on the testimonies of numerous camp survivors who escaped as well as the testimonies of Chinese police officers and leaked Chinese government documents. In April 2022, an ethnic Kyrgyz camp survivor arrived in U.S. and gave testimony of his experience. The Kyrgyz are another Turkic group in East Turkistan that is being oppressed and imprisoned like Uyghurs and Kazakhs. Although the majority of Kyrgyz are Muslim, this individual is Christian. So all ethnically Turkic people, or non-Chinese people, are being targeted and are subject to this genocide, because the Chinese government fears that East Turkistan will try to get its independence. This genocide isn’t only against Uyghurs, but against all the non-Chinese people in this region.

In these camps, there are small cells, which would normally hold as few as three or four people, but are now holding 20 to 30, and in some instances, as many as 60 people.

People are subjected to constant abuse and torture.

The Chinese government — and even state media have reported this — has collected the DNA samples, voiceprints and retinal scans of 36 million people between the ages of 12 and 65 in East Turkistan. (Officially, the Chinese government had claimed the total population of East Turkistan was 24.5 million — so we know that the true population is much larger than what the Chinese government says.) People are being killed for their organs, and their bodies are being cremated. Over 850,000 children — again, according to official Chinese government documents — have been torn from their families, and sent to state-run boarding schools and orphanages to be raised as “loyal Chinese citizens,” as part of the CCP’s efforts to create a homogeneous “Chinese nation.”

The outer entrance of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, on April 23, 2021. State officials took AP journalists on a tour of a “training center” turned detention site in Dabancheng sprawling over 220 acres and estimated to hold at least 10,000 prisoners — making it by far the largest detention center in China and among the largest on the planet. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Is there any estimate of how many people are currently in these camps and how many people have been killed?

The U.S. Department of Defense in 2019 estimated that there were three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs,  Kyrgyz and other Turkic peoples in these concentration camps. The Chinese government in 2020 released a white paper denying that these are concentration camps, stating that between 2014 and 2019, they sent 1.29 million people per year to “vocational training” and “reeducation centers.” That’s close to 8 million people in that six-year period.

I personally have over 100 relatives who have been taken into these camps and prisons, four of whom we know have been killed. The others, we don’t know whether they’re alive or what happened to them. All Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples from East Turkistan have relatives who have been taken into these camps.

Can you tell us a little more about what goes on in these camps on a day-to-day basis?

According to the survivors who escaped, they are subject to Chinese government propaganda for up to 14 hours a day.

They have to view these video screens stating that they are Chinese, that they love the Communist Party, that there is no G-d, that the Communist Party is G-d, and that there is no East Turkistan.

They sometimes take them into groups and put them in a caged place with a teacher, and they have to memorize Chinese laws and learn Chinese. If they are heard speaking to each other in their native tongue, they get beaten by the Chinese security forces.

What is life like for people in this region who are not living in concentration camps?

For people living in their homes, everyone is being monitored 24/7. Everyone has to have a government app installed on their smartphone that analyzes everything on their phone. If they say anything religious or political, it immediately notifies the nearest police station and they come to grab them.

In addition, the Chinese government stated that for purposes of joining the ethnic groups, creating a “relatives program” as they call it, they sent 1.2 million Chinese government officials, pairing them up with Uyghur and other Turkic families and sending them to live in the homes of the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples to monitor their activity to ensure that they are loyal to the Chinese state.

Are people allowed to attend a mosque?

All mosques have been closed since 2016. Over 16,000 mosques have been destroyed across East Turkistan. Cemeteries have been bulldozed by the Chinese government. Religious texts have been taken and burned in the street.

People are being killed for their organs. This is the worst part: they’re being sold as “halal organs” to  wealthy Arab Muslims across the world. Recently, an expert on organ harvesting and a medical doctor who was involved in organ harvesting testified before the U.S. Congress that they estimate that 25,000 to 30,000 Uyghurs are being killed for their organs every year.

This is why they collected the DNA samples, voiceprints, and retina scans of 36 million people. If a wealthy Muslim in Saudi Arabia wants an organ, they just look into the system and find a match, and if that match is in a concentration camp or a prison, well, that’s the end of his life right there.

Residents walk past government propaganda reading “Socialist core values,” in Hotan, in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Are people who are not in the concentration camps allowed to leave the region or the country?

