Human Rights Human Rights

Q: Let’s talk about your story and how you ended up where you are now.

A: My name is Salih Hudayar. I am an Uyghur American. I was born in East Turkistan and fled to the United States at the age of seven as a political refugee over 20 years ago, due to the oppression the Chinese government was undertaking against our people. The issue has recently come to light in the international community, especially over the past few years. However, the oppression goes back decades.

Growing up in the United States, one of the first things that I noticed about this country was the absence of military patrols, and that was weird to me. Growing up in East Turkistan, where there are constant military patrols, it was very strange.

Q: These are Chinese military patrols?

A: Yes. In East Turkistan. I thought every country had military patrols in the streets. That’s the situation that everyone in East Turkistan faces even to this day. Now it’s more prevalent than ever before. Right now, almost every 500 meters, checkpoints and armored vehicles are roaming through the streets. Before coming to the U.S., I didn’t know East Turkistan was an occupied country. All I knew was that we were different. Growing up in the United States, I realized there was a lot of opportunity and freedoms taken for granted.

Initially, I wanted to pursue a military career. I applied for West Point, but I was not a U.S. citizen at that time. I started ROTC when I got my citizenship and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. I joined the Oklahoma Army National Guard. I wanted to become an officer but had a medical condition. During an appendectomy, they discovered that I had polycystic kidney disease. Due to this disease, I was discharged from the military. I pursued a degree in international studies and politics at the University of Oklahoma with the hope of helping my people and East Turkistan through the realm of politics. In 2017, I moved up to the Washington, D.C. area to pursue a job and lobby the U.S. Congress on a bill, The Uyghur Policy Act. This was my attempt to persuade the U.S. government to reassess its grand strategy, including the Uighurs, and help us. In the same way, they work with the Kurds or other partners worldwide who aspire to establish a nation-state.

In 2018 I formally launched the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement. Within a month of launching it, we were able to get Congress to accept our proposal. Two years later, this past June, U.S. President Trump signed the Policy Act into law. We launched a formal complaint with the International Criminal Court against Chinese officials for genocide. More specifically, we advocated for the restoration of East Turkestan and independence as a clear, pluralistic democratic republic, which guarantees human rights for all of its people. Without political rights and liberty, there is no way that we can genuinely ensure or safeguard our fundamental human rights. Upon seeing my activism and the fact that I was able to get things done here in Washington, D.C., the government in exile reached out to me and asked me to be their ambassador back in 2019, and that was the role that I had for about six months. People recommended that I become a leader in the government in exile. I was nominated for the position of prime minister, even though I didn’t want this. On November 11, 2019, I was elected as the prime minister of East Turkistan, a government in exile, with a majority vote of the parliament in exile at the 8th General Assembly.

Photo Credit: Prime Minister Salih Hudayar

I have spent a little over a year as the prime minister of the government in exile. We have reached out to governments worldwide to enact policies that would ultimately help our people engage in sanctions against Chinese officials and recognize the genocide. We have been successful in getting the Canadian parliament to acknowledge the atrocities of the genocide. More recently, the Trump administration, particularly Secretary Pompeo, has been weighing the options to recognize the atrocities as genocide. And we’re hoping that this will happen in the coming weeks.

Q: The Tibetan government is in exile; the Dalai Lama is in India. A significant factor in nations worldwide not calling out China over their human rights abuses is China’s economic influence. What is the Chinese government claiming why they need to do what they’re doing in East Turkistan? What are their motivations?

A: The Chinese government, historically, since it occupied East Turkistan in late 1949, initially claimed that we were capitalists that Western imperialists influenced. Therefore they had to target us and ensure that we don’t come up with the Western imperialists to harm China. After 9/11, because most of our population are Muslim, they began to target us as terrorists. Since 2014, it’s been engaging in this mass internment campaign claim that they have to re-educate our population.

They claim there is a terrorist threat when in reality, there is no such threat in East Turkistan. Some people aspire for independence, but we haven’t engaged in any terrorist acts. There have been numerous demonstrations. There have been instances where frustrated leaders have targeted government and Chinese military personnel and security forces. Still, largely, as far as targeting civilians, that has not been done in our community because everybody knows how that would discredit our movement. So this is what China claims it’s fighting. It claims that it’s fighting against terrorism and separatism, and extremism, when in reality, it’s about ensuring its control over East Turkistan.

One of China’s top national defense goals for the past decade has been to prevent East Turkistan’s independence, because East Turkistan is strategically vital to China. It’s the cornerstone of China’s Belt and Road initiative, which is essentially a grandiose economic plan to ensure that China becomes the most potent political and military power in the world. East Turkistan makes up roughly about one-fifth of China’s current territory and is rich in natural and mineral resources. Much of the electricity that powers Chinese cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and many other eastern Chinese cities comes from East Turkistan. Natural gas, and the oil that fuels China, comes from East Turkistan, as well as the rare earth minerals and uranium that China uses to build its nuclear weapons.

It’s aircraft and satellites are from East Turkistan. Eighty percent of China’s cotton comes from East Turkistan. Over 60 percent of their coal reserves come from East Turkistan. So China feels that if it loses control of East Turkistan, it will be a roadblock towards its goals.

Q: Essentially, they will do whatever it takes to secure these resources for China.

A: Absolutely. It’s always been about the land and resources. In 1949 less than five percent of East Turkistan’s population were Chinese. Five percent were Chinese troops and their families. Before that, there weren’t any Chinese people in East Turkistan. Today, our population has decreased to where we are now, about fifty-five percent of the native population versus about forty-five percent Chinese.

Q: Has this repression caused people to lose their faith over the years?

A: No. In fact, over the past 70 years, our people have consistently held firm that changes will come. We have looked on to the western world, the free world, to help us.

Five years ago, about 60 or 70 percent of our population wanted independence. Today, over ninety-five percent of our people want independence because they feel that there’s no way for us to survive under Chinese rule.

Q: Have you or any other groups connected with international Muslim groups or countries about what’s happening in Turkistan?

A: We have tried to reach out to the Muslim world for decades. Unfortunately, the Muslim world has mostly ignored us, especially over the past five years. Islam is completely banned. Mosques have been torn down and destroyed. Qurans and other religious texts have been burned in the street, having a Muslim name has been banned. Muslim countries continue to side with China. More recently, this past summer, over 45 countries condemned China’s atrocities in East Turkistan. Not one of them was a Muslim country. All of them were Western nations. China countered this with about 30 countries. Over half of them were Muslim countries. This is the situation we are in.

The Muslim world has ultimately sold us out for economic benefits, short-term economic benefits from China.

Q: That seems to be a tactic employed often by the Chinese government. Daryl Morey, who at the time of his comments was the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, a basketball team in the NBA, spoke out in support of Uighurs. Immediately, the Chinese government rejected the NBA. There were threats about abandoning contracts, and the NBA went into damage control mode. The fear is based on the economic potential that China has for companies and foreign investors.

Let’s talk about the concentration camps. What happens when an Uyghur gets taken in and sent to a camp?

A: The Chinese government came up with over 48 reasons why Uyghurs needed to be re-educated in these concentration camps. This includes having owned a passport, having traveled abroad, having contact with someone overseas, practicing any form of religion, having a beard, working out, owning a flashlight.

All of these are reasons why you might get sent to a concentration camp. In these camps, the Chinese government forcibly indoctrinates you to reject your own identity, your religion. They force you to worship the Chinese Government and Communist Party. Many camp survivors have been lucky enough to have dual citizenship or family abroad, which helped them get out.

They live in cramped conditions. You have 40, 50 people in a small cell. If you need to use the toilet, you go in a bucket. People are injected with unknown substances, both men and women. Women are raped in these camps by Chinese security forces whenever they feel like it. People are physically tortured.

They are starving people. Inside the camps, Uyghurs are not allowed to speak their native language. If you are caught, they will beat you and torture you to serve as a lesson for others. There is organ harvesting. According to Chinese state media, China collected the DNA samples of thirty-six million people in East Turkistan between the ages of twelve and sixty-five in 2016 and 2017. What they did with the DNA collection and biometric data we don’t know. We suspect it is for organ harvesting because the organ market has recently boomed in China. Crematoriums are being built in concentration camps. There are special lanes at airports near these concentration camps that say “for organs only”. This is how some of our people are being killed. Others are forced to work in factories built around these camps, which produce products or components of products that we use daily. It could be components for Apple products, for example.

Hundreds of thousands of women have been sterilized in recent years. Unmarried women are forced to marry Chinese men to prevent future generations of Uighurs. We also have forced abortions. Since nineteen seventy-nine, the Chinese government stated that they prevented three point seven million illegal births in East Turkistan. Illegal means that, if you are Uighur, you are only allowed to have one or two children in the city, two if you’re in the countryside. People are dying in these camps. Free Asia has interviewed numerous Chinese officials and police officers that are working in these camps. In one camp alone, over one hundred fifty people died in six months. China is cremating bodies to hide evidence of this. This is full-blown genocide in the twenty-first century.

Sayragul Sauytbay Photo Credit: U.S. State Department

Q: Moving forward, what is your hope for the Uyghur people?

A: One thing that we’re trying to push for is the international community, especially the United States and its allies, to recognize the atrocities and to pressure the U.N. to uphold its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. We hope things will improve.

It looks like China is not going to stop. More recently, China stated that it’s going to continue its atrocities and that it’s not going to stop. The Chinese embassy here in Washington, D.C., tweeted about dehumanizing Uyghurs. They have stated they are sterilizing Uighur women to emancipate them from becoming “baby-making machines”.

At this point, we are left at the mercy of the world because there is no way that we can do something to defend ourselves. If this continues, we are going to be wiped out. The international community has to take action before it’s too late. After the Holocaust, they vowed “never again”, but “never again” is happening today in the 21st century.

Q: What can folks reading this do to help?

The first thing everyone can do is to spread awareness about the Uighurs to everyone around them. We need people to write letters and call members of Congress and urge them to take action. We need to boycott Chinese goods, because once we hit the Chinese economy, it will make China reconsider. Hopefully, it’ll put pressure on them to minimize the level of oppression they’re undertaking in East Turkistan. Ultimately, it’s going to be policymakers and governments that have to take action.

Sanctions are not enough. Over the past six months, we’ve seen that the U.S. government has placed sanctions against China. Yet China is still saying that it’s going to continue with it’s current policy with regards to East Turkistan.

There are over fourteen hundred camps in East Turkistan. Let’s say that if, weekly, one person dies in a camp… that’s fourteen hundred people in camps that are dying every week.

Q: Have you had any communication with the Biden administration?

A: Unfortunately, we haven’t had any. We’ve tried to reach out at least twice. We are a bit worried. There has been silence. During the campaign, promises were made to recognize it as a genocide. Since the election, they have been entirely silent.

Anthony Blinken, the Sectary of state back in 2015, had claimed that China had the right to engage in counter-terrorism and that the U.S. would support that. This is the type of narrative that China has been using to lock up millions of people. This was when they started building these camps. We are worried that if the Biden administration takes a softer approach on China, ultimately, our issue will be squashed as the administration tries to develop or improve relations with China.

Editors note: Since the interview, the United States has sanctioned China over its treatment of the Uyghur people