Since 2016 it’s been impossible. All passports were seized by the Chinese government. You can’t even leave your own district or town without special permission.

If China’s fear is that the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups are trying to make this region an independent country, why do they mind if the people leave?

If there is a large diaspora, China fears we will have the numbers to pressure the international governments to help us. 

How have governments received your government-in-exile? Have they recognized, sympathized with, or helped? Or have you been ignored?

Prior to 2018, our whole cause was largely ignored by the international community. But since 2018, there has been some sympathy, but nothing substantial, nothing close to where it needs to be.

We need the help and attention and support that the Ukrainians are receiving, or at least the attention and the support that our Tibetan neighbors and their government-in-exile have received. There’s still a lot that needs to be done.

Governments know what China is doing. While the average people don’t know, the governments have known this. However, they have been reluctant to speak out because of their political and economic relations that they have with China.

Even the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, is in China and scheduled to visit East Turkistan. We’ve been calling on the U.N. to recognize this as a genocide, to publish a report about what the Chinese government has been doing. But it hasn’t been doing that; it has completely ignored the Uyghurs. In fact, Bachelet met with the Chinese foreign minister, and the Chinese government handed her a book written by Chinese President Xi Jinping mocking human rights, a big slap in the face, saying that China has been improving human rights and doing things to make the Chinese people happy, and we’re not going to allow you to carry out an investigation. The U.N. and Bachelet seem to be fine with this, and this visit is only helping China whitewash and deny its ongoing genocide.

There’s also slave labor in the region. Are any American companies benefiting from this?

There are a lot of American companies benefiting from it. Eighty percent of China’s cotton is produced in East Turkistan; that’s over 22% of the global supply. As for polysilicon, which is used to create solar panels, prior to 2014 less than 9% of the global supply was made in East Turkistan, but after 2016 when the mass internments began, that went up to roughly 45%. There are numerous videos of Uyghurs being transported into factories, which the Chinese government calls “vocational training or re-education centers,” where they’re forced to make products used for items like Nike sneakers, H&M shirts, computer components for Apple, Dell, HP, Windows, etc. Tesla recently opened up a showroom in East Turkistan. Volkswagen, which I know is not an American company, has a car manufacturing plant in East Turkistan. Many of the cars they manufacture go to the Public Security Bureau. They are manufacturing police cars for the Chinese government that is engaging in genocide against our people.

Not all the companies I named necessarily have factories in East Turkistan using slave labor, but they use products from suppliers who operate those forced labor or slave factories.

Activists with the group SumOfUs wear costumes depicting Uyghurs in a mock forced labor camp as they protest outside of an Apple store in Washington, D.C., in March, ahead of Apple’s shareholder meeting. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In addition to reaching out to governments, have you reached out to these companies to try to pressure them to make sure that nothing in their supply chain is coming from slave labor?

Yes, we’ve tried to reach out; we’ve held demonstrations and sent letters. We got some companies to issue apologies and state that they would review the process and would no longer buy cotton or whatever supplies are coming out of East Turkistan, while other companies have defended what they’re doing, stating the official Chinese government narrative that there’s no slave labor and they are helping uplift the lives of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples by providing them with jobs.

Has the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile been officially recognized by any other government in the world?

Unfortunately, no government officially recognizes the East Turkistan Government-in-Exile, just like our neighbors the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, again because of their economic and political relations with China.

Any final comments?

The world needs to know about this. What’s happening in East Turkistan right now is essentially a 21st-century Holocaust, with the modern day technology. This is a test of humanity’s conscience. The international community needs to act against this and uphold its commitment to “Never Again.” The international community claimed it didn’t know the Holocaust was going on in the 1940s.

But right now, everybody knows about what’s going on in East Turkistan. You see these photographs of these people in these concentration camps, you can see the crematoria and concentration camps on Google Earth. You see that there are special lanes at airports near these concentration camps that say “For organ transplants only.”

In addition, there are Chinese government documents, with instructions to “shoot to kill” anyone who tries to flee, as well as documents stating “to spray chemicals to kill them all,” and “eliminate their roots and any ties to their origin.”

All of these are publicly available and visible for anyone to see, not just governments.

Given the continuous atrocities our people have been facing in the past century, restoring East Turkistan’s independence is the only way to safeguard our human rights and ensure our people’s very existence.


